Write Again — A Guest Post By Robert A. Hoyt
*Since Chris is on vacation — Have fun, Chris! — Robert offered to fill in. This is my older son (yes, I’m Sarah) but I’m not putting his post up as my son but as a fellow writer. For those of you who don’t know this, Robert had enough professional sales (3) to qualify for SFWA membership in 2007, when he was sixteen years old. Robert wrote his first short story (that I’m aware of) at three, and we later used it to get him admitted to a gifted program in school. Okay, it was Winnie the Pooh fanfic, and he has no memory of it. It wasn’t half bad, when you consider the level of most Winnie the Pooh stories. The next time I knew he was writing, I got an odd note from the — then — editor of Weird Tales. “I thought,” he said “that your husband’s name was Daniel. Are you living in sin? I have a submission from a Robert Hoyt at your address. Do you now have two husbands?” After I tried to figure out why double husbands would have my last name, and decided it wasn’t worth it, I sent back a note saying “It’s my older son. He’s thirteen. What in heck did he send you?” What he had sent them was a bittersweet piece named The Baby — which I don’t think he’s ever sent out again, but which remains one of my favorite stories. They rejected it because it was a short short and not quite fitting what they wanted. At fourteen, Robert wrote his novel Cat’s Paw, which came out from Naked Reader Press (and which, yes, desperately needs a new cover. Look, by default I’m doing covers for MGC and I had a long learning curve.) It’s a good novel, but it’s… odd. Between fourteen and sixteen, he sold three short stories to anthologies and got on “personal rejection” terms with Asimov’s and Analog. He also wrote the mind-exploding Operation Santa. Then his writing went in the back burner as he maintained an A average in human bio and chem (double major.) But now he’s trying to come back to writing and start submitting again, and I think what he has to say about the process is very interesting.*
by Robert A. Hoyt
I’ve just come off of what I affectionately refer to as semester from Hell, a period in which nothing got done. Not my writing, not my comic, not my artwork… nothing. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been working on getting back into the flow of writing. And since this is an experience that is common to many writers, Mom asked if I’d like to write a few words on the subject for people who find it difficult to get back to writing when life interrupts.
As is often the case with things like this, what I tell you may work or may not. But these are the general pitfalls and problems that come up, in my experience, and what I’ve found works best to get around them. At the end I’ll try to present some techniques you might try for troubleshooting problems that are more specific to you when you’re returning to writing.
One of the most basic and fundamental problems of returning to writing is paralysis. Paralysis feels similar to being blocked, but it’s entirely possible to be paralyzed while still knowing exactly how to approach any given story you wish to write. It arises because you have too many stories you want to write at a given time. This means that when you actually try to work on a specific project, you become distracted, because you feel overwhelmed by the workload, or because you feel there is something else you should be writing. In fact, paralysis can be experienced even in the course of normal writing. But because a return to writing usually means that projects have been put off during the dry period, returns are usually marked by a higher-than-normal number of uncompleted projects, making paralysis more likely.
The best way to deal with paralysis, if you write both novels and short stories, is to prioritize one or two of the short stories you have on the table. Much of paralysis is derived from the feeling of being unable to make a dent in the work pile. Projects you can complete in a day or two help “unstick” you, and get you back in the habit of thinking like a writer. Many of you may disagree, and prefer to launch into a longer project. If that works for you, great. My personal experience, however, is that you tend to wear down if you can’t notch some kind definite success on your return. This brings us to the problem of people who say they can’t write short stories (I don’t necessarily believe it, but hey, I’m not doing their writing). Your best bet is the “little strokes fell great oaks” strategy. Get some kind of definite goal, like writing a chapter, or writing several chapters up to a landmark (“I’m going to make it at least to chapter 24 today”), and use that instead.
Whichever strategy you use, however, be aware that what you turn out after a long absence may not be your best work. In fact, if it is, I’d be very surprised. Writing is a skill, and you’re out of practice. Don’t be surprised if a little rust gathers. But, then, it’s easy to say that. What we’re really dealing with here is the second great danger of the return, which is discouragement.
While discouragement can often overlap with paralysis, there are some forms of discouragement unique to returning and having actually written something. You may be acutely sensitized to a slip in skill or polish, particularly if your absence was long. That, in and of itself, might make you feel it really isn’t worth continuing if all your work is going to be subpar. I assure you, that’s not the problem. You just haven’t played the game in a while and you’re a little fuzzy on the rules. There is a more subtle problem that discouragement causes, however, and it’s one you might not immediately recognize.
When you’re discouraged about your writing, the hardest thing to do is throw out work you’ve done. I need to immediately temper this statement before I get any further, or I might give you the wrong idea. Don’t go assiduously self-editing while writing, ever. It will kill your ability to generate a story. Likewise, don’t toss anything you think is subpar today until you’ve had a chance to read it at least a day later. Sometimes we get too close to the subject to really judge it fairly. With that said, sometimes when you’re coming back, you will write large sections of a short story, or an entire chapter of a novel, that it will be more efficient to rewrite than edit. Often, when it needs to be done, there’s an intrinsic resistance to it. It makes you feel like you’re accomplishing nothing, and can throw you back into paralysis if you aren’t careful. You need to work past this. Remember that you haven’t accomplished nothing, because you’ve gained the experience of writing the draft. And if you still don’t feel you have the confidence to rewrite, you know what? That’s okay. Go write another story, or finish up the novel. You can always rewrite the chapter later when you have a better idea how it fits in the story, or put the short story in the trunk and file it for tinkering later. The finished product is always the story. You could write these things while sitting in a vat of jello wearing leather lederhosen and a bear mascot head. I’d think your process was intensely strange, but as long as you produce a functional story in the end, no one cares too much about how it came about (no matter how intensely awkward it may be).
One further note. Picking up writing after a long absence is, strangely enough, one of the skills of a writer. Writing is highly allergic to real life, and many writers face interruptions for weeks or months at a time. And like any other skill, the more you do it, the easier it will come. I speak from experience as someone who routinely has his writing interrupted by a semester of intensive class work… the more times you come back to writing, the easier it gets, and the less skill you have to make up again. I know a common fear, especially because the first few returns are very difficult, is that you’ll never be efficient enough to hold a career in writing when it takes you so long to get back into it each time. The answer to that is, well, it won’t. Don’t worry. It does get better.
Now, to those of you who found the last thousand words or so incredibly unhelpful, I have a couple of parting shots to do the best for you that I can. When you come back to writing, worry less about what you’re doing and more about how it’s affecting you. A lot of people become obsessed with the technical aspects of writing when they come back, because they fear their technique has deteriorated. And as noted above, it probably has, but what you’re doing is like a rusty pianist thinking very hard about how he’s performing the actions in a difficult piece. Any pianist will tell you that the more you obsess on how you’re doing these things, the harder it becomes to do them. Writing is often very similar. More often than not, your actual skill is not particularly damaged. What’s broken is the way you feel when performing the skill… the self-consciousness and lack of confidence that break you out of the flow when you’re writing.
Hence, you should pay attention to your emotional state as you approach projects on the return. Once you’ve isolated a particular problem, or if you notice that some project or habit in particular is making it difficult to write, you can then start formulating logical ways to approach the problem. Don’t ruminate too much, though! Belly-button gazing does not pay the bills, and it’s important always to keep a grounded perspective. If you find yourself thinking thoughts that sound like they come from a textbook on existentialism, take a deep breath and just write. Put the problems away for a little while and focus on putting down some words… any words… until you’ve reimmersed yourself in writing enough to be sure you’re trying to solve problems you have with writing, rather than performing auto-psychoanalysis. Another good way to address problems without falling into your own head is to talk to a friend or mentor in the writing field. Often, when we’re struggling to frame a problem, it helps to get a little outside perspective. Failing that, we often think about things in simpler and more logical ways when we’re trying to communicate them to someone else, which facilitates our own understanding.
Those are some tips and tricks that, in my experience, should get you back into the flow of writing as efficiently and with the minimum of spinning your wheels as possible. As I said, this is a skill. The more interruptions you bounce back from, the bouncier you’ll be in the future. So illegitimi non carborundum, and happy writing!