This morning on my daily jaunt through my tumblr queue (traditionally filled with surrealist art, cat pictures, and writing advice), I came upon this post which had been reblogged on fixyourwritinghabits. The writer of the post suggests that if you’re not enjoying writing your novel, you should consider giving up and waiting until you have a better idea.
Naturally, I could not let that pass unchallenged, so I wrote this in response.
The overwhelming majority of writers tend to feel, at some point during each and every project, that they hate it. They hate it, and it’s terrible, and no one should ever read it, and in fact they should probably just give up writing altogether because they don’t have what it takes. This happens to almost everyone. And the reason most people don’t make it, don’t ever get anything published, is because they give in to what seems like logic, at the time.
I hate this story, they think to themselves. I’ve just been wasting all this time. I’m never, ever, ever going to finish it. Even if I do, no one is ever going to read it. Continuing to sink time into this is, logically, a bad decision, and therefore I should give up.
It is a rare writer indeed who can get through a project without facing at least one crisis like this. The successful ones are the ones who keep writing anyway. Who finish what they started. No matter how long it takes or how much you hate it. It is only once it’s finished that you can really step back and start to decide whether it’s good or not. And the best part is, once it’s finished, even if it’s not good, you can fix it. The hardest part is getting that first draft finished. No matter how bad it is, it can be fixed later. And if you decide not to fix it, it doesn’t even matter, because you can tell yourself I finished it. I am a writer.
Even if you’re a brilliant writer, every time you abandon something you tell yourself, at least subconsciously, that you have failed. Every time you finish, you have succeeded.
What’s worse is saying “wait until you have a better idea.” Or in other words, wait until you’re inspired. Inspiration is like puppy love. It fills you full of endorphins, makes you feel like life is amazing. Every idea is brilliant. Everything is wonderful. This is going to be the best thing you’ve ever written.
Until it wears off. The rush of inspiration, the feeling of love at first sight, these things make you high. They work like a drug. And we are physically incapable of maintaining that state of being high over the long term. Inspiration always, always, always fades. And then you’re left with an idea that no longer seems so great and a whole hell of a lot of work to do, and you have to find the discipline to keep at it even when it’s not fun anymore. It’s a relationship, and when that fire finally burns out, you have to decide if you’re going to keep working at it, or just get a divorce.
But unlike a relationship, writing something is finite. You don’t start it expecting it to take the rest of your life. While a married couple might reasonably decide that it’s in everyone’s best interests to split up rather than suffer forever, you and your story are not legally bound for life. All you have to do is finish the damn thing, and it will all be over. And not only will it be over — you’ll have succeeded. And there’s a very good chance the result will be a hell of a lot better than you think it will.
Even if your story turns out to be just terrible, the time you spent writing it was not wasted. Listen to a beginner at the violin or the trumpet practicing their music. It sounds god awful. But they have to get through that before they can get good.
People tend to misunderstand what writing is. I can talk, they think, and I can read, and therefore I can write. Writing is not the same as talking or reading. Writing is, truly, a form of art. It is something you have to expect to suck at for a long time before you get good at it. Good writers didn’t come out of the womb that way. They may have come out with a strong natural interest in reading and writing which caused them to spend their whole childhoods practicing, so by the time they were old enough for people to start paying attention, they appeared to have “natural” talent. But writing, by and large, is not about talent. It’s about skill, and skill has to be learned.
If you’re suffering from some kind of really severe emotional or psychological trauma as the result of trying to finish writing something, then by all means, stop. But be aware that if you can’t push through when it’s difficult, can’t accept that some of your writing will suck until you get better at it, can’t accept that to get good, you have to write a lot of garbage, then you should also accept that you’ll probably never be a professional writer. This is what writing is. And knowing that all this is normal should help to alleviate all that suffering. It’s no different than the soreness your muscles feel when you start playing a new sport. The pro writers, like the pro athletes, are the ones who are willing to suffer through more of that.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that you have to be mentally unstable or depressed or insane to be a successful writer. Not by a long shot. You just have to accept that it’s not a magical romp through inspiration land. It is work. And it is hard. And it takes a lot of practice before any of that work even begins to pay off.
There may be a rare author who claims that writing always comes easy to them. I tend to suspect these people are lying, and if not, well, then good for them, I guess. But that’s not normal. The normal thing is for it to be difficult. The normal reaction is to assume that if it’s difficult, it’s not worth finishing. And the normal result is to never become a really great writer.
Finish what you write. Be proud of every bad story. Don’t let yourself get upset over writing not being easy. Know that you can do it — because you can.
For further encouragement, have a look at this video. It’s targeted at game design, but it applies equally to all kinds of creative work: Fail Faster!