When Tonya graciously allowed me a guest spot on her blog, I was acutely aware of how creative I’d have to be to come up with writing and publishing advice that she hadn’t already dispensed in spades. Most of what I talk about when I’m talking to people about self-publishing are things you probably already know from having been here before. (And if you’re somehow inexplicably here for the first time because you’re following me, I would direct you to Tonya’s post of August 8, where she nails down the most important points of self-publishing with style and aplomb.) (I like saying “aplomb.”)
Unlike the myths and rules surrounding publishing, however, the myths and rules of writing can be talked about endlessly and in seemingly infinite variation. So from me to you, here’s the best advice that I think any writer can get, and which I desperately wish I’d gotten back when I was starting out:
Don’t ever, ever stop.
Inertia is the single greatest threat that any writer can face. Not rejection. Not poor reviews. Not the personal challenge of constantly becoming better. Not the professional challenge of navigating the equally perplexing worlds of mainstream or indie publishing. Not even the dreaded writer’s block, which you might think is the same thing as inertia but which is really just a lame symptom of inertia.
All of those things and the thousand other natural shocks that the writer’s flesh is heir to come from outside. And like all pathogens, we can protect ourselves from them with a modicum of care and some rigorous hand washing before meals.
Inertia is different because inertia comes from inside. Inertia is the killer of wisdom and the destroyer of ideas. Inertia is the scourge of insight and the killer monsoon that quells the most primal spark of imagination. Creativity is like the proverbial shark — it needs to keep constantly moving or it dies. (I know that science now knows most sharks don’t actually need to keep moving. Creativity is like the bus in “Speed,” then. Insert your metaphor of choice.)
Writing is hard. Everyone who’s ever written knows this. Everyone who’s ever written knows the adage attributed to Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Writing is hard. But stopping writing is dead easy, and therein lies the problem. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to deal with the problem of stopping. The following are the ones that work for me.
1) Have more than one project on the go. Always, always, always have a wide slate of projects in front of you that are in progress or ready to jump into. Even if you’re not one of the many writers embracing self-publishing (and thus thinking like a publisher in terms of the importance of a regular schedule of releases), remind yourself that all professional writers talk in terms of their canon — the collected works, the series, the sequels, the different books in different genres. Professional writers are never just about the singular work. Everyone has a first novel, sure. Everyone has the novel they really want to work on right now. But none of that stops you from digging into the second novel, or thinking about where you want an overall series to go, or working on the short story idea that some bit of research into your current novel inspired.
2) Watch out for the all-consuming projects. You have a novel, a screenplay, an epic poem that is the Most Important Thing you’ve ever conceived or will ever work on. But it’s an unfortunately short walk from the Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Work On to the Only Thing You’ll Ever Work On Over Fifteen Successive Drafts. And if you’re only working on one thing, you leave yourself open to stop working on it at some point. Give your creativity free reign. See point 1 and find other projects that interest or inspire you, and keep them going alongside the all-consuming project.
And while you do:
3) Stay passionate. No matter what you’re working on, no matter how easy or difficult the writing gets at any particular time, try to stay in a place mentally and emotionally where you can remind yourself why you love what you’re working on. Don’t ever let yourself get to a place where finishing something becomes simply an obligation of business as opposed to a mission of love and satisfaction. And if you get to a point where it’s tough to remember why you love Project A because Project A is becoming a pain in your ass, go back to point 1 and channel your love into Project B. At some point, Project A will come back to you, all sheepish and sorry and asking forgiveness, and it’ll all be just like when you fell in love the first time.
4) Watch out for research, outlining, and editing. I love research, outlining, and editing. I work as an editor and story editor alongside my writing, and always will. I’m the most passionate evangelist for outlining you’ll ever meet, and nothing excites me more of an evening than jotting down novel-setting notes from a good book on medieval history. (Okay, a few things do excite me more. You know what I mean, though.) But be very wary if your love of outlining and research, or your process of editing and revision on a previous work, becomes so central to your creativity that it’s keeping you from actually writing your new work. Back to point 1 again — keep things moving; keep things in process. If it comes down to it, strike a bargain with yourself. No research on your historical novel until you crank out five hundred words of your new short story. For every five pages you write of your new book, you’ll let yourself take a break to edit a chapter of the last book.
5) BONUS POINT! Kick writer’s block in the ass. The reason this is a BONUS POINT! is that if you do all the above, you’ve already kicked writer’s block in the ass. Because here’s a secret, gleaned from long years of painful experience. Writer’s block isn’t about the ideas fleeing from you, because ideas aren’t hatched wholly from within. Ideas are generated at the interface between the writer and the work, and so writer’s block is about being unable to engage with the work in a way that lets the ideas come to you.
Writer’s block is a thing that hits us when we nail ourselves down to a single project. When we lose sight of why that project is worthy of our passion. When we deny ourselves the creative freedom of having other projects ready to jump into. Creativity is a process of movement, and writer’s block is the inevitable outcome of only allowing yourself to travel down a single road. But there are always other ways to move forward, and if your road is blocked, just back up and take the previous left. Set aside the novel that’s giving you problems and work on your other novel. Shift it into four-wheel drive and go off-road for a while. Start outlining the novel you really want to right but just can’t imagine tackling because its subject matter seems so daunting. Abandon the car entirely and hike. When you’re jammed up on your ultra-serious book, get out a blank piece of paper or open a new document and start working on the most slapstick short story imaginable. As long as you know the place you want to go, you’ll get there in the end.
So how do I have all these bits of dubious wisdom at my disposal? Because as a writer, I’ve done my fair share of stopping. When I first started out as a professional writer, I was fortunate enough to break into screenwriting, which I enjoyed and which paid pretty well — so I stopped writing fiction. (This is a process known to many screenwriters, and which some refer to as “the velvet rut.”)
When I was screenwriting, I fell into the terrible trap that a lot of screenwriters fall into, deciding that my creativity was being wasted if it wasn’t making me money. I had a lot of projects fall by the wayside in those days because even though I loved them, I couldn’t get the people in charge of the option and development money to love them as much as I did. So I stopped working on them.
When I finally got back into writing fiction shortly after I got tired of screenwriting, I set myself a traditional course with an eye on getting an agent, getting a publisher, and all that. And when those things didn’t happen as quickly as I wanted them to, I stopped.
Since taking the leap into indie writer-publishing, I don’t stop anymore. I write. I work as an editor and story editor, and I confab with like-minded practitioners of fantasy and speculative fiction whose work inspires me to get better. To keep going. To always look beyond the end of the current project to the next project.
AWESOME post, SCOTT!!To never stop.
Be sure to visit Scott at his website and check him out!!