Since I embarked on my professional writing journey almost eleven years ago, I have learned lessons too numerous to count. Most of the dreams and beliefs I once held about the noble craft have been pushed off the cliff of pragmatism. But of all the revelations that I have experienced, there is one that hit me like a meteorite of pure DUH. I will share it with you now:
Ideas are cheap.
Ideas are less than a dime a dozen. You would have better luck trading your old shares of Enron for food than you would by trading in your brilliant idea for the next Great American/Canadian/Whateverian novel. If aliens invaded earth, story ideas are the only natural resource they would not bother to harvest.
I used to believe that what every writer needs is a brilliant idea for a story. From there? ZOOM! Manuscript. Contract. Money. Fame. BLAMMO!
The truth? No matter how brilliant, an idea that is not put into action and seen through to its conclusion is worthless.
The hard part of writing is not coming up with good ideas. The image of the poor tortured author staring blankly at a typewriter and lamenting her writer’s block is not without some truth but neither is it The Worst Thing Ever when it comes to writing a novel.
The hard part of writing…no. The hardest part of writing is taking an idea and then sitting your ass in the damn chair to bang out the first draft. Then the second draft. Third. Fourth. However many drafts it takes. Then, submitting the “finished” draft to an editor or editors, only to be told it needs changes—possibly changes large enough to send you back to square one. THEN, not freaking out and defending your brilliance through tears and shoutyness, but looking critically at those suggested changes and returning to the damn chair. Then, (no, it’s not over yet), polishing and spit-shining your work, even when you’ve lost all objectivity and you hate your stupid stupid characters and you wish you could just start on the next good idea because that one is surely going to be loads of fun and no work at all.
Oh, and completing the manuscript is only the beginning of your job. If you decide to traditionally publish, you need to find yourself an agent or publisher. If you indie publish, you are the publisher and your to-do list would make a Viking warrior weep.
Finishing what you start, that is the hardest part of writing. It’s also, I suspect, where many aspiring writers shrug their shoulders and eventually walk away. Which is sad, because there is another big truth that has been revealed to me that I will also now share:
Finishing is awesome!
Seeing an idea through to its conclusion is like riding a unicorn into a mountain of chocolate cupcakes while fairies sprinkle you with orgasm dust.
Sure, you’re exhausted and your head feels like someone liquefied your brain and then dumped a carton of Pop Rocks and rabid badgers into it, but it’s still awesome. The days after your manuscript is finally complete are bliss-filled and dreamlike. And after your manuscript becomes a real novel that will be on a real (or virtual) shelf somewhere that real people can buy and read it? There is not enough “WOW” to describe that feeling. The first time I held a copy of Warpworld in my hand, you could have burned down my house, crashed my truck, and kidnapped my cat and you still could not have pried the smile from my face.
In a few weeks, I’ll be holding Ghost World, the third volume in the Warpworld series, in my hands. This will be a good time to ask me to lend you some money or babysit your bratty kids or help you move. The first novel will always be the best but every time I see a manuscript through to the very end I am euphoric.
I’ve heard writers who are hesitant to share their story ideas because they fear another writer might steal them. If this is you, here, have a big spoonful of Relax. First, there are few ideas that are so original that the idea alone will carry the story. Second, I could give one hundred people the same idea and I would end up with one hundred very different stories in the end. Third, about .01% of people who hear a good story idea will actually have the time, desire, or discipline to turn that idea into a completed manuscript.
So, now the big question: How do you finish?
I wish I could impart some lofty wisdom to you to answer that question. Better yet, I wish I could invent a pill that I could sell to you to instantly put the knowledge into your brain ($29.95, possible side effects may include fits of laughter, bleeding eyeballs, and restless leg syndrome).
Truthfully, I don’t know. Mostly I think you need a fire in your gut that no amount of drudgery can extinguish. You need to “be” writing. I don’t leap out of bed every morning at o’dark thirty because of a list of rules I’ve taped to my fridge, I do it because the story demons will not let me sleep.
Having said all that, there are some tips I can offer. Discipline, organization, and efficiency can be learned, and it is those tools that will help de-drudgerize some of the work on your way to the finish line.
1. Set specific goals with dates
A writer without an externally imposed deadline is like a toddler on a sugar high in a toy store. So. Many. Shiny. Distractions!
Be specific: Complete 5 chapters
Set a date: By March 20, 2015
Most importantly, treat that deadline as seriously as you would if it was handed down to you from a Really Big Publisher Who Signs Your Cheques.
2. Buy, learn, and use Scrivener
Those of you who already use this miracle program are nodding your heads knowingly. I do not know how I survived without Scrivener. This is manuscript organization at its finest.
3. Put your pants on
Okay, your metaphorical pants. Pants suck! BOO! Down with pants!
What I mean here is: if you want to be a professional author, you must treat writing as your job. Yes, it can be a fun job but it’s too easy to get swept up in the “Whee! I’m an artiste! I don’t need to punch a clock or wear pants!” mentality. Every successful author will tell you that what made them successful was not freedom from responsibility but a lot of really hard work.
4. Writer, know thyself
If a quick peek at your Facebook page ends with you watching an Epic Fails compilation on YouTube three hours later, then you need to revoke your internet privileges while you write. Some writers with this problem even use a separate computer, with no internet connection, solely for work. For me, my Achilles heel is my sociability. I like people and I have lots of friends close at hand, which means I had to teach myself to say, “No, I can’t come for coffee with you, I’m writing” when what I really, really, really wanted to say was, “Yes, I’ll meet you for coffee in an hour!”
Chatting with friends over coffee will feel good in the moment but finishing your manuscript will feel good x one million in the not-so-distant future.
5. Ask for help
One of the beautiful things I’ve discovered about the writing community is that most of the time most writers want to help each other succeed. Don’t be afraid to call upon this Army of Awesome when you’re stuck in a rut or you’re up against a problem that has stumped you. Whether you need someone to tell you to “Suck it up, put your pants on and get back to work!”, or you need help filling a plot hole, there are other writers out there who can and will lend a hand. Don’t let pride stop you from getting the job done.
And if you don’t have a writing community, find one. Go to conferences or workshops, take part in online forums and discussion groups, find a writers group, step out of the cave!
6. Pace yourself
I’ve spent a lot of time in gyms (there is a parallel here, bear with me). Without fail, at the beginning of every January, June, and September, the gym would be packed full of people who were determined to lose weight, get fit, and finally achieve their goals! These well meaning folks would practically kill themselves in the first two weeks. And, inevitably, every February, July, and October, they would be gone and the gym would be quiet again. Why? Because losing weight and getting fit are hard tasks. If you make a hard task harder by pushing yourself too fast and too often, you’ll burn out and quit.
Set writing goals, yes. But set realistic and attainable goals and don’t knock yourself out in the first month. Building strong story muscles takes years and writing a manuscript is a marathon not a sprint.
7. Try a little tenderness
Be kind to yourself. Not every good idea survives to “The End”. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a manuscript that just isn’t working. It happens. You may need a few running starts before you hit upon the right good idea.
Conversely, (if you’re taking the traditional route), don’t despair over those finished manuscripts that win you nothing but rejection letters. Be proud of yourself for making it to “The End” and accept that as long as you’re learning and improving then you’re a success. Writing is not a race, it’s not a competition, it’s simply one of many paths to walk—so why not enjoy the view?
That’s my two cents. Now, with the finish line in sight, I’m going to try and savour these last moments between the end of the current manuscript and the start of the new one. If you need me, I’ll be on my unicorn.