Writing a novel is not just a test of skill; it is psychologically taxing, which means how I talk to myself about it matters. If I tell myself that my writing is awful, I will discourage myself into quitting. If I tell myself that my writing is not awful, just incomplete, I will feel hopeful as I imagine a way forward.
Encouraging myself constantly is essential to finishing a novel. Creating worlds and people no one else can see is a sanity challenge to the most mentally healthy among us. I have bipolar disorder, so I had better be sure that my mind is a hospitable place, that I have cleared it of mental monsters before I settle in; otherwise I can expect the kind if mood crashes that used to make writing too scary to begin and too punishing to continue.
Who are these monsters? They are the internalized critics that shame me for my efforts as I write, the morality police of my childhood who chastise me for not having more discipline, and the dark shadow looking over my shoulder that I call the pseudo-reader, the imaginary incarnation of every troll who ever lived.
I have become adept at getting rid of monsters through years of practice, but sometimes I still forget valuable lessons and find myself slipping back into unhelpful habits of thought. I have to remind myself of what liberated me to write during times of block. Here are five things I tell myself to exorcise my monsters so I can write freely.
Torch guilt and dread with the one-sentence rule
Whether it is for not writing enough or writing badly, scolding myself never pays. Impugning myself as I write only slows me down, makes writing miserable, triggers my creative inner child to throw tantrums, induces despair, and makes me want to quit.
When I scold myself for not writing enough, writing becomes a should, an act of piety, a righteous attempt to appease the writing gods, the sacrifice of a martyr, or – worse – a tedious household chore. If I write because I think I should, or of I am trying so hard to be disciplined that I trigger a procrastination response, I am only working against myself.
Writing is so much more enjoyable when I work with myself. To do this I apply the one-sentence rule. That is, I tell myself I only have to write a sentence a day. The deal I have with my conscience is that as long as I write at least a sentence, my punitive superego will refrain from harassing me. Though I do “discipline” myself to write at least one sentence, it is such a minimal requirement, no resistance ever forms.
This technique is not a way of tricking myself into writing more. Sometimes I really do stop after a sentence. However, when I take myself up on this offer, I usually discover that it is painful to stop; I almost always want to write more and I look forward to my next writing session instead of dreading it.
A great experiment that takes the rule even further is to forbid myself to write more than a sentence. This makes writing seem naughty and alluring. My rebellious inner child, outraged about my arbitrary self-imposed injustice, rushes to the defense of writing. That is what I want.
The one-sentence rule torches two monsters at once: dread and guilt. Writing a sentence induces no dread, and as long as I write at least a sentence, my conscience leaves me alone. The result: freedom!
But does writing just a sentence lead to any real progress? In my experience, it does. There is a world of difference between writing one sentence and writing nothing at all. Writing a sentence engages my imagination while liberating it from pressure.
I cannot help but come up with a second sentence, and forbidding myself to write it is frustrating. If I force myself to stop, my writing-deprived mind will often begin to write anyway; in other words, I write in my head.
If I have only written a sentence during my afternoon, scenes are more likely to appear to me when I am in bed, listening to music, or taking a shower so that when I sit down at my computer the next day, I already have an idea of what I want to write.
Setting easy goals unburdens my mind from guilt, tempts my mind to explore, and eliminates the need to use force. Making myself write is like force-feeding myself ice cream; I enjoy both ice cream and writing; why ruin them with pointless coercion? My creativity can be enticed, invited, nudged, intrigued, and seduced but force, threats, and shaming send it scrambling into a cave.
Banish fear of what others think by writing what you love.
Write what you would want to read, not what you think others want to read. There are many reasons for this. One of my biggest fears has always been having my writing unfavorably judged by others. This fear is perhaps the biggest writing monster of all. But if you write what you love, even if no one else loves it, it is certain that at least one person will be happy. That means it was not a waste of time.
Besides, writing is not lucrative even for most traditionally published writers, but if you write what you love and no one pays you for it, at least you had fun.
Not that there is necessarily a conflict between what you want to write and what readers want to read. If you enjoy writing a story, that vastly improves the chances readers will enjoy reading it. Great writing is not accomplished by writers who are bored with what they are doing.
Another reason to write what you love is that even if you try to write what others will like, you are likely to fail. No one can read minds, and no one really knows what readers like. if there is not enough you in your project, your perspective, your passions, your interests, your writing is likely to limp.
Not everyone agrees. Some editors, agents, professional writers, and publishers advise doing research on what is “trending” before you write, to see what is selling nowadays so you will know who and what to imitate. Hence, the multitude of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey clones.
This strategy might lead to sales, but it will not lead to art, originality, or creative fulfillment. However, if I am passionate about my content, it is far more likely that my readers will be passionate about it too.
Regardless, as long as I enjoy what I am writing, I can be sure of having at least one fan: myself.
Writing is made of printed marks, not TNT
Sometimes as writers we take ourselves too seriously, as if the fate of the universe depended upon the turn of a phrase.
We are quick to apologize for offending “the reader”, for inducing negative emotions, for breaking the rules, for being politically incorrect, for violating some hidden standard of literary etiquette. The monster is fear that terrible consequences are likely to occur as a result of writing.
It is easy to forget that writing is ultimately just a collection of marks: lines, squiggles, and curves. More specifically, writing – at least in English –is made of many thousands of variations of the same 26 marks called “letters.”
However, depending on how these marks are arranged, they can arouse intense passions. If you doubt this, read some of the book reviews on Amazon. Some readers hate certain books so much, they call for them to be removed from store shelves. Other crusaders push for books to be banned or removed from libraries.
All of the explosive controversy over printed symbols can be intimidating to a writer who just wants to tell a story. Sometimes as writers, we recriminate ourselves before others have a chance to do it. This book is too depressing, stupid, amateurish, offensive. Why bother? The thoughts are enough to drive us into a deep depression before we reach the second paragraph.
However, good writing is not a manners game. It is about honestly reflecting back life as you see it. Not everyone will appreciate that, especially if it illuminates some corner of life a reader is afraid to explore. Writing is powerful, and oftentimes it requires courage.
But writing is ultimately still just marks, and unless you are defaming someone or calling for an assassination, self-recrimination for writing is usually uncalled for.
Even if you do write a “bad,” book, the world is likely to go on. Few fiascos would prevent you from moving onto new projects. Forget about your writing being good or bad and just write. Make mistakes. Be silly. Be honest. Experiment. Write what you want to see written that you have never seen written before.
Of course I want my work to be meaningful to others, and I hope readers will enjoy what I write. However, I am ultimately the one who decides what does and does not go into it, whether it offends anyone or not. The alternative is fear and paralysis.
Treat a rough draft as a discovery tool, not as a test of talent
For me, first drafts always used to induce performance anxiety and fear of failure. My awkward rough drafts seemed to scream, “Worst writing ever! You are unworthy! Why even bother to continue?”
Writing rough drafts became far less intimidating when I stopped thinking of them as writing. A rough draft is about content, not “pretty language” – although sometimes pretty language happens spontaneously. While that is fine, that is not the goal of a rough draft.
The goal is creating raw material I can mold and shape. I took a sculpture class in college. Whenever I began a project, I would “see” a loose structure in the clay, the curves I wanted to deepen, the forms I wanted to enhance. I would become fascinated with the indentations that suggested the side of a nose or the cleft of a chin.
I react the same way to my rough drafts. A rough draft is material only partially molded to suggest the forms it has the potential to become. This is why I sometimes become truly inspired only after the rough draft is written.
Once I have my partially formed hunk of “clay” in front of me, my imagination flickers. I identify subtle conflicts that have the potential to become major, interesting minor characters who could play a major role if I let them, and barely suggested themes that beg to be strengthened. Messy though it is, a rough draft is evocative.
A rough draft does not even have to be complete to be useful. It is actually helpful to write scenes out of order, the ones I have vividly imagined, the emotion-driven scenes, while I temporarily skip the transitional scenes leading up to them. “Jumping around” leads to a manuscript that would be nonsensical to a reader, but it serves a valuable purpose for me.
If I write down enough of these scenes, a pattern begins to form; a structure starts to emerge organically from them, which become anchor points in the novel. When later I write my intermediate scenes, I will know exactly where they are leading so I am less likely to ramble.
Combat irrational self-criticism with unconditional praise
At the end of each writing session, I shamelessly heap praise on myself for everything I did right, for showing up if nothing else, and I write my accolades down in a file I have named “Therapy.” I want every session to end on a good note so I will not dread going back.
I constantly reassure myself that I am on my own side, that my mistakes do not define me as a writer, and that there is hope for solving the inevitable, and sometimes monumental, problems that are likely to arise in writing a novel. I encourage myself as if I am my own mentor and best friend. I demolish any unfair self-criticisms that may have arisen as I was writing. Keeping a consistent praise file prevents my mood from nose-diving after I leave my computer; that is, I take all necessary measures to keep the monsters away.
But where will my monsters go after I have banished them? As a fantasy writer I am perfectly willing to let my ousted monsters crawl into my fiction and scare the bejesus out of my main characters – as long as the monsters remain on the page and stay out of my head.
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