The One Piece of Writing Advice I Dare Give

I spent some time recently caught in a malaise. I hesitate to say that I was blocked, because I don’t believe in ‘block’ (at least so far as the romanticised,  anguished, cliche the term evokes) and because really I was still able to write, it was just… crap.

I wrote smaller and smaller spurts of words, a few hundred before I became distracted or drawn away. I was not immersed in what I was writing, in the way that I normally become when the words are flowing more freely and the fingers flying across the keys. Nor was I producing quality, I think. I read back over some old stuff I wrote and it didn’t seem half-bad, perhaps even read quite well if I do dare say… but then I read back over something I wrote more recently and I couldn’t stand it. Its flaws towered over the page, casting long shadows. Its cliches snapped and snarled from between the lines, or from within the lines, warty and ugly and plain for all to see. The prose limped along, workman-like. Plots stagnated. Characters gathered in bland surroundings to have inconsequential conversations that meandered around rather pointlessly, their disembodied dialogue ping-ponging back and forth, leading nowhere, signifying nothing. Idiots telling each other their idiot tales.

The difference, of course, is that the older writing was the result of a process: was drafted, revised, revised again, edited, modified, corrected and brought to a point where I was happy with it. My more recent work was only at the start of that process. It was nascent, and thus found obviously wanting when compared to its more polished predecessors.

So not block, but perhaps something worse. A pipe half clogged but still able to spill a trickle of septic sludge.

And I thought for days stretching into weeks about what might be causing it. I hadn’t settled on a project, and I flitted between several unfinished drafts of grand ambitious plans, and I’m sure that didn’t help. As a writer, I find that I need to sit in a narrative, to live with the characters talking and arguing and plotting and scheming in my head, mentally writing and re-writing their lines before I even sit down to the computer, before I even take a pen to hand. And sometimes I did but than I would leap across to one of the other worlds, to characters from another story. They are diverse enough that I could still track that leap, but would I not have been better to have written one novel than to have four drafts in the 20-30,000 word range?

And what does it say for the quality of those drafts when even their author seeks greener grass in another document?

I sought solutions…

I bought Scrivener. It helped me make some truly excellent plans. It has a virtual corkboard and virtual notes on which I planned scenes and chapters and character descriptions and setting notes… and all of these wonderful satellite resources to my writing are marshaled now. Their creation came at the expense of words on the page. The delicate restructuring and rearranging of labels at the expense of a chapter or two. I was able to convince myself I spent an hour writing and have not a single additional word on the draft to show for it. So Scrivener is good at what it is designed for, but it did not solve my problem.

I read. I finished the book I’d started last year. I went to the Kindle store. I read books for my work and for my sons. I read short stories and online zines. I read the draft work of fellow writers and friends. I read guides on writing and pitching and querying, on synopses, on the industry. I read Twitter and Facebook and learnt from professionals and publishers… this too was valuable. This too produced not one single word on any of my drafts, and so it has not solved the problem. One must beware of writing-like activities through which one might convince oneself that progress is being made when in fact it is not.

And now I blog about it, so that I can reacquaint myself with writing, with getting the words down, with the tap of the keys beneath my finger tips and the wonderful march of letters across blank space. I haven’t written here for 6 months, and perhaps that was a part of the problem, and perhaps it needs to be part of the solution. The feeling of being productive, the experimenting with words and sentences, the shaping of thoughts into physical form–or digital form at least–and sharing them with the vast and global void into which we all stare. And yet for all the good that comes from the thousand words here, not one of those words adds to any of my drafts, and so this too has not solved my problem.

There is but one solution then.

This is the only advice on writing I dare give, and I give it primarily to myself:

Write the words.

Even though they are crap. Even though they might need to be re-written, many or all, almost certainly, even almost entirely. Just write the words. Finish the draft.

 

Get yourself into a position from which there is no way out, but through. Break the 30,000 barrier, and the 40- and the 50- until the ending seems so much nearer and you can fall toward it. Know that ‘THE END’ is not the end, and you will always be able to come back and rewrite the few thousand you forced onto the page, even if those few stretch out to 20,000 and even if all 20,000 are irredeemable, still you’ll have a draft. You cannot have a book without a draft, and so the finishing of the book is not your goal… not yet. It is the finishing of the draft on which to set ones eye, and even before that on the finishing of the chapter, or the page, or the paragraph or the line… on finishing the word and selecting the next and so on, onward.

So that is my advice, as much for myself as for you, dear reader. More for myself, really than for anyone else.

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