Inspired by this lovely blog post over on Low Expectations.
A few days ago I had, if I do say so myself, the most brilliant idea. It wasn’t just one tiny inkling of a story, either, but big chunks of details and plot and dialog, and I wrote all of it down in two hours during one massive brainstorm session. When I was done I had the most extensive collection of notes known to man, something I should have easily been able to take and turn into an actual story.
Spoiler alert: I could not turn it into an actual story.
There’s a certain phase of self-doubt I suspect all writers go through when they put pen to paper or fingers to keys. You’re really proud of that new idea you came up with last night and spent twenty minutes desperately repeating aloud to yourself because you were in the shower and couldn’t write anything down. (Not that I speak from personal experience.) You can tell just from the notes that it’s got a lot of potential, from a gripping plot to good character chemistry to a climax that’ll knock their socks off.
But when you start to try and turn those notes into an actual plot, into actual characters, and into an actual climax, you freeze. And then you, or at least I, start to get nervous.
What if I’m just overestimating the quality of this story?
I have completely overwhelmed myself, using only myself. Good job, brain.
This idea is obviously better than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined and beyond my meager scope. What if my writing style can’t do it justice?
I don’t know how to start this. I don’t know how to finish this. I do know how to panic over it, though, so let’s try that.
Something I do too much, albeit somewhat subconsciously, is compare my writing style with published authors’. That’s dumb. I’m never going to write like Joan Bauer or J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis, and I shouldn’t try. I’ve been hacking away at this craft for long enough that I’ve firmly established a style of my own; it may take elements from all or some or none of those people, yes, but it’s mine. Logically, then, there is nothing that I can fairly or accurately compare it to.
No, wait—yes, there is. Why not previous work I’ve finished? It was pretty darn good, and I’d like to achieve that peak of literary perfection again this time around. Scratch that, I have to, because anything that isn’t exactly like whatever successful story I’ve written before is obviously going to be garbage. But even if my writings of yesteryear were the best I’ve ever done, lightning doesn’t strike twice. (Okay, actually, it does, but bear with me.) I once read an article that had nothing to do with writing whatsoever but mentioned that images fade from a retina when they are completely stabilized. When your eye is totally still, it ceases to properly function. It must be constantly moving, constantly receiving information and sending it to be interpreted, to truly see. Perception, it said, is exploration. As such, you never perceive anything the same way twice. I took this and warped it to make it sort of apply to the point I’m trying to make.
You’re always going to get different results, even if the difference is only slight. Don’t expect everything you write to be identical; why would you want it to be identical? Variety is the spice of life and stuff, remember? If you’re writing, you’re learning, trying new things and seeing what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t write because you’re afraid it’ll turn out to be steaming hot garbage, you’ll stagnate. You’ll never get past the steaming hot garbage to the good stuff. It’s a scary business, especially if you’re a perfectionist, but a lot of writing well involves writing badly.
You’re not going to hit the target 100% of the time. You’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to churn out some pretty cruddy first drafts. But that’s what they are: first drafts. Nobody said you only had one shot at writing every story you start. You (i.e., me) may treat it like that, but it’s not the end of the world when you screw up. And for the love of Jock Mahoney, stop comparing your work to other people’s and your own. Nothing we ever do will be done twice over exactly. You’re going to write stuff worse and better than that novel or story you’re so proud of. And that’s okay.
I could take the whole authorship experience and sum it up with one title: There Will Be Crud. We’re all only human, and we’re all going to have days where the next Jane Eyre flows effortlessly from our busy pen, and days where all we can manage to write is Finnegan’s Wake. Over. And over. And over.
Everybody has written the worst piece of literature on Earth. Whether these disasters ever see the light of day before being sacrificed as a burnt offering on the altar of the fickle literature gods is another question entirely. You will write masterpieces, and you will write trash. Whether or not you should be worried about that is answered in our next question.
Did you write trash on purpose?
No? You’re like the rest of us. You’ll get better, and you’ll also get worse—but mostly better.
Yes? Bad. Don’t write trash on purpose. You have to at least try to be good. It makes the failure that much sweeter, because you can try again and do better, since sometimes there is nowhere to go but up. But only if you don’t write trash on purpose. It is not hard to write trash. There is no challenge in pablum. We can all write things on the level of Fifty Shades of Grey. If you want your writing to remain at the literary equivalent of “mental vegetable”, go ahead and put as little effort into it as I do making sure my socks match.
But if you want to stretch and grow and see what’s beyond that distant horizon of writing potential, make an effort! Yes, There Will Be Crud. But one of these days there will be something that won’t be crud. It will be the antithesis of crud, and it will all be worth it.
And, when all else fails and my motivations don’t work, I try my best to remember: God gave me this talent and this drive to write, and He wouldn’t have done it if He didn’t think I could do something with it. (Then I try my best not to reverse that into even more pressure, something cute along the lines of ‘God gave you this talent so you have absolutely no room to mess it up.’ Don’t overthink and drive.)
Oh, and that story I mentioned trying to write up at the top of this post? Yeah, I still got nothing.