Hammering It Out.
Today’s particular stern finger-waggling isn’t so much about what we at Muse Harbor look for from potential authors as it is a personal observation about how I write, how the accomplished writers I know write, and how many writers who want to write—but who quite haven’t gotten past that first chapter—how they perhaps attempt to write.
Because the difference between finishing and not finishing a novel may very likely depend upon one’s ability to comprehend Rule #25.
Rule #28: Write one thought at a time. (And don’t worry about the rest.)
Success isn’t exclusively about passion and creative ability, but also about allowing ourselves the patience to write a single sentence (and write it well, of course), and then to write a second sentence, and then a third and a fourth and a fifth—concocting a methodical and polished collection of provocative threads that will one day bloom into a full fledged novel. I mean, what is a novel but simply an uber-long sequence of distinct, expressive thoughts, one after another after another? And within the brain of every true novelist, a myriad of motivated synapses will (trust me) weave those individual thoughts in proper order—like strands of cotton in a perfectly-fitted sweater. We may not know precisely how we do it, but it’s what we do.
When I sit down to begin a new novel, I may have a vaguely hazy notion of the impending plot or ultimate conclusion. I probably have an outline or a synopsis—either on paper or swimming around my head—but more likely than not, I have little idea where the tittering Nymphs of Creativity will ultimately lead me. Not a writer in the world knows, word-by-word, thought-by-thought, the exact outcome. I may introduce unknown characters or subplots or any number of as yet undetermined or unperceived variables, but I don’t concern myself about any of those intangibles. It’s not their “worry time” yet. Rather, I only concern myself with the sentence in front of me. Whether its completion takes a minute, an hour, or a day, so be it. But I don’t move on until I’m satisfied with that one coherent thought.
Understand that “being satisfied” need not be a permanent condition. Hammering out the perfect sentence isn’t an ultimatum to Saraswati.* Maybe tomorrow I’ll tweak that sentence, maybe rework the whole page or eliminate an entire chapter—if I’ve found a better way to express that thought. But I don’t worry about tomorrow either. I write what’s in my heart, my soul, at this very moment.
And then I do it again, in the next moment I choose to write. In a few hundred pages I’ll look back and think; hey, that wasn’t too tough. But like the man said, it’s easier looking back down the hill than up the hill ahead.
If you’re disinclined to believe nameless men of dubious existence—well, remember when your mother told you to chew your food carefully, one bite at a time? Because if you try to cram the entire chocolate creme cake into your face and swallow—well, life doesn’t work that way. Nor does your esophagus. Nor does writing a novel. Slow down and chew your words.
If you find yourself writing long, complicated, dubiously-detailed sentences, beware the ‘stream-of-thought’ conundrum. Like us, characters don’t always think or speak sequentially (linearly), but rather in a scatter-shot rush of near simultaneity, often tripping over thoughts and words. However, do be aware that readers can only read in a linear fashion—word to word to word—and complicated thought patterns can leave them utterly perplexed.
Can’t seem to get past writing the first page? The first chapter? Staring wide-eyed into the abyss, presuming unknown obstacles and those unspoken horrors alien to all of humanity? Take heart. It’s not uncommon for those of us beginning a new novel—or those of us attempting a first novel—to suddenly feel the enormity and weight of The Finished Product. And, like a deer caught in the high beams, we simply freeze. Yeah, that sometimes happens.
But begin by writing a single sentence. And if the spirit moves you, write another one. Then repeat until cured of any fear. Take deep breaths. Enjoy the ride. That’s the best—the only—way to finish a book.
PS: So how is this different from Rule #16: Focus on the now? Rule #16 is about writing style, this one’s about writing practice.
* Hindu goddess of literature.