FATIGUE, STRESS, CONFUSION, fear and anxiety too often serve as behavioral triggers, causing many of us to abandon our emotional centers and jettison our inner peacefulness out of the mistaken belief that we can “fix” our feelings by fixing our surroundings.
The problem with that assessment?
These “surroundings” often include other people who have little to no idea that we are experiencing any of the above emotional symptoms. So when we direct attention outward and misidentify “others” as the source of our triggering, we actually bypass our own deepest source wisdom that is lovingly informing us what we truly need.
Why do we experience these symptoms in the first place? We experience fatigue because our body signals that it needs rest and recharging. We experience confusion because our mind signals that cognitive dissonance has arisen and we need to relax and stop trying so hard to make sense of what we don’t yet understand.
We experience fear because our emotional body is signaling an urgent need to move away from vibrational frequencies we feel, but cannot see. We experience stress and anxiety because our entire system begs for relief when we have over-invested in past stories and future expectations. Notice that these signals are internal mechanisms designed to inform us how to be or not be—not to inform us how to change or fix others, or how to change or fix our environment.
Too often, we interpret our own inner distress as motivation to blame, shame, or guilt “others” into radically altering their own behaviors so that we no longer need to experience these important feedback signals. But what happens when we take radical self-responsibility for attending to these inner feedback loops and use them to inform us what needs changing—within our personal field of awareness?
When fatigue arises while we are in a public setting, we can gracefully extract ourselves and go rest as a form of loving self-care.
When confusion arises while we are engaging in dialogue, we can take a moment to breathe in and allow the mind to calm itself, or we can simply drop our attachment to thinking “about” whatever seems to be troubling us in the moment.
When fear arises, we can come more present and aware of why the frequency of fear has arisen. If it’s a genuine emergency, we can move away from the perceived threat. If the fear has arisen because we have misinterpreted the vibrational frequency of others as “dangerous” to our well-being we can relax and allow the feeling to pass, because likely it’s simply an echo of a past situation.
When stress and anxiety occur, we can realize these signals serve as invitations for us to come more alive to THIS present moment and to be lovingly and tenderly compassionate with ourselves.
This does not mean we stop changing things, or that others will now not ever change because we haven’t actively sought to fix them. What it does mean?
We have reclaimed our inner power to reconnect with our souls, hearts, minds, and bodies in ways that best serve us, without us needing to apply physical force, the emotional abuse of shaming or blaming or guilting, or the mentally prompted repression of others in order to “fix” what presently disturbs us.
Embracing and honoring the wisdom of our own inner feedback loops empowers us to live our healthiest, happiest, and most creative lives with peaceful intentionality.
More Common Obstacles that Novelists Commonly Confront.
I’ve previously mentioned those few literary hurdles I often confront when working with novice writers. Getting stuck(See Obstacles) is the most common dilemma that new writers encounter—and a conundrum that all writers face at one time or another. Although the act of getting stuck generally assumes that we’ll eventually get ourselves un-stuck as well. That occasionally annoying perceptive rut known as writer’s block isn’t supposed to be a chronic condition, after all, and most of us manage to work our way free, sooner or later.
However, if getting stuck increasingly feels like a permanent situation, or if you find yourself consistently accumulating little more than first scenes or first chapters—project after project, year after year—the issue(s) you face may run far deeper than simply a matter of ‘learning the ropes’ or ‘running out of fresh ideas.’ If you’ve been toiling away for a year or two on any single project, yet remain unsatisfied with the results or with your level of creative output, perhaps it’s time to dig a little more deeply into your writer’s psyche. Even if you consider yourself to be a gifted writer, your inability to produce adequate results (in terms of quantity or quality) may require some personal introspection. In other words, many of us must at some point confront those emotional or psychological issues that might be inhibiting our progress.
And while the prospect of ‘personal introspection’ may carry a certain negative weight, don’t worry—it’s not a euphemism for ‘you suck at writing.’ Rather, if you’re aching to write but can’t seem to gain any traction, self-reflection is simply my suggestion (unscientific as it is) that you look inward before contemplating all those extraneous external factors. Various assumptions for not writing—I can’t find a sharp pencil!; or It’s raining out!; or The rent’s overdue!—may feel like adequate excuses (and sometimes they can be) but more often than not, such superficial symptoms simply disguise a far more complex, subconscious quandary.
While legitimate factors such as fear of failure, or what if I’m not good enough? or even the very real fear of success do exist, those psychological roadblocks can often be overcome by simply acknowledging their presence. Thus, consider this: I’m certainly not good enough if I give up, but if I try, I may surprise myself. Because the only thing worse than failing to publish a novel is the unwillingness to finish a novel.
You won’t know if you don’t try—and not trying (or succeeding) is often the result of unrealistic self-doubt or lack of confidence. Every writer born has suffered through great gobs of self-doubt (Stephen King’s disposal of his first manuscript, Carrie, only to be resurrected from the trashcan by his wife, Tabatha, is legendary. Had he not have been married, the iconic Mr. King might never have sold a single book.)
For first-time writers (especially those without concerned spouses like Tabatha), those often ubiquitous subliminal roadblocks can feel pervasive and insurmountable… because sometimes our brains are funny that way. But, guess what? Every problem has a solution. Every story has an ending. There’s always a way to get from Point A to Point Z, no matter how seemingly hopeless the journey might appear. However, each of us needs to dig deep to find the patience and persistence to go the distance. So finish. That’s Rule #1after all.
Refer again to Perfection should you remain uncertain. Because (spoiler alert!) perfection doesn’t exist. (You can always change a word, a sentence, a paragraph…) So stop trying to obtain the unobtainable. Allow your first draft to be little more than a messy, incomplete rough sketch of whatever greatness is meant to come. Allow yourself sufficient time to tweak and refine and polish through numerous, subsequent drafts. Even if you can’t achieve perfection, pretty damn good is worth striving for. (And also quite possible!)
Ask yourself What’s the worst that can happen by trying, by staying the course? If you can’t convince yourself to go the distance, maybe writing a novel isn’t your best creative outlet. Yet other creative endeavors may await you, and it’s probably important to discover your options before you spend a year writing an uninspired (no offense) 400-pages that will ultimately disappoint you.
However, before you give up completely and become a plumber or an astronaut, what unrealized roadblocks or self-doubts linger within your soul, waiting to be discovered?
You may be #1: A Serial Story Starter. Starting a novel is a lot like a first date. The possibilities feel boundless, and our expectations are through the roof. Filled with excitement and confidence—even if our perceived ending (or second chapter, for that matter) remains a bit nebulous—some of us can easily write a fabulous ten or 20 pages with little effort.
And yet our creative expectations, like love itself, can be fickle. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s not uncommon for new, assumptive writers to experience that roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows, once the initial rush of balloon-light giddiness dissipates beneath the eventual iron fist of reality. Before long we may begin to sense waves of self-doubt, fading hopes and unexpected stumbling blocks. Some of us will begin to approach our pages, our progress, with a tingling sense of dread. Might starting a novel have been a mistake?
Frequently, as we concoct and/or approach a specific story line, we may realize (correctly or not) that the story inside our head is more difficult to decipher than originally presumed. Maybe the plot sputters, or our premise begins feels weak or clunky. Our characters stop speaking to us or become lost in the fog. So many What if—? questions remain unanswered. So many Now what—? questions feel suddenly impenetrable. Or maybe, 30-50 pages into our story, an even better idea comes to mind. Those feelings are more common than you might think—and knowing when to stop can be as important as knowing when to hunker down and proceed.
It’s perfectly alright to revamp our daydream in another POV, or tell our story in a completely different way. It’s also perfect okay to start a completely new book from scratch. It’s all part of the learning curve, after all, and ’tis far better to disregard 50 or 100 pages and begin anew, rather than belabor to complete an unfulfilling brick of a book that you’ll ultimately stick in a drawer, disgruntled and disillusioned, and perhaps never write again.
Many (most) published writers do have unfinished starter novels and dog-eared notebooks filled with half-baked ideas littering our drawers and PC desktops. Those false starts are also part of the process. We’re still in the process of learning to think like novelists. Sometimes, that development can take years or decades of effort.
Or, you may be #2:A Panster. Thirty years ago, the term panster did not exist—or else did so clandestinely and had yet to evolve into the literary limelight. The term (should you have recently awoken from a coma) defines those freestyle writers among us who write without any perceived forethought or planning or, more often than not, without a clue as to how one’s story might end.
Personally, I love starting a novel with wild abandon, sometimes with only a vague or fuzzy notion of my characters’ personalities/motivations and with a single inciting incident in mind. But within 50-or-so pages I typically realize that I’m confronting too many options to wing it any further.
At that point I begin to outline my next few scenes and/or chapters. And while I shall refrain from mentioning the virtues of outlining yet again, if you’ve missed my last few dozen posts, HERE‘s a quick reminder. Do realize that outlining doesn’t necessarily mean religiously, unerringly, bullet-pointing an entire novel from cover to cover before you begin writing. Outlining can be as brief and as vague as a few jotted lines that jog your creativity or lead you out of a jam or dead end. For me, outlining is also a sort of reality check (can I do this scene differently? Can I do it better?) before I proceed into uncharted waters.
If you are a panster and decide outlining doesn’t work for you, at least you’ve eliminated the process as a potentially valuable tool. So it’s worth consideration.
Or you may be #3:A Daydreamer. (All dressed up and nowhere to go.)
We’re all daydreamers, we fiction writers. Ain’t nothing wrong with daydreaming—what’s a novel after all, but a daydream we write down, embellish, and ultimately complete? I’ve known a good many writers who concoct rather brilliant ideas, even come up with a functional synopsis or summary…and then perhaps finish a scene or two, a chapter or two, before realizing that Writing is hard.
Perhaps not always hard, but certainly complicated. Complex. You are, in effect, attempting to complete a 60,000+ word puzzle, piece by piece (word by word) and every word in a specific, intelligent, cohesive order.. line after line and page after page. The simple truth is, it’s not easy. Practice, patience and perseverance (the 3Ps) are essential. Having the ability to change your mind (…so this isn’t working, maybe I’ll try that) and the ability to kill your darlings is paramount. So is the ability to self-motivate, self-start and self-edit. And also, eventually staring lovingly upon one’s final manuscript, one must have the personality, and gather the courage, to compromise and accept valid criticism. (See Accepting Criticism… It’s essential.)
For most creative people, coming up with boffo story ideas is by far the easy part. The difficulty comes over the next several months, or years, attempting to complete in exacting detail the story you’ve envisioned. It’s not for the feint of heart. Or for the incredibly busy. Or those of us who conceptualize at a frenetic pace, new ideas like pinballs ricocheting here-and-there, propelled by the flippers of our mind.
A successful writer needs both a creative persona and must also possess the ability to go the distance, to complete projects. (Refer, again, to the three P’s above.) One without the other simply won’t work.
You may be#4: A Closeted Screenwriter. The novel isn’t the only game in town. If you love writing dialogue but hate elaborate scene-setting or nuanced character-building, consider writing a screenplay. A 90-120 page script (translating into a 90-120 minute cinematic runtime), can be completed in a fraction of the time as a full-length novel. Ninety percent of a screenplay (more or less) will be dedicated to dialogue. Deep thinking is non-existent (unless exposed through dialogue, or VO, or a few dramatically visualized, emotional cues). Scene-setting is reduced to a few lines of often vague information, and yet sufficient for a director to interpret. Thus:
EXTERIOR. DAY. A FARMHOUSE SITS ON A DISTANT HILLSIDE. BIRDS CHIRP. NEARBY, A SMALL LAKE GLISTENS.
JOHN and MARY walk hand-in-hand down a dirt road toward the lake.
MARY (staring upward)
It’s going to be a scorcher today. But I promised gran’mama that we’d go grocery shopping this afternoon. Her party’s this Wednesday.
JOHN (pointing toward the lake)
I have an idea. The market’s always so crowded on weekends. We’ll be sweating buckets in dad’s old Buick. Let’s stay here instead, splash around and keep cool. We’ll go to the store first thing in the morning. I promise.
You need not bother with your characters’ motivations, or describing the lake or the barn (A red barn? White? Old? New? In a screenplay, it’s not your call, or your problem). Nor do you eavesdrop on Mary’s thoughts, or John’s. If either of them are harboring secrets, that information will come at the appropriate time—most likely through dialogue or exposition. Your observations can be (should be) brief.
A great many decisions exclusively decided by a novelist are in the hands of a director, or a cinematographer or a set-designer. You’re merely providing those folks a viable roadmap. Do understand that a TV or film script is considered a tool, not a complete creative work. A director may dramatically alter your story, change your vision in numerous ways, even hire various script-doctors and/or other writers to fulfill various needs. It’s just part of the process. Film development is a team endeavor. Once the script is complete, a screenwriter simply moves on.
Certainly, pro’s and con’s exist, and should be examined in far more detail than I could ever explain here. (Nor have I ever completed a screenplay, so there’s that!) I highly recommend William Goldman’s Adventures of the Screen Trade. (Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men…so the guy knew what he was doing.) Also check out Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat.
Writing, selling and marketing a script is a whole ‘nother beast, and in a marketplace far different than traditional book publishing. I have a friend who’s optioned a single script three times. When a screenplay is optioned, typically by a production company or lone producer, your story is in limbo. Meaning that your script hasn’t—yet—been outright purchased, but is being held in escrow as that producer’s exclusive property. No other production company or studio can touch it for a fixed amount time (sometimes a year or more), until that producer either commits to film it or releases all rights back to you.
You are, however, paid a stipend (typically 4-figures, occasionally more) for the luxury of waiting—although there’s no guarantee that a producer will find sufficient money and actually begin production. (If so, you’ll sign a contract and be bumped into a 5- or 6-figure compensation.) And finding yourself with an optioned screenplay is certainly better than having no interest at all.) If your script is ultimately rejected, you’re free to put it back on the market. Some scripts will spend a decade or more, bouncing between various production companies, waiting to find the right fit.
Not ready to give up on your current manuscript? Not ready to give up the prospect of being a novelist? One final suggestion. Put the manuscript away for at least two weeks. Maybe a month or more. Allow yourself sufficient time to clear your head, or to formulate new ideas (write a short story or two, perhaps?) and then approach your your manuscript with a newfound thrill and a fresh perspective. Sometimes, that down time can work wonders.
What’s a novel, but a daydream we write down and embellish, expand and hone into something coherent, dramatic and hopefully entertaining?
Sounds simple enough, in theory. But how does one begin? How does one even attempt to begin?* How do so many rudimentary thoughts (Hey, I’ll call this girl Juliette. I’ll name that dude Romeo. They’ll live happily ever—no, wait, I have a better idea!) emerge to produce a provocative story? Maybe we gaze longingly at books like A Game of Thrones, or The Lord of The Rings, the Harry Potter series or The Time Ships, and think WTF!? How do people create such rich, complex, creative narratives? What were they thinking? What were they smoking? I could never begin to craft such an incredibly detailed epic adventure! Until I figure it out, I guess it’s back to watching reruns of The Gilmore Girls.
Well, you won’t know unless you try. Sometimes new or wannabe writers will procrastinate for years, waiting for the right moment (that may never come without that spark of concerted effort.) But it’s far easier, perhaps even more exciting, to fantasize about writing than actually writing. So, yeah, we procrastinate, rebuilding or babysitting our daydreams time and time again inside our heads. And it is procrastination, you know—those unwritten daydreams, those many incidental acts of minutia that feel like writing… (What should I name my characters? I’ve spent months looking through baby-books and still can’t find one I like!) But until you begin actively writing that first page, that first scene, that first chapter, let’s face it, you’re not really “writing.” You’re stuck in idle mode, still awaiting that creative spark, that literary ‘Big Bang.’ (You can rename your characters during or after you finish your first draft, for example. You can begin writing a story in the middle, and work back to the beginning later. You can begin to develop a character or two, or write snippets of dialogue and infuse them into the proper scene later.) But the only way to write a novel is to start a novel, and that is by putting words down on paper. (Or a PC.) Your non-writing hours are either spent actively prepping or researching that eventual book or avoiding that eventual book. And yes, most writers subliminally know the difference. (And if you’re procrastinating, I suspect you do, too.)
Conversely, some new or wannabe novelists—heads filled with so many swirling, exciting possibilities—believe they can plop down one day in front of a notepad or a PC and simply begin to scribble or type out a coherent, fully-developed story. Most of those writers don’t realize that stream of consciousness writing will only get you so far, but then what? Writing a novel requires an incredible amount of strategy, of organization and finesse. And most of us will likely require a working roadmap (seeOutlining) so we don’t lose ourselves along the way. A few lucky writers may be able to simultaneously craft a comprehensive story inside their heads as they write, but that’s an ability most of us do not enjoy.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. One can begin a novel by either illuminating (or alluding to) your plot, or by introducing a character—usually, but not always, a protagonist or antagonist. Since no definitive rules exist on beginning, one can open a novel on virtually anything—although one’s first line/first page should probably have some bearing, directly or indirectly, on one’s story or primary character(s). (See Where To Start.) However, it’s totally up to you. My only suggestion is, make your first line count. Make it relevant, and provocative or subtly revealing. Basically, make it memorable!
As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s fair to say that most novels begin with a single What if? notion or premise. We’ve concocted a vague daydream that seems promising. Or at least interesting. Gee, I wish I could fly. What would I do if I could?What might I accomplish? Or, Linda doesn’t even know I’m alive. If I could only make her notice me! What if…? Or, I love to world build! Dragons and castles and wizards and dark magic! But where do I start my story? What possibly could happen that will interest readers? Hey, what if a young knight bumps his head, develops amnesia and then….? These fragmented notions, in the hands of a creative mind (or in the mind of creative hands), might easily become the core of a superhero thriller or romantic comedy or epic fantasy—or a thousand other fictional possibilities.
But of course, one will need far more potential material than an original, perhaps fuzzy premise (your inciting incident). You’ll need to transcribe your hazy daydream into a linear, logical story line—meaning you’ll need to squeeze those amorphous thoughts into coherent words, sentences and paragraphs.
Your original idea will likely sputter out in 5 or 10 pages. You’ll very quickly need to create entirely new scenes, chapters and ultimately create a compelling, complete story. How do you proceed? Well, you do what every novelist does. You concoct another fantasy—this time with an overt (or discreet) connective thread to your original daydream. Meaning if your first chapter was filled with knights and dragons and damsels in distress, your next chapter probably shouldn’t be about astronauts on their way to Mars. By connective, I mean either a chapter that’s sequential or oppositional, but relevant in theme, tone and rationality to your already developed story line.
For instance, let’s say we’re writing a classic old, shoot-em-up Western. Chapter 1 might be about a young protagonist named Sheriff Bob, who’s arrived in Deadwood to keep the peace. Chapter 2’s about new schoolmarm named Betty Sue, who’s just stepped off the train from Boston. Chapter 3 is about nefarious scoundrel Black Bart, eyeballing the town’s bank. Three distinct, separate (oppositional) stories at this point. Your characters, and their isolated stories, may very well begin independently of one another for several chapters, although sooner or later those three character will most likely meet up—at which point their lives (and your chapters) will become chronologically connected in a coherent, linear (that is, sequential) fashion. Writing linear chapters: A, B, C, D and E, holds infinitely more appeal to readers than disjointed chapters written A, E, C, B and D. (Although never say never, Pulp Fiction fans). Still, for most of us, continuity is imperative.
But back to the problem at hand. Let’s say you’re fresh out of daydreams after a chapter or two. Let’s return to our superhero notion. Since Superman is obviously taken, we’ll call the protagonist of our fictional wisp of an idea Fly-Man. Okay, that’s a little eerie. How about simply Flyboy. As in slang for pilot. Because, oh yeah, Flyboy can fly.
And let’s say your fantasy, the one you’ve been contemplating for a few months now, is simply about an unlikely, lonely teenager. The kid’s bitten by a radioactive housefly (with apologies to Spider-Man) and with his sudden new superpowers, saves Mary Jane Ellen, the cute girl next door (and his secret crush) from being kidnapped by, dunno—space pirates?
So now what? One nifty thing about creative writing is, whatever happens next, that’s totally up to you. Perhaps there’s no direction at all (yet!) screaming to be followed. What’s your gut feeling? What might make an exciting continuation to Flyboy’s infatuation with Mary Jane Ellen, after his daring, Chapter 1 rescue?
So maybe she falls in love with Flyboy, unaware that he’s really her shy, lovelorn next-door neighbor. That’s an option, although one that may be best served coming later in the book. Or maybe she’s knocked unconscious during Flyboy’s rescue and doesn’t have a clue what happened? Or perhaps, in Chapter 2, we decide to further develop our story’s antagonist, the sinister space pirate named Rodney.
So your next daydream fantasy might be, with his kidnap plan thwarted, how does Space Rodney best plan his revenge on the unsuspecting Flyboy?
You’re creating a reaction (Rodney’s revenge) to the original action of the failed kidnap attempt. And Chapter 3 then becomes Flyboy’s reaction to Space Rodney’s subsequent action… and this action/reaction sequence continues until you find a suitable place, 300-400 pages hence, to end the book. (See Action/Reaction.)
Can’t think of any new, suitable daydreams? Sure you can. If you’ve thought of one, you can do it again (and again, and again). Because that’s the only way to write a novel—layer upon layer of creative ideas, creating sufficient suspense and excitement to go the 300-400 page distance.** So stay curious. Stay creative. Use your imagination. Discover the joys of Outlining… because that’s the absolutely best way to get unstuck, whenever cerebral stickiness sticks. .
* Don’t know where to start? See the appropriately named Where To Start.
** While one’s daydreams should be linear, this doesn’t mean that you must write scenes or chapters sequentially. It’s okay to create various puzzle pieces out of sequence—and piece them together as your later daydreams catch up with your earlier efforts. One need not start on line one, page one. Begin wherever you feel the excitement flowing, and connect the dots later. .
The Pillars of Success: . . . .The Fundamentals of . . . . . . . .a Successful Novel
An athlete must be fast and agile. A scientist curious and logical. A watch-maker nimble fingered and methodical. A comedian funny. So what exactly are those attributes that a writer must possess to become a published author? Is there a single, foolproof, absolute secret to a newbie writer’s impending success? If so, nobody’s told me. However, a few fundamental qualities, either designed by nature (an innate instinct) or nurture (the process of learning) are probably well worth knowing before you embark on your journey.
These quasi-laws of Literary Physics—the so-called pillars of success—can serve as cues as to who may be more likely to publish a novel. If lacking one or more of these qualities, are you doomed to never finish or sell a novel? Should you stop writing? Not if you love doing so. Best-sellers have been occasionally written by steadfast, tenacious, pillar-lite souls, despite the odds. And, by all means, give it your best shot. You have my blessing to prove the odds-makers wrong.
Those Pesky Pillars.
Ah, but I digress. Pillars. Depending upon who you ask, three or four such pillars exist. A fifth may provide the proverbial ace up your sleeve and the sixth is a bona fied soul crusher. The problem is, not everyone agrees as to what these pillars actually might be. If you Google the pillars of successful writing, you’ll get an eyeful. I’ve found (in a snappy 0.0874 seconds) the following assumptions:
Ethos, Pathos, Logos. Aristotle, the old Greek dude, coined the original foundations of persuasive communication. Ethos, meaning credibility and acceptance (the readers) of your fictional reality. Pathos, meaning emotion. Drama. Tension. Make it larger than life (if only subliminally), and keep it coming. Logos, meaning logic. Logical characters. Logical story arcs. Because illogical writing makes for weak, unimpressive and occasionally stupid novels.
Variations on this theme are: Aspiration. Inspiration. Perspiration. (Clever! And, yes, all necessary elements.)
Theory, Practice and Consumption. (Theory meaning learning the craft. Practice meaning practice. Constantly. Consumption meaning knowledge. Read novels. Read non-fiction. Read how-to primers. Immerse yourself in all things literary.)
Know your audience. (What’s your genre?) Have a purpose. (Your novel’s message). Adjusting style. (Your writer’s voice). Repeating the Process. (Practice. Write often.)
Concept. (A writer’s idea, premise and plot.) Conflict. (Drama. Always.) Characters. (A fully developed protagonist, fully developed antagonist, fully developed extras.) Theme. (The reason you’re telling the story. There’s always a reason, even if we ourselves are unaware when we begin.)
Plot. Character. Setting.(Ah, this one sounds familiar…although more likely story-based components, rather than a success-based adage, imho. But no less important.)
Emotion. Logic. Credibility.
Mindset. Environment. Tools.
…and the list goes on. Our pillar-theories may vary (we theoretical pillarists), but our intentions are both admirable and identical: The ultimate success of the writer. So, with that in mind, I’ve included my own blend of literary pillarizing. Although I am suggesting a slight twist. I’ve even drawn a Venn Diagram to explain (…a picture being worth a thousand words, after all). .
So let’s dissect this pillary thing, shall we?
The Internal Factors.
• Talent (An innate, inborn capability to concoct and produce a well-written novel).Talent is that inherent ability to tell an interesting story in a unique voice. And then to impress agents and/or publishers with a sterling query. Like chess masters, divas, athletes and multi-platinum singers, you’re either born with a certain talent or you’re not. Me, for instance. I love music. Learned to play guitar—badly. Practiced daily for years, but never broke out of that meh! stage. The mathematics of music confounded me. (Change keys from G to B-flat? Whaaaa?) I also have a singing voice like a frog in a rainstorm. So no, no amount of dedication was ever going to help. We all can’t be everything we want to be. Just sayin’. Then again, everything we might become is certainly worth a shot. This attribute is inborn; out of your control or your ability to learn.
• Craft (Technique. Absorbing information. Trial-and-error. Attempting to establish an authorial voice.). Craftsmanship is your ability to learn and develop the rules and mechanics of writing. It means perusing ‘how to’ books on grammar, plotting, narration and dramatic pacing. It means perhaps taking classes or joining a writer’s workshop (which I highly recommend). Or finding employment in a writing-based job—copy writing, advertising, journalism. Or reading manuscripts. Teaching English or Literature. Me? I was a newspaper film critic for several years with a strict 750-word ceiling. Man, that job taught me more about self-editing, about whittling down excess verbiage and getting to the point, and greatly honed my writing abilities. Sometimes it means starting a novel or two, if only to fully develop the necessary knowledge to write a novel that sells. Write until you find your own personal, authorial voice, and then write some more. Realize that it’s okay, perhaps even essential, to blunder, to learn from your mistakes, and then keep writing. This attribute can be taught and learned.
• Skill (Competence, Expertise, Finesse, Finding your voice). Skill is your ability to realize your potential (an infusion of self-confidence), and then utilize that expertise to its fullest extent. Skill is what results from learning your craft up, down, and sideways, inside and out. Skill is basically Craft 2.0! This attribute can be taught and learned, but ultimately it’s a personal choice to educate yourself until you’re all but assured of eventual success.
• Patience (Determination, Perseverance, Practice). There’s no other way to finish a novel than to begin. By writing a single line, an infectious opening paragraph, a fully developed first page, you’re making a psychological pact with yourself—that you and your brain are in this for the long run. You’re here for the whole enchilada. Writing a novel is like raising a kid: Less sleep, fewer weekends down at the disco, lots of self-doubt and even a little self-pity. (A little is okay. You’re a struggling artisan after all.) You may be constantly apologizing to friends and family for your prolonged absence. You’re committing yourself because you know you’re competent and talented, even though nobody (yet) may recognize those talents. You’re aware that thousands of other novice writers exist with similar dreams—and if they have a shot, so do you. So you take the leap.Write a page, then another, then another…because that’s the only way home. This sort of inner drive can’t be taught or learned—and may take years of practice and dedication.
* The Sweet Spot.(That tiny white diamond in the middle of the diagram.) If one has the talent, craft, skill and patience to finish a manuscript and begin to pitch the book, the chances of finding an agent or publisher are typically far better than those writers who find themselves lacking in one or more arenas. (If you do find yourself lacking, doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and grow and, in time, prosper.) Which only leaves a single potential speedbump standing between you and Stephen Kingdom—and that’s luck. But read on….
The External Factors.
• Connections (It’s who you know and who knows you). This one may feel a bit disingenuous—but the simple fact is, nepotism and associatism exist and, by all means, if you got it, use it. Is your uncle an editor at Macmillan? That one’s a slam dunk! If you know somebody who knows somebody who works at Simon & Schuster (even in the mail room), or if your great aunt used to date a literary agent in Tuscon—yes! Follow the bread trail. You never know.
P.S.: If you have no connections, and you’re one of those charming extroverts, capable of perfecting your own bow tie, of making a marvelous (shaken, not stirred) Martini, who’s proficient at making friends and connections wherever you go (and if so, good for you) thengo for it! As they say in Hollywood, schmooze ’til you lose!
• Luck (Rolling the cosmic dice). This one’s the looming nightmare, the nasty, giggling gremlin who pervades every writer’s hopes and dreams of a book sale. Luck is fickle, unorthodox and totally unpredictable. If your exquisitely written manuscript lands on an agent’s desk who’s hungover or is having marital problems, you may be inexplicably overlooked. A publisher’s assistant who’s going on vacation tomorrow? Same results. Your e-mail query ends up in a junk mail folder. Maybe your insanely well-written novel reminds an assistant editor of a less adept novel that crossed her desk last month, which was nevertheless accepted and that fortunate writer has just signed a contract for a juicy royalty and certain fame. Or maybe you’ve somehow overlooked a typo on page one. (I’ve done that!) It’s sufficient to turn potential good luck to unfortunate, rotten luck.
Speaking of rotten luck, I’ve known a few fiction writers who’ve lost manuscripts in hard-drive crashes, and (of course) the backup’s been corrupted and…well, shit does happen. Aware of Coronal Mass Ejections? Y’know, those giant plasmatic, magnetic fields occasionally spit from the Sun? A lightweight solar flare will cause a pretty aurora. A direct hit from a heavyweight magnetic distortion can potentially fry power grids. Electronic files can (theoretically, at least) be damaged or erased by such an incident. So here’s a new rule. Maybe one of the most important. Rule #98: Make a hard copy (paper) back-up of your manuscript every now and then, even if you’re still working in draft mode.See Finagle’s (aka Murphy’s) Law. But brace yourself.
Here’s a fitting, random comment about blind, stupid luck. Years ago, producers greenlit a film about John Lennon’s life (John and Yoko: A Love Story). The gifted actor chosen to portray Lennon was named Mark Lindsay Chapman. Lennon’s killer was named Mark David Chapman. Yoko Ono so freaked out at the eerily unlikely coincidence that another actor was ultimately recruited to replace him. True story. Bad luck. It exists.
The Hierarchy of Competence
Whether writing a novel or attempting to learn (and master) any of life’s million or so teachable lessons, there’s a savvy little social model that may explain the ‘Pillar Approach’ in somewhat different terms. American Filmmaker Noel Burch’s The Hierarchy of Competence dictates: .
Unconscious Incompetence: Meaning that I’m unaware of a particular skill, or of any necessity to even utilize that skill. (Johnny doesn’t know the difference between a noun and a verb, nor does he care. But, hey, he’s just read a good book and the author’s raking in some pretty big bucks. Johnny rationalizes that anyone can write a novel and make a fortune. It’s not that difficult, right?) .
Conscious Incompetence: I’m becoming aware of a need for a particular skill, and the rationale for learning the appropriate lessons, but nahhh, I can probably get along by faking it. (After scribbling out 5 atrocious pages, Johnny’s confused and angry to realize that he knows very little about writing a novel.And yet, he persists.) By the way, the persistent part? That’s every writer’s make or break moment—the decision to practice and learn and, hopefully, to go the distance, is crucial. .
Conscious Competence: I’ve learned a thing or two about a particular craft and, hey, maybe I’m not half bad. But I’m aware there’s lots more info to absorb. (Johnny understands the basics of plotting and the fundamentals of fiction writing by now. He’s read Strunk & White. He’s read Bird By Bird. He deconstructs novels that he’s read and likes—trying to figure out what ‘makes them tick.’ He’s even signed up for a creative writing class. Sure, he believes he’s pretty good at writing, but he knows he could be better. Time to read a few more ‘how to’ books and then it’s back to the keyboard. Or sharpen that pencil.) .
Unconscious Competence: After a few years—yup, years—of practice, of trial-and-error, of finishing a dozen short stories that receive good feedback, I’m becoming a skilled writer, in total control (and harmony) with my talent and craft. (Johnny sits down in front of a computer and new worlds unfold before his eyes. He realizes that the act of writing—drafting, composing, editing—is no longer drudgery and anguish, but has recently become a labor of love. Sure, occasional moments of self-doubt, of lethargy and uncertainty may linger, and yet with utmost confidence, Johnny begins his novel. He’s certain he will finish. His thoughts afire, his fingers dance over the keyboard, working in nearly effortless tandem. (Because, yes, those moments do exist.)
Bottom line: Don’t let anyone—not me, certainly not this post—dissuade you from trying. From persisting. Write your freakin’ ass off, until you succeed or something better comes along. So if I can leave you with anything, it’s this:
I’ve been hanging out in Reddit.com/r/writing for a few years now, lurking and occasionally offering comments and suggestions (as u/writer-dude) to new, struggling and/or curious writers. What I’ve discovered on Reddit are many of the same concerns and issues that I’ve confronted while editing clients’ manuscripts. Typically, I can help direct foundering, confused and sidelined writers by presenting modest solutions to these five most prevalent obstacles. Often times, a writer can self-identify (and overcome) those same roadblocks and pitfalls. However, for anyone who might feel lost in the fog, let me point you in the right direction. In order of increasing concern:
5.Overcoming Inhibitions.The fear of failure is real. So is the fear of success. A fear of ridicule. The fear of isolation (AKA ‘eeking out sufficient writing time’). The fear of upsetting friends or family. A fear of not writing a perfect novel…. the list of potential obstacles is quite lengthy. Some call it ‘writer’s block’. Or procrastination. Or ‘waiting for inspiration.’ The real reason(s) for not writing likely has deeper psychological and/or emotional roots. (But this condition is curable!) Is this you?LOOK HERE.
4.How to write effective (or scintillating) dialogue.Don’t know?LOOKHERE
3.Overcoming one’s own ineptitude.Don’t have a clue how to write a novel, but starting out anyway? Afraid you’ll never have what it takes to start or finish? The best way to learn is actually to begin writing. You need not begin a novel or a short story, simply write what comes to to mind. Experiment and explore. Make mistakes and discover ways to improve. However, comprehending the fundamentals of being an author (LOOKHERE), as well as digesting Filmmaker Noel Burch’s The Hierarchy of Competence, can be an essential guideline to perfecting your craft.
2. Plowing helter-skelter through one’s plot with little regard for scene-setting (equally as important) and character-development (ditto). A great novel should seamlessly blend plot momentum with sufficient scene-setting (where/when/why are we in this particular scene?) and character-development (or else why should we care about these uninteresting people?) Unsure?LOOK HERE.
1.Getting Stuck.The most prevalent obstacle (by far) is a novice writer beginning a novel (or story) but very quickly becoming mired in the enormity of such a venture. Many newbies have a vague idea or a partial concept in mind and begin to write in earnest—sometimes 3 pages, sometimes 30—but then what? Once the inciting incident (usually a novel’s opening) plays out, how does one proceed to create an entire, enticing, integral book-length manuscript?
Maybe you sincerely yearn to write a novel. Let’s say that you have a nifty premise about a giant meteor hurling toward Earth. So you create a nice scenario—a young protagonist who’s perhaps an amateur astronomer and who discovers that pinprick of light hurling toward our planet. (The inciting incident in the 1998 flick Deep Impact, BTW.)
Great start! Good impending drama… But suddenly, a whole new world of possibility is in your hands. So many options. So many tentacles. Will the meteor strike? Will it miss? Will we send astronauts into space with nukes? Or launch a rag-tag team of unlikely geologists to save the world (a la Armageddon)? How does once successfully stitch together a coherent, dramatic, conclusive tale? When you find yourself stymied or cornered or fresh out of new ideas, and you’re still midway through Chapter 1, sometimes writing those next 300-400 pages can feel insurmountable.
See? I told you we’d be back to this one. And while I continue to realize the concept might feel like a giant snoozefest to some writers, outlining is possibly the greatest assurance you have if hoping to finish an unwieldy or foundering novel. Outlining feels hardly creative. Hardly inspirational. More like a math quiz than following the authorial dream. You’re putting your fun-loving, creative Right Brain aside and, fore the moment, relying on your organizational, rational Left Brain to take over. Bummer, right? Well, not necessarily.…
Outlining your plot is far more a creative endeavor than you might think. Pondering possible pathways or solutions to problems issues that pop up mid- or late-book can open amazing new possibilities: new characters and/or character traits, new sub-plots, added drama—ideas that the writer had not previously conceived. Outlining can also reveal potential wrong turns or dead-ends in your story line. And ’tis better to delete a few pages of quick notes than 50 pages of text.
Speaking of quick notes, some writers will jot down a dozen quick thoughts, the barest wisp of a road map that they’re able to follow. Others will agonize over a very precise, quite plump outline—a methodical, step-by-step synopsis. Whatever your style, by all means, go for it. Whatever best points your brain in the right direction. (Me? I’ll start off with a 5 or 6 page outline. By my final draft, that outline has grown to maybe 20-30 pages of additional notes.) However, do realize that an outline is simply a guideline—FYEO. You need not add color or drama or emotion. You need not create a work of art; you’re simply jotting down enough info to spark your creative juices. Here’s a for-instance.
Let’s say you’re writing an adventure novel about a down-on-his-luck loner named Paul, who eventually discovers a gold mine…and then must defend his fortune from various marauders and modern-day pirates. You’ve already written a good 30-50 pages with relative ease and, in a funk, your hapless protagonist is at the end of his rope. Paul’s wife and dog have dumped him for some rich guy living in Greenwich Village. His bank account has fallen to single digits and the mortgage is past due. With nothing left to lose, Paul puts all his belongings in a brown paper bag, jumps into his old, rusting Studebaker and, and…and then what?
Maybe that’s as far as you’ve thought ahead. But once Paul’s on the highway, Paul’s options (and yours) become muddled and confused. This way or that way? So you sit and think, ponder and process, until—wisely!—you begin to jot out a few possible ‘quick-sketch’ scenarios that occur on the poor guy’s Westward sojourn. Any number of them might look like this:
• Midway through the Mojave desert, Paul’s car breaks down on a desolate 2-lane highway.
• He waves down a delapidated VW van, but the two stoners inside rob him of his last few dollars.Nah, too predicable.
• After an hour waiting for any sign of life, an old relic of a school bus sputters into view. Paul waves desperately at the approaching vehicle.
• The driver, an old, toothless guy named Benny, affably waves him aboard. Bennie appears slightly drunk, but Paul sees no other options.
• Cackling insanely, Benny begins to tell Paul a story about an abandoned mine a few miles ahead, at the end of some obscure dirt road. He shows Paul a crumpled, 100 year old treasure map and tells him he’s on his way to search for a chest of gold.
•Benny pulls a 300-year-old gold-piece from his pocket as evidence of the fortune. Nope. This would be telegraphing their success. Let readers wonder if Benny’s really crazy, and the gold’s simply a hallucination.
• With nothing to lose, and intrigued by the old guy’s story, Paul tells Benny he’ll help look for the treasure.
So your outline is really just a series of quick reminders of how you might want to finish your story, scene by scene…with the opportunity to eliminate any possible wrong turns. (I actually jot additional notes to myself, and in RED, reminding my brain why certain scenes might not work and why. Saves myself from second-guessing my rationale, a week or month from now.)
I allow myself to break my own rules myself. For instance, let’s say I’m visualizing old Benny telling Paul about this rumored gold mine. As the scene’s playing out in my mind, a vital dialogue between the maniacal Benny and the wary Paul comes to mind. Absolutely go with it. Write it down and stick the scene in a folder for eventual use. Creativity seldom arrives in chronological order.
“There’s more’n a hun’erd million rumored to be at the bottom of that dagblasted ol’ mine,” Benny said with a solemn nod.
“Rumored?” Paul asked, casting the old man a sidelong glance.
“Well, nobody’s ever seen it, I reckon. But I’ve heard plenty o’ stories to know it’s there. An’ I’ve come to claim it as my own.”
“You have a map,” Paul said.
“Well, yeah, sorta. I kinda drawed it up myself, based on all them rumors I been hearing. Based on absolute facts, mind you.”
“The best kind,” Benny admitted with a cackle…
Sure, there may be times when snippets of my outline become part of my first draft, and eventually become part of the finished manuscript, if the thoughts are coherent enough. So if you find yourself leaving ‘outline mode’ and actually writing a profound scene or bit of dialogue, go for it. Sometimes creativity sparks where and you when least expect it.
When outlining, there’s no need to write every word in chronological order. (Some writers insist upon this sort of organized logic, and if that’s how your mind works, it’s perfectly okay!) However, my brain isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, so my outline—like my subsequent early drafts—may gradually coalesce in bits and pieces, and sometimes in an outlandishly random order. I usually conceive my final chapter long before I’m too far into my story, so I’ll write it out as soon as the ideas come. The nice thing about having a solid ending outlined or drafted, one tends to make fewer wrong turns…knowing exactly how, why and where the plot and characters need to be to reach that final page.
Also, note that outlining need not be a complete, beginning-to-end procedure. Often times I’ll outline a few scenes or chapters ahead, then write my draft until I catch up—and then repeat the procedure again. Basically, the art and science of outlining is: Whatever works best for you.
Okay, so end of the Outlining sermon. Either you’ll give it a try, or you won’t. (As always, s’up to you!) But mark my words, Missy… you’ll be back. On their hands and knees, they always come back.