Avoiding A Trio Of Traps Writers Set For Themselves
By Angela Knight
When I was nine years old, I realized I wanted to be a novelist.
In the 30 years that followed, I started work on countless novels. I began each filled with creative passion for some wonderful premise and the lively characters that went with it.
Yet each and every one of those books died on the vine, usually after only 40 or 50 pages. It was unbelievably frustrating, and I grew to see myself as hopelessly blocked.
All that changed last year when I completed two novels – one 45,000 words, the other 100,000. Red Sage, a small press company, will publish both in the next year or so.
All that new productivity was not a result of my gaining some skill or knowledge I’d never had before.
No, it was simply that after 30 years, I finally stopped sabotaging my own efforts.
I suspect that, like me, many publishable writers are their own psychic saboteurs, falling into traps they construct for themselves.
A couple of factors played a key role in my sudden ability to avoid those traps.
First was my new job as reporter at a daily paper. The second was a novella for Red Sage’s Secrets anthology that had such a short deadline I was forced to abandon self-destructive habits.
Combined, these two factors helped me identify a trio of traps I’d fallen into for years, and learn how to avoid them.
The Myth of the Muse.
Writers like to talk about the muse – that sublime rush of inspiration that sends the work flowing in a single, shining stream.
For a long time, I believed I couldn’t work unless my muse had already provided me with a scene in detail, so that I knew every word I was going to write before I even sat down at the computer. That meant that when inspiration failed to put in an appearance, I didn’t work.
But four years of reporting for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal quickly taught me that the muse is a myth.
Newspaper deadlines don’t care whether you feel inspired, and neither do city desk editors. You have to go out, get the information, come back and write it up.
I don’t care if you’re feeling exhausted and emotionally battered from interviewing the hysterical mother of a murder victim, you’ve got to put your butt in the chair and write that story by deadline.
They call it "news" because it’s new. The next day isn’t good enough.
At first, I lived in terror that I’d never be able to finish the story in time. Yet somehow I always did. And remarkably, I even did a pretty good job.
The ruthless discipline of writing for a daily paper taught me I could write even when I didn’t have the faintest idea of what to say. Somehow, the words always came – because they had to.
Soon I found that writing fiction grew easier, too.
I’d been in the habit of sweating blood for every single paragraph of prose. But after years of struggling to explain school board budgets, fictional narratives began to seem relatively simple.
Fiction usually runs in a straight line – this happened, then this happened. With a newspaper story, you have to identify the most important aspect of the story, then explain it clearly and concisely. After that, you have to relate and explain the next most important thing, and on down the line.
True, the elements of fiction are far more complex than simply relating information – the construction of characters, plot and conflict are highly demanding.
But they’re also a product of pure creativity.
They come out of your head, rather than being information you have to pry out of people who don’t want to tell you anything.
In time I discovered that if I put my butt in the chair to work on my novel, the words would come. Just like when I wrote news.
I began to wonder why the creative process had always been so difficult to me.
After I thought about it, I began to realize what had happening.
According to recent neurological research, creativity occurs in a non-verbal part of the brain that thinks in images.
That’s the same part of the brain that dreams, that processes emotion and understands art.
The verbal part of the brain that comprehends and uses language – the part of the brain we writers use – must take those images and interpret them.
Unfortunately, scientists say the creative thinking process that goes on in the non-verbal brain is not accessible to that verbal, conscious mind. If the verbal mind questions and resists those images, creativity becomes impossible.
I began to succeed as a fiction writer only when I learned to trust my own creativity and use what it gave me, even when I had no conscious knowledge of where the idea was going.
I realized that though my verbal mind didn’t know what was going to happen, that deeper mind did, and it had a plan.
Once I began to take what I was given and just run with it, the words came more easily and it became possible to finish that 400-page manuscript.
But I also found there was more to trusting my creativity than letting it spin the plot. And that brings me to the second of those three traps that can sabotage a writer’s work.
As writers, we know that our sentences must be polished. After all, we’ve all read prose so gorgeous that the words have a kind of seductive, jeweled sheen. Every writer instinctively longs to achieve that lovely effect, but we also know it takes hard work and a harsh, critical eye.
- Every Word Must be Spun Gold.
That’s how I fell into the habit of obsessive rewriting.
There was one book I came so close to finishing – I was only about 100 pages from the end of a 400-page novel.
But I rewrote it until it became the fictional equivalent of baby food – bland, pre-masticated gruel, utterly without texture. God, I can’t even stand to think about that book, much less touch it.
That’s what happens when you’re not willing to trust your creativity to deliver the next five pages you know you should be writing. You’re sitting at your computer and nothing’s happening; so you figure you might as well go read what you’ve already written and hope some idea sparks.
But what happens is you activate the editor in your verbal mind – the part that says, "That sentence is really clumsy," or "that word doesn’t work."
That’s just what you need in the second draft, when you’re trying to get the book into publishable shape.
But it’s the kiss of death when you’re trying to encourage your creative brain to generate 400 pages of brand-new material.
Because once the editor gets going, it starts questioning those creative images – "Does that make sense?" "Is that logical?"
As one famous novelist once noted, an over-anxious mental editor is virtually guaranteed to make the creative brain go on strike.
To take up the slack, the mental editor starts trying to create the rest of your story. But the editor is not creative, so what it wants to give you is every cliche you’ve ever read, every hackneyed plot idea that ever made you groan.
I did this for years, coming up with good ideas only to edit them to death by rewriting the first chapter over and over again. Finally I’d end up sick of the book and convinced that it was no good.
Worse, I’d convince myself I was no good either. That’s an even bigger problem, because if a writer doesn’t believe in herself, she’ll never succeed.
Even so, somehow I did manage to turn out two novellas; 100 pages of good copy was about all I could manage. Red Sage published them in 1996 and 1997 to decent reviews.
Last year I called my publisher with an idea for another novella I really wanted to write.
She told me, "That sounds good. You’ve got a month."
Well, I knew I had to write the book fast, and I didn’t have time for obsessive rewrites. So I just made myself write six pages a day, each and every morning. I finished it in a month, did a couple of rewrites, and stuck it in the mail.
That story, "A Candidate for the Kiss" was published in Secrets Volume 6 in December.
In February, "Candidate" won the PEARL award for Best Short Story from an Internet paranormal readers group with 500 members.
In any case, the whole experience was so different from my usual ugly angst that I decided to try the same approach again. So I wrote the next two books the same way.
I finished the first 400-page draft of a paranormal novel, then immediately wrote the first draft for a 160-page book. Then, and only then, did I do rewrites. I did two on each book, then turned them in.
True, both novels still need work. I just got the revision letter for the short novel, which says there are several places where the emotional motivation should be better developed. I also need to do some foreshadowing for a really neat plot twist that just suddenly popped out of nowhere halfway through the book.
But I know how to rewrite and clean up my prose, so I’m confident that I can solve the problems my editor pointed out.
Which pinpoints the problem that lies at the core of both the traps I’ve named.
Or rather, a lack of it.
Over all those years of never finishing anything, I’d done a good job of convincing myself that I was a lousy writer.
But when I submitted "Roarke’s Prisoner" to Secrets Volume 2, publisher Alexandria Kendall called me up and told me she loved it.
My next story for her, "Blood and Kisses," was a critical success, particularly among readers on Amazon.com. I’d go on line and read comments like, "Buy Secrets Volume 3 just for ‘Blood and Kisses.’"
At that point, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t suck.
Once that tiny flame of self-confidence began to burn, it was easier to trust myself to do a good job.
I realize, however, that there is a kind of Catch-22 in that advice. To get published, you have to have confidence. To have confidence, you need to get published.
However, remember that there’s published and then there’s published.
The Internet can be a great way to self-publish. Write short stories – even if they’re just fan fiction about Buffy the Vampire Slayer or whatever your passion is -- and post them, then listen to the feedback you get.
True, often readers have no idea of the technical problems in your work, but you can at least tell if you’re on the right track. And a little positive reinforcement can make a big difference in giving you the courage to send your work out to major publishers.
Another possibility is one of the critique groups that flourish on the ‘net. Not only does joining a critique group get you readers who know at least something about the craft, it gives you the chance to read other people’s work.
You can learn just as much from things that don’t quite work in someone else’s fiction as from the things that do work. By seeing what they do that doesn’t fly, you’ll know what to avoid in your own stuff.
Now, none of that is easy, and none of it is quick.
But if you’re really going to be a writer, you’ll keep at it. You won’t be able to quit.
Why do you think I’m still at it after 30 years?