Saturday night, I had the chance to a speak to a NaNoWriMo group. (For those in the non-writing crowd, that’s National Novel Writing Month.) We talked about a lot of things, but one thing that we discussed has stuck with me since. The question was asked, “What advice can you give us that will help us push through writing 50,000 words in a month?”
Of course there are many answers relating to outlining, plotting, perseverance, etc. But the thing that occurred to me first is belief. As an author, you are going to have to sell your work to a lot of people. You sell it to your agent, your agent sells it to an editor, the editor sells it to the committee, the publisher sells it to the reps, who sell it to . . .
You get the idea. All along this path there is not only the chance—but the likelihood—of multiple rejections. Unless you are the very rare exception, you are going to have people tell you, “This story did not work for me.” How are you going to react to that?
Depends on what you believe. When I was twelve, my family moved from the bay area of northern California, to New Jersey. I wasn’t the most confident kid, and for whatever reason, moving to the East Coast only exacerbated the problem. By the time I started high school, I had almost no friends, and lost myself in books. I believed I was quiet at best, and probably a loser. Does it surprise you that most everyone I knew looked at me the same way?
Fast forward to the summer before my junior year. My family moved back to California—San Jose to be exact. I was painfully shy, and had very little confidence. But an odd thing happened. The second day of school , everyone in drama had to try out for the Fall play. Amazingly, I landed the male lead in the Woody Allen play, “Don’t Drink the Water.” I was the exact same kid I had been three months before. I didn’t grow six inches, or learn to dance, or discover I sparkled in the sun. But getting that part flipped a switch inside me. I viewed myself differently. I wasn’t the shy, quiet boy, who always had his head in a book and got beat up way too many times to count. I was the guy who got the lead. I was part of a group. Because I believed in myself, other people believed in me too.
Writing is a funny thing. The creation of a story is done in the most private of places—your head. But then you have to take it out in the bright sunlight and show it to people who often will tell you, “Meh,”, and much, much, worse. How much, “meh” can you take before you start looking at your own work and saying, “They’re right. This stinks. I’m a lousy writer?” And once you tell yourself that, how long can you keep on writing? And if you do keep writing, how much can your own voice come through?
Good writing requires confidence. It requires forgetting what the “good” writer in your critique group sounds like. It requires ignoring the voice inside you that warns you to you’ll never be as good as the writer of the book on your nightstand. Good writing requires a belief in yourself that nothing can shake. A belief so strong that even when your writing feels like it’s not the best, you keep going. If you believe in yourself enough, you’ll stop trying to copy whatever you just read and listen to the voice inside you.
So how to you start believing in yourself, when the voices inside you have some serious doubts? Here are a couple of ideas.
1) Stop comparing your first draft to the polished novel by the best-selling author you love. For one thing, that best-selling author probably wrote some crap before they got that good. For another thing, the book had three, four, or a dozen rewrites. It went through some of the best editors money can buy. Comparing your work to a best-selling novel is like comparing a chunk of rock to a polished diamond.
2) Give yourself permission to write some crap. You are not going to paint a masterpiece the first time you pick up a paint brush. So why should your first manuscript be the one that sells for a million dollars? Unless you’ve produced some garbage, you won’t be able to recognize the good stuff when you write it. The person who goes back and rewrites every chapter to death, will never finish a novel. And the person who does not finish their novel, can never make it better. The time will come when you can sit down and write a couple thousand words and say, “Yep, that’s pretty good stuff.” But it won’t come without practice.
3) Go to Goodreads or some other book review site and find a scathing review of an author you admire. Print it out and put it on the wall next to your desk.
4) Beside the review print out a page of your very best work. Every time you start to feel depressed, look at the bad review and remind yourself that no one can please everyone. Then read your page and remind yourself that the person who wrote that has real talent.
5) Give yourself permission to skip a section or a chapter when things aren’t working. Stuck on what should happen after the butler find the dead body? Write a placeholder that says something like, “Put something really cool here.” Then move on to the chapter you do know. Pretty soon an idea will come for what should go back where you put the note.
6) Don’t set word goals when you are struggling. Set scene goals. If I told you that you had an hour to write a thousand words right now, could you do it? Would you feel pressure? If you only wrote 700 words would you feel like a failure? What if I told you to write a scene where a boy and girl discover that their father has been killing and eating their pet rabbits. If I gave you enough details and dialogue, could you write it? Do the same with your work in progress. Instead of saying, “I will write 1500 words,” decide exactly the scene you want to write. Sit at your desk and see the scene in your mind. Then write it to the best f your ability.
7) Finally, find what works for you and stick with it. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that starting a chapter cold is like starting a bike ride in 12th gear at the base of a hill. It’s much easier to get going if you have a little start first. Same with writing. Instead of stopping when you finish a chapter, write two hundred more words while you’re in a groove. That will give you a head start when you sit back down the next day.
Writing can be a tough business. None of the questions are right or wrong, and all the “teachers” grade on different things. For every gold star placed on your forehead, you’ll find a dozen red check marks on your paper. You are going to have people who tell you you stink—and maybe you even do, we all stink at times. But if you can sell yourself on the fact that you are a writer who will one day be published, sooner or later other people will believe it too.