Today we have a special guest on the blog! I hope you enjoy this pep talk from best-selling author Erin Healy as much as I did. Be inspired and be encouraged!
When I’m writing a book, the most common obstacle I face isn’t writer’s block. It’s the fear that of all the creative choices set before me, I might select the one that’s least effective. Should I kill off this character or keep him alive? Should that character be a liar or a truth-teller? Should this event take place during the night or the day? Should this scene rely on dialog or narrative? Should I tell the story in the first person or third person, past tense or present? And on and on. I’ll make a tentative commitment, move ahead, then get to the middle and freeze: surely I made the wrong choice a hundred pages ago, and that’s how I wrote myself into this terrible disaster of indecision yet again! Really, few of us writers are short of ideas. If you’re like me, there are so many possibilities competing for our favor that the page doesn’t remain blank for lack of words, but for lack of a confident decision. If we turn right we might end up with an entirely different story than if we turn left—and what if, after all, that publisher or editor or agent we’re trying to woo really wanted us to turn left? Or forget the others—what if we get to the end and find that wereally wish we had turned left after all? When you’re writing under a tight deadline, hitting the daily word counts is important. You can’t afford to have too many blank-page days. Here are a few freeing principles I try to keep in mind to keep words flowing.
- Think positively. Any creative choice is a doorway to a new, undiscovered set of opportunities. Instead of categorizing these as “right” or “wrong” ask yourself, “What opportunities does that choice set up for my character, my plot, my themes, that wouldn’t exist otherwise?” You might have to write into the choice a ways before you find the answer. But the answer will shed light on the value of your decision.
- Resist jellyfish doubt. Self-doubt is healthy so long as it prods you to keep improving your work. Good doubt leads to inspiration—energized excitement to change course or chase a new idea. Bad doubt wraps its paralyzing jellyfish tentacles around your brain and makes you want to sink into the watery depths of despair. If bad doubt has you in its grip, fight it. Do whatever you have to do to keep swimming toward air. In other words, keep writing through the doubt with whatever your last good idea was. Trust me: either that idea will prove itself truly good, or a better idea will eventually present itself as inspired.
- Write your quota. No matter what. This can be a helpful exercise even when you’re not under a deadline. On some days, when nothing seems to be working, writing to hit a word count may be the best thing you can do. Sure, sometimes breakthroughs happen when you get up and walk away for a time, but this is dangerous for me. I might walk away, miss the breakthrough, and never return. I find that breakthroughs happen more often when I just keep writing, even if I don’t have confidence in any of it.
- Embrace your predicament. Give yourself permission to explore your novel like you’re in foreign country without a map, money, or interpreter. Wander like a person who doesn’t need to be rescued. Investigate the country lanes and side alleys. Make some embarrassing mistakes. Learn to laugh about them. Stories benefit from creative minds open to adventure and discovery. I started writing thinking I was an organized plotter but have found more freedom in a space between the plotter and “pantser” methods of writing.
- Sin boldly. Few choices you make in life are permanent. Is there any choice you make in novel writing that can’t be changed or redeemed? Not in my experience. Pick something. Write it. Change it later if you don’t like it, even if that means starting all over again.
- Write without regret. No time spent writing is wasted time, even if that page, that scene, that book is never published. This is the work of a novelist: not to spin out perfect first drafts, but to mine the depths of skill in places that no one else sees it, and to emerge, however coal-dusted, with the diamonds.
Erin Healy is a best-selling novelist and long-time fiction editor. She is the author of The Baker’s Wife (now available) and House of Mercy (coming in August). She loves to interact with writers and readers, so stop by her Facebook page or her blog and say hi!