So I’ve been working on my first novel, in the planning stages – pretty much figuring out what story I want to tell at this point with some consideration to the ‘how’ as well. 95% of the work is going on inside my head1 with the distilled results dropped into the turgid beginnings of a detailed outline. Right now, it’s a mess: random plot dev paragraphs interspersed with sudden tangents into detailed character bios with a scattering of “What about THIS?” idea fragments. I have no idea of the correct way to write a novel so I’m going with my usual creative approach of smash everything together, cut out the bits that don’t belong, throw it out into the wilderness and see what happens. I may be going at this in the clumsiest, messiest way possible but that’s how I’m comfortable working and the rules say I get to write my own stuff however I damned well please.
My current problem is however I damned well please includes a heavy presence of the internal critic, limiting progress. As an example, last night I woke up thirsty in the middle of the night. Drinking some deliciously cold water in the kitchen,2 I had a sudden idea that – as far as I can remember – elegantly and creatively handled a minor plot sticking point. I’d like to be more detailed but I don’t remember what the idea was let alone what it addressed in the plot.3
What I do remember was my choice not to jot it down on my grocery list pad or pick up my phone to record a voice memo and that choice was driven by a critical voice: “Don’t bother writing it down. It’s the middle of the night – you barely remembered how to work the water faucet so this idea is probably delusional. If it’s that good, you’ll remember it in the morning.”
Of course I didn’t remember my middle of the night insight. It’s rather telling that I can’t remember the plot hole or the idea that may have fixed it but I have almost eidetic recall of the negative internal dialogue.
I’ve started and stopped a novel at least a half-dozen times in my life. I think the farthest I got was a first draft of 3 chapters with, at best, a vague concept of some further plot points but no real story. So why am I tilting at this particular windmill again? Because it’s there, much like Everest to Hillary.4 Because I’ve heard “You should write a book!” from working, published writers. Because I’ve got at least one story in me that’s worthy of committing to paper and setting free in the world. Because I think I will go to my grave a little happier, a little more at peace knowing that despite any flaws, imperfections, or shortcomings, I wrote that fucker and I gave it my best.
Despite all these reasons, I’m still getting in my own way. That critical voice has been active in smacking down ideas, ripping apart characters, and giving me litanies of reasons why I should reach for the TV remote or XBox controller instead of my laptop. Considering the common themes in the criticism, it seems it’s coming from a desire to avoid a fear, specifically the fear of being incompetent in public.
“OK,” I thought, “Let’s remove the ‘in public’ part. The goal is to write a novel, not to have it read. Sure, the idea of being a published author has its allure but that’s purely an ego trip. The important thing is doing it, so let’s just assume nobody will ever see it. All better, right?”
Nope. ‘I’ll know it sucks,’ says the internal critic, ‘and we don’t need that. It’s not worth the risk. How about writing a light blog entry and then a run through Arkham Origins?’5
Looks like my fear isn’t shame, it’s being perceived as incompetent by anyone, including myself.
Oy. That kind of fear is paralytic.6
Now the whole project is in jeopardy. Even if I can get started, the first stumbling block will suck the wind straight out of my sails and it will take a day or more of manning the bellows to reinflate enough gumption to work through the problem. After a few of these, I’ll be spending more time trying to pump myself up enough to write than actually writing. The novel will hit the skids shortly after that. If that’s what awaits, why bother starting? Not to mention the new Arkham for XBox One and PS4 has gotten stunning reviews – wouldn’t I rather spend the winter watching hockey and saving Gotham (again) with a new gaming system?
My ego sure would. So would the part that wants to protect me from my fears. The lazy guy? He’s having a fucking field day – things are being herded in his direction and he doesn’t have to do a thing.
This time, it’s different. I have a next move. I’m not guaranteeing a different outcome but since I know what the underlying fear is, I can properly address it by giving myself permission to write 80 thousand-some words of utter shit. In fact, I’m just going to accept the fact, right now, that when I finally type out that last sentence I will be laying the capstone on a truly horrible and ugly batch of prose, as disjointed and unreadable as Going Rogue. Because – and this is the key – I’m writing this to write it and the quality is irrelevant. Or, in other words, I’ve accepted that my first draft is going to be a, well… first draft. And maybe even a shit first draft at that.
If that doesn’t sound like the voice of confidence, it’s because it’s not. Confidence may come in handy down the road, when it comes time for editing, re-writing, polishing, pitching, and selling, but that’s not even on the itinerary for the next few months. Right now, the priority is getting it done and that means moving past fear and doing it, step-by-step, and damn the consequences.
William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, and script doctor to dozens of blockbuster films, relays a great moment he witnessed from legendary Broadway producer/director/writer/star George Abbott, directed at a choreographer stuck in indecision over what the dancers should do next:
“Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”
Exactly. If I write something, I’ll have something to change, edit, tighten, expand, and play around with. If I don’t write anything, there won’t be anything to change. I hate to get all ontological, but a concept of a story is not as great as the telling of a story, no matter how flawed. If I keep it in my head, it will stay there. If I write it, it just may be something good.
Again, that’s down a road I may or may not take. The fear of incompetence is still there but I know what it is and I’ve let it know that this novel may be terrible and that’s OK. I don’t care about quality at this point – I probably will later and I’ll worry about it then – right now my job is digging in, pouring the foundational story structure, and moving piles of shovel-ready verbiage.
One more anecdote: there’s a joke from a comic I saw back in my comedy club days.7 It was for handling a heckler that just won’t shut up and goes like this:
“You think I suck? Guess what? I don’t care. See, when I walk off the stage tonight, one of two things is going to happen. One, I’ll go up to the manager, he’ll ask me how it went, I’ll say, “Awesome! That crowd loved me!” and he’ll say, “That’s great, here’s your money.” Or two, the far more likely scenario, I’ll go up to the manager, he’ll ask me how it went, I’ll say, “Horrible. They hated me,” and he’ll say, “That’s too bad, here’s your money.”
No matter what the quality of the end result is, I can say “Here’s my novel,” and for where I am right now, that is what’s important.