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January 31, 2011

If your story has legs, let it stand!

Hopefully this post will be useful to others, even though I've actually written it as advice to myself, mostly, because I've been going in circles with my latest project. Let's call it Project P. The problem? Too much thinking and not enough writing.

Don't get me wrong. Thinking is good. It's necessary. But too much of it, like anything, can be paralysing.

Project P (a novel) started with the idea for a basic scenario. And with two characters, two very different characters; I thought starting out that there'd be plenty of built in opportunity for conflict based on their differences alone. And conflict - in novel-writing - makes the world go 'round, right?

Well, so far, so good. I started writing, and got almost 20,000 words in. Then I had to go back to re-writes on another novel, so I left it for a while. By the time I returned to Project P, I'd lost the flow. I started thinking about macro-structural issues; should I elevate one of the secondary characters to being the first person narrator for the story? Should I structure the whole novel into sections, with the sections based on a particular pattern according to a literary allusion? Should I this? Should I that?

I became thoroughly bogged down in all the possibilities, telling myself that I had to decide, I had to come up with the perfect way forward. And all the while, Project P languished.

It took me a while to realise that what I was doing really wasn't helpful...or necessary. I was telling myself that all this thinking and analysing was essential to give me a clear direction before I could proceed, but, like any good procrastinator, I was lying to myself. What I was really facing was classic writers block.

Because the fact is, Project P had already been loosely outlined, which is the way I prefer to work. I'd planned out a clear beginning, middle and ending. There was conflict, there was intrigue, and characters with potential. In short, everything I'd need to write a perfectly serviceable first draft.

The stuff I was worrying about? The big-picture, symbolic, meaningful questions I was wrestling with? All window dressing. Pretty much all of it can be added in easily enough - if it still seems warranted - when the first draft is complete. Yeah, I was a bit reluctant to face that fact too, but all the hurdles my mind was throwing up were just another way of avoiding getting back to work.

Now obviously there are times when stopping and doing some serious thinking part way into a project are essential - particularly if you started writing without a clear idea where you are actually headed and how you're going to get there. But in this particular case, my story already had legs, and I was letting over-analysis get in the way of letting it stand.

Now I just have to trust in 'the process', finish that first draft, and see what needs bolstering or changing when the finished story takes its first few shaky steps.

Has anyone ever been their own worst enemy in the writing process? Any thoughts on how you tell the difference between thinking which is useful, and the kind which has crossed over into being counterproductive?


Su said...

I'm definitely my own worst enemy... but unfortunately, I have no suggestions on how to make it better. :( Although, well done you for identifying the problem! I can't wait to hear more.

Rachael Harrie said...

Great post Adina. I've often had that trouble in the past, and like you at the 20 or 30 thousand word mark. It's actually stopped me from finishing WIPs, a problem I hope I've overcome now. Great advice, to turn the head off and leave many of those issues to revisions!



Alison Stevens said...

I needed this post! I've been doing too much thinking about two projects I'm working on. I need to start writing. And stop, er, checking blogs. :)

Aurora Falsestart said...

Has anyone ever been their own worst enemy in the writing process??

Um hi, Poster Child chiming in, here. Wish I could have something useful to say but all I can contribute is that you are not alone in that wilderness. It'd be nice if there were a site or forum devoted entirely to helping writers stuff the maw of inner editors for a good three months until it's their turn.

I love the analogy of the legs and allowing your project to stand. Very nice.

Mary Mary said...

I agree at times every writer, in some way, becomes their own worst enemy. Whether it be through overthinking, procrastination, or just being plain lazy with their writing, we all fall into the pit at times. It's always good to be able to recognize your weakness and then you know what you need to work on. So far, I think you're doing a good job of it, or so it sounds! You'll get over that hump!

♥ Mary Mary

raisingmarshmallows said...

I am the queen of procrastination when it comes to my novel. I'm supposed to be working on it right now. Oh well.


Lindz said...

Hey hey, I discovered your blog through the Platform-Building Crusade, and I found this particular post very relavent to my own process.

I went through a nasty spell fo writer's block a few months ago, spending the time over-analyzing every word I put on the paper. I eventually realized I had to let go, and like you said, I needed to 'trust the process'.

When I become consumed with writing the perfect story the first time, I try to remind myself of something Susannah Windsor Freeman said on Writer Unboxed:
"first drafts are about getting the words down quickly, about telling yourself the story rather than telling someone else."

Aimee L Salter said...

Hi Crusader - fantastic post! Look forward to seeing more.

I think your advice may well apply to my third WIP... but I would like to Osterich for a little while longer, if that's okay.


Joanne said...

I am my own worst enemy. My editing gets in the way of my writing. I'm writing one page and my mind is editing the previous one.

Kristen Callihan said...

Hi Adina. I found you through the crusade. :)

Actually, this is EXACTLY what I am dealing with right now. I think it is because I spent so much time editing and revising my previous manuscript for my agent that I've gotten into the bad habit of over-anylizing things at the wrong stage of the game. It's comforting to know that others have the same sort of struggles, though.

Claire Gregory said...

Hey Adina- I'm continually my own worst enemy, for much the same reason you've described here. Overthinkers Anonymous R Us. I've booked into a three-hour workshop at the Perth Writers Festival next month called Getting Out of Your Own Way- can't wait!

In the meantime, I'm trying to slog on without the overthink. Nice to meet you, fellow Aussie Crusader :)

Diana said...

Hey crusader,
I am my own worst enemy for sure. I don't think I will ever feel like a project is good enough. I love the "shaky legs" term you said near the end. Anyway, nice to meet ya and I'm your newest follower.

Louise said...

Good luck on the novel. I turn off the red and green squiggles and just type. I try to do a few thousand words at a time like that before I go back and make sense of what I've typed.

Crusader saying hi!

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