Monday, February 25, 2013

Making it Through a Long-term Project Without Losing Your Cool

For a new writer, the world is full of possibilities. An idea springs into your brain and you wonder: Could I write that? The very thought of writing something can be thrilling (and a little scary). Then there’s the doubt. I can’t really write a novel, can I? But the absolute best part of just starting out is the not knowing. Not knowing all of the tropes of a genre, not knowing about the cliches, not knowing that for every piece of advice you read you’ll find that someone out there disagrees with it. The life of a writer can be absolutely maddening at the best of times, and that’s what is so magical about being green. You don’t know yet how hard it can be, you don’t know yet how long or how many versions it can take to complete a project. And that’s where this post comes in-- just as you’re figuring out that writing is only a fraction of what it takes to be a writer.

It was the fall of 2009 when I shared an idea I had for a book with one of my closest friends. She loved the idea, we talked it over, but she said I needed to work on the mechanics of writing a little. I was so new and naive that I didn’t know exactly what the meant. Well, eventually I figured out it meant that I had great ideas and a strong voice but my grammar needed work. A lot of work. Not only did my grammar need work but so did my pacing, my characterizations, my idea...

Over three years later, and I can look back and appreciate the road it’s taken to get to where I am with my project. It’s been challenging at the best of times and I often considered shelving the idea altogether. But something about this project just didn’t let me do that. Despite all of the bad advice I made it through the first draft. Now I’m working through edits in preparation to publish. It probably shouldn’t have taken me so long, but then this project might also not be what it is.

In the spirit of sharing, here’s a list of tips to make it through that long-term project that just doesn’t seem to be progressing.

  1. Are you a pantster or a plotter? Figure it out NOW.
In the beginning stages of my project I had planned everything out. I had scenes outlined in such detail that when I started writing it didn’t feel fresh. I lost my desire to actually write the scene. I’m not typically a pantster though, so I’ve cultivated a method that works best for me. I have a few big scenes in mind before I begin and well-defined characters a book and slowly work it out as I write. Anything more than that and I can’t write the book because it feels like it’s already been written.

  1. You are not unique. Your book is not unique.
When I started writing I thought my book idea was the most unique thing in the world. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be written which hasn’t been written already. Once you move past the idea that you and your book are one of a kind you can come to terms with the facts. You’ll always find books that remind you of yours. You’ll always run across passages that sound familiar. You’ll always run into this and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just work on your book, pay attention, and do your thing.

  1. It’s all about voice.
The last tip was kind of a bummer, wasn’t it? So if there’s nothing truly unique in the world, then why write a story that’s essentially been told before? Because while you and your book aren’t unique, your voice is. Don’t try to sound like someone else. Be yourself, write the way you write. Learn to write well and let your voice flow. That is unique and that is what will set you apart from similar stories.

  1. Take a break
Don’t be afraid to take a break for a while. Don’t push it. When you force a story it will show. Part of the reason my project has taken over three years is that it’s gone through eight versions, several rewrites, character changes, setting changes, etc. In the end, I’m beyond thrilled with what I have. I couldn’t have hoped for something better and I definitely wouldn’t have written the story I did had I done it a few years ago.

  1. Get creative
If the usual routine isn’t working, change it up. Instead of outlining on paper, do it on notecards or in PowerPoint. Do something to shake it up, even if that means pretending to be your main character for a day. I’ve done some wacky things to get into my character’s head and have even gone as far as role playing with a friend to figure out if a scene makes sense.

  1. Take advice
Pay attention to what’s worked for other writers. Books like Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King are excellent reads. Also check out blogs and interviews from writers and pay particular attention to how they wrote, not how they found success because your goal shouldn’t be how to find success. Your goal should be how to write and how to finish that project. If your goal is to find success, find a new field.

  1. Trust your gut
Not all advice is created equal. Don’t feel pressured to take the advice of other writers. Everything I said here might not apply to you. Or it might. You can always try it out and see what works, but don’t feel like you’re doing it wrong. There is no way to “do” it wrong. It’s your life, your story, your career. Do it your way and don’t feel bad about that.

  1. Ask for help
There’s no shame in asking for help. We all need it. In fact, the help we get from other writers is often the most valuable help we will receive. Get a beta reader, a pre-reader, a something. Someone to help bounce ideas off of and read your work. I almost never realize the mistake I’ve made until someone else has pointed it out. Being too close to a project can be a detriment.

  1. Do your research
If you’re writing about a place you’ve never been, research it! If you’re writing a genre you aren’t familiar with, research it. It doesn’t matter how solid the writing is if you get the details wrong. Know your subject. Read your genre. Knowing the genre has helped me avoid the pitfalls and exploit what I know readers love about it.

  1. Have fun!
If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it. Writing is tough and there’s no right or wrong answers to tell you exactly how to write or to be a writer. The headache is absolutely not worth it if you don’t enjoy it even during the most difficult of times. Believe in the project and keep working toward the ultimate goal of finishing it.

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