Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Do you love to write? It may sound like an obvious question, but it isn’t – ask authors and half will reply with a speech on their dedication to the craft, while the other half will begin “Welllll…” There’s nothing wrong with either answer; imagining and plotting a story is a completely different skill to writing it in a way that captivates a reader, and writers often feel more comfortable with one aspect of storytelling than another. Nailing down the words for a story can be a grind, which makes loving to write a gift – the only problem is that it’s one which comes with its own problems.
Like any writing advice site, we’ve published articles on how to combat procrastination and get writing – finishing your story is always the goal – but we also like to go further, so in this article I’ll be addressing the issues that face authors who love to write. Believe it or not, they’re every bit as numerous, and as problematic, as those that face their counterparts.
What’s wrong with loving to write?
I should start by reiterating that, just as there’s nothing wrong with struggling to write, there’s nothing wrong with loving it. Taking enjoyment from writing is a fantastic trait, and one that can carry you far, just so long as you manage it well.Loving to write presents its own problems – be ready for them.Click To Tweet
So now that’s settled, what is wrong with loving to write? Well, the problem with enjoying any process is that you start to favor the act over the goal. That’s fine for many types of writing, but if you want to be published – and to make a name for yourself doing it – it just won’t fly.
Why? Because being a successful author demands you dedicate time to the less pleasant aspects of producing a book. They’re a pain in the ass, but if you let them fall by the wayside, your love of writing is going to leave you with just as much output as someone who never got started. This is the central problem of loving to write, although it takes many forms, and it’s one that can only be beaten by a two-step process:
- Identify the problem,
- Work to consciously overcome detrimental behavior.
The second step is down to each individual author, but I can definitely help out with the first. So, what’s the most prevalent form of this issue?
Writing around the story
I said recently that the synopsis is a favorite daydream for authors. The temptation to write it on the bus, ponder it in the shower, and regale bored friends with the newest version, is immense. Likewise the blurb, the title, chapter headings, author profiles, how the next book could begin, etc. etc.
Loving your book is like loving anything – you can’t help but obsess over it, taking pleasure in understanding its nature more than you did yesterday. The problem with this is that most things you can love already exist. A partner or a child or a pet is there already, you don’t have to spend much time bringing them into your life, so you’ve got time to love them.
Imagine spending so many evenings discussing names for your child that you never get around to conceiving it. Imagine putting so much time into planning amazing dates that you never actually leave the house to meet someone. Imagine drafting and redrafting a blurb before you’ve even got a finished first draft.Write around your story long enough and it’ll never see publication.Click To Tweet
I know I’m the bearer of bad news here, because writing around your book is a huge amount of fun, but it’s also a huge drain on your time. Not only that, but it can make a book impossible to write – how can you conjure up the energy to write chapter three of book one when you’re already planning out book seven in your head? All that excitement should go into your first draft – yes, you’ll overwrite, but you can cut all that away later, when you’ve got a complete manuscript to work with.
My advice? A complete moratorium on writing everything that isn’t the book until you have a book. Maybe that’s unachievable, but at least until you’ve written your second draft. Like any guilty pleasure, writing around your book is fun, but there’s a reason you’re not allowed sweets before dinner – you’ll lose your appetite and you might develop diabetes. Now, I’m not saying that writing your blurb before you book is finished will give you diabetes, but I also can’t promise it won’t. Why take the risk, right?
So you’re focused on the book, great! But you should know that it’s still possible you’ll never write a word. Plotting (or ‘world building’) is the supreme temptation to the author’s ego, made all the worse by the fact that you need to do some of it to get writing in the first place.
So am I asking you not to plot? No, but I do suggest delineating a period where you’ll write without tweaking the plot. Overplotting fulfills the exact same problematic niche as writing around the story – yes, it’s on topic, but you still don’t end up with a manuscript and you do spend all the energy that should go into writing.
Many authors think about their first draft as the basic model of their story – they’re going to tweak and change bits, but in many ways it’s there in its infant state. This can be true, but it’s seldom the case for well-written stories. Instead, nailing down your first draft is more like collecting together your raw materials. Playwright Stephen Gregg puts it well:
You have to FORCE YOURSELF to write that 1st draft. It’s your clay: cold and grey, shapeless and ugly. It’s guaranteed to get better. #2amt
— Stephen Gregg (@playwrightnow) September 6, 2016
So the first draft isn’t even a basic sculpture, it’s just clay – not only will you get the chance to change the plot, to rewrite passages and abandon sections, to introduce characters and alter their goals, but you’ll have to do that anyway. Don’t plan the perfect sculpture – get enough of an idea of what you want to decide what kind of clay you need. Once you have that, and it’ll take some time and some work, then you can start plotting the minutiae.
In short, don’t let yourself get so wrapped up in plotting your story that you forget to write it. And about that writing…
Sharing too early
Sharing too early is a pit most authors have fallen into at some point. There’s no shame in doing it, but you should be aware of it, and try to avoid it, if you want your project to be successful.
Many authors finish a passage and, thrilled to have finally expressed an idea they love, show it to a friend or loved one. That friend or loved one – encountering a piece of writing for which they have no context and which they recognize as an early, flawed draft – will react with minimal enthusiasm, upsetting the author and dampening the excitement they should be harnessing to work on the story.
This is a ‘Lucy and the football’ situation for authors. They know what’s going to happen, and yet they’re so excited to share this piece they love that they fall for it anyway. It’s a genuine tragedy for a piece, because it can permanently knock an author’s confidence. It also isn’t anyone’s fault; the reader would probably enjoy the piece with the right context and polish, they’ve just encountered it too early. Likewise, the writer can’t be expected to know, in the throes of creation, that it’s a bad idea to share so early.Share your story too early and you’ll be particularly vulnerable to criticism.Click To Tweet
Consequently, it’s a good idea to set a hard rule here and not share with anyone until you have a first draft. At that point, you’ll at least be able to action their feedback, and will be committed enough that a poor reaction won’t trigger too unfortunate of an effect. Better advice would be to wait to the second or third draft – before that point, there are plenty of issues that you can spot by proofing and reading aloud, so you don’t really need a beta reader. The risk of showing your work to someone just to feed the ego is that, if it goes wrong, you’ve opened yourself up to real damage. In fact, getting discouraged is something to watch out for in general.
This may seem incongruous – how does loving to write translate into getting discouraged? There are a lot of answers, but mostly it’s just that the candle which burns twice as bright, burns half as long. Enthusiasm requires fuel, and you may be the sort of person who gets a lot of it from beginning a project. Use it all immediately, however, and you’ll be particularly open to getting discouraged.
This can come in many forms, from the lukewarm reception mentioned above to unexpected plot holes and unruly characters. Once you run into a real problem, the comparison to those happy-go-lucky days can make it seem even more serious – everything has been a fantastic breeze until now, which lends a thorny complication the appearance of a project-destroying dead-end.
Editing can pose a similar problem, since you’ll go from the euphoria of writing to the slog of picking over words. Loving to write can mean hating to edit, and you may even experience this as getting bored with a story or falling out of love with it. Try to temper your initial enthusiasm, and keep in mind that there’s a harder road to come – that way, it won’t have the element of surprise.
Story hopping isn’t so much getting discouraged as being seduced into another project. Loving to write often involves loving that initial burst of creativity and action. When your current project needs stodgy editing and a new project has just come to you, bursting with potential, there’s often a strong desire to jump ship. Of course, in a few months, you’ll be at the editing stage again, and a new idea will tempt you.
Unfortunately, the answer is once again to just expect this urge, and therefore be ready when it comes along. If you know you can’t resist, you can take some of the edge off by writing short fiction when the desire to write is just too strong. Begin a new, long project and, eventually, you’ll find your loyalties have shifted. Worse, that project will scoop up what little enthusiasm you had for editing the story you should be working on.
If you’re really serious about getting published, I’d suggest that when the desire to write is undeniable, you write out small, alternative scenes from your story. What if someone had said something different, or an event had gone a different way? This way, you exorcise that unhelpful energy but you’re still examining and thinking about the right project.
The hardest part of avoiding story hopping is that, usually, if you give yourself an inch, you’ll take a mile. For best results, try to keep your head down and consciously focus on finishing what you started. 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book can help.
Rushing to publish
So you managed to start writing your project, you weren’t discouraged by over-early feedback and you’ve kept your eye on the prize and refused to begin any other projects. Not only that, but you’re happy with the manuscript – next stop, publication, right?
Sorry, but this is the final hurdle created by loving to write. In general, most writers think a work is ready to publish long before it is, and this is doubly true for those who love the writing process. It can manifest in different ways, from the extreme (locking in each chapter’s final form before even beginning the next) to the subtle (having the copy edit be the first time an editor sees your story), but it’s something you’ll have to watch out for.
If you’ve struggled to finish a project then publication will feel like blessed relief, whereas if you’ve flown through the writing, it’ll feel like the only hurdle left – this is an issue that can get you either way. You may even be rushing to publish because you’re subconsciously avoiding the necessary editing. Whatever the reason, this is the deadliest issue that loving to write will throw your way, because it can end up with an undeveloped piece of writing on the market, and there’s nothing there to stop you.Publish in haste, repent at leisure.Click To Tweet
Friends and family may give warnings, but at the end of the day, if you convince yourself that a piece is ready, you can upload it for sale at any time. That’s not a complete disaster, but it does risk associating your name and brand with work that wasn’t ready for an audience. Better than producing nothing, yes, but not by much.
So how can you avoid this? Hard rules are the answer – recognize that you probably won’t be able to spot this issue coming, and so decide ahead of time to do something about it. Schedule in a further draft even once you’re happy, make sure you listen to beta readers, or arrange for an editor to take a look at your work with a focus on letting you know if it’s not ready.
That’s not to say that you should obsess about fiddling with your book – a tortoise can help you with that problem – but that the nature of the problem is going to be in your perception, so you need to assemble measures outside that perception to fix it. Don’t count on knowing, deep down, that it isn’t really ready. There are plenty of people whose work is ready that are convinced it isn’t; no-one can expect you to have the necessary distance from a beloved, slaved-over work to make the perfect call here. That’s why the final run-up to publication involves so many other people. If you want to publish when a piece is ready, make sure you reach out and make sure you’re ready to listen.
Loving to write is a gift
For all those issues, loving to write really is a gift. Yes, it takes forward-planning and good decisions to harness that energy and ensure it doesn’t lead you astray, but free energy is still a wonderful thing.
Young writers will find themselves particular susceptible to the issues above (as, oddly, will many memoirists), but they shouldn’t worry too much. Enthusiasm is a great thing, and you’re supposed to make mistakes in pursuit of honing your craft. Just keep your eye out for unnecessary slip-ups, and be sure to plan ahead if you want to succeed.
For more on honing your craft, check out Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor and How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words.
Is loving to write a problem for you, or do you think more energy always means better writing? Let me know in the comments.