If you’re the kind of person who can crank out 10,000 words a week without blinking an eye, skip down your front steps into a field of daisies, and then sing a soaring song about the happiness in your heart, this post is not for you. Today, I want to talk to the self-defeatists out there. I want to talk to the people who have started 500 books and deleted the first three lines over and over and over again. The people who dream of being authors and cannot bring themselves to write.
You are not alone.
I talk to people all of the time who really, desperately want to be writing. They may belong to writing groups. They are probably well-versed on publishing trends, and I’m pretty sure they know exactly how to query an agent.
But there’s something holding them back. Maybe they want to tell a story about their family, and they’re not sure how it would be received Maybe their best friend is a writer, and they’re worried about being second best. Maybe they’re shy, or insecure, or self-effacing. If you can relate to this experience, there are a few things I want you to know.
First, everyone has to start somewhere. Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-cited figure is that a person has to invest 10,000 hours into an activity to become a master at it. That is a lot of time. And you know what is exceptionally unfair? That you expect yourself to be as good at hour twenty five as someone who has written twice that much. Or ten times that much. Or a thousand times that much.
Sure, practice doesn’t make perfect, and some writers are more naturally suited to making the time they invest in writing work for them. And if you’ve logged 10,000 hours and you’re still struggling through the first chapter, maybe you need to think about whether writing is really the best fit for you. But until you’ve invested a significant amount of time into improving your craft, let yourself be where you are. You get better by as a result of the process, and allowing your hangups to keep you from writing is going to stunt your growth in a major way.
Second, manage your expectations of your writing. When you look at other authors and hold them up as a gold standard in your head, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Did you know that most published authors have written three to five complete books before they get published? Did you know that most authors end up rewriting their book, sometimes multiple times, after they get picked up for publication? It’s hard to see because you don’t have access to your ideal author’s hard drives, but the writing you see is only the tip of the iceberg.
The 80,000 words that make it to publication are the very best of probably five times that total amount. Of course your first draft is not going to be that good. If it were, you would be Mozart. And even his early stuff was of questionable quality. Have realistic expectations for yourself. It’s okay if the first draft isn’t the Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’ first draft wasn’t the Hunger Games, either.
Third, allow yourself a revision process. I know I’ve touched on this before, but the idea that great books spring from author’s head, fully-formed, like a literary Athena, is a complete and utter fallacy. If you believe this about writing, you’re harming your potential to do great work. Based on my experience, I would estimate 80% of the craft comes during the revision process. Most people are lucky to actually get a complete story arc out on the first pass. First drafts are very, very rough, and oftentimes, the work I get at the beginning of a comprehensive edit is already an author’s third or fourth draft.
Plus, when I compare the first draft that I see to an author’s final draft, I would estimate that, on average, 20% of the original sentences make it through without a single change or adjustment. If you’re putting a ton of pressure on yourself to create a flawless first draft, a lot of that work is going to be lost, and you are going to have wasted a lot of time. Part of the drafting process–really, the primary objective of the drafting process–is to create a lot of fodder for revision. Do your future self a favor, and just let yourself write.
And, finally, give yourself a break about your shitty work ethic. I guarantee that you don’t actually have a lack of self-discipline, and if you’re bothering to have dreams instead of vegging out in front of the TV all day, I am sure you’re not lazy. Creation is hard work, and writing is hard work. If it were easy, though, it wouldn’t be appealing. No one dreams about being able to chew a piece of gum. It’s that difficulty and sense of achievement that what makes writing so rewarding. Yes, the process is long, and yes, it does take a lot of investment. But if you’re struggling with the things on this list, the reason you’re not writing isn’t that you’re undisciplined.
It takes time and self-awareness to work around the voice inside of you telling you that you’re not good enough. And it’s really, really easy to get discouraged by looking around the publishing (or self-publishing) arena and castigating your efforts. But if you can give yourself just an iota of space and patience, you may be surprised by the creativity that bubbles out.
I love to say that people don’t create art in a vacuum, but it’s also true that people don’t create art when they hate themselves and their work so bitterly they can’t abide it. Yes, you will probably have to learn something about grammar. And yes, you will look back at your early writing and ask yourself “What was I thinking?” But if you want to get to a place where you can write a few sentences without hating yourself, you need to drop the self-criticism and let yourself write.
Plus, bonus advice: you don’t have to do this thing alone. There are people out there who can help you polish your work and fine-tune your manuscript. No author gets a gold star for never ever talking to anybody, not even once, about their work-in-progress. And if you’re going to publish, there are going to be many people with their hands in your work, trying to help you make it better. You, like millions of writers before you, can totally do this. And if you need help–just ask.