Less yapping more tapping
I don’t talk about my writing much. My family, friends, and co-workers all know I write, and they’re all very positive and supportive about it. Naturally, I know several people who write, I try to support that however I can. It’d suck if they ever stopped, and I’m happy for them to talk about their projects. That said, I imagine that trying to strike up a conversation with me about my writing can be a bit of a surprising non-starter. You’d think it’d be the thing I have the most to say on. I’d be champing at the bit to barrage you with useless information about character A and B’s quest for Margaret’s Golden Cookie of Debauchery. Alongside books writing probably is the thing I have the most to speak about, regardless of how qualified I actually am to talk on either topic, but I try to keep my writing talk away from whatever I’m writing at that point in time.
You see, I have this idea that talking about your writing can be a great way to procrastinate. The more I talk, the less I put on a page. My sister once told me about a book that she and a friend wanted to write together. How they decided one afternoon to bounce book ideas back and forth, how they went to the coffee shops, bought notebooks, made copious notes, had lengthy discussions on character motivations, arcs and interactions, etc. That book was never written.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not mocking her for not getting that book done. She’s not a writer and between all the other stuff she does with her limited time, I’m surprised whenever she tells me that she sleeps. Also, while it might, at first glance, sound like a way to make the process easier, I imagine that writing a book collaboratively is actually a hell a lot more work than writing one solo. No experience there, admittedly, so I might be entirely wrong. Regardless, the story about having a book in the background somewhere is something we’re all familiar with. We all know at least one person in our lives who will tell us about their novel that they’ve been working on. They’ll tell us about the character arcs and the tension and conflicting motivations and so on. And they will never actually sit down and put words on a page. I am terrified of becoming that guy.
I can’t blame them. Most people I know seek out other people when they find themselves on their own. They want to go out and do something, preferably with other people and that’s totally understandable. Writing, however, is a generally solitary endeavour. You need to actively seek places to be alone. Somewhere you can sit and get something written down. The world is full of distractions, our attention spans are getting shorter, and those distractions are only multiplying. God knows that writers don’t need more encouragement to avoid doing the work.
What if those people really do want to write, though? It’s pretty condescending to just write people off like that. Like I said, distractions maraud and even the most dedicated writers get home from the day job, tired and hungry, and just want to watch a film or play a game, do some shopping, watch hours of cats on Youtube. Whatever, we’ve all been there. Distractions have a way of repeating on themselves and becoming bad habits. It’s like working out – when you don’t write for a day, and you know you should have, you feel a bit guilty. Personally I like that guilt, it drives me to keep plugging away at whatever I’m doing, even if I’d rather watch another dumb video. Similarly, talking about your writing can become a convenient way to avoid actually writing. It’s more deceptive, though, because if you’re talking about your work then you’re still making some sort of progress towards the end goal… right? It depends, but just like that person we know who always tells us about their writing, often enough: Not really. Here’s a shot at going into a couple reasons you could find yourself doing more yapping and less key tapping.
For a start, you might just be overthinking it. Writing a novel is a long process and there’s a lot of pressure there, especially if it’s a first project. What if you’re writing genre fiction and nobody respects you because we all know literary fiction is where the only writing of any merit happens? What if your characters resemble you too much? What if you’ve got plot holes you haven’t noticed and will undermine your entire story? What if its not original!?
Perhaps you’re not sure where you story, or even a single scene, is going. So you start talking and throwing out all these ideas in order to see what gets the best reaction. Clearly the one that gets the biggest ‘oooh’ is the one to go with. When you get to the idea gets the most attention then you’ll have your scene to write. Except you probably won’t. What if there’s another iteration of that scene that you haven’t thought of yet but gets a bigger ‘oooh’? You won’t ever get to your crowd pleaser scene. Ideas are a thousand to the penny. Everyone has them. I’ve got note pads and text documents, on my computer and my phone, full of scrawlings and half-formed thoughts 99% of which will never see the light of day. You also have ten notebooks and ten text documents with thousands of ideas, that you’re adding to all the time, and you’re scribbling like a cocaine fuelled locust in breeding season because you’re never going to stop coming up with them. And none of your ideas are original anyway. Not even that whole plot arc you wrote down about the randy badger, a loaf of French bread, and a golden chalice full of boar’s urine.
There’s nothing new under the sun, so sayeth Ecclesiastes. That’s a guy bitching about running out of original ideas a few thousand years ago. Anyway, there are only a limited number of basic plots, the number of which is disputed, but I’m pretty sure the ancient Greeks got to all of them a while ago. Most likely someone before them. No wonder Ecclesiastes was so pissy. So what are the odds that you will be the first person in thousands of years to discover and entirely new form of plot? Pretty low? Pretty low. Not a problem. Originality is in the execution. So execute.
One other alternative is hesitation or insecurity. You hit a wall. Not your standard “writers block”, I’m fairly sceptical of the entire notion myself, but just a problem with working out how a scene is going to come together. You’re not entirely sure how the drama or the tension works, or even why the characters are doing what they’re doing. What does Herbert the Flayer want with the Marvin the cow breeder of Venice? Who knows! I want to expand on this topic a bit in a future post, but for the moment, let’s keep talking about talking. When you don’t know how the pieces of the puzzle fit together it’s a good idea to spread them out again, step back, try to see the bigger picture and get a better idea of where you want to go with what you’re writing. One way you can do this is to lay it out to people, go through various iterations and brainstorm with an audience. The problem is that you can do this ad infinitum.
It’s a pretty standard defence mechanism. Instead of writing it down and dealing with the fact that the result sucks, you put it off and you keep moving the puzzle pieces around hoping for it to fit together in the perfect way. It’s a frustrating process because if you call yourself a writer that implies that you know the ins and outs of the mechanics of writing. If you can’t figure out where a scene if going wrong that implies that you don’t. Your ego doesn’t like that idea. After all, how can you call yourself a writer if you’re producing bad work and, worse, that bad work is a result of something that is probably very obvious and/or simple.
That’s right, your writing sucks!
So does mine. I don’t think you understand how bad the first draft of this post was.
So does George R. R. Martin’s, Stephen King’s, Hemmingway’s. Same goes for Tolkien, Shakespeare, Chaucer…
But maybe writing isn’t necessarily like a puzzle. Despite the fact that it does, in fact, operate around a series of broad mechanics and systems, perhaps you should approach it more as a block of clay. Have you ever seen one of those stupidly ornate pots or a bust of a head made out of clay? It’s weird to think that started out as a big shapeless blob. Have you watched someone work clay? For a long time, that detailed lifelike bust of a head looks a lot like a shapeless blob of clay. You already know where I’m going with this, don’t you? Say it with me: “That’s why editing exists.” Great, we all get a cookie. The point is that you at least need to start whacking the block of clay with a cricket bat before you can realistically start finding fault with it. Beat it into the rough semblance of the shape you want. Only after that can you figure out what needs work: Why one character isn’t working how you want them to and what needs changing in order to smack them into line and when you’ve got another cog in place you get more of an idea of what else is missing.
That’s the puzzle. You just don’t have the pieces yet. Turns out you have to make them yourself first… Which means you need to start getting your puzzles elsewhere. I need to get a better metaphor.
I take a similar approach to most things, particularly creative endeavours. Do it and then talk about it. I’m vaguely convinced that if I ever finish my own belaboured novel and the occasion arises that I can talk about it… I shouldn’t. What’s worse: The person who never finishes that novel they’ve been blathering about for however long? Or the person who writes their novel, manages to get it published, and then views all social encounters as a real-world twitter account?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about your writing full stop. I’m not advocating a ban on writing talk. If it helps, bellow about your concerns and questions from the top of the nearest church steeple through a giant amplifier until the police arrive. Just become aware of the difference when talk becomes a distraction from the process and when talk functions as a constructive discussion about a problem that you can’t brute force your way through on your own. The thing about constructive talk is that it tends to take on a different tone when you’re actually interrogating an idea with someone else. You already know what that sounds like coming out of your mouth.
So are you talking to make noise or talking to make progress?