Writers are our own worst enemies. We will hamstring ourselves with a hacksaw just as we’re getting going, and to that I say: “Oh, hell no.” It’s time to keep an eye out for the landmines and bear-traps we lay for ourselves along the way, those dreaded pitfalls that help to ensure we won’t finish the shit that we started. Whether you’re participating in NaNoWriMo (which always makes me want to say: NaNoWriMo Williams: The Adventure Begins!) or writing a script or a game or an invented memoir about your fictional time as a glue-huffing base-jumper, you need to be aware of those things that might stop you from getting it done.
A lot of this is stuff I’ve said before, mind you.
But I think it’s good to have it in one big-ass mega-list.
1. Bad Breakfast Equals Blah Brain
It’s the start of your day, so it’s the start of this list: motherfucking breakfast. What you eat turns into energy for your body and the brain encased in said body. Just as you wouldn’t shove dog poop and old leaves into your car to make it run, you shouldn’t shove heaps of crap into your body and expect your mind to perform in top shape. Protein is better than carbs, and if you do eat carbs, you need the slowest carbs you can get — carbs so slow they need to stay after class. Sugar is your enemy. Processed foods: not your pal.
2. In The Clutches Of The Sinister Distractor Monkey!
A lot of writers — myself included — seem to have the attention spans of a cricket trapped in the bottom of a Four Loko can. I know if I’m not careful I’ll stop what I’m doing and look at Twitter, wander aimlessly around the Internet, get caught in a dastardly (and sticky) web of porn, clean my desk, go snack, build a robot that dooms the world. Hell, just now? I stopped writing this blog post for 15 minutes just so I could stare at light glinting off a penny. You’ve got to cut that shit out. Close the gates. Build a wall. It’s gotta be you and the word count: leave the other barbarians outside the gates, where they belong.
3. Defcon ZZZzzZZzz
A more problematic version of the “distractions” situation grows out of the priority you place upon your writing. It’s not just about being caught suddenly by a distraction, it’s about a longer, larger choice where you consistently place everything else above your writing. When writing comes last, it’ll never get done. Sure, I get it. You just bought a new video game. Or football is on. Or you’ve got housework to do. Or you’ve got this foul-smelling wreath of lint lodged deep in the ridges of your belly button and you must get it out. (Okay, seriously, get it out. Even the cat looks queasy.) In the grand Netflix queue of your life, Writing My Story should be numbers one through ten. Buckle up, shut the fuck up, and make it your priority.
4. That Ugliest Of Four-Letter Words: “Work”
Understand this up front: writing is work. Some days it’s fun work. Some days it’s hard but satisfying work. Other days it feels like you’re birthing a lawn chair from your hindquarters. Just know up front that not every writing day is a hot air balloon ride over a meadow made of happy puppies. Some are. Most aren’t. It’s still better than pushing a broom or sawing cows in half for the beef industry. Er, unless that’s your thing.
5. Ain’t Got No Discipline, You Mumbly Numb-Faced Slugabed
You’re saggy. Sludgy. Out of shape. Discipline is born of habit, and habit ain’t just a thing a nun wears to cover her godly hoo-has. Discipline comes from repeated action and the understanding that you create quantum entanglement between your butt and your chair so that you write — even a little! — every day.
6. You Believe Time Will Make Itself
Time isn’t like a box of gremlins: you don’t make more just by pouring water over their fuzzy Mogwai backs. Further, unless you’re the Doctor, you do not have the benefit of a time-traveling police box, do you? Said it before and I’ll say it again: we all have the same 24 hours in our day. It’s how we slice-and-dice and apportion those hours that matters. If every day goes by and you’re not reserving a fleshy portion of the temporal meat for your writing, well — need I refer to the title of this list?
7. Besieged By External Forces
Life is like a sneaky leprechaun always stealing your goddamn Lucky Charms. Every week is a new curveball that inevitably lands right in the catcher’s mitt known as your “crotch.” This is a battle. It’s you and the conflict of day-to-day existence, battling with bladed weapons for supremacy over Who Controls What. If you let external forces take the leash, then you’re just a bitch peeing where life demands you pee. If you take control, however, then you get to live life on your terms — point being, don’t let life’s bullshit get in your way. No excuses. Write through the pain. Obviously, this has limits — serious health problems, job loss, death in the family. Real problems should be given their due. (Though even then, sometimes it helps to stay writing through even the toughest slog.) Your goal is to set the pace. Claim your life, own your existence. Write in spite of whatever conflict you face.
8. Whip Out Your Harmonica, ‘Cause It’s Time To Sing The Penmonkey Blues
Not sure what it is about writers, but we are a cardboard box of sad little kittens. Lots of depression issues among writers — now and throughout time. Sometimes it’s chemical. Other times psychological. And some writers are just in love with the romance of being sad. Whatever your flavor of the Penmonkey Blues, if you know you lean that way, it behooves you to do something about it. I know, I know: easier said than done. Just the same, this is a self-replicating problem, like a cloud of out-of-control nano-bots: you want to write but you’re sad or depressed and so you can’t quite write and then that just makes you more sad, more depressed. Don’t swirl the drain. Find a way out. Seek help. Fight through it and put the words onto paper. Again, this isn’t meant to suggest it’s easy: but, if you want to finish something, it is absolutely necessary.
9. Expectations Inflated To The Size Of A Moon Bounce
Reality should be tucked firmly into your plan like an acorn in the cheek of a chipmunk. Don’t think you’re going to write a novel in a week. (And for you NaNoWriMo-heads, that might mean understanding you’re not going to write one in a month, either.) Don’t expect your first draft to be a masterpiece. Don’t expect your first book — good as it may be — to sell to a publisher or, if self-publishing, earn big sales from readers. In fact, it helps to have minimal expectations: just put your head down and write. Day in, day out. Write this thing until it’s done. Don’t worry about its future. Worry about the present: because without a finished book, the future won’t add up to a thimble full of mouse turds.
10. An Unrealistic View Of Process
Yes, some authors shit out bestsellers and/or brilliant prose (as the two are not exclusive). Some folks are prodigies, whether it’s at shooting hoops, playing the piano, of being The Goddamn Batman. Let’s assume for a moment that you’re not breathing that rarefied air — or, at least, that you don’t possess the ego to believe such a thing. If we assume that you are not One Of The Greats, then it’s also safe to assume that you’re going to have to hunker down and do like the rest of us hard-working penmonkeys: you’re going to have to perform edits and rewrites to bang this thing into shape. Some writers possess a completely mysterious and magical view of process wherein they believe it’s one-and-done, like they’re just going to align their chakras and birth their story on a beam of light. Won’t happen — and that kind of expectation will kill your prose dead the moment you fail to give yourself the permission to write imperfectly.
11. Comparisons Break Your Mojo
Worst thing you can do is compare your writing — especially writing in its proto-draft form — to a published author, in particular, a published author you admire, adore, and possibly stalk (I see you there in Stephen King’s shrubbery with that vial of homemade influenza — it’s made of love, you’ll say, won’t you please start a global epidemic with me?). That’ll stop you cold. That comparison isn’t healthy. It’s good to aim big: just know that you’re not going to get there in the middle of writing a first draft.
12. Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads
Not every writer needs a plan, but in my experience many believe they don’t need a plan when, frankly, they do. I was that kind of writer: I thought, ha ha ha, stupid people saying I should outline or do preparatory work, those silly assholes with their misunderstanding of my genius. If you find you’re lost in the woods of your own fiction and feel like giving up — it might be because you have no plan. You can retrofit one. Doing that will help put you back on track and give your current writing a jolt of needed organization.
13. The Sixth Sense Says Something Is Screwy
(Fuckadang, say that 4200 times fast. That’ll twist your tongue into a Gordian knot.) Let’s say you’re writing and… something doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s like you’ve stepped into a world where the angles are off-kilter, where the clock runs backward and the milk curdles any time you look at it. It means something is screwy inside your story. Something isn’t adding up. Don’t quit. Go digging for it. Find where you chose the wrong path. Find where the paintings are hanging askew and straighten those fuckers.
14. The Story Isn’t Ready
You open the oven, you take out the brownies and start shoveling them into your mouth and it’s all OH MY GOD THEY’RE SOFT AND HOT AND GOOPY AND IT’S LIKE CHOCOLATE NAPALM AAAAARRGHBLEZZZ. You gotta let brownies finish baking, and sometimes you try to write and you discover that lo and behold, the story just isn’t ready. You haven’t finished planning it. Or just thinking about it. It doesn’t have to be fully-formed, but just the same, you need the Jell-O to set before you take it out of the fridge, you know? Mmm. Jell-O. Cosby sweaters. Mmm.
15. Or Maybe It’s You
Wow. That sounds accusatory. Imagine me pointing at you when I say that. OR MAYBE IT’S YOU. *crash of thunder, shrieking violins* Ahem. What I’m saying is, sometimes you’re not ready yet. I’ve got stories I want to write that are on the back-burner because I’m just not ready to write them. Maybe I’m not mature enough. Maybe I don’t think my “mad skillz” are quite mad enough. I’ve tried writing them too early, and you know what? They don’t come together right, and every time I had to bail on them and write something I was ready to write. This takes self-awareness, but that’s an important virtue for a writer to possess.
16. Bitten Off More Than You Can Chew
Never written anything before? Might be a lot to suddenly take on a 10-book epic science-fiction series starring a dynasty of star-faring moon people. Writing is a thing that takes a fucking bucketload (a bucking fucketload?) of practice and the reality is, maybe you’re trying to go too big, too fast. Maybe write a short story, novella, or lean-and-mean novel first. (That is a benefit of NaNoWriMo, in that it aims to produce a lean draft rather than create some massive wordpocalypse.)
17. Porking Another Manuscript Behind The Old Woodshed
Your eye, it wanders. To the curves and supple milk-flesh of another story. Cheater. Cheater. Stop that crap right now. You go too far down that path before long you will wander away from your current WIP and into the arms of another — and once that happens, you may find that you’ll never go back. You adulterous ink-slut, you. With a pair of another story’s panties sticking out of your pocket. For shame. For shame.
18. Haven’t Answered Any Of The Critical Questions
Ask yourself: what is this about? Why am I writing this? Why will anyone care? Asking yourself some fundamental questions before you write — plus several others while you write — can help keep your nose to the grindstone and allow you to feel settled in both direction and purpose.
19. You Know What? You Just Don’t Give A Shit
Just last year I was writing a book and I got maybe 20% through and a cold realization struck me: I just didn’t give a shit. I don’t mean existentially — I hadn’t lost all ability to care about everything. Just this one thing. The novel wasn’t resonating. The story and characters worked better in my head than on paper. I wasn’t invigorated by it and, instead, felt enervated. That realization will stop you dead. Solution is either to abandon completely or to go back and figure out how to make it so you care — and that usually means digging deep and making it more personal, somehow.
20. Trying To Write To Market, Not Write To Your Own Desires
A variant on “just don’t give a shit” is what happens when you write solely for market. The experience feels cheap and tawdry, like the bad frat-boy cologne hanging in the air like a miasma at a strip club. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t write for others: storytelling is communication and isn’t meant to be masturbatory. But the story you’re trying to communicate should be your story, a story only you can tell — not a story meant only for market. Write only for commerce and the story might die on the vine.
21. The Cock-Blocking Road-Block Of Writer’s Block
I maintain the controversial assertion that writer’s block is not a real thing. I’m not saying writers don’t get blocked: it’s just not unique to them and doesn’t deserve its own special name. Just the same, hitting that mental wall will slam up the airbags and spill hot imaginary coffee all over your story’s no-no region. Might I suggest 25 ways to get past the dreaded writer’s block? Oh, I might. I might.
22. Praying To A Muse That Does Not Exist
The Muse is naught but a cruel hallucination: a false face born on vapors rising from a sun-baked highway. Relying on inspiration to strike will help ensure your story cannot, erm, climax. Inspiration is what put you in the chair in the first place, but it’s not what gets you to the end. It’s a twee old saying, but what counts is perspiration. And maybe gestation. And incubation. And frustration, gyration, damnation, elation, libation, and mutation. And distillation and amplitude modulation and cardiopulmonary resuscitation and BY THE PUBES OF HEPHAESTUS I CANNOT STOP. Whew. Okay. Point is: the Muse is bullshit. Stop relying on phantoms and phantasms and write. You are your own Muse.
23. Square Peg, Circle Hole
Nobody wants to hear this, but maybe you’re just not a writer. I wanted to be a cartoonist once. And a rock drummer. I’m not those things because I recognize that I don’t align with those frequencies. Alas.
24. You’re A Quitting Quitfaced Quitter Who Quits
The act that will kill your story is quitting. This post goes a long way to give a name and a face to the problem but at the end of the day what stops you is you — and, in particular, the act of you ejecting from this process. It’s the easiest thing in the world: one day, you just don’t come to the keyboard, you don’t put any new words into the story, and you let the whole thing fade into the warm marshmallow embrace of oblivion.
25. Felled By Fear
The real face — the true name! — behind all this is fear. You’re afraid. Of what? I dunno. That’s on you. Afraid of success. Afraid of failure. Scared of the work, scared of what people will think, scared of not measuring up, scared of putting yourself out there. Maybe you fear how writing will drag your demons into the light. Maybe you fear taking the time, taking the chance, making the effort. Could be that your angst and anxiety has no name and takes no shape and exists only as a soul-sucking fog of uncertain dread. Whatever it is, fear is the story-killer. It’s the slayer of many-a-writer, and either you’re stronger than it and survive, or you’re weak and it feasts on your genitals like a glutton at a pie eating contest. Don’t let fear turn you into its dog. You’re bigger than it, and you send it running for the shadows by defying its crass whispers. You kill the fear by writing past it. You kill fear by saying, “I’m a writer. Bite me.”
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Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?
Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY
Or its sequel: REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY
And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING