Don’t Talk about Writing in Progress

progressDon’t Talk about Writing in Progress

During the progress of a writing retreat, one of the members mentioned that a friend was in Africa doing clown ministry work.

This was a new concept to me.

“So, what do they do—dress up as clowns?”

“Yes—to make the children want to listen to them.”

“And do they juggle, and make balloon animals, and do slapstick?”

“Yes, and they incorporate the Christian message in the performance.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation except that we laughed and laughed about it. For whatever reason, it struck our collective funny bones.

What I do remember is rushing back home to try to capture the idea. It was completely flat. Almost as if I had used up all my humor and had nothing left for the story.

Since then, I have often found that the more I talk about what I intend to write, the less I seem to be able to get anything down on paper. It is such a familiar problem that I really don’t discuss my writing at all unless pressed and only in the vaguest terms (see suggestion at the end of the post).

Why talking impedes progress

I realize that this might seem odd—why would talking about a work in progress make it harder to write? Seems as if there are two different phenomena operating.

But I think there is more of a cross-over than you might expect.

Takes the juice out of the idea

Talking about the work in progress seems to dissipate the energy associated with your idea. In fact, the extent to which you are pumped when talking about it seems to be inversely related to how effectively you can get it down in words.

Fixes the intent

Usually, when I’m writing I have a vague idea of where I am going. Clear enough for me to continue but without pinning it down irrevocably. But talking about it, or even trying to pin down the intent in my own thoughts, makes it too concrete, too defined. It discourages indulging in pleasant, abstract, amorphous thought from which any number of interesting scenes or characters might arise.

Avoids embarrassing incidents with friends

Finally, if your readers don’t know where you’re taking a piece, on reading the finished piece, you won’t get: “Yeah, it was nice but I thought you were going to write about a genie.” Much as you fix the idea in your head when you talk about it, you do the same for your readers. The end product will violate their expectations. So even if you turn out a better piece than you spoke about, you may not get the praise it deserves.

Write first; talk later

So when friends ask you what you’re writing, don’t give them soup to nuts. Try a short description like “it’s set in the Second World War,” or the technique you’re using—“I’ve created an unreliable narrator.” Then you can talk about the interesting period or technique and not about the story itself.

Write first; talk later.

The Difficult Middle

middle

The Difficult Middle

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a famous Harvard management guru. She wrote:

A basic truth of management—if not of life—is that nearly everything looks like a failure in the middle…persistent, consistent execution is unglamourous, time-consuming and sometimes boring.

In my last post, I’m Stuck, I recommended getting out of being stuck by creating a list of tasks (less description, more tragic heroine, more atmosphere, etc.) to fix the problems with your novel. It is probably a daunting catalogue. Like the swimmer in the picture, it doesn’t look as if you will ever reach land.

That’s where Rosabeth comes in.

Recognizing the difficult middle

It will be worth it when you succeed. Take that as your mantra. Having said that, it is also true that the road to nirvana will have some tough patches. This is one. You are far enough in to know the outline of the story but not far enough along to identify its true shape. You have already invested an enormous amount of time and effort and you’re not sure whether it’s worth it. But instead of doing the artist thing of throwing your hands up and the manuscript out the door, just accept that this is the difficult middle. It’s not a comment on the quality of your writing. It is just the difficult middle that all worthwhile projects have to go through. You have reached yours.

Getting through

What I am going to suggest is pretty mechanical but it can get you home.

Step 1. Elaborate on your list.

  • For each of the items, flesh it out a bit. How could you do it? What scene would illustrate it? Could I stick a bit in an earlier scene to accomplish this? Any main points that I want to make sure I include?
  • If at any point in doing this, you get excited about the possibilities and have to urge to write the scene, do it. No need to finish your broccoli before you get dessert.
  • But do eventually eat your broccoli and finish the list—again stopping to write if/whenever the spirit moves.
  • If you don’t have the skill/knowledge to accomplish a particular item, identify who to ask for help. Skill/knowledge is not the same as talent. You can have oodles of the latter and still need to learn the tricks of the trade.

Step 2. Prioritize

  • With your annotated list, re-order it. Not in order of what is most important for the novel or the hardest, but with the ones you are most interested in.
  • Work through from the most motivating to the least.

Step 3. Dump

  • Sometime as you are working your way out of the difficult middle, stop to ask yourself, do I really need this scene?
  • Often, especially near the end of the list but it can happen at any time, you realize that the passage is unnecessary because:
    • You’ve made the point elsewhere
    • You can tweak an already written piece to include what you want
    • The reader already knows this
    • You can just stop the last scene and open on the new one. You don’t need the transition scene. Like getting the protagonist from home to downtown.
  • Dump these. Not only will it give you a thrill but it will get you home that much faster.

Accepting that there is a middle, that it is difficult, and that has nothing to do with your talent or creativity will help you get through to The Promised Land.

I’m Stuck

stuck

I’m Stuck

One thing writers are unfailingly good at—finding reasons not to write. Whether it’s lack of time, fear of hurting someone, being convinced every word is junk, blanking, experiencing writer’s block—you name it, we can come up with it. And here is another variant: you are writing but are stuck. That is, you faithfully put bum in chair but the results are discouraging.

Varieties of being stuck

This one even comes in variants on the theme.

The story isn’t going anywhere. You know where you want to take the plot but your writing feels meandering and worthless. You can’t seem to make it as exciting and involving as it should be.

What I’m doing isn’t working. You want to put across a feeling, an action, a meaning and what you’re doing isn’t cutting it. Maybe you don’t have the skill?

The next scene turns out flat and boring. Your mind is numbing just in reading the scene over. You need this incident to move the plot forward but you’re sure the reader will toss the book at this point. If you can’t stand it, how can your reader?

Thoughts of junking the whole thing are raising their ugly heads.

Remedy to being stuck

First of all, you know, this can be a form of writer’s block, so reread that post and see if any of the suggestions feel right.

Luckily, although there are a variety of ways of being stuck, there is a remedy which can help all forms.

Choose something exciting to write.

Might be a later part of the novel which will be fun to write. Might be an action scene just to see if it works for your characters. Whatever it is, pick something which will entertain you.

Then write it. Fully engage your right brain. Suppress or ignore any demons lurking and go for it. Don’t stop until you have either finished the scene or gotten back your mojo.

This often works for me because it forcibly reminds me why I love to write. It has the added advantage of taking you away from drudging on with a tedious but necessary scene or even one which, in the edit, you decide you don’t need.

Bad news—sometimes you’re stuck for good reason

The remedy suggested usually works but sometimes you are stuck because the novel really isn’t working. But don’t throw in the towel immediately.

I know that you feel that it isn’t working, but feelings can be unreliable companions. Great for writing, not so good for analysis. You need to let your left brain kick in. Write down where the problems are specifically. Might be too much background, too little, too much build-up, not enough, etc. Actually write them down. If you just think them, the feelings may take over the exercise.

With the list, decide how to fix the issues, including getting help for techniques or approaches you don’t know how to do.

Look over list and remedies. If you did that, would the novel start working for you? Now, this is different from this is a lot of work. It undoubtedly will be. I’ll address that in the next post. Right now, stick to would it be good with the fixes?

Dealing with Other Writers’ Envy

envy

Dealing with Other Writers’ Envy

In the previous post, I suggested a way to deal with your jealousy. The other side of the coin is the envy of other writers toward what you write.

If you continue to work at becoming a better writer, both in skills and spirit, this proficiency can have the unfortunate side effect of others resenting it and you.

So let’s get over the huffing and puffing. They have no right to be jealous. If they had put as much time and effort as I have…yeah, yeah. You’re right. But doesn’t change the situation. So let’s talk about dealing with it. But first…

Is it really envy?

Honestly, it’s probably more of a feeling than anything else. You get a vibe that someone in your writing group envies you.

But beware of assuming your reactions are fact. Sometimes, what we think is true is more about how we feel about ourselves than how than how the world feels about us.

So, before taking any action on your belief, just do a mental check. Can you identify anything the other person said or did which confirms your conviction? A list of possible actions was discussed in the previous post.

If you can’t identify anything concrete, then give a thought at what else might be going on with you that would prompt this touchiness.

But if you are pretty sure that it exists, let’s move onto how to deal with it. I want to distinguish between beginning writers and those more practiced.

Beginning writers

This happens. Even though you’re just starting out, you may get a funny reaction. It might be about your writing skill but might also be that you are daring to do something new and innovative.

Whatever the source, the first reaction is the urge to say what’s your problem? Well, you can of course do it, as long as you don’t mind losing the friend or causing a minor war.

Instead, I would simply stop asking them to read your stuff. If they press to do so, lie. Oh, I haven’t done anything recently.

At this stage in your writing career, it’s important to prevent disheartening feedback. It’s hard enough to summon the courage to write and share. Starting out, you need praise for the act of daring as much as the writing itself. Mean-spirited comments might discourage you into stopping.

More experienced writers

When you are a more experienced writer, the jealousy is likely to be subtle but still there.

I think you can factor your knowledge of the other’s mindset into the feedback. That is, don’t take just her word for the idea that the story is flat; poll the other members of the group. Or, just say, thanks, interesting point and just let it die.

And this antipathy is a kind of a compliment, however backward. Your writing is good enough to prompt these comments.

Okay, just one final thing. I know you would never do this consciously, but are you inadvertently creating this resentment?

No, no, I know you’re not. But just in case, ask yourself:

  • Could how forcefully you express your opinions come off as doctrinaire?
  • Do you remind your peers of your superior skills?
  • Are you dismissive of others’ feedback on your pieces?

No, I know you’re not. I have faith in you.

Jealousy and Writers

jealousy

Jealousy and Writers

Jealousy. This is kind of like those little icons on sites which ask “are you a human?” Check ‘yes’, please. Ergo (I’ve always wanted to use ‘ergo’), you’re likely to be jealous of other writers at one time or other. Somebody turns out a piece you don’t think you could have; another gets more praise than you think warranted i.e., more than you got.

Mostly writers deny or ignore the green-eyed monster. But pretending doesn’t help. Suppressed jealousy can make you feel inadequate. And people convinced they are lesser than aren’t the most open to learning and growing. So what can you do?

How to tell if you are jealous

This may have a kind of duh! feeling to it but like all emotions, jealousy can prompt you directly to action without being conscious of what lies beneath. A not-comprehensive list of how it might demonstrate itself:

  • Nit-picking the envied person’s piece. You can usually tell you’re doing it if nobody else has the same problem.
  • Pretending you don’t remember a fact/event which has been established to make The Other doubt how effectively she got it across.
  • ‘Forgetting’ to read The Other’s piece.
  • Making extremely critical remarks (e.g. this is junk) rather than a more nuanced and kinder comment (e.g. I got a bit confused by the plot).

Of course, sometimes these are legitimate—well, maybe not the last one. But if you find yourself doing these more than occasionally, that you need to pause and ask yourself, what’s going on?

How to deal with your jealousy

Naturally, you could just stop expressing your feelings. But while that might stop the behavior, it doesn’t stop the emotion. So I propose a more comprehensive way.

Okay, are you jealous of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie or Charles Dickens? Of course not. Unless you’re writing with them (particularly challenging in Dickens’ case), you don’t envy them—you admire them. So why not turn what you are feeling into that? It all comes from the same source but admiring someone’s writing makes it a whole lot easier for you and on you.

So when you get that funny, uncomfortable feeling in your stomach, or heart, or throat, try to reframe it.

Reframing the feeling

This is an exercise best done with a glass of wine and a quiet house.

  • Consult wherever in your body is telling you that you’re jealous. Don’t try to chase it away. Just be with it.
  • Ask yourself What about The Other’s writing makes me feel this way?
  • Some answers might be she makes it look so damn easy or how come he could come up with that great plot twist? or I wish I could write as lyrically—mine is so flat. Etc., etc.
  • Having identified the source, add: and I admire that. That is, she makes it look so damn easy and I admire that. How come he came up with that great plot twist? I admire that. You get the drill.
  • Hopefully, you can tap into the secret admiration which prompted the negative feeling to begin with.
  • Use this understanding to benefit your writing by asking The Other, “God, you make it look so damned easy. How do you do it?” You not only flatter The Other but might even get some good tips out of the response.

So, you can use the twinges of jealousy into something productive which can not only help your writing but relax that stomach, heart or throat that has been tensing up.

But what do you do it the tables are turned. How do you deal with envy directed your way? Next post.