The Insecurities of Being a Writer

once upon a timeI’m just going to throw this out there. Sometimes. Most times. I find being a writer downright depressing. Fiction writing, that is. This blog post is easy, but is a direct result of procrastinating and avoiding the novel in progress, a.k.a. WIP for work in progress.

I’m afraid to even open the document because staring at the almost blank page will make me physically sick. There’s no failure like not being able to write down what really is a pretty good story.

Why do I do this?

It happens every time. I’ve got one novel under my belt, so you’d think I’d be used to this by now. I have several short stories—enough that they will be published in a collection in September.

They say the more you do something the easier it gets, but that isn’t true for writing. Writing is more along the lines of: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

If there is such a thing as bipolar writing disorder, I’ve got it. This current malaise is just that. Current. A week or two ago, I was on a tear. I’d write a thousand words before work. And the high from that is incredible. I’ve never done drugs, so I might be exaggerating, but nothing starts my day better than putting down a few paragraphs of good story. The writing could be lousy, but I can fix that later.

There’s no fixing nothing. And that’s what I’ve produced since then.

The problems manifest in many ways.

There’s the blank-page panic. I’m ready to start a new chapter. What should happen next?

Equally difficult is having some words already on the page. I scribbled out a skeleton that now needs to be fleshed out. How? Description? Interior monologue? Dialogue? (That’s my comfort zone and so far the manuscript looks more like a screenplay than novel.)

The problem with fiction, and I’ve said this before, is that there are just too many damn words to choose from.

Nonfiction is a recording of what happened. You can’t stray. If it didn’t happen, it doesn’t go onto the page.

Fiction is far too open ended.

You have to choose the point of view. I started this story thinking I’d follow two main characters, but I hate that in most lesfic I read, so why do it? I decided to keep to one character. I like that. I like having her not know, or having the reader not know along with her, what the other characters are thinking.

My novel was in first person. I decided to write this in third. Close third. Only inside her head. None of this head hopping. Louise Penny may be able to pull it off, but I’m not ready for that.

Setting. I’m stuck there. This is science fiction and takes place on a spaceship. Every time I hear a bird sing or smell spring, I think, oh, I should write—nope. Uh uh. There are no birds in space. What was I thinking? Maybe I should find them a nice Goldilocks planet.

How much time should pass?

How many characters do I include?

What should I name them?

Who falls for whom?

Who fights whom?

What goes wrong?

How bad?

Nancy Duarte has a great TEDxEast Talk, “The Secret Structure of Great Talks.” It works for storytelling too. She is a “presentation designer.” (If you ever have to do a PowerPoint presentation, she’s worth looking up.) In her talk, Duarte describes a structure for compelling speeches—think Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” or Steve Jobs’s iPhone introduction (really). It’s kind of amazing.

Where does the emotional level of the story begin? How does it build? What are the ups and downs? Where should you end up?

The famous Aristotelian dramatic structure graph shows the “rising action” building until the climax, then the falling action and denouement. But the action can’t rise nonstop. There has to be some variation. This shows how.

Once you figure out the structure, it should be easy to plunk the story details in, right? I used it for a short story and it helped me organize what would happen when.

Transferring that to a novel, however, while not impossible, is still daunting.

The danger, of course, is that you find yourself watching TED Talks about writing instead of actually writing. (I just did that—there are some great ones!)

The only comfort I take, the only thing that keeps me going, is knowing that this too shall pass. For some reason, I need to get down to a dismal level before I pick myself up, dust off my pencil, and get cracking on that WIP.

Just not sure when that will happen.

And yet it did.

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote the above. Since then, I attended GrubStreet’s Muse and the Marketplace conference. Perhaps the best workshop was “How to Finish: Project Management Techniques for Writers,” by Kelly Ford. I had the biggest “Duh!” moment. See, I work as a project manager.

I don’t know why I thought basic project management skills wouldn’t translate to something creative like writing a novel. And I ain’t done yet, but I did what I do for my day job. I built a schedule around what I wanted to accomplish: a first draft by the end of this year. (She walked us through setting goals and timelines.)

Now, instead of getting all ADD and frustrated, I’m working through my “tasks.” First up, finish up the outline and flesh out the characters. During another workshop, Lessons from the Novel Incubator (a year-long class I’ll probably never get into), Michelle Hoover mentioned that she likes character-driven stories—then you’ll find your plot, rather than drag characters along on some contrived plot.

I’m no longer angst driven because I haven’t written a “scene” in weeks. I don’t have to worry about that. I only have to worry about who my characters are. Because before they stepped into this crazy-assed story, they had lives, hopes, and dreams. All of which will inform how they behave once the “inciting incident” (or “point of attack”—new term I learned at Muse) happens.

Next up for inspiration, a Writer Unboxed post by Lisa Cron about just that topic: “Don’t Accidentally Give Your Characters a Time Out.” (A better title would be the opener: Where do your characters go when they aren’t in the scene you’re writing?)

This may seem mundane, but think about it—once you know what each other character wants, in addition to what your protagonist wants, then it’s easy to come up with conflict and tension.

So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been happily exploring who my characters are—in addition to the main ones—and I’ve come up with some cool ideas for ways to make their lives miserable.

I’m doing OK schedule-wise, and though I adjust it as I go along, so far I’m still on track.

Wish me luck.



Nancy Duarte’s TED Talk

FYI on Kelly Ford


Check out Lisa Cron’s blog Writer Unboxed post.

Photo via Visual Hunt



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