Why you haven’t written your book yet (and 5 ways to change that)
There are plenty of good reasons to write a book: to have something to work on while loitering in coffee shops; to shape the way your grandkids remember you; to have something to talk about at cocktail parties in case you’re ever invited to one.
So you want to write this book. But now that you think about it, you’ve wanted to write this book since the Bush administration. The first one.
You’re still just sitting on that blank page. Here’s why:
- Problem: You’re worried about “using up” your good ideas.
You’ve had an idea for the next Great American Novel for a while now but are worried that if you try writing it before you really know what you’re doing, you’ll screw it up and waste this brilliant idea.
How to change that: Realize the well will never run dry.
The notion that you were born with some finite amount of inspiration, and that each time you write something you’re exhausting a scarce resource…this is a vicious fallacy. You have a hundred good ideas every day. The real struggle of a fiction writer is not a lack of material but rather having enough focus to fish the right material out of the creative swamp and mold it into something coherent and interesting. So don’t worry about “using up” your good idea on something subpar. There are plenty more where that came from.
- Problem: You’re waiting for inspiration to strike.
You know you’re going to write a book eventually, but you’re waiting for the heavens to open and illuminate the entire plot, page by page. You’re waiting for your Beautiful Mind moment: everything clicking thanks to a chance encounter with a flock of pigeons.
Or maybe if you could just travel somewhere interesting, that change of setting would be enough to inspire you to get started.
Could hallucinogens help…?
How to change that: Make writing your day job.
The waiter returns to your table ten minutes after you’ve ordered. “I’m sorry,” he says. “The chef just isn’t feeling inspired enough today to prepare your meal. He’s taking the afternoon off to meditate and watch the sunset.”
Demand from yourself what you’d demand from that chef.
An inspiring thought or moment might get you excited enough to start a project, but that will likely wear off pretty quickly and you’ll be back where you started. Ideas and projects of scope are developed incrementally. “Inspiration striking” is, by and large, a myth.
Traveling is great, doing exciting things is great, but the only way to write a book is to write it.
- Problem: You’re reading too much about how to write.
You feel as if you have to do months of due diligence before you dive into a huge project like writing a book. But the more you learn about the process the more overwhelmed you feel. Hell, just reading this article is making you reach for the Xanax.
How to change that: Stop looking for a writing recipe.
Here’s a dirty little secret about writing books: Even people who do it professionally are still experimenting (present company included). Writing a book is not like baking a cake. The methodology and final result completely depend on a million factors unique to you. Reading about how other people did it might be helpful to a degree, but ultimately you have to throw out the cookbook and do your thing.
- Problem: You don’t actually want to write a book.
Actually this isn’t a problem so much as something that every aspiring author should devote some thought to: Are you sure you want to write a book? I think it would be cool to climb Mount Everest or do an Ironman marathon, but I don’t want these things enough to commit any effort to attaining them.
How to figure it out: Give it an honest try.
Much like climbing Mount Everest, there is absolutely no way to write a book unless you really want to. Fortunately, unlike scaling a mountain, you can get halfway through a manuscript and decide to give up.
Writing a book is such a long undertaking that you’d better be enjoying the process and not just thinking about the endgame. If you throw yourself into it and after a hundred pages find that you’re miserable, stop punishing yourself. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that writing a book isn’t something you can prioritize. If it’s not a labor of love, you’re not doing anyone any favors by keeping up the slog.
- Problem: It’s really, really daunting.
Well, yeah. I won’t sugarcoat it: writing a full-length manuscript is hard and scary.
How to change that: Shut up and write.
A friend of mine told me about the first time he was on an airplane. He was flying trans-Atlantic with his dad and was absolutely terrified. As the plane prepared for takeoff, he turned to his father and said, “I can’t do this. I have to get off this plane right now. Tell the flight attendant. I have to get off.”
His dad grabbed him hard by the upper arm, leaned in close, and growled with finality: “Shut. Up.” That was that.
I’m not condoning this sort of parenting, but I love that story. Every time I find myself making excuses to myself: I can’t write today, I’m not in the right mood… What’s the point of writing? I’m not sure I’m even good at this, I imagine my friend’s dad grabbing my upper arm and growling: “Shut up and write.” Sometimes a swift kick to the rear is the only advice worth giving.
E.Z. Rinsky’s novel Palindrome is a finalist for the ITW Thriller Award for Best First Novel. The sequel, The Binding, is forthcoming from HarperCollins this July. More at www.ezrinsky.com