Fiction for Beginners

January 12, 2010

Last week was the week I was supposed to get right down to it: writing a novel. Most days I feel like I’m pretty good at this writing thing. I got a really nice compliment on it the other day. I can crack open a file and find evidence that I have gotten college credit for being good at it in the past. Once or twice, I even got published. I have more than five linear feet of desk space devoted to books about the craft and trade of writing.

I still have to drag myself to the keyboard.

My fiction writing student got a rejection letter last week. It was an email from an editor, and it had those magic words: “try me again”! This is a big deal. I was thrilled and I told him so. I am, apparently, also good at teaching beginning fiction.

And yet… I am such a noob. I wanna be like Dave Barry and the rest of the “we don’t get writer’s block” set. Or like Steven King, and everyone else who knows how to sit down in a chair, at the same time every day, no matter what.

So, 2:00 PM is the new Novel Writing Time. Jerry Cleaver suggests that people with my problem try just sitting there for five minutes, thinking, “This is novel time,” for the first week. I don’t think I’m doing quite that badly, but I guess I’ll find out for sure tomorrow. My cell phone has this nifty alarm feature; that should help.

Ahhh, overconfidence…

So I had this assignment, which I mentioned in my last post. It started okay, but once I had the basic structure laid out, my brain froze. I couldn’t think of a way to expand the material, I couldn’t revise it… after a couple days of this, I could barely bring myself to look at it for more than a minute or two. As I mentioned, this project came from a friend of mine, with whom I usually work very well. It’s never been difficult for me to pick up his vibe. He sends an email or talks for a few minutes; I see where he wants the piece to go, and I get it there. Fast. As in, I’ve knocked stuff out on my lunch hour for this guy with zero problems.

Not so for the web content job. In fact, I hit a wall in every kind of writing I do–for two weeks! I’m finally out of it, as you can see. Here’s how I made it happen:

1. I ignored the problem. Sometimes, they really do go away. After a couple days, it was clear that R & R was not what the doctor ordered.
2. I wrote in a journal. There were two reasons for this. First, I wrote just to get back into writing, and journaling is the easiest form I know. Second, something had been on my mind, and writing in a journal helps to clear mental real estate for profitable redevelopment.
3. I set a timer for five minutes, and forced myself to write web content for those five minutes. It was awful, folks. Then I set the timer for ten minutes. Worse. I kept writing, after the timer went off, until I ran out of ideas. This was a key moment in block destruction: I had begun to write without feeling forced. The ideas were bad, but they were flowing again.
4. I decided I was done with the block and would write brilliantly, starting tomorrow. I believed I was telling myself the truth. I may have been lying, but you couldn’t have told me that.
5. I sat down with my drivel the next day, and rewrote it into something I was happy with. I submitted it this morning.

This process took two weeks, but it can be compressed. I should be able to push it to two or three days. Do something fun, journal, sleep; write on a timer, adjust attitude, sleep, and write. This was a two-reboot cycle block; others may require less. That’s what I hope… or should that be believe? Overconfidence didn’t help me here, but ordinary confidence is still a necessary attribute of a successful writing career.