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Writing Challenges: overcoming resistance

February 19, 2014 by Olivier Blanchard - 7 Comments

Stephen King has written over 50 books. Chuck Palahniuk has written 15. Steven Pressfield, 13. All have seen their work made into movies. I’m only 2 books in, but I am already starting to understand some of the stuff all three have written about in regards to overcoming resistance and the day to day discipline of writing fiction. Since this topic comes up every time I sit down with someone who dreams of writing a book someday, I want to address it in a way that will make sense. Not because I’m an expert on the subject (I wish!) but because I am learning this stuff right now and it is super fresh in my head.

First of all, if you’re an aspiring author/novelist, do yourself a favor and absorb as much from these books and resources as you possibly can:

On Writing (Stephen King)

The War of Art (Steven Pressfield)

Do The Work (Steven Pressfield)

Turning Pro (Steven Pressfield)

Writing Wednesdays (Steven Pressfield – blog series)

ChuckPalahniuk.net (Chuck Palahniuk – website)

Chuck Palahniuk’s blog on Goodreads (blog)

There are tons of other great writing resources on the web but these three guys know what they’re talking about and they give solid advice. Go back to them as often as you need. I’am also bookmarking every piece of writer/creative friendly insight I can find over on the Wordcount community page, so dig through the timeline for whatever gold nuggets will help you move your idea, project or dream forward, even if it’s only a little bit: Wordcount community page.

Okay, now let’s get to the meat of this thing. I want to talk about resistance today, the stuff that turns into the obstacles you are certain to run into when you decide to turn your idea into a book. I could sit here and be academic about it but I think that we’ll all be much better served if I dispense with the bullshit and go straight for the wick. The only way I can really explain how this works is by telling you about how resistance has affected me personally while writing my first two books, and how I have sort of learned to deal with it. Here we go:

Confession #1: I am a procrastinator.

Here’s an infographic (thanks to mashable) that outlines 12 different types of procrastinators. I am guilty of 7 of those procrastination sins. In no particular order: the sidetracker, the social sharer, the internet researcher, the snacker, the gamer, the watcher, and the perpetuator.

procrastination_mashable_20px

How I overcame that:

I didn’t.

What I did is I learned to make procrastination work for me. I am such a pathological procrastinator that I created a structure that made my procrastination more functional. I’ll give you an example: Writing Social Media ROI went pretty smoothly but when came time to edit the book, the process grew so overwhelming, stressful and tedious that my brain started working really hard on finding reasons to keep putting it off. I knew I couldn’t though, (because: a) deadlines and b) I also really wanted to get it done) so I made a deal with myself: the things I enjoyed doing while I procrastinate became rewards. It took a few days to get the balance just right, but it eventually came to this:

  1. I divided the workload into would workable portions: X amount of pages per week divided by Y amount of pages per day.
  2. I scheduled the work. Not in my head. I wrote the schedule down. I had a calendar and I stuck to it. It took the guess work and the mental bargaining out of the equation.
  3. The scheme: After 4 pm, I would work 40 minutes without any interruptions, then take a 20 minute break. No matter what. If I got behind, I would still take the full 20 minute break. (I can handle even the most tedious, mind-numbing task in 40 minute increments, so that was the max.)
  4. Bonus: If I completed my work ahead of schedule, I didn’t forge ahead. My break just started earlier and lasted longer.

After two weeks, I had settled into that rhythm: 40 minutes of non-stop focused work, and  20 minutes of whatever: Facebook, Call of Duty killfests on X-Box, Twitter, making myself a sandwich… it didn’t matter. I created structure in which my work time was sacred, but perhaps more importantly, in which my play/procrastination time was sacred too. I turned my procrastination into something functional and made it work. Social Media ROI was delivered on schedule and it turned out to be a super solid book.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am still a procrastinator. I am a procrastinator like some people are alcoholics. That’s never going to change, but I don’t let it control my life. And if I can’t work hard at managing it, I can at least try to work smart at managing it. Know why?

Because this shit isn’t going to write itself.

Confession #2: I am lazy.

I know it’s hard to imagine that a guy who enjoys training for triathlons and goes on 100-mile bicycle rides for fun would be lazy but when it comes to anything that bores me, anything not intellectually stimulating, anything tedious, I am the laziest guy on the planet. My laziness doesn’t usually affect my writing but the impulse to say no to work I am not in the mood for is always there. It’s like a little voice whispering excuses to me from some dark twisted little rat hole in the back of my skull. It makes bargains with me and it’s very good at it.

By the time I have spent most of the day working, then maybe going to the gym or getting some saddle time in, then spending time with the family, all of this on top of dealing with 200 little emergencies and fires I had to put out all day, my brain rebels at the thought of having to put in hours of extra work. But you know what? When you have a book growing inside you and it’s screaming to get out, all that screaming eventually drowns out that pesky whispering inside your head. I’m not going to lie: it can be a struggle. Some days laziness wins. But most days, I win, even if it’s by a very fine margin. What’s important though is that every day, you try to win a little.

Pro tip: in writing, just like in sports and business and love and pretty much anything, you can get used to winning just like you can get used to losing. The more you do of either one, the  more you get used to it and the more it becomes a habit. So… by focusing on winning just a little bit every day, you learn to win every day. It seems like self-improvement bullshit, but over time, when you look back at all those little victories – all those times you sat down for just 30 minutes and worked on something, even if it was just one paragraph – you realize that you have a lot more control over your own inner resistance than you gave yourself credit for. Laziness is just resistance. That’s all it is. And the best part is you don’t really have to defeat it. All you have to do is stand your ground against it one little task at a time. Know why?

Because this shit isn’t going to write itself.

Confession #3: I am as vulnerable to self doubt as anyone else.

You spend months, even years developing an idea and writing a book. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to find ways of psyching yourself out: you aren’t a good enough writer, the book sucks, you aren’t good at dialog, you’ve hit a wall and can’t write anymore, you have writer’s block, and so on. We all go through that. Hemingway, Twain, Capote, Fitzgerald… they all struggled with it too. There’s just no damn way around it. The trick to dealing with it is this: know that it’s coming, that’s it’s inevitable, and that sooner or later you’ll get your mojo back. It could be a day, it could be a month. It doesn’t matter. Don’t sweat it. Don’t freak out. Don’t start doubting yourself. Just keep writing.

I don’t even know why I am saying this because I go through the same crap on a pretty regular basis and I don’t handle it any better than you. Actually, I probably handle it worse. I experience what you might call “soft meltdowns” when it comes to writing fiction. In the final stages of editing The Peacemakers, it almost became a weekly thing. Even though people involved with the editing of the book kept telling me it was solid, I fell prey to absurd and completely unnecessary episodes of self doubt.

OMG, I’ve just wasted 4 years of my life. This book is a complete disaster.

OMG, I’ve lost the ability to write and it may never come back.

OMG, I have no idea what the fuck I am doing!

OMG, no one is ever going to read it.

*Yawn

Here’s a truth: I am going to struggle with this for the rest of my life. So will you. It doesn’t matter though, just as long as you just KEEP WRITING. Everything you wrote today sucked? Who cares. You moved forward, didn’t you. You learned something. KEEP WRITING. The truth of it is, it doesn’t matter if what you wrote today was shit. You’ll have to rewrite it 20 times anyway, and sooner or later, what you thought was shit will turn out to have been the kernel for something great.

Here’s a little secret about writing a novel that you may not know: novels aren’t written. They are rewritten over and over and over again. Writing is like ironing: you go over the same spot as many times as it takes to get it just right. Books aren’t edited as much as they are rewritten. When Hemingway opined that “the first draft of anything is shit,” he wasn’t kidding. Sometimes you get lucky and you hit a scene or a piece of dialog out of the ballpark on your first try (or you work from notes that you’ve already perfected for 6 months), but most of the time you’re just sketching the story using words. That first layer is going to get erased and/or drawn over at least a dozen times, so don’t sweat it. KEEP WRITING.

You’re stuck? Okay. KEEP WRITING.

You’re drawing a blank? Okay. KEEP WRITING.

Oh, and by the way, that whole thing about being lazy? How do you think that plays when you start realizing that writing a 300 page book is really going to amounts to writing 6,000 pages? Yeah. The thing is, as long as you just KEEP WRITING, you’ll get there. And you know what? You don’t have a choice…

Because this shit isn’t going to write itself.

Confession #4: Discipline doesn’t come easy for me.

I don’t like rules. I don’t like boxes. I don’t even like schedules. My brain looks like Mark Twain’s desk in that picture just below. Writing a book requires discipline though. It requires order and planning. You can’t treat book writing like something you’ll do “later” when you have some free time. You have to make time. You have to commit to it. Writers who make a living from their novels have it easy because writing is their job. They can basically plan to relax for a couple of hours in the morning, answer emails, check Facebook, answer tweets from fans, but then they can block 5 hours to sit down and work on their next book. How cool would it be to be able to set aside a daily block from 10 am to 3 pm just to write? The problem is that for most of us rubes, that isn’t really an option. Not without quitting our jobs. That means we have to be more creative with our time management and twice as organized.

mark_twain_desk

The key here is that because I am super lazy and busy and riddled with procrastination impulses and irrational self doubt about this writing thing, and because I would sometimes much rather go for a bike ride because it’s warm and sunny and I don’t have anything pressing to do, I need to be disciplined or I won’t ever get anything done. I could have been writing novels 10 years ago. Do you know why I didn’t? Because I didn’t have the discipline to make time to write them. It’s the only reason. I could kick myself for all the time I wasted before getting here. Water under the bridge now, but discipline is what ultimately makes the difference between wanting to do something and actually getting it done. And then doing it again.

If you can only spare two hours per day, then set aside those two hours and commit to them. That thing about developing habits and winning a little bit every day, that’s where it happens. So make time. Know why?

Because this shit isn’t going write itself.

Confession #5: My ego is just as fragile as yours.

When your query gets rejected by 4 literary agents in a row, you start to take it personally. But by the time you break the 40th rejection, it isn’t personal anymore. It’s that in-between area that’s hard to handle. The blood dries and so do the tears, but getting there can be pretty brutal. Sending out query after query, knowing that 90-100% of them will come back in the form of a rejection is rough. Every time you click the send button, you’re basically asking for a big slap in the face from a complete stranger. It’s a little nuts and it can really mess with your head if you aren’t very thick skinned or very determined. 

The thing is, unless you’re Bill Clinton or the Pope, your first proposal is probably going to get rejected. A lot. Maybe it’s because it needs more work (don’t be lazy). Maybe it’s because it doesn’t fit what they’re looking for, no matter how awesome it is. Maybe it’s because they just didn’t even read your email, let alone your sample or synopsis. There could be a dozen reasons why your first novel will be rejected a million times, and the worst part about it is that no one will ever tell you why. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the same email they send to 50 authors that day and the day before and the day before that.

Thanks but no thanks. We thought it was really great but it isn’t for us. Best of luck.

Most of the time, no one will even bother to reach out to you to tell you that they’re going to pass, and in some ways that’s even worse. Someday, I’ll tell you how many times The Peacemakers was rejected. I need to go back and tally up all the rejections (which I kept, by the way). It isn’t a world record by any stretch of the imagination but you will crap your pants. On the plus side though, having your query or manuscript rejected puts you in pretty great company. Click here for a short list. Here’s another one. Among our peers: Stephen King (Carrie), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), Anne Frank (the diary), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series), George Orwell (Animal Farm), Frank Herbert (Dune), Jack Kerouac (On The Road) and William Faulkner (Sanctuary). Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was rejected 38 times. Some of the 20th (and now 21st) century’s biggest bestsellers were rejected for years before being published. It’s just how it works.

I used to blame literary agents for this. Lazy bastards, right? Do they even read queries and manuscripts or just sit around drinking lattes and working on their own novels all day? Why even bother researching them and writing a personalized letter? I wasted weeks querying them like a boss. Oh, the injustice! Oh, the humanity! Tragic stuff. Like a lot of authors before me, I used to shake my fist at the whole antiquated publishing industry model and bitch about the fact that most agents and acquisitions editors just want predictable, easy to package novels. Well duh, no shit. Of course they do. They want something they know will sell. It’s how they get paid. They aren’t in the business of taking chances on completely unknown new authors and unproven, genre-bending novels. Once you learn to think of publishers as casinos, it all starts making sense. The house rigs the game in its favor, and its job is to win more than it loses. Looking for long odds every day of the week isn’t part of the model, so unless you’re a celebrity with a juicy memoir or an established, successful author, the odds are never going to be in your favor.

Agents also aren’t looking for the Great American Novel. It would be a little like expecting to accidentally discover a sketch of the iPhone in 2003 by just digging through a company’s customer suggestions & comments box.

Hey, I invented this cool looking phone/computer thing. You guys interested?

Good luck with that plan. What agents and publishers are looking for is a book they know they can sell. A fast and sure winner. A product that will be successful within the first six weeks of publication, and if at all possible, the first three. So if you’re a newcomer, you’d better go at them with a 250-275 page manuscript that happens to fit perfectly in the little box they are trying to fill (sparkly vampires, zombies, wizards, teenage witches, 51 Shades of something) or you’re going to get a very short response in 4-8 weeks, no matter how awesome it is. That’s reality. You might get lucky (though Vegas odds are better) and you might have contacts in the biz that can make something happen for you, but on the whole it doesn’t matter how good your book is or how awesome you are as a writer. Breaking through, getting that first novel published by anyone (let alone the Big Five), it’s the sort of thing you can’t really count on. Keep thinking positive thoughts, keep plugging away, but you need to go into this with a very strong Plan B. Luckily, publishing is a wide open space right now and you have a lot more options than you did ten years ago. But I digress.

The point is that when you’re looking for reasons to doubt yourself, for reasons why you think you will fail, trust me, you will find some. Agent/publisher rejections feed super well into that cycle of self-inflicted negative bullshit so it’s really easy to get caught up in maelstroms of imaginary negative feedback.

Well, there you go. Another rejection. Proof that my book sucks.

Except no. That isn’t what it means at all. It might be (and you need to find out because if so, you can do something about it and you should do something about it) but chances are that how good your book is, how talented you are as a writer, how much you have to offer as an artist or storyteller probably had nothing to do with the rejection. So don’t quit. Don’t retreat. Don’t give up. Not after having gone this far. If your mantra earlier in the process was KEEP WRITING, it becomes KEEP GOING once you’re 95% of the way there. Only an asshole quits within sight of the finish line, and like my grandfather used to say, “don’t be an asshole.”

There’s also the whole thing about reader reviews and people who might give you one star or no stars at all, but let’s save that for another day.

So to recap, every author in history has run into the exact same obstacles you are going to run into along your book-writing journey. Every single one, even the greats. Overcoming inner resistance is the single most difficult aspect of the process. It isn’t the writing. Trust me on this. It’s never the writing. Shitty writers get published every day. What’s tragic though isn’t a shitty writer with a book deal. What’s tragic is a decent writer who can’t finish writing his or her book because of inner resistance. That’s what really robs the world of something precious, and you need to fight that shit with the energy of a very pissed off badger mom protecting her young.

Don’t even worry about publishers until your book is finished. Getting the book published isn’t the real challenge. The real challenge is starting.

Then it’s not stopping or giving up (every single day for months and maybe years).

Then it’s actually finishing the book. Really finishing it. Like… five more versions and rewrites than you expected.

Then it’s getting it ready for publication.

Then and only then does it become about getting it to readers, and publishing is changing so fast that finding a publisher may not even be something you need or want to do anymore anyway.

Unless you learn to push through, you won’t ever have to worry about not getting it to your readers. The job, boys and girls, the process, is simply this: getting it done. Persevering. Doing the work. Just KEEP WRITING. Trust me, if I can learn to do this, everyone can learn to do it too.

Okay, that’s it. We’ll talk about this a lot more but I don’t want to keep you. Now go write something. Even if it’s notes or an outline, just KEEP WRITING. Know why?

Because …

(Of course you do.)

Cheers,

Olivier

The Peacemakers (The first volume in The Nemesis Engines series – or #TNE1) is scheduled for release in March of 2014 is now available on Amazon.com. Steel and Bone (#TNE2) is due to come out in March of 2015, and if all goes well, Copperheart (#TNE3) will follow in March of 2016.

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