You have ideas for stories, but when you launch your word processor, you stare helplessly at a blank page. Every time you try to write, you end up spending the evening watching videos of cats on YouTube instead. Why is this happening? We’ve all been there. Here are a few things that might be getting in your way:
Column by Andy Weir, who was first hired as a programmer for a national lab at age
fifteen and has been engineering software ever since. He's always been fascinated
by space travel and is a devoted hobbyist of subjects like orbital mechanics, relativistic
physics, astronomy, and the history of manned spaceflight. His first novel is THE MARTIAN
(Feb. 2014, Crown), about a stranded astronaut on Mars. The book has been praised by
USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and more. It was a New
York Times bestseller and had its film rights optioned by 20th Century Fox.
1: You don’t know which story to pick
You don’t just have one idea, you have several. Writing a book is a big commitment. You want to take time to carefully consider what you’ll be spending the next year slaving over. No sense rushing in to things, right?
The problem with the above logic is that it leads to a stalemate. You like all the ideas you came up with. They’re your ideas, after all. When you start to think about doing one, you realize that would mean giving up on the others. Then you vacillate back and forth.
Solution: Write the first chapter of each story. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a better appreciation of which one you like the most. And if you finish Chapter 1 on one of them and really don’t want to stop, then there’s your answer.
2: Stories are always more awesome in your head than they are on paper
Your heroine, Susan, had neglectful and disinterested parents. This made her overwhelmingly driven to excel. She’s the youngest Vice President in the history of her Fortune 500 company. One day, while grabbing dinner with her wise-cracking gay friend Bob, she meets Joe. He’s a good man, and handsome, but not “successful”. He’s content to take life easy. Will Susan compromise her obsession with upward mobility to find happiness with Joe?
That’s the idea you had, anyway. But when you tried to write it, you got this:
“Susan first saw Joe at the diner. He looked good. Bob was there, too.”
After a few incidents like this, you got gun-shy about writing. You’re reluctant to put it on paper because deep down you know it won’t be as cool as you imagined it.
Solution: Ok, so it won’t be what you imagined. But a story in your head isn’t a story. It’s just a daydream until you actually write it down. So write it down. What’s the worst that can happen? If it sucks, you can delete it.
3: You’ve been telling the story instead of writing it
Oh, admit it. You’ve been telling everyone your story idea. Friends, relatives, the mailman, and anyone else who didn’t awkwardly edge away while you rambled on. But guess what? That sapped your desire to actually write it.
You want an audience. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be a writer. The biggest motivation to write is the knowledge that someone will read it. But you already told the story to everyone you know and your need for an audience has been sated. So when you stare at that scary blank page, your subconscious begins calculating. “This is hard. Is this worth it? What validation or feedback will I get? I already got opinions from the people I know, so anything beyond that will be from strangers. That’s nice, but on the other hand, I could be watching videos of cats on YouTube right now.”
Solution: Don’t tell your stories to anyone. You’ll be more motivated knowing it’s a prerequisite to having an audience. Also, your friends will be able to give real feedback instead of vague opinions about your unimplemented concepts. And you won’t have to wonder if the person you’re talking to is genuinely interested in your story, or secretly hoping they’ll have a heart attack so they can escape the conversation.
4: You don’t know how it will end yet
You know Brock Danger will defeat the Zorplaxian Queen, but you haven’t decided how. Will he incite a slave revolt? Will he defeat her champion in unarmed combat? Or will he use his rugged countenance to seduce her in to submission. You just can’t make up your mind.
Of course, you’re nowhere near having to write the climax yet. You’re still working on Chapter 3, where he crawls out of his crashed spaceship. But you don’t want to write any more until you’ve settled on an ending. After all, everything leads up to that. It will affect how every part of the story is presented.
Solution: A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. Don’t wait for an inspired ending to come to mind. Work your way to the ending and see what comes up. When you actually write it down, you start to see all the avenues. You’ll finish the book sooner and you’ll get more ideas for the ending along the way.
This guest column is a supplement to the
"Breaking In" (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer's Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Agent Adam Muhlig of McIntosh & Otis seeks queries.
- If you get your short fiction published in journals, literary agents will come to YOU.
- "7 things I've learned so far from writing and researching novels."
- Agent Carole Jelen is looking for nonfiction authors & queries.
- Don’t be hamstrung by the admonition to “write what you know.”
- 5 Easy Ways to Publicize & Promote Your Books.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.
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