This idea comes thanks to my wonderful writer friend, Nikki Vogel (whose awesome short story, The Past, Of Course, has just been nominated for the Journey Prize).
You’ve all heard about the horrors of the blank page, but that is not what I want to talk about today. Because the blank page can start to look pretty good when you’re in the middle of a much more terrible horror: the mess that is your present novel.
Compared to that, the blank page is so, well, clean. No mistakes yet, or characters that don’t belong. No plot ideas that dead-end by page 20. It’s tempting, isn’t it? Especially while you struggle through the soggy marshland that is the middle of your novel. You’re wearing boots, but they’re leaking. It doesn’t smell good. You’re lost, no map or compass, and you’re hungry for a big bowl of Alphagetti (because writing a novel makes you crave weird things). I know. I’ve been there.
So, what do you do? Do you slog it out, repair your plot holes, redo your outline – in other words, finish your shit? Well, if you’re anything like me the answer is probably no. Chances are you succumb, and start thinking about that next idea. The one that’s still perfect because you haven’t really thought it out yet. The unwritten word is seductive. It’s a Siren and it sings to you. So much easier than cutting characters and rethinking your subplot, right?
Yes. But no. Get some headphones, plug your ears and ignore it. That way lies folly, friends. Because if you succumb regularly enough, you will be one of those writers who starts novels and doesn’t finish them. Unfinished novels are like warts you can’t get rid of. They’re ugly, and even if no one else can see them, you know they’re there.
The trouble with thinking about new work is that you can trick yourself into believing it’s not really procrastination. You’re working on a new project. That counts, doesn’t it? Probably your floor is already washed, the laundry done, and you’ve eaten your way through half the fridge and feel too guilty to actually finish the bag of Oreos.
Writing a novel is hard work. There are clear stages, and when you get to the computer-smashing Hulk stage (#11), you want to do pretty much anything except finish the job. Do yourself a favour and step away from that blank notebook. Get back to the hard work of making a story sing. As Henry Miller put it in his Writing Commandments, “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.”
Now, what are you doing here? Get back to work!