Posts Tagged writer’s block
My muse is in trouble. I’ve spent too long on facts and analysis. I’ve been longing to tackle the Mountains Novel. Ideas and concepts have been piling up in my files, but now my schedule allows, I can think only of practicalities. My notes look like thin nonsense. I only see the problems, not the potential.
This is what going to press – and e-press – does to your mind. These last weeks have been an orgy of pedantry. Crossing ts and eyes, making an index, hyperlinking cross-references, obeying format rules for the kingdoms of Smashwords, Kobo and Kindle, typesetting the print version, reading onscreen proofs, tweaking bloopers and doing it all again. Oh and I updated the typography in the original NYN too, so that was an extra dose of proofing.
Now, my muse is on strike. I need to win it round. Here’s what I’m doing.
Forgive me if this is the most air-headed post I’ve ever written. I’m blowing away cobwebs.
While finishing the characters book, I’ve been making a list of novels and memoirs that have resonated with themes and ideas I want to explore. There’s nothing like a good book to make me want to write.
Compiling a soundtrack
Of course I’m doing this. I’ve been collecting CDs for the car, tracks for running to. Some of them have come from others’ Undercover Soundtrack posts, especially Andy Harrod, Tom Bradley, Timothy Hallinan and a few that are currently a secret between me and the writers because they’re cued up in my inbox. Thank you, guys, for opening the windows.
Rediscovering the fun in connections
A few things that real-life friends have introduced me to these last few days that reminded me how homo sapiens is an endlessly creative creature.
I have a friend called David Bailey. Yes, like the famous photographer, but not related to him. Though my David Bailey does like taking photographs. And he’s spent much of his life grappling with scornful titters if he wields a camera. Last year, he was recruited for an advertising stunt, where 143 chaps called David Bailey gathered in London, put on black polonecks, were trained to use a whizzy camera and had to spend the day using each other’s middle names.
2 People lying down in Mexico
These foolish things inspire me. There’s something so adorable about found similarity. A brigade of guys called David Bailey, identically dressed and taking pictures. Ten beautifully composed photos where everyone is, curiously, lying down. I could detonate with delight. If I wrote a thousand words I wouldn’t get to the end of why.
Whether your art is visual, written or sonic, so much starts by taking the world and seeing patterns. Repetitions. Connections. One idea boldly takes the hand of another, one character finds another, one event causes another, fractalling on and on. They look as though they should always have been joined. I won’t make the same connections you do, and that’s what makes your art yours and my art mine.
What inspires you?
(Aside: this week, some of the David Bailey pictures are being sold on ebay to raise money for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity. One of them is by the very famous black polonecked David Bailey; one is by my black polonecked David JW Bailey, who also provided the pics for this post. See if you can tell which is which)
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Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.
But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.
Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.
Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.
Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.
If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales. Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.
Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.
It also helps to define a few parameters.
- Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
- Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
- Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
- Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
- Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.
Still stuck? Push on anyway
Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.
‘What happens now?’
‘Bah, I don’t know.’
‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’
When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.
You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.
Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel.
Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik
Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!
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Once upon a time, an idea caught your eye. You wanted to spend tens of thousands of words exploring it. Maybe you now can’t remember that, or the work you’ve done has left you weary and muddled.
If we’re talking about an idea that hasn’t been written yet, the first thing I’d do is make it new again. Recreate the gut ‘wow’.
OMG I must write this
I forget everything I’ve tried to do with the idea so far. I identify what grabbed me when the idea was fresh and new.
I also forget what anyone else has done with it, if they have. It’s easy to end up intimidated by other treatments, especially if I’m frustrated. I disregard all that and find what originally demanded I work with the idea.
I create a mood board. I write down random phrases, images, dialogue snatches that the idea suggests to me. As a shorthand I might note moments from other novels or movies, or snatches of music. Anything to capture the excitement I first felt.
Make it fun
The chances are, I’m disappointed with the pointless work I’ve done so far. Ideas will flow better if I’m not reproaching myself. After all, the original idea came unbidden.
As much as possible, I make this process feel like play. Instead of typing on a computer, I write by hand. I often use the gaps in expired appointments diaries, scribbling notes in a different-coloured pen, or using the pages upside down. This lets me brainstorm without judging the results. Or I go somewhere I don’t usually write – cafes, a bench overlooking a view, a Tube train.
If you use Pinterest you could also start a board for your idea, but I’m not disciplined enough and will probably get lost on a browsing spree.
Where to take the idea?
Once I’ve made the idea feel new again, I start thinking about where it can go.
I start new lists for
- characters and what they want
- dramatic events that fit with the idea.
Batteries recharged, I can now face looking at what others have done. I search on Amazon for books tagged with keywords. LibraryThing has even better tags – here’s the page for My Memories of a Future Life and its tags, which I can click on to find other books that tackle the same subjects. (I would do the same on Goodreads but haven’t been able to work out how.) I also use the website TV Tropes (here’s how I use it to fill gaps in my story outline). All these resources will suggest the kinds of events, characters, conflicts and quests I could have.
Importantly, they’ll also help me discard some possibilities. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I get a heartsink feeling whenever I look over some of my notes. Clearly I’m not interested in that aspect of the characters’ world, even though other writers have tackled it. So I’ll play it down.
When is the idea strong enough?
Ultimately the idea is strong enough when I know:
- who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
- what people are trying to do
- how it will get worse
- what the setting is
- why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
- a rough structure – what kicks off the drama and various twists that will form the turning points. Sometimes I decide the end beforehand, or I let it find itself once I’m writing.
You might have covered all these bases but the story still seems limp. In that case, beef up the material you have -
- increase the stakes so that the goal matters more to the characters
- make it more difficult for them to get what they want
- turn up the conflict between the characters.
You don’t have to get it all instantly
This is important. Some ideas need to be shut away and wiped from your fretting brain. If the idea looks feeble, don’t junk it. Give it a sabbatical. The Venice Novel, which I talked about in the TV Tropes post, has worn out my ingenuity for now so I’ve put it in the deep compost department. Meanwhile another novel I thought I’d worried to shreds has – to my surprise – woken up with real substance. I’m working on the detailed outline. For now I’m calling it The Mountain Novel.
Partner it with another idea
Sometimes an idea doesn’t have enough juice on its own. But it’s still worth working it as far as you can. A few key elements in My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form 3 began as separate story ideas. Negligible on their own, they harmonised perfectly in a bigger work.
Don’t be afraid to restart
Sometimes we go wrong with an idea or get lost. If I’m in the early stages, trying to work out what to do with an idea, I return to the pure inspiration and look for a stronger angle. If I’ve already drafted and the story doesn’t seem to matter enough, I look at ways to turn up the heat. (Speaking of which, thanks for the distillation pic Brankomaster.)
Have you had to strengthen a story idea? What did you do? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. Book 2 is now under construction – sign up for my newsletter for details as soon as they become available. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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Everyone’s writing prediction posts right now. I wouldn’t have dared, except the website On Fiction Writing asked what I thought might happen in the industry in the next five years.
Obviously writers can’t be oblivious to what’s going on in publishing, but if you look at what’s changed in the past two years, do we have a hope of predicting anything with accuracy? Anyway, who would trust the predictions of anyone who makes things up for a living? Worlds, economies, social movements roll out of our imagination to suit whatever story we want to tell. (And I see they put my interview next to a novel called The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Adorable cover anyway.)
The only certainties I can predict – for myself and for other writers in 2013 – are these.
- I will need to weigh up several new social media environment and decide if they’re worth the effort. I will need to remind myself that once upon a time I was scornful of Twitter, Facebook and even – gasp – blogging.
- I’ll need to embrace at least one new platform for publishing, on a device that I don’t see the need for. I will have to remind myself that putting Nail Your Novel on Kindle turned out to be a brilliant move.
- I’ll never decide what’s worthwhile unless I have help – which I will probably find by firing off a tweet or a Facebook post to all you guys.
- I’ll get stuck on the novel I’m writing, and when I think all is irretrievably lost the answer will fall effortlessly onto the page. (I talk about writer’s block in my interview, in case you’re wrestling too.)
- I’ll discover several writers whose work contains such insight, I will not know how I did without them (I talk about favourite writers too)
Predictions aside, I’m also talking about self-publishing, publishers developing new roles as partners for indies, finding readers – and ghostwriting. Do join me there and if you’re in a predictive frame of mind, leave a comment here with conjectures, projections and outright fabrications and fantasies for writers in 2013.
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Often, writers are gearing up to reveal a big threat in the meat of the story, but fail to give us enough in the early chapters. Instead they show the characters living their lives, surrounded by their important folk. They may show us back story, and what the characters don’t want to lose. This is all useful groundwork – but they are in a state of stability.
What’s missing is the sense that the character is venturing onto a tightrope. The unknown knocking at the door. The trampoline on the balcony.
Genre and generalisations
How obvious you make this instability depends on your readership. Children’s and YA novels have to be pretty literal, while literary novels for adults might create pressures of agonising subtlety. Passages that would be aimless cogitation in a thriller might be enthralling dissonance in another genre.
But whatever you are writing, you still need jeopardy. So if your characters are looking too comfortable, what can you do?
Cut the throat-clearing
The simplest answer is to ditch the throat-clearing and get to the main threat sooner, then generate some complications to spin out afterwards.
Foreshadow with mysterious symptoms
But you might be better to keep your main conflict where it is. In that case, you need a build-up – but one that isn’t aimless.
Start from your main conflict and spin it out backwards, creating less severe problems that will lead to the flashpoint. Like mysterious symptoms that warn of a medical catastrophe, these can give that tingling sense that the character’s world is becoming irretrievably unstable.
Is there any normal activity that they start to find more difficult? Is there a tricky choice they might have to make early on? And could the character handle these in a way that makes everything more precarious? Could they think they’ve sorted it out but find they’ve made it worse?
Sometimes writers try to add jeopardy with a deadline. The gangsters are coming. Or the bomb will detonate. That can be effective if introduced late, but plot timebombs have a short shelf life. If you start them ticking too early and never escalate the problems in another way, the reader can get numbed.
Other characters are a terrific source of instability. Is there something your main character has to do that puts them at odds with other people who are important to them?
When I fixed Life Form 3, I looked closely at the other characters. I found:
- relationships where there was tension, and I made more of it
- ways for characters to spoil things for each other
- a way to give an early warning of the main threat, by making a diluted version afflict another character
I also looked for where this new, more desperate situation might lead to alliances. This gave one character a much stronger role, and became a catalyst for other tensions that richocheted through the story. He emerged with some strong beliefs that made him a far bigger player than he was originally designed to be.
Stories need a sense of instability to tweak the reader’s curiosity. If you need to add more, you can often find the roots in your main conflict and characters.
Have you had to add jeopardy to a story – and how did you do it? Let’s talk in the comments!
If you found this post useful, you might like the follow-up to my book Nail Your Novel. It’s currently in edits and I’m still debating the title, but it will be stuffed with craft advice. If you’d like updates about this and Life Form 3, sign up to my newsletter
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In infants’ school I remember being taught to write neatly. Servicably. We copied letter-forms. As we matured, certain pupils were singled out for approval and the rest of the class fell in with their styles. The Debbie – slanting copperplate. The Elizabeth – small and round. The Katie – wide and loopy.
Seeing this, I chose to invent my own.
I don’t know why. Perhaps because we spent most of our time all writing the same thing. Copying from the blackboard, taking dictation, answering questions – 20 girls all processing the same words and thoughts. I must have decided I had to do it differently.
I experimented with letter-shapes. One week, ys and gs might curl under the line in luxuriant loops. The next they would be jagged reversed lightning bolts. I might team this with a Debbie cursive slope for a while, enjoying the clash of styles. All possible Greek letters were tried, and for a while all Rs were small capitals (very time-consuming, so not practical).
Fascinated by a computerish font on the back of a sci-fi novel, I tried to emulate that.
Serifs were another passing phase, too fiddly for everyday use. An American girl arrived at the school who dotted her ‘i’s with a little bubble. A teacher told her off for it in front of everyone. Outraged, I adopted it immediately.
This makes me sound like a rebel. I wasn’t. You couldn’t have pointed to a more obedient pupil. I wanted a hassle-free life, even if the rules were bewilderingly dumb. But no matter how often I was penalised for eccentric letters or lack of neatness, I couldn’t toe that line. My identity on the page was not the teachers’ business. It was a sacred search for originality in world where everything else was repetition and regurgitation.
Freedom – or not
At least English allowed us to express ourselves.
In the middle school, that changed too.
One day we were discussing exams, and how to tackle the essay question options – factual, debate, true-life account, story prompt. ‘You mustn’t pick the story prompt,’ said the teacher. ‘They’re very hard. From now on, we won’t do them.’
This was ludicrous. I always, without hesitation, picked the story. I got high marks. (And I bet I wasn’t the only one.)
I didn’t want to write an account of a holiday or discuss the popularity of the motor car. Not when I was being invited to finish the story that started ‘I should never have gone for that bicycle ride…’ And if no one did these essays well, should we not be taught to do them better?
This was my second great disobedience. I carried on choosing the story option, as I always had. Again there were grumbles but it did me well enough at O level, if A is a respectable grade.
These tiny rebellions gave me habits that I now realise are essential to the creative nature, whether our weapon of choice is art, music, writing (or handwriting). This is how we do what we do.
- We will not accept the ordinary
- We dig for the remarkable in the everyday
- We ignore what everyone else is looking at and peer around the corners instead
- We collect what moves us, especially if we don’t know why
- We listen to our instincts instead of the voices who tell us we can’t
- We play endlessly
- We see expressive potential in everything
- To non-creatives we probably seem infuriating and insane.
What would you add? How did you first start being creative?
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The expected answer is usually the murderer, the villain, the cheating wife, the despicable and repugnant millionaire …
Brace yourselves, non-writers. We enjoy creating those people.
But if I dislike a character, if they are a chore… I change the character.
It’s nothing to do with whether they spoil things for my other characters. I’m just as excited to write my bad people as angels. But if sharing headspace with a character is not appealing, it means I’m not interested enough to write them well. And the reader will feel the same heartsink sensation whenever their eye alights on that darned name.
Here’s what to do.
If they don’t excite you and the rest of the story does, perhaps it’s a sign they don’t have any effect on the world of the novel. Are they needed at all?
Are they only in the book to give a central character a plausible background, for instance a mother? Have you written her in too much detail, perhaps tried to give her scenes by herself and come up with only trivialities? If a character is in the cast to flesh out another character’s life, it’s perfectly okay to write only the scenes where they are together. Or narrate them from the perspective of the more important character.
But they will become important
Perhaps they’re in the book because they do something important later on. Try cutting the earlier appearances. Not all the cast has to be on stage from the word go. Could your dull character begin as a walk-on and gradually become a significant speaking part? Characters are allowed to blossom late – that can be very rewarding to read. But until they become useful, don’t make them tread water or amble aimlessly. (Or if they must, make them do it outside your book.)
You might find you have several characters who perform roughly the same story function – and this may be what’s bugging you. Could you ditch most tedious one and give their role to someone else? Combining two characters might also give you a fresh perspective on other parts of the story.
Give them even more to do
Yes, you’re already grudging the time you spend with these blots, but I’ve often found my attitude changes completely if I beef up their role. Challenge them, make them a more crucial link in a chain, tighten their attachment to one of the other characters and watch them transform from soggy to sparkling.
Don’t soldier on
If you loathe writing certain people, it’s a sure sign that you need to take action. Don’t soldier on, dragging them through scene after scene, thinking it’s part of your writing duty to sometimes find things hard. Find what makes you want to write them.
Thanks for the pic rotokirby
Have you had a character you hated writing? What did you do about it? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for writing and revision in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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Savoury chocolate, bad reviews, finding an agent and writer’s block – interview at Lorna Suzuki’s blog
If you come to my house for dinner, I will cook the most bizarre recipe I can find and it will be a dish I’ve never tried before – so an adventure for us all. That’s probably how I approach my fiction too, although I didn’t realise until Lorna Suzuki asked me a bunch of questions at her blog All Kinds of Writing. (Lorna’s pretty cool, BTW – she’s a fifth-dan instructor of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu which she draws on for her kick-ass fantasy series Imago.)
Once we’ve dispensed with the chocolate porcini risotto, we settle down to more useful matters – how to handle bad reviews, what to do if you’re struggling to find an agent, tips for self-publishers, how to handle writer’s block… Come on over (and bring a good supply of Lindt 99%)…
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The strangers in our photos are the people we aren’t meant to notice. People we tune out. I never gave them a thought until I read about the British artist Polly Morgan, who, when she was a kid, went through family photos, cut out the walk-ons and made a gallery of them on her bedroom wall.
I love this idea. All these anonymous people, abundant as traffic and trees, appearing accidentally in our private photos.
Who were they? While Dave and I walked around the museum, the lady with the handbag was on her own mission. She had a chain of events that brought her to this place and she went on to do something else afterwards. What was it?
A lot of writers talk about the inspiration they get from overhearing conversations, but it seems to me that a picture is worth a thousand eavesdropped words. And our photo collections are full of them. The person you didn’t intend to take a picture of is waiting to have their story told.
This is a fun exercise on its own but it can also be useful for our novels. When we’re writing, we often find we have gaps in our story world. Sometimes we need a ‘purposeful nothing’ for a character to do when they go for a think, or a route they can take to the gym or work. Insignificant, low-key stuff, but if it’s not there the world of the story doesn’t feel real. The characters live in a void like an undecorated film set.
In daily life, we get used to tuning things out, which is perhaps why writers have to make a special effort to flesh out a world. Who’s that in the distance, sitting on a bench in a square in Fontainebleau, while I’m taking a photo of Dave? Did she need to think of a place to meet her best friend for a heart to heart?
So I’m ending this post with an exercise. Either tell me how you find insignificant but useful locations, or write a little piece about the strangers in the pictures here. Or do this with a pic of your own on your blog, link to it here – and we’ll all come and see. (That’s a blog hop, isn’t it? Never done one before.) Let the fun begin…
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I started writing two years ago. I’m bored with my story. I have outlined every scene and character and I know how it will go; but I find while I am writing that I change it completely and like that better. Do I stick to my outline?
1. Outlining to flatlining
Outlining is essential. Very few writers can make up a whole novel on the spot as they’re typing. Even if they don’t plan in writing, they’ve usually done a lot of preparation in their heads.
We all have a greater or lesser need for a formal plan. You may be discovering that if you outline exhaustively you kill the idea. In that case, don’t write a detailed synopsis, just put a few notes on cards and set sail (more on outlining methods in Nail Your Novel). Or you may be discovering that detailed outlines free you to take turns you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
2. Have you let the book rest?
Are you changing stuff because you’re stale, or because you’re having better ideas? We all get to the stage where it’s impossible to tell. Change if you’re improving the book, but not for its own sake because you’re no longer entertained.
Sometimes working on a novel is like hearing the same joke over and over. We need a break before we can tell if it’s funny.
3. Is this your learner novel?
You mention you’ve been writing for two years. Is that on this same book? Most of us start writing because we’ve had an idea and we hurl ourselves in. A few years later, that novel has had a lot of pummelling as we learn what to do.
Sometimes we should let that learner novel go.
We might grow out of it, but cling on because we like the familiarity, or we refuse to be beaten by it, or we worry we won’t get another idea.
Some learner novel ideas are so ambitious we won’t have the wisdom to write them for many years.
On the other hand, some learner novels turn out just fine.
Again, the best cure is to let it rest.
Don’t be afraid to take the book in new directions if the muse suggests them. Novels evolve all the time – as you understand the characters more, fill logic holes, make new discoveries in research or fix things you’ve fudged. These realisations make your book stronger and you shouldn’t try to force the book back on track.
But I find that if I go totally off piste I can get in a fearful muddle. So if I need a new direction I stop and work out the consequences. Redraw the map and continue.
5. Get your enthusiasm back
When you take a break, give your book the best chance to win you back. Read some novels that are like it, to remember why you love that kind of story.
Do you still have the very first notes you made? It’s always worth keeping notes from the honeymoon period. Dig them out and find what got you excited in the first place.
Zoe also asked:
What do you do when you get writer’s block and don’t feel like reading over what you have written?
If I’m blocked it’s because there’s a problem I haven’t diagnosed. Like you, I don’t want to open the file. But this reluctance is my brain’s way of telling me I’m sending my story in a direction I don’t like. So I figure out what that is and find ways to change it. Once I have, I’m happy to continue again.
Zoe’s final question was this:
Do you ever feel like no one will like your work?
What do we mean by ‘like’? Do we mean ‘where’s the market’? Will agents, publishers, readers in their millions like our work?
We can’t write with fashions in mind because they’ll have changed the next time it rains. We can only write the books that would satisfy us as readers.
There’s another question here – will you like your own book?
All the creatives I know – artists, animators, game designers, musicians, choreographers – worry that we are creating rubbish. We’re hoping we can fix it before anyone finds out. I look at my finished novels and cannot imagine what super-brain made them so coherent – because now I’m on a new idea (The Venice Novel) I’m splashing blind.
Our sense of perfection can paralyse us. But it’s also the spur that makes us raise our game. So like most things in writing, polish the book until you’re satisfied, have a rest and repeat. When you can’t go further, find beta readers, polish until they’re satisfied… approach an agent or an editor… and spread out wider and wider until you have a comfortable majority who agree it’s good to go.
For more on outlining and editing methods, see Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence
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