Sunday, November 6, 2016

5 Sure-Fire Ways to Lose at Noveling

Nobody likes to lose and you shouldn't have to when I am perfectly willing to mercilessly unveil my own abject failures to forewarn yours. If I've discovered the antidote, I'll give you that too.

  1. Start with a blank page. Blank pages are intimidating.  They look so large and perfect and you're about to scribble it up to shit, and that can really dampen your courage and kill fledgling inspiration as mental rats scurry about ranting, "I have no idea where/ how to start this right." My antidote?  I learned it from a sketch artist. Draw a baseline/ just put down random notes in any order that you can delete or reshape later as needed.  It helps to leave these on that big bad blank page as long as you can, until the end of the project so that you don't experience #2.
  2. Ignore your progress.  Writing is an all out bloody war with your best and worst inner demons.  It is a journey of millimeters, one freaking sweaty alphabet letter at a time.  Sometimes even thinking in terms of number of words a day is just too bone-shakingly overwhelming. Antidotes? Mini-reward yourself for each paragraph, or dialogue (i.e. I get a lemon drop as soon as I finish writing this description for the first time, even if it sucks). Find your most unconditionally supportive friend (i.e. Polly Always Positive) and text her a line saying you just conquered the hardest sentence ever.  At the end of each hour, look at the shear number of characters you have managed to fling against your inner demons and that imposing blank white helps if you shout out like Alexander the Great or Rocky, "I am a conqueror!" (Don't worry about the folks and critters who live with you as they already know you're're a writer.)
  3. Doubt your motives. Some people say you should only write for yourself.  Some say your should only write for others.  And yet some people say you should only write to serve a worthy purpose.  Writing is a noble endeavor and I don't want to belittle it by committing the worst treason and writing for the wrong reasons at the right time (note: that is a muddle  of  a T.S. Elliot quote). I cripple myself at times by trying to figure out why I'm going into screaming battle wielding my keyboard.  Soul-gazing is good sometimes, keeps us humble and compassionate, but not when we're painted-blue and naked running at the idea of NOVELING like a wild Pict toward a Roman legion. There are many antidotes for this, including Hemingway's trick of imbibing enough bourbon, but not all of them are healthy. So I suggest the simplest: be kind to yourself.  Trust that you have many motivations for trying to slay the Novel dragon, and the nobility is in the effort--in the fact that you are running naked at the Roman legion. Later, when anybody asks why you wrote your complete novel or what motivated you to keep going, then you can narrow it down to the right, most noble, reasons.
  4. Berate yourself today for messing up or missing yesterday.  The old crying over spilled milk makes you fail twice.  I saw it a lot on the softball field.  The short-stop is so busy fuming at herself about missing the throw to second base that she gets smacked in the head by a line drive during the next play and lets two runs score.  And yet, even though I know better, I still do it. The only antidote I know of is cultivating your self-awareness enough so that you can recognize you're doing this and stop it before you fall into another screw-up today.  Five to ten minutes of meditation a day has helped me a lot--forcing myself to just be in the moment has strengthened my ability to focus.
  5. Tough it out alone. One of the things I learned working with high-performing teams in extreme environments (e.g. astronauts) is that the hardest and the most critical thing to do is to take care of yourself first. Put on your own oxygen mask in the airplane before assisting your child with hers. We've all heard it, but we've also heard much more frequently something along the lines of Nike's Just Do It or, "Don't be a pansy." In extremely tough environments (and I do believe writing a novel is definitely one of these), toughing out an injury or sickness may kill you--but more importantly, it makes your whole team vulnerable. If you are struggling, then you owe it to your teammates (your friends and family) to let them know you are struggling so that you can decide as a group how to deal with it before it snowballs into disaster for your relationships and your writing (It's damn hard to take the time to focus on putting words on paper when you're worried about the health of your marriage).  The antidote is recognizing that writing is a team sport and playing it like one.  You feel like a lone, naked, conqueror; but you're not. There are armies of armies chaotically flailing all around you in similar and competing directions and if you coordinate with those closest to you, then you significantly up your chances of winning as well as surviving.

Bonus Helpers:

I like the old adage (or maybe it's a misquote from one of the Roosevelt's) -- If you never try, never start, then you have already failed in the most miserable way imaginable.  The good news is that like most failures, this failure too may be overcome by applying fearless effort.
While there are hundreds of ways to lose at writing anything, there is ultimately only one way to win: apply your ass to a chair and start slashing at that big white wall in your own proud warrior fashion. You are mighty every single pen stroke and keystroke, forging something tangible out of seemingly nothing.

Have you discovered alternative antidotes? Please share them.

"This is my pen. There are many like it, but this one is mine...
 I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my pen is useless."


  1. I always find blank pages exciting. The possibilities are endless. Pick one and go!


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