I’m working on a project I feel very good about. I’m hitting a few potholes, but for the most part things are moving along nicely.
Unlike its predecessor.
That project took about five times as long as it should have and much of the time felt like I was slamming my head against the wall. Every time I fixed one thing, the ripple effect made it so something downstream didn’t make sense. And when I fixed that downstream problem, something else broke.
As my frustration mounted, I came to dread working on the project. Which, of course, extended even further how long it took. Which fed my sense of self-loathing (a sense that rarely goes hungry for long). That made me dread the work even more.
You get the picture. Vicious cycle.
Sometimes writing feels like play. You’re creating and it’s all flowing and life is good. Those are the best of times. Other times it’s work. Those can be the worst of times.
This felt like the worst of times.
I felt a great sense of relief when I emailed the pages to my First Reader. I was done with it. I’d been really looking forward to starting the next project, the one I’m working on now. I’d also been really looking forward to working on anything but the old one.
Turns out my subconscious was trying to tell me something. And unfortunately, as my sweet wife has mentioned a time or two, I’m not the world’s greatest listener.
My First Reader, a very successful novelist, responded with words of praise in some areas and pointed out some fundamental problems. Serious fundamental problems. As I read her words of wisdom, I felt like slapping myself upside the head. What a moron! How could I have missed this? How could I have missed that? (She also made some great suggestions I couldn’t beat myself up over. But that’s beside the current point.)
In short, my subconscious had been screaming that I’d been going the wrong way, but I’d tried to bludgeon my way through anyway.
Now I’m not going to tell you to write only when it feels like play. That way lies disaster. Those who write only “when the muse strikes” aren’t writers; they’re pretenders.
I recall the late great John D. MacDonald saying that those who write only when they feel like it — only when the muse strikes, only when it’s easy — are not only failed writers but failed human beings.
You need to persevere and write even when you’re tired, you’re cranky, your back hurts, or (you get the picture). Do whatever it takes to get the pages written. It shouldn’t always feel like a chore, but it won’t always be easy. That said, you also need to persevere the right way.
You need to make sure you’re going in the right direction. If your subconscious is screaming bloody murder for you to stop, ask why. If it’s just being lazy, hit it over the head with a two-by-four and shove it back into its hole.
But if your project feels righteously messed up, step back. Pull out the map. Your subconscious just may be telling you that you took a wrong turn or three or five. Ask yourself if you’re going in the right direction. In the big picture, do things make sense? If there’s a nagging doubt about something, write it down, then come back to it later and brainstorm the answer.
Sometimes the best way to do this is to set aside the project you’re having trouble with and work on something else until you can get perspective. Return to your problem child with a fresh eye. I absolutely, positively should have done this but was unwilling to because I’d already put so much time (and frustration) into it. Like a bad investor throwing good money after bad, I was willing to throw good hours and days after bad. I wanted to be done with it. In short, I was just too stubborn. (My sweet wife might have mentioned this characteristic, too, a few times.)
Don’t ignore the alarm bells. Make sure you’re on course.
Look at it this way. I can get from Boston to my home by heading north. I can also get there, theoretically at least, by heading south, first through New York, then down through Mexico, Latin America, South America, and Antarctica. Then back north through Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and on to the North Pole. Then back south again through Canada on down to my Massachusetts home.
On my slam-the-head-against-the-wall project, I took the Antarctica and North Pole routes. Next time I make a few wrong turns, I think I’ll step back, look at the map, and try to take a slightly more direct route.