I was ready to call it quits yesterday. I was frustrated and beginning to wonder if the things in my head are worth putting out into the world.
Names and titles are things that are hard to write around when they don’t exist yet, and I’m terrible at coming up with titles. Especially the further in I get, I don’t like writing without names for my characters. I would at least like to have placeholder names until I come up with the right ones, because having “father” and “girl” all over the page, knowing that I’ll have to replace them all later, is distracting. The genericness of it bothers me. I like writing with a distinct person in mind, and without a name they aren’t as real as I need them to be.
This time around I’m going to need to be able to live with a title and character names for an entire series. I can have working titles for each individual book, but once I have the series name and put the first one out there, that’s it. That’s the name it’s gonna be.
I was feeling a bit stuck, so instead of wallowing in it, I reached out to those in a writers group on Facebook. The encouragement I received from a couple of the writers there was enough to get me out of my funk. I hadn’t shared that I was ready to quit, but they assured me that this is something I have to finish because there are people out there who are dying to read it. And they offered their help with this mountain of a molehill that is coming up with a title.
Sometimes it sounds incredibly stupid to say ideas out loud, and it gets embarrassing to keep sharing the unrealized things in your brain. But with each imperfect reiteration of the goal, my vision becomes a bit more streamlined and I can cut out what the book and series are not as much as I can communicate what they are and what I want them to be.
But for a long time it didn’t feel like anything I could do would be worth doing. I had to get outside myself. Not to seek validation, but to know if I was serving a need. It felt good to know that someone was rooting for this thing to come into existence even when I wasn’t.
Now that I have a renewed sense of “well maybe this thing does deserve to exist,” I need to be careful to keep perfectionism from getting in the way and keeping me from getting to the finish line. I know I will need a whole lot of help from an editor, so the sooner I get it into the hands of a professional the better. I have to believe that it will be good enough for people to want to read, good enough to be on shelves more broadly than a tiny, dark corner of Amazon’s self-published e-books. I need to believe that it’s worthy of spending money on professional editing and marketing and cover design. And I believe in hiring professionals to do what they’re good at (and I’m not).
So now this begs the question: am I prepared for many rounds of rejection? How am I going to keep going after hearing “no” over and over? Maybe, like my heroine, I have to bravely take steps beyond what I think is the border of my world. I have to take a leap of faith and not be afraid to disappear into the abyss. There is no abyss, there’s just trying again and again until one of those attempts sticks.
I’m excited about that process. A little scared, but mostly optimistic. But I can’t get ahead of myself. I have to do the hard work of getting it written first. I have to fall in love with that process first. I’m longing to get into that state of flow, when the rhythm of the words takes over and my fingers trip trying to keep up with my brain. When I’ve gotten far enough into doing the work that I hit that point that I imagine is like a runner’s high, knowing I’ve plugged away enough to wear a groove in the process, leaving resistance in the dust and finding myself well and truly in my element.
That flow is always after the point that you’re ready to quit. You have to push through the most daunting part.
I remember that feeling. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but I know what it feels like. And it is sublime. There’s nothing like it. It’s that feeling of knowing that what you’re doing is what you’re born to do, that in spite of the rough road to that pocket of joy in the doing, that you have truly found your medium.
I’m neither a runner nor a mother, but I imagine it’s also a bit like childbirth. You carry this thing with you for months, not really knowing what it will turn out to be. Then you push through the labor, wondering if you’ll ever get through it. You have doubts all along the way about your abilities. But then you’ve pushed through the toughest part, and you are in love. You get a rush of endorphins and it brings you joy like you cannot begin to describe, a joy that makes you forget how hard the struggle was. A joy that makes it all worth it and makes you willing and able to do it all over again.
That’s how I know I love writing. As much as I doubt my abilities and fail at putting words to the page, I can’t imagine not writing.
I have to remember to write what I would want to read. I think about that when I’m watching a movie or trailer or TV show: “I wish it went like this instead.” I often imagine where I think the story will go or what decisions the characters will make. (“Downsizing,” for example, was an entirely different story than I expected. It wasn’t what the trailer presented at all. The high concept of the story wasn’t exploited in the tone that was advertised. It became a hugely character driven, humanitarian story about a Vietnamese activist. She was a character I fell in love with, but it was a direction I could not have imagined the story taking.) A fun exercise is to watch the beginning of a show or film that I haven’t seen before and know little about, and write the rest of the story. Here’s the problem presented, now what are the characters going to do about it?
So I must ask, how am I beginning my story? We’re in the middle of things. I don’t need to explain how we got there. There can be backstory later, but I don’t have to (and shouldn’t) explain everything about how the world we find ourselves in got the way it is. We watched “A Quiet Place” last night. There’s no explanation of what the creatures are or how they got there. We’re just in it with this family, dealing with the problems currently at hand.
Most good stories don’t explain too much. The audience just needs to feel like they’re in a world they can believe to be real for as long as they’re in it, and to care about the characters making the decisions. And the problem needs to be clear, compelling, and urgent. And they need to know in the first ten minutes what the problem is and what’s at stake. It needs to be love at first sight: they need to know at the introduction that these are people and a world they want to get to know better. They need a reason to be invested. They need a reason to care. Most stories that don’t work for me haven’t given me enough of a reason to care about the characters. The stakes may be very high (the survival of the human race, for example), but if I’m not crying when another character is crying, or if their struggle seems inconsequential, I’m not invested in their journey.
I will also say that it’s difficult creating a dystopian world when reality isn’t that much less crazy. The world I’m attempting to create is one in which the written word no longer exists. This feels a bit like creating a hell in which I have to put people I care about and make them live in it. Anything my imagination can come up with is really not that fantastic by comparison anymore. Good literature reflects truths about the climate in which it exists, though. I guess that’s the silver lining.
And the biggest silver lining of all in writing is that you can create any world you want. Unlike reality, you can take that bonkers situation and create your desired outcome. You wield absolute power with the written word, and that is both thrilling and daunting. The trick is to not let that freak you out and to enjoy the act of creation. If the creation of it is exciting enough to keep you going, if you’re writing something that you would want to read, then there’s hope that someone else will, too. So don’t quit. Push through another mile, because the flow state on the other side of that struggle is so worth it. You might be about to hit your stride.