[I will begin by clarifying that the tone of this post, while sounding authoritative, is really meant to encourage me to listen to myself. It might sound like I’ve written this having followed this advice and succeeded, but we all know that isn’t true. I am giving myself this advice and urging myself to follow it, and I’m posting it here because… why not? Maybe this will help me… I really can’t go anywhere but up.]
The only way to learn how to commit is to do it. To break the cycle of doubt, we must show ourselves and our subconscious that we can, and we must enter a new state of productivity and completion to show our subconscious that we will be able to handle it.
First, choose a story to commit to. Do not think about which story would be best or easiest or most fun or most popular or quickest or whatever… When you think like that, you are only feeding into the monster of doubt, because you are telling it that you care about these things. That way, the monster need only prey on whatever you chose as your reasons for choosing that story, or your reasons for not choosing another, and you will fold. You may not have to “choose” a story at all, if you only have one, but if you have multiple ideas at various levels of interest in your mind, just choose one. Choose the one you’re most in the mood for today (recognizing that the mood will fade), or choose the first one in the list, or the one that starts with a random letter that you pick, or… whatever. Just choose one. Only one.
Then, don’t ask why you should commit to that story, or should you commit to that story, or even why shouldn’t you commit to that story… Don’t think about any of that. Instead, focus on the following: How do I commit to this story? How.
By focusing on the mechanism rather than the reasoning, you are not engaging that analytical part of your brain that would immediately begin to weigh the pros and cons of your story (here’s a tip: every story will have some cons, at least one of which will seem insurmountable and true and a deal breaker—so just don’t think about it). Instead, focus on the logistics of how you will commit to this story and no other, how you will make it work, how you will move forward, how you will not give up or give in.
The first, and really only, step is to learn how to deal with the doubts. But as my last post may have indicated, that is much easier said than done.
Doubts come in three flavors, as far as I can tell, with some crossover and gray areas between:
– Whether or not it is ‘good’ (Is this too long/short? Is this cliché? Is my character complex enough?)
– What you think other people will think (your parents, friends, colleagues, parents’ friends, the people you went to high school with, the artist online whose fanart you like, the internet trolls, the talk show host who will interview you, the newscaster talking about the movie of your book, your favorite author, your future spouse and children, and on into even more ridiculous scenarios)
– What you think, or what you think you think (Do I even like characters like this? I think I want more/less action. If I saw this in the bookstore, would I pick it up?)
You might think the first step is to go through and dismiss each doubt, and each category of doubt, one by one. The problem with this strategy is that eventually you will run into a doubt that you can’t argue with, one that strikes as particularly true to you (Why are all my protagonists white? Isn’t that love story a little anti-feminist? I just saw ten books in the library with the same story/world/character/opening scene as mine!). Some of these doubts are valid, serious concerns that should be addressed, things that may truly be wrong and unpublishable and even hurtful and insulting in your story. Wherever your particular weakness is, or wherever the truth lies, your subconscious will find it and wield it against you. And if your strategy is to engage with the doubts and dismiss each one, somewhere along the line you will hit this wall and you will probably fail.
But, you may say, if there are doubts out there that are true, shouldn’t I address them? When you look at some of your doubts, it’s hard to say no, but that is the answer—NO. At the very least, get out a finished first draft—the doubts will still be there, the true ones will still be true, and you can address them then. But only then. (And even then, you may want to just accept your flaws and still send it out into the world, warts and all, and fail better in the next project.)
This is not easy. To hear those doubts, to feel them like a wrench of pain in your heart, and then be able to ignore them is one of the hardest things in the world. Artists are trained to listen to their subconscious in order to create—but in my case, my subconscious has warped itself into a weapon against its own creativity, and I have to fight it in order to free it.
But this is especially hard when it comes to facing story problems. Issues in your story, in the internal mechanics and logic of the narrative itself, come up from time to time and will require thought, analysis, and creativity to solve. Figuring out clues for your hero to find, or which events would best challenge your couple, or how they get away from the bad guy this time—these things don’t always just appear like a movie in your head (and if they do, you probably aren’t reading this). But sometimes it’s hard to tell these ‘legitimate’ internal problems from the doubts that you have to ignore even when they sound ‘legitimate,’ and being able to separate the two enough to move forward is a huge challenge. In many ways, the challenge.
Because this post is already long enough, I’ll stop here and continue with the difference between doubts and problems in the next post.
For now, I’m going to open a ‘purge file’ and write down every doubt that comes up about the story I’m working on now (the story I am committing to and that’s that). I will not analyze the doubts, or organize them, or even work too hard to make sure I write them down—just, whenever a doubt is bothering me, I’ll write it down and try to forget about it. Likewise, since this story is still fairly young, I will open an ‘idea file’ and write down various possibilities, fragments, and thoughts that might help the story grow—but in the same vein, I will not analyze or organize them in any way. And we’ll see where we are next week… when I am working on the same story. When.
(I’m also adding a running page-counter here for the story I will write.)