Problems versus Doubts (Or, How to Commit, Part Two)

As I make my list of doubts in the ‘purge file’ for my story, it is incredibly hard to resist analyzing them. Even working to dismiss the doubts is still engaging your brain in analyzing and thus legitimizing those doubts. But when I see one that is particularly tough, or that I think I might be able to fix, my brain automatically attempts to adjust my story (fledgling that it is) to fix that doubt.

And so it tweaks that, or twists that, or adds that, and maybe the doubt is eased. If it’s a small doubt (too many characters with the same first initial, or not enough secondary female or male characters, or no clear setting, etc.), it might be able to be addressed without too big of a change, so you feel it’s not a big deal to do so. Especially when the story is still vague and ill-defined, it’s easy to add a small tweak to fix that doubt.

But the problem becomes that by opening yourself up to this process of ‘fixing the doubts,’ you combine analysis and creativity in a way that quickly becomes dangerous. Not only are you giving the doubts power, but you set yourself up for a fall when you hit a doubt that can only be fixed by a drastic story-altering change, or that cannot be fixed at all. And, in addition, by powering your creativity with analysis, you actually fuel the analytical part of your brain to address your creativity, and you constrict your creativity to require analysis. You make the problem even worse, the doubts even more frequent and stronger. Your muse is learning how to work in this particular fashion, bouncing between analysis and creativity, when you need it to instead learn how to speak for itself.

And yet, what about real story problems? Not doubts, but actual issues in your story that you need to address in order to write anything at all? How do you tell the difference? And what can you do about them that won’t make it harder to commit?

Maybe ‘problems’ isn’t the right way to phrase it. See, you begin with an idea, a fragment, and then you go into a process of development. Some say development is what makes (or in my case, breaks) the writer, not the idea. Perhaps some writers ‘develop’ ideas by discovering them like movies in their minds, with hardly a conscious effort at all; needless to say, I am not one of those writers. Instead, development consists of questions, choices, and options—all of which allow analysis, and thus doubt, to creep into the creative process.

You hit a moment once the rush of the initial idea fades when you aren’t sure what happens next, or what a character’s name is, or where this scene is taking place, and in that moment you ask a question. If you’re very unlucky, no answer will come to you at all, in which case you’ll have to engage in careful calculation and design to create an answer. Or you might come up with an answer from the ‘muse,’ but it’s an exact copy of something else, or it creates another question down the road, or any number of ‘problems.’ In either case, you begin to engage in analysis along with creativity, and for me, this is usually the beginning of the end.

Analytical creativity is not the enemy for all writers—simply for those, like me, who have let it run rampant over their muses like a herd of buffalo and are left with a bloody mess bleating out clichés or nothing at all.

But how can you develop a story without analyzing it?

Honestly, I still don’t know. I’ll let you know when I’ve actually done it (which I’m trying to do at the moment). But my first thought is, if you do get an answer from the muse, even if it’s a cliché mess, use it. Do not question it. Do not adjust it. Do not reach out for more options in order to have a choice (which is what many writing books suggest, and which is probably a good thing to do—later in the process). You can fix a cliché in a finished draft; but you can’t fix an unfinished draft destroyed by doubt.

Second, when in need of something your muse won’t provide, use some form of random generation to manually override your analytical brain. Pick a writing prompt from flipping through a book or many random web sites. In fact, many websites host a plot or character generator. Probably, what you get from this process won’t really be useful—but use it anyway. Your only goal is to get to a finished draft; you can fix anything at that point.

Third, and finally, don’t think about your story unless you are in the process of actively working on it (outlining, writing, etc.). Daydreaming about your story is the hub of creativity for many writers, but it can also be the hub of doubt for anyone like me. It opens yourself up to the will of the subconscious, without the control of the conscious mind that is at work when you are actually writing.

If you must daydream (to get through your workday, for example), or if you are hit by a “drive-by doubt,” distract your mind with a daydream about you. Don’t think about the romance of your characters—think about an imaginary (and greatly idealized) romance for yourself. Daydream about future success, though I recommend leaving the thoughts about what made you successful vague. Daydream about going to Hogwarts or some other fanfiction-esque setting (you can use your own story world, but be careful about analyzing it or your characters).

Unless you write a lot of self-insert stories (which I am not judging, because they can be fun, but not published too often), making your daydream about yourself will keep your inner editor from thinking it might be story material. It will keep your analysis at bay, but will avoid the trap of thinking about a different story that might end up competing with and defeating your current story. Your goal is just to try to get to your next writing session with the same story. And the session after that, and the next one, until the draft is done.

All of these tips and thoughts and recommendations for myself are for the extreme doubters, which may only be me. I have wanted nothing more than to be a writer since before I can remember, but I have not finished a draft of anything in four years. FOUR YEARS. That’s four years (and years before that, as well) of day after day of starting and stopping, changing my mind, wondering if I could ever do this, working a day job (oh the horror!), wanting to give up… but being unable to. Because this is what I want, and what I’ve wanted for every moment of every day of each of those four years, and the many years before that.

I can’t promise that what I’m working on now will ever be published, or ever be successful. All I can promise, all I can do, is finish one draft. That is what I’m going to do, whatever it takes, however many silly encouraging let’s-pretend-I-know-what-I’m-talking-about posts I have to write. Just one draft.

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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