The Writing Habit by Andrew Couch

Everyone has habits that hamper them. Writers seem especially sensitive to this. We sometimes call it writer’s block or losing the muse (did you check under the seat cushions?). Often it is just the habit of letting life get in the way because writing is hard. My habit that often derails my writing involves mentally picturing the end result and letting this picture of what it should be prevent me from actually putting the work into getting it there.

Planning and having an idea where a story needs to go is a great and essential skill. Even Pansters need to have that vision when they get to editing their story. I wander back and forth between plotting and pantsing. Somewhere along this planning, I have a picture and a feeling of my work in my head. I craft this picture and refine it until it shines in the mental sun. I bask in the glow of the perfect story in my head. Then I look back to the page. The dull page with little black scratches on it. This isn’t the perfect image I have in my head, I say. It somehow feels better to spend time in my head than on the page, so the project stalls.

I have already read the story in my head and enjoyed it, so it feels weird going through it again on the page. Especially when the story on the page doesn’t ever seem as cool or fulfilling than the thing in my head. And then I realize that the thing in my head has morphed to more of a feeling, a sensation of greatness, than an actual picture, an actual story to write. At this point the writing process breaks down even further.

In marches discipline. Discipline to work on the page. To push the words around until they approach the glory I already have enjoyed in my head. There is a commentary by Ira Glass that has made its rounds on the internet about learning art. I like this one with the moving typography. It isn’t very long and definitely worth watching/listening.

I definitely fall into the gap that Ira is talking about. I have the vision in my head of what I want my art to be like and struggle to get it onto the page. To counter this, I am working on discipline to do the work and just practice. Push the words around (even if randomly at times) until I see them begin to line up with the vision.

Hearing Ira talk about this gap makes me feel like it is a common enough problem for creative types and I am not alone in it. That is good because the writing process can feel very much alone sometimes. Recognizing the problem is the first step to combating it. Here are a few things I have tried to help fight this problem of having a mental sensation overshadow the actual story.

1) Write notes with paper and penIn the digital age it seems weird somehow to make notes on paper, but it is totally wonderful. It is freeform. I can sketch little pictures instead of having to force words to things. Words can be related with lines and arrows easily. This all helps me try to put concrete form to the ideas in my head and keep them in the realm of the story.

2) Just WriteWe hear it a lot from plenty of the big name writers. Do the work. Sit and write. Whatever other form of the saying they choose. Actually to sit down and attempt to get the story down seems to help me. I may not always get the exact shining image in my head, but sometimes I get different wonderfulness on the page.

3) Be ok with it – “Perfect is the enemy of done.”
Part of #2 is seeing that although the story I did write isn’t the same as the story in my head, it is still pretty cool sometimes. So part of getting over this for me is being ok with what I did write. This is not the same as skipping editing, but it means not tossing ideas on the page just because they don’t match exactly the ones in the shiny mystical vision in the mind.

Do you have this problem of the vision being greater than the page?Any other tips to combat this?

~*~

Andrew Couch

17 comments

  1. Andrew, great post! Thanks for sharing this. I’m probably still in the ‘this is crap’ part of my writing journey, but I was informed many (many, MANY) years ago to expect this. I just still need to do more work!

    1. I follow a lot of big name fantasy authors on Twitter. It is amazing how many still lament about thinking their stuff is crap even after 8 books. Maybe this is a persistent lesson and not a phase we need to get through.

  2. I’ve seen a few of Glass’ motivational speeches to writers published; some are better than others. This was one of the better ones, Andrew. Thanks for pointing it out. In fact, good reminders all around.

      1. There are a few out there with Glass in the studio. I’d have to look to see if I can find them. You may be able dig them up with a quick websearch.

  3. What a wonderful post, and perfect for me today. It’s frustrating how long that beginning phase takes, and I can understand why a lot of people quit, although I don’t know that I ever could. The only way out is the way through–writing and rewriting until the story sings, which often feels like it’s never going to happen.

    It’s good to know that even the greats go through the same thing that we do. Thanks for sharing, Andrew. Have a great day!

    1. I like the middle beginning. Beyond the frustrating part of learning the utter basics, but before you hit that upslope that leads toward mastery.
      Thanks to you for the reminder that we all deal with this. “feel like it’s never going to happen” is about where I am stuck with one story right now. Oh well, keep going.

  4. Thanks for this wonderful reminder. I remember when thinking about the story in the way you described comprised the bulk of my ‘writing’ time. I kicked that habit long ago when I discovered the difference between abstract and concrete thinking. You can’t write anything but a synopsis in the abstract mode.

    My solution was to daydream inside the storyworld for as long as it took for things to click into place so that writing scenes was as easy as transcribing the movie playing in my mind. I consider daydreaming the story as important as writing it. Sure you need to start writing eventually but the first words you put down don’t have to be the opening paragraph of the first scene or any scene.

    I start by making lists of possible scenes and writing character sketches, setting descriptions,backstory, riffs on theme, images, symbol, and language, and character monologues in which I let a character ramble on and on about whatever matters to them until I feel I’ve found their individual voice. Once I’ve got a sketch and a ramble for each major character then I can pit them against each other in dialog and action bits–still not actual story scenes but something of these might end up in the story. At the very least when it is time to start writing scenes it is much easier–again more like transcribing.

    Concrete means engaging all five senses as you dream the story. You aren’t think about the story as thing that has a dictionary definition or a synopses of the plot but you are living inside it.

    You know when it is time to start writing scenes when your list of possible scenes has grown long enough to create the length of story you are wanting and when placed in the right order contain all of the plot points needed. And you don’t need to write them in any particular order.

    I can’t take credit entirely for this method. Tho I’ve added some twists to it it is based on Robert Owen Butler’s From Where You Dream.. And I learned about concrete story elements from Janet Burroway’s Fiction Writing.

    1. Very interesting methodology. I think though, that it is the daydreaming aspect that I get stuck in. If I wait for everything to click or gel or whatever I will never get to writing. I was in that stage of things for years before I finally just got out of my head.
      I do get into writing notes and trying to put things out onto paper as much as possible. I tend to just need to develop the story one plot point at a time otherwise I risk falling off the cliff into the daydream again.
      In any case, good that you have a way that helps you get it all out.

  5. I have a hard time convincing myself that it is finished because I never feel like it is good enough for the reader’s eyes. That results in a roadblock to creativity and good writing because the whole time I am imagining someone reading it. When I’m able to free myself of that self-inflicted anxiety, that is when I do my best work!

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