How does a book get written?
How does a story get old?
It turns out writing is, when you get down to the most basic elements of it, nothing more than composing a single word, followed by another word, followed again by another word.
Is it more complicated than that, when you pull back and really look at the order and structure and meaning of the sequence of words on the page? Of course.
But in the beginning, when all the complexities of crafting a story seem the most overwhelming and intimidating, perhaps the only thing that matters is that you are putting words onto a page.
How long that takes, how quickly the process moves along — and, obviously, how “good” that story ends up being — might not be as important, at least right now, as you might think.
When most people read a novel, they don’t immediately wonder, “How long did it take the author of this book to write it from start to finish?” Maybe some do instantly following a good read. But that’s strange.
Typically when the average person reads any kind of story they focus on the story itself — the plot, the characters, the setting. What they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it. Whether or not they could relate to the people and events described throughout the prose.
And when people do consider the author of the story they have just read, they tend to wonder about how they came up with a certain story idea or which real-world experiences inspired them to tell a certain story.
The majority of readers don’t care how long it took someone to finish a project. They only care whether or not they are taking in a good story.
So why do so many writers spend so much time worrying about how long it is taking or did take them or SHOULD take them to finish something? Does it matter?
In my experience, worrying about finishing something within a certain time frame usually only comes about when you feel like you haven’t been making progress lately. It’s been almost three weeks since I even opened my unfinished novel draft, for example, and I’m ever so slightly freaking out that it has almost been four months since I started it and I’m “still” not done yet.
But the truth is that it doesn’t matter if I finish in four months or four years or four decades. We worry SO MUCH about “just getting it done” that we forget to enjoy the ride. Or we end up sacrificing quality for quantity when quality is the most pressing factor (it isn’t always — especially if it’s just a first draft). Or we psych ourselves out so much about NOT WRITING FAST ENOUGH that we just STOP.
And when we stop … well, for a lot of us, it’s really, really hard to get going again. You may not be the type of person who writes nonstop because you’re afraid that if you slow down you’ll lose your momentum forever, but it happens. Trust me.
When you’re feeling like writing just isn’t happening the way you want — not as quickly as you want or as smoothly as you want or as GOOD as you want — you might benefit from taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and focusing not on everything that’s wrong, but instead solely on getting the words out. One right after the other, and so on.
Every book, every blog, every poem and short story and screenplay all start with a single word. And from that word emerges another, and another, and still another, until a small collection of words becomes a collection of sentences that turn into pages that eventually become a story.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes to write them. It doesn’t even matter if you literally only write one word at a time (though more often than not, once you write one, you can write plenty more in the same sitting). A single word is a hurdle. But it’s also a milestone. You did it! You wrote one word! You’re on your way to completing a big, brave, amazing project.
If thinking about whether or not you finish it overwhelms you, don’t think about that. Just write as much as you can when you can, especially when you’re feeling inspired.
If worrying about whether or not what you’re writing is “good” is slowing you down, try your best to focus on getting a first draft done before concerning yourself with how good it is. I know this is much easier said than done. I know telling you not to worry about the quality of your writing feels like telling a professor not to worry about the quality of their teaching. It’s not the same thing, though.
I can guarantee that you’ll have a much easier time improving the quality of your work if you have a finished product (even just one) to review and maybe get feedback on. No one can help you — and you definitely can’t help yourself — if you’re too afraid of “not being good enough” to ever finish anything.
How do you finish something when you’re not feeling confident, or you’re tired, or it seems as though your life is falling apart from the inside out and you’re not sure if this whole writing thing is even worth it even a little bit?
You just keep writing anyway. One word at a time. That’s really all it takes.
The only way to ever accomplish anything in this life is to do it piece by piece whether you’re always “in the mood” or not. Granted, there’s a difference between “I’m feeling off today, I’m not going to write” and “I have a medical condition that makes it difficult to get things done and writing is just not going to happen today” but you get the idea.
I’m tempted to write “try not to worry about the possibility of failure.” But to be completely honest, I’m tired of telling people not to worry. Worrying is normal. Worrying is, the way I see it, a part of what it means to be a caring, considerate human.
So instead I’ll say this: Write the heck out of your story even though you’re worried it’s going to crash and burn. Worry all the way through your book. Question every word, every sentence, every theme and moral dilemma and plot twist. But don’t let your worry stop you. Instead, just let it exist. Write, word by word, alongside your worry and your fear and especially your doubt.
Just write. If that’s the best you can do, then you’re doing just fine.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.