I have been writing for a decade now. I have written short stories, professional articles and journals, novels, novellas—a whole slew of different things. Short stories and smaller works were always easier for me—the story line was compact, the end relatively clear, and the road to get there pretty straightforward. My longer works however, seemed to fall into a sort-of-oblivion—a category, I began to call my “20,000 word purgatory.”
This state of being generally resulted in disaster and relegation of the project to the “unfinished works” folder in perpetuity. What had started out as great concepts somehow become directionless and amorphic (is that a real word? Hmm), ending in an unfinished state forever—worse, I could figure out no way to salvage them from this state. This purgatory occurs at about 20,000 words (as the name implies) but sometimes I managed to get as far as 40 or 50 thousand.
Some people may call it writers block, I call it frustrating and painful—watching a dream die a slow and pain-filled death and having no idea what the hell to do about it.
It wasn’t until just recently that I had an epiphany (maybe within the last six months).
In my business (that pesky day job) I work towards end-state goals and deadlines. I have always been successful in business. So, shouldn’t that concept be the same in writing? For some reason, I had always separated the creative side of my life from business concepts that I was very comfortable with. Art (writing) is supposed to be spontaneous and free flow—coming to me in inspiration as I weaved creativity into my stories, not structured, focused and driven by the same principles as I used in my business.
The epiphany – I was wrong. Not about creativity, but about execution. I found that If I defined my goal, and what my END STATE looked like, I actually finished books.
In pursuit of my MFA, I took poetry classes. Poetry may seem an exercise in creativity, but I think you can talk to anyone who writes poetry and they will tell you this –
Yes, it is true. Poetry is creativity at its most fundamental, but it is a highly disciplined art. Besides the conceptual, it is a strenuous exercise in managing lines and stanzas, form and rhyming schemes and meter and metrical patterns and bunch of different things in order to create a poem that elicits the appropriate response/emotion from the reader. If you don’t apply appropriate discipline to poetry, it becomes a mass of words that sit on page and look funny. Good poets (and I do not make the claim that I am one of those) apply painstaking discipline to their poetry.
Writing is no different, I think. Creativity only gets me so far. You (at least I must) must approach it like a professional, it is after all a profession (or a craft). Once I figured out that I should define my goal and work toward that goal, I was able to rapidly finish three novels (all of which are in the process of being edited right now).
My goals are generally things such as –
• The most important for me — How do I want this thing to end – what does the protagonist look like at the end of this thing (in terms of his/her end state)
• How many words do I want this to be?
• What feelings do I want the reader to leave with?
• And even how many chapters do I want it to be?
• I also start with a very generic outline that I may break down by number of words, and concept more than detail.
• How many words do I want to type a week to complete it by my projected completion date?
It is that simple. Everything changes as I write, except the key concepts. I apply a significant amount of self-monitoring / self-editing to make sure I don’t go off the reservation and end up in the weeds (purgatory), just like when I wrote poetry (albeit poorly).
Now, this doesn’t mean I stifle creative thought. If, while writing, my character(s) decides to go a different direction than I had imagined and it is clearly important to the story, I will sit back and think:
- Is this a tangent that is unimportant, or something I have done to avoid dealing with a difficult writing issue (such as scene or emotion or event that is hard to write)?
- Is this important enough to change my story endstate?
- If so, what needs to change?
If it is important, I never kill it. I simply change the endstate and update the goals. But I always, always have a goal.
If I don’t – It is: PURGATORY, HERE I COME.
I am obviously still working on my craft, and always will be, but at least I have finished a few projects. Time will tell how they turn out, but things are getting easier for me, now that I have found the tools that get me out of the desert and into the Promised Land.
As always, I’ll keep the lantern lit.