Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Killing your story: 8 guaranteed ways to wreck your writing

There are so many ways not to write your novel. You don't consciously not want to write – you do want to, you long to, you want to write productively and to finish your projects, and yet you have ideas, bits and pieces, starts without endings, and nothing completed. The intention is there, the backside on the desk chair might even be there, but the writing isn't there.

Writing doesn't happen if, on some level, you don't want to write. Why wouldn't you want to write? Fear of producing work that is less good than you hoped, or committing yourself to work that will take years to finish, or wanting to avoid disappointment and rejection and frustration, or an unwillingness to defer your pleasures, or, to be blunt, wanting all the wonder of accomplishment and success without having to do any work.

We all have ways of subverting our novels. The most obvious one is never actually to write. I know wannabe writers who haven't sat down at a desk for years. They are "still thinking" or "still planning". Yeah, sure. There are more subtle ways of achieving nothing, and they all involve putting your writing second. Here are some of the popular ones. If you identify one or more in your own writing life, you can choose to deal with it. Or at least know the exact reason why you'll never be in print.

1. Your day job

News flash: we all work. If you haven't yet been published, you aren't living off your huge advances (and, even if you have been published, only 0.01% of you have advances big enough to live on), and that means your days are taken up with work, paid or not.

Your job comes first, because that's how you put pizza on the table and a ceiling over your head. You come home tired. Maybe you put in extra hours. Maybe your shifts mess up your days. Your head is filled with buzz or stress. You tell yourself that you need to chill, need to wind down. You just can't write tonight. Or you have those accounts to review and here's an evening you could do it in. You'll write tomorrow.

When you're at work, your work comes first. But you still sleep and eat, do chores, and have a life outside work. So you have the hours to give to writing. Nobody is stopping you. Your boss isn't coming into your home and stamping on your fingers. Your colleagues or customers aren't driving nails up through your desk chair. You can sit down and write. Every other beginner writer is facing what you're facing. You aren't specially cursed with an especially awful or demanding job. You can find the time. You can learn to put work and the stress of work aside for 90 or 120 minutes a day. You can write in those minutes. Nobody is "making" you not write. Except you.

Give your boss your best effort and commitment, and then give your writing your best effort and commitment. Every other successful writer has done this. You can do it. So do it.

2. Writus interruptus

You write, you write all the time. Well, maybe not every day, but regularly. And yet you don't seem to be getting anything done.

Writing is a daily chore. I mean daily. Not weekly, not every so often, when you're in the mood. I mean every morning or every evening. Weekends included. Vacations and holidays included. Forces outside your control will occasionally de-rail you: an illness, a catastrophe, but these need to be big to be surrendered to without shame. A cold is not serious enough to stop you writing. Pneumonia is. Outside commitments might require you to reschedule your writing: to drive the kids to school or to attend your spouse's office party, but these aren't permission to abandon writing for that day. They're permission to do it at a different time, say 5.00am-6.30am instead of 6.30am-8.00am.

You have to write every day to keep continuity of thought. A novel has a lot going on in it and you have plenty of plates to juggle. You can't expect the plates to suspend themselves in the air while you watch a DVD or go visit your folks. They don't, they crash, and you spend the next session at your writing desk trying to recoup, remember and recover.

Writing, like any other serious, skilled endeavour, requires constant practice. You get better by the doing it. Skipping days or weeks makes you lose fitness. When next at your desk, you puff and blow and pull mental muscles instead of performing your writing at peak condition. This makes the writing harder and what you write worse. Writing for publication is a discipline, not a hobby. It can't be put aside with impunity because something else seemed a little more interesting to you. It will suffer.

Form the resolve to write every day and then do it. This is part of becoming a real writer. Your reward is not only a completed writing project, but also the satisfaction of having kept your resolve. There's another reward: your writing becomes better. Writing becomes exhilarating. You almost literally get high on it. It's what makes that resolve continually easier to keep.

3. Writing the wrong book

If you find yourself stalling rather than writing, it might be because you aren't writing a story that interests you. If you're grimly pushing out sentences, wishing you were anywhere else but at your desk, then you are either one of those geniuses who write masterpieces through torment, or you're writing a book you don't want to write. Speaking statistically, guess which one you more likely are.

A good story grips you. A story that isn't congenial to you has you putting a gun to your own head to make yourself write the next paragraph. Why are you doing it? Why are you writing something so wrong for you? Why are you irritating yourself and yet hoping, one day, people will want to spend money on this round peg being extruded from a square hole?

If you aren't so utterly consumed by your own story that you can't keep away from it, if you aren't in love with it, if it isn't taking up your attention night and day, ask why. You should be flying, not groaning. Analyse your story. Why is it that you chose this of all stories to write about? Are you aspiring to intellectual fiction when inside you really want to write westerns? Is pride making you choose the wrong genre for you? Did you choose this subject because you felt it would be a "proper" book? Or because a book like that did very well on the bestseller lists and you decided to write for the money? Except, of course, you aren't?

It's hard and unrewarding to write about something that doesn't interest you. So stop. Find a story that does. Nobody is looking for a book that the author didn't enjoy writing.

4. Telling your story before you've finished it

Have you told someone about the story you're writing? Have you shared its plot with family or friends? Have you let people read parts of it? Have you discussed problems in its plot or its characters' motivations with a writing group? Do you attend a writing group?

The point of writing is to tell a story. If you've already told it to someone before you've put it on paper (or screen), you're killing it. Maybe only a bit, but each time you do, more life-blood drains from it. I can proudly claim to have killed not only a book but ten years of my life in this easy way. I described the story to a friend and for the next decade tried to inject interest and urgency into what I had already thoroughly told. One day I recognised what I had done and quietly laid it aside. Retrospect is the least fun of perspectives.

Don't talk about what you are writing. Ever. Not until it is done to the point of sending it to an agent or publisher, or until you are at the point of giving it to your one trusted intelligent reader-friend (don't tell them about it, just hand it over, and then listen to their feedback). If people ask you "what's your book about?" tell them "a thriller", "a young-adult novel", or "I'm sorry, I don't discuss my work in progress" – and then don't. You don't have to satisfy their curiosity. They're interested for a nano-second, but your book dies forever.

You'll notice I've included writing groups. I'm afraid I'm not a fan of these. Talking about writing isn't writing. If you can't write unless you have a group to motivate or support you, then you have more issues than not being able to commit to a book.

I've found that writing done for a writing group is shaped for that experience, becomes something fit to be read out or circulated, something altered by an anticipated performance. It turns a book into a serial drama that is not about the book itself, but about you, your thoughts, your hopes, what you want it to be.

Shut up, write by yourself, for yourself, to your own standard, and become your own editor and critic. Don't release it into the world until you know it's ready. Don't share a dish not yet cooked.

If you want to tell a story, tell it and get instant gratification, or write it and reap long-term satisfaction. You can't do both.

5: Your social life

Marge Piercy says of writing: "You have to like it better than being loved." You're a writer first or you aren't a writer. Writing comes before all. Hard? Yes. Necessary? Yes.

I'm not saying that you have to become a loveless recluse. I am saying that you mustn't always put loved ones first. You can't, if you want to get any writing done.

If you haven't always been writing and then you start a writing life, your family and your friends will assuredly not like being demoted. They'll start by indulging you but, as you persist, they will resent it. You've introduced a new thing into their lives, a rival for their affection and attention. They don't have to be nice about it, and often won't be. They'll try to distract you or tempt you away from your desk. You can give in and please them, or you can stiffen your spine and do the work you think necessary for your own life. They'll get over it or they won't. If someone doesn't "get it", then they aren't someone who should be in your life. You are a writer. It's who you are. It's what you do. They have to take you on your terms.

Remember that you get the reward of writing when you put your writing first. Your friends and family get nothing. They don't care as much, or even at all, about your creative work, not even that person who adores you (she or he tolerates it and supports you because they love you, but let's not get big-headed; it's no more than that. Even though that is wonderful.) They have no dog in your fight. Don't expect them to make more sacrifices than you do for your sake. Choose these sacrifices yourself (give up watching the game, or gardening) rather than asking others to make big changes in their lives for you. Try to minimise the impact of your writing on them. But write.

There will be times you stand at the door of your study (or wherever you write) with a heavy heart, knowing that someone yearns for your company, that you long for theirs, and yet you still must close the door on them. It's tough. You might find family relationships strained and your friends giving up on you. You can work on the percentages ("I'll have 23% less time for my son, but he'll still get 77%, which means I won't have all my free time for my writing, but I'll have more than none, and I can live with that balance.") but what you can't do is give 100% of your time to the people in your life.

Books don't write themselves. They take a lot of time. But so do a lot of voluntary things. Nobody raises an eyebrow when an aspiring marathoner spends two hours a day jogging, even if it takes time away from a partner and children. You already take time from your friends and loved ones to do things: chores, hobbies. You have to do the same with your writing, if you want to be a writer. And then, when you have that precious time, you must write. No playing solitaire or reading blogs. If your loved ones are losing your company, and you're losing good times with them, at least ennoble the loss by actually writing.

6: Indulging in advance marketing

I'm always astonished at the number of beginning writers who don't have a finished first draft, but do have the blurb for the cover their paperback ready to go. Planning your publicity is always fun. But thinking about your fame ("what will I say on 'Ellen' if she asks about...?") isn't doing writing, it's dressing up in the clothes of a professional writer when you haven't earned them.

If we didn't think we'd gain fame and money from our writing we couldn't keep going. Those serious about their work curtail the make-believe, don't indulge themselves writing jacket cover text ("This hilarious first-person story will keep you laughing from the first page to the last"), but instead, write.

Included in the fun stuff of advance marketing is drafting your synopsis before you've finished your book, and by "finished" I mean re-written to the point that you can find no more ways to improve it. I've gone into detail about the synopsis (see The synopsis: what it is, what it isn't), but let me repeat here: if you are writing a synopsis at any point before you're about to put a stamp on an envelope containing your query letter or before clicking on the submission form where it's attached, you're writing it too soon, and you are displacing the real writing.

Save your synopsis and query letter for the time when your book is done, when it is ready for an agent's or a publisher's eyes. Write these then and only then. Here and now, when your book isn't done, you must concentrate on it and it alone.

Writing your synopsis, your query letter, your jacket blurb, your future reviews, is goofing off, not writing. They are contributing nothing to your story. You might as well be playing solitaire. At least that's honest procrastination.

7: Background research

If you're writing a story that needs information, be it historical details, technical data, geographical accuracy, or some other special knowledge, you can spend many happy, happy hours doing the research and hardly any minutes doing the actual writing. Some of you have chosen to write a story that needs research because you love the research. Don't love it so much that the story dies of neglect while you become the world's expert on nuclear-powered submarines. If you love it that much, write a non-fiction book.

The lust for accuracy can impede your novel over and over again while it's in progress. If you've spent an hour finding an historical photo confirming the layout of a harbour long since altered in a city you've half-fictionalised, just so you know if the protagonist has to run down a pier or jump into a tender, you have to remind yourself that what you are writing is FICTION, you're allowed to make it up, and you need to stop going a little nuts and get back to the story. That telling detail is unimportant if it is not absolutely required as an element in the on-going conflict.

Don't fool yourself that "it's all part of the writing". Writing is part of the writing. Writing is writing. If you didn't do a single scrap of research, if you made everything up, including your nuclear-powered submarine, you could still produce a crackingly good book.

All those hours at your desk have to produce a novel. If they've produced research notes, congratulations: you've created a database.

8: Reading writing advice

What are you doing here?!? Get back to work!!

There's a time to learn, and there's a time to do. There's a time to seek advice, and a time to put it into practice. If you have a novel started, you're no longer at the learning or seeking stage, you're at the writing stage. If you sat down at your PC or laptop today and googled "writing advice" when you should have been writing, then you're not actually writing a story, you're messing around. Your story's dying and you're pretending you're doing something productive.

When should you read articles such as this fine one right here? When you aren't actually writing a book. If you're learning and writing at the same time, the book you're working on is a practice run. That's OK, but remember that it's practice and not going to be published. It won't be published because it's a student piece. When you've stopped teaching yourself, you'll write seriously. That doesn't mean you won't continue to seek out good advice. We learn how to write our whole lives. Finally, however, the real learning comes from actually writing, for writing teaches you how you write.

Hunting up writing advice in your writing time is displacement, with a thin lie of "I'm learning my craft" smeared on top. If you meant to write something in this hour and now you're here reading this, get off-line and get back to it.

To sum up

These eight guaranteed wreckers of writing are lurking in all our lives. They'll get on top of you from time to time despite your strongest commitment. We are but human. You aren't a bad writer because you sometimes struggle and fail to resist temptation. You will be a bad writer, in fact, you won't be a writer at all, if you keep giving into it.

There are so many things out there ready to kill your story. Don't let one of them be you.