While doing an interview for Jon McBrine, I was asked about common writing challenges that aspiring writers might face. In my response I discussed the plethora of distractions, which was the first thought that came to mind. When I saw his question, I immediately realized that there are too many “traps for aspiring writers” to mention. Since the interview, I’ve continued to ponder the question. Here are my top four challenges, and how I’ve learned to reduce or resolve them.
Common Writing Challenges #1 – Everything is a Distraction
This trap has a million faces. Unfortunately, most of those faces are more friend than foe. It’s not uncommon for writers to announce they need to “take a break” from Twitter, Instagram, and other social media, when what was originally welcome support and connection has become an obstacle to their writing progress.
If you write at home, like I do, you may be distracted by pets, children, significant others, the mail, weeds growing in the yard, unfolded laundry, or the pillow just inches from your head…Chris Elle Dove, “Author Spotlight“. Jon McBrine
My Solution: Write First
I’ve come to see writing the way I see the gym. If I don’t go first thing, there’s a 50% chance I won’t go at all. Set aside the to do list, it won’t go away, and it will never get shorter. You have to prioritize time for writing. Clear your schedule, turn off your phone, find a sitter, relocate to a coffee shop. Find out what works for you and stick to it!
Common Writing Challenges #2 – Oh, So Many Hats
Although authors often do need to wear many hats (writing, editing, marketing and promotion, web design, social media manager, chief financial officer, etc.), it’s important to remember they don’t all need to be worn at the same time.
Particularly counterproductive, at least for me, is the wearing of “writer” and “editor” simultaneously. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ruined a glorious writing session by prematurely switching into editing mode. It’s easy to slip that hat on, but almost impossible to take it back of.
Realizing I’m overusing a word has been the most difficult “edit trap” for me to ignore. Here’s how it goes:
I just woke up with the most brilliant idea! I’m madly trying to type it up before it dissipates, like a dream that’s so vivid when I first open my eyes that I’m not sure if it was real or imagined. Yet, somehow it manages to vaporize, slip through my fingers, by the time I finish brushing my teeth.
I’m thinking, “I’m on a roll. Today, I’m going to get this idea I woke up with out, start to finish!” Until, at some point, when I realize I’m about to use a word I just used. I have a nagging feeling that I’ve used it many times already.
I stop just long enough to glance back, wondering if I used it in the sentence I’m working on (as if that would change anything). It turns out I did use it at the beginning of the current sentence! And, I can see another instance where I’ve used it, out of the corner of my eye.
There is a part of me that sees the impending disaster, and cries out to keep going. But, at the same time, another part of me is already dangling a cookie. I begin to delude myself with thoughts like:
“I’ll just reread this sentence, and plop in the perfect synonym.”
“I’ll be back to getting my idea out in a few minutes.”
“Breaking to do this one thing isn’t going to disrupt my flow or derail me.”
“This story arc is burned into my brain.
I’ll remember exactly where I was going with this thought after I change the word.”
These rationalizations and justifications are lies! All of them! I can’t stress this enough…
I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone […], she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”Elizabeth Gilbert
Your Elusive Creative Genius, TED2009
I must have fifty drafts that were “fully formed” stories until I decided to switch roles and completely lost my rhythm, flow, and where the story was headed. Sometimes I get back to them, or more accurately, they come back for me. Usually this happens when I’m at the gym, jogging, driving, or otherwise unable to capture them. Unfortunately, some of the ideas that were not recorded in a timely manner may have been lost indefinitely.
My Solution: Spin a Web
Humans are creatures of habit. We’re always, both consciously and unconsciously, drawing connections and noticing patterns. Once a pattern has been established, any connections within it are instantly, and often permanently, linked together (bell ringing –> food).
Keeping just one “hat” on is easier when we begin to intentionally form a web of associations around specific roles. This collection of thoughts, behaviors, boundaries, and expectations is used to create a “cognitive file” which can be accessed whenever that role’s circumstances arise. Once that happens, each role becomes more natural. We’re able to distinguish it from other roles more effectively. Over time, we learn to transition in and out of our roles more seamlessly.
Location and Libation
When I’m changing roles, I relocate, and fix myself a fresh drink. Amazing new ideas are fleshed out, for the first time, on the couch with a steaming cup of herbal tea. All of my editing happens at the dining room table, and is too intense a process to undertake with a drink. Although I do consume food and editing as a delicious pairing. Web design and promotion are activities for the kitchen island, with a crisp cup of lemon water in hand. Marketing and promotion requires something strong but soothing, like chai, chocolate, or coffee.
Recording and Filing Information
I brainstorm with a physical notebook, then move to a word document for free writing or outlining (which of the two comes next depends on where the brainstorming session took me). Free writing is then filed in one of two folders: “Book Ideas” or “Blog Ideas”. Once a fully (or mostly-fully) formed outline exists, it’s time for a topic specific folder to be created.
Time of Day
As I mentioned before, I begin every (well… 80%) of my work days with writing. Then I move to either editing or web design (I generally don’t tackle those two roles on the same day). Every day is a good day to promote! I like to spread it out, weaving it in, throughout the day, between and alongside my other tasks.
Common Writing Challenges #3 – Striving for Perfection
My beta testers, editors, and illustrator must all get a kick out of how many “final draft” revisions I produce. The document names always include a number, Mimi’s Imagination Final Draft Take 8.pdf.
There is an important distinction between ready and perfect. When something is ready, it’s moved to the next stage of the process. At some point it will probably be published. When I start out wanting something to be perfect, whether I admit it to myself or not, it’s much more difficult to finish. If you’re like me, when you want something to be perfect, you’ll find yourself spinning your wheels on the first paragraph, for months, while other drafts are started, tweaked, polished, finalized, and sent off for the first round of professional editing.
Perfect is an unrealistic goal, because it’s unachievable. If you strive to be perfect, the best you can hope for is disappointment, the worst is paralysis.
My Solution: Compare the Potential Risks and Rewards
There’s never a perfect time to take a vacation, change careers, or fall in love, but we do it anyway. The timing is good enough when the rewards outweigh the risk. If you look back later and wish you had added something, fabulous, write a sequel!
What’s too far from perfect, in the end, is practice. Our craft is advanced through writing and revising MANY stories. Growth comes from creating different types of stories, with different structures. Writing is improved by changing our target audience, completing a challenge, or pausing to try our hand at a haiku.
by: Chris Elle Dove
writing is perfect
only in that it reflects
what’s best about you
Musicians and dancers must learn to “play through” mistakes. I would contend that authors should as well.
Common Writing Challenges #4 – Striving for Mediocrity
To say you should avoid striving for perfection is not to say you should strive for mediocrity. It would be a mistake to edit your work once, twice, or even thrice, and deem it “good enough”.
There are endless people out there writing, publishing, and marketing their books. Breaking into the field is extremely difficult. Amazing work is often rejected or passed by. Dr. Seuss’ And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, for example, was rejected 27 times.
Given those odds, mediocre work will most certainly not make the cut!
My Solution: The Tenth, to Twelfth, Time’s the Charm
After you write something, sleep on it, then revise again. Set your projects aside, work on something else, then come back and edit again. Ask beta testers to provide feedback, re-revise. Hire someone to edit, revise yet again.
The book that I just published had at least 10 “final drafts”, as did the two stories I’ve finished and am preparing to send out for illustration.
I literally continue to edit until it I’ve tried every option, every word, every possibility, and every alternate ending I can think of. I edit until my tiny beta tester’s parents are providing comments like these:
“She thought it was hilarious when Gabby found a toothbrush.”
“He asked me to read it again the next night.”
“They were very concerned about where Katie had gone…”
“We had to pry the book out of her hands to get her to take a bath”
Is Writing Worth the Trouble?
To this question, I say:
“Yes! Hands down!”
For me, the rewards of writing greatly exceed any frustration created by obstacles and challenges. At this point, the challenges are rarely a source of discouragement. In fact, I expect them. I welcome them. I see them as a natural and necessary part of the process, of the journey. As I step over various stumbling blocks, I grow, my writing matures, and my schedule becomes more flexible.
I invite you to embrace your challenges, to appreciate how overcoming them turns the page, propelling you forward into the next chapter of your grand adventure!