Am I Good Enough to Write This?

Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is probably best known for its assertion that the way to become great at something — anything really — is to practice it for 10,000 hours. Similarly, author David Eddings (and apparently a few others) claim that the key to becoming a good author is to write a million words, then throw them away and really start writing.

“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.”

David Eddings

Some writers will hear these claims, crack their knuckles, and start typing with relish. They’re delighted to learn that success is as simple as aiming in the right direction and putting in the time and effort. Others (including myself) are a bit less enthusiastic. A million words equates to ten or eleven substantial novels. Ten thousand hours is 417 days-worth of writing, without sleep, meals, or bathroom breaks. Not to mention the unshakable feeling that there must be more to greatness than simply plowing forward stubbornly.

However you quantify it, we know that writing is a craft that can be refined over a lifetime. Whether you believe in innate artistic talent, practice and study do make a difference.

That’s all to say that sometimes, it can be daunting to write. It’s normal for writers to have deep insecurities about their own skill. Writers are readers too. We see the incredible feats of our favorite authors. We can cite examples of phenomenal writing, and we see every time we don’t quite measure up.

Be Afraid, but Not Too Afraid

Have you ever had an idea for a story that you loved, but you were afraid to write it because you thought you could never do it justice? Have you ever started to write what was sure to be your greatest story ever, only to have the words flow out of your brain, down to your fingers, to flop, sad and desiccated on the page; a pathetic imitation of what you saw in your imagination?

Being a writer requires a specific cognitive dissonance — the ability to believe that you are writing something brilliant, while simultaneously seeing all the flaws in that work in order to edit them into oblivion. It’s a knife’s-edge mental balancing act, and it’s awfully easy to fall off one side or the other.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

One of the traps that writers, especially inexperienced writers, can fall into is the belief that they have great ideas, but lack the skill to do them justice. They have the idea that could be the next bestseller, if only it was written by someone with more expertise. Sometimes this takes the form of a fear that they might be a one-hit-wonder, who only ever has the one great idea. It would be a terrible waste to squander it.

I call this a trap because it’s almost certainly not true.

That Idea Isn’t Special

How many awards are there for novels, poems and short stories? And how many awards are there for cool ideas?

That’s because ideas aren’t that special. We become writers because we read things that inspire us. We start coming up with our own ideas. Every writer is an idea-generating machine. You may feel like it’s a slog, but you can come up with story ideas, if you put your mind to it.

A great writer could take a downright mundane premise and create a mesmerizing story from it. Many have. Ideas only become great in the execution.

Even more dangerous is an idea that’s put on a pedestal. When you think of that idea as “the perfect idea,” the one that you may never live up to again, it’s hard to move past it. You might hold on to that idea for years. You might even obsess over it.

I know, because I’ve done it. You can wear down an idea over years, like a worry stone. You can keep adjusting it, refining it, or just tweaking it here and there. It can feel like you’re accomplishing something, but if you can’t bring yourself to translate that idea into an actual story, then all that thought and effort and obsession is useless.

That obsession also precludes other ideas. How many new ideas could you play around with in the time that’s being spent worrying about that one idea? Sometimes our minds are like a warehouse, and we need to clear out those ideas to make space for new ones. Dwelling on the old can prevent you from moving on to something better.

You’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better

If you write for years with some regularity, I can easily prove to you that you’re getting better. Go back and look at something you wrote a year ago. Five years ago. Ten years ago. Those pieces will certainly be different. You may have preferences of voice and style that have changed. You’ll also notice a lot of improvements that could be made. You’re so much better at writing now.

Gladwell didn’t claim that a switch flips at the moment you hit your 10,000 hours. Every day you practice, you learn something, even if you aren’t always aware of it. It’s a slow and steady progression. You can improve your skill at dialogue, or at description. You can develop your voice, and you can learn to build deeper, more sympathetic characters.

Isn’t it strange then, to believe that you can get better at all of these things, but not at coming up with good ideas? It’s a skill like any other, and it develops through practice. Granted, if you’re brainstorming ideas, you can’t expect all of them to be amazing. But you can trust that the writer you become in five or ten years is going to be better at coming up with good ideas, just like they’ll be better at dialogue and characterization.

The ideas you come up with today are for present-you to write. Trust future-you to come up with their own great ideas to write about.

Diamonds Have to be Polished

First drafts suck. Sometimes second and third drafts suck too.

One of the times when that special brand of authorial cognitive dissonance is really tested is in writing a first draft. Ideas are like clouds. They’re soft and vague and beautiful. You can stare up into that bright blue sky and see all sorts of amazing shapes.

Words are flexible, but they’re less flexible than ideas. Those nebulous ideas seemed so good partly because you could ignore the missing bits, the conflicting bits, the bits that just plain don’t make sense or haven’t been thought through properly. When you put them down on the page, that luxury immediately goes away. They’re solidified into a rough, mangled form that will never live up to those gauzy visions in your mind.

Don’t confuse that first draft with the polished end-product it will become. Don’t compare the perfect idea to the worst form your story will ever take.

Don’t Wait

If it feels like a great idea, try writing it now. Expect your first draft to feel bad, and look forward to closing that gap between idea and execution in the revision process. If it still doesn’t work out, that’s okay too. Just consider it part of your 10,000 hours, or million words.

Trust that you’ll have better ideas and be better able to execute them in the future. Make room for those new ideas by not obsessing over the old ones.

And in case you weren’t sure, the answer is “Yes, you are good enough to write that.”

6 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

The phrase “writer’s block” gets tossed around a lot, to the point that it has become a trope or boogie-man in the modern mythology of what it’s like to be a writer. The truth is that there’s no one thing that stops us from writing. Like any other job, writing is harder some days than others. Sometimes we have good reasons that the words aren’t coming. Other times, it’s a mystery why the muse has abandoned us.

Likewise, there’s no single formula to overcoming writer’s block. Everyone writes differently. Some find a routine and stick with it throughout their lives. Others have to catch a few words here and there, or need variety to stimulate their creativity.

Here are a few strategies that have worked for me. Next time you find yourself staring at the blank page or the blinking cursor, give one a try.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Thomas Mann

1. The Jump-Start

I discovered something about myself a few years ago. I’m often pretty bad about chores like cleaning, laundry, and dishes. What I realized was that all I needed to do was get myself started. I’d enter the kitchen, notice some crumbs on the counter, and decide to wipe it down. Then I’d clean the little island counter. Then the stove. Before I knew it, I was doing dishes or cleaning half the kitchen.

Getting started on a task is often the hardest part, especially when it feels big or unpleasant. It’s like diving into cool water. The initial plunge is the hard part, and then you get acclimated and comfortable. It’s easy to agonize over the opening of a new book, or even the first few words in a regular writing session. If I can get myself into the middle of a sentence or paragraph, I’m much more compelled to keep going.

Make a deal with yourself. Instead of thinking “I have to finish this chapter,” or “I need to write 2000 words today,” just tell yourself to write something small: a sentence, a paragraph, or perhaps a few lines of dialogue. Sometimes your writing session just needs a jump-start to get the engine running.

If you find this works for you, you might even want to end your writing sessions mid-sentence, even if you know how the sentence should end. It will give you something you can immediately start writing the next time.

2. The Deadline

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Douglas Adams

Trying to be creative while up against the clock might seem unappealing at first, but deadlines can be a tool. When unlimited possibilities are overwhelming, it can be hard to come up with something concrete. Deadlines enforce limits. If you want to get your writing done within a time limit, you have to stop thinking, stop planning, and start putting words on the page.

Self-imposed deadlines can take many forms, but to really be effective, they need some sort of external accountability. You’re more likely to get it done if the alternative is telling someone that you failed.

If you’re working on a rough draft, you might hold yourself accountable to beta readers, friends, or a writing circle. If you’re writing short fiction or poetry, you might be able to find a fitting contest, anthology, or magazine that has a limited window for submissions.

You may not need a particular person to hold you accountable. Committing to a schedule, participating in challenges like NaNoWriMo, or writing daily or weekly blog posts or serial fiction might be enough of a push to keep you going.

3. The Speed Demon

Sometimes you’ve got an idea, but you just can’t find the right words or place to start. Well, it turns out that’s a problem for future you! Here in the present, all you have to do is write a pile of words that sorta, kinda get the point across. Write fast, and let that poor sucker, “future you,” worry about editing that hot mess into a beautiful manuscript.

How do you force yourself to write fast when you’re already struggling to write anything at all? You could try applications like Write or Die, The Most Dangerous Writing App, or Flowstate. These apps can play angry noises, flash, or even start to delete your words if you stop writing for too long, helping you learn how to write fast and stop worrying about the quality of the content.

If these tech solutions don’t appeal to you, you can still go old-school. Challenge a fellow writer to a word-count race. Put on a your favorite speed metal playlist and try to write a hundred words by the end of each song. The important thing is to get those words out. You can make them better later.

4. The Prompt

Creative cross-pollination is a real thing. A story that’s floundering may be missing some vital idea that will make all the disparate pieces fit into place. It can help to get away from the story, especially if you bring something new back when you return to it.

One of the best ways to reset the writing brain is with prompts. If you aren’t aware, writing prompts are popular. They’re everywhere. You can find hundreds with a quick internet search. If you prefer something physical, there are writing prompt journals, books, calendars, and cards.

If you prefer higher stakes, try looking for a themed contest. Many contests require a specific genre, setting, or topic. Find one in your wheelhouse, or try something you’ve never written before. You might even turn your writer’s block into a cash prize.

5. The Spike

Stuck trying to get a story from point A to point B? Not sure where the story is going? Too many possibilities, or no way forward? Try a spike.

I blogged about writing spikes in a previous post. In short, a writing spike is a little writing experiment to figure out where a story should go and how it might get there by trying different possibilities. Spikes are designed to be thrown away, so there’s no pressure to make them perfect.

6. The Great Outdoors

Do you always write in the same place? Use the same computer or the same notebook? Write at the same time of day or week? Routine can be grounding, and it can help to carve out time when schedules are tight. Routines can also become dull and stale.

A change of scenery, a different time of day, a switch from pen to keyboard or vice versa – all of these can help break that block.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Try, and try again. Ultimately, overcoming writer’s block requires trust that more words will come. Sometimes just eking out a few words leads to a flood. Sometimes the words have to be bad so they can be made better later. Sometimes it takes external motivation or a change in scenery to make writing feel fresh and new again. And what you thought was terrible may turn out to be pretty good on re-read.

Do you have any favorite tricks to help you get past writer’s block? Let me know in the comments.