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Doing It My Way

March 20, 2011

I have been struggling for the past few weeks with the second half of my novel.  It started out pretty well – I created backgrounds and character profiles for the people who will populate the story, considered how the internal and external conflicts will drive the narrative forward, and plotted out the main action (and reaction) sequences.  And while I hadn’t developed a formal ‘outline’, I started writing – because I had a pretty good idea of how things would go along.  Or so I thought.

Blank Screen

The 😦 Blank Screen

Half way through my anticipated word count, I stalled.  I knew what needed to happen next (and next, and next, and next) but I couldn’t quite get the words onto paper (or, rather, onto the computer screen).  I’d write a few pages, go back and re-read it, try to fix the parts I didn’t like, and end up deleting the whole thing (or most of it, anyway).  Something just wasn’t ‘clicking’ for me. 

I went back and did some minor editing on the first half.  Better, I thought. I went back to the second half – and stalled again. Well-meaning friends kept telling me, ‘Write it all down, then go back and revise later’; others were blunter, saying, ‘Get on with it, dammit.’  But I just couldn’t see my way through writing something that was only going to have to be seriously revised later (when, hopefully, I finally figured out what was wrong with it).  I started to make all kinds of excuses for my lack of progress:  I was tired of the story and the characters; maybe a novel was too ambitious a project right now; I really need to degrease the oven, do the laundry, scrub the toilets, and steam clean the living room carpets (if you know me, you know how desperate this must sound – I HATE housework with a passion!)

Just Do It!Over the years, I’ve read what many writers have said about the process of writing. There seems to be two schools of thought on how it should best be done.  One is the method people around me kept telling me to pursue – ‘Start at the beginning and don’t stop until you reach the end, don’t go back (except to review the last few lines you wrote in your previous session), and only revise when you are finished (and then revise again, and again, and again …)’.

The second is a more fluid, personalized approach – basically ‘Do whatever works for you’.  Both approaches, of course, take into account that writing is a particularly solitary activity; that there will always be lots of doubt and self-criticism involved; there will be days when you write nothing ‘good’; and perseverance is key (without it, nothing would ever get written – certainly nothing worth reading).  

So, looking for encouragement (or perhaps, reassurance), I took a ‘time out’ from writing for a few days and did some reading instead.  I reviewed a number of articles I’d saved, visited some writing-related web sites, and read interviews given by various authors on what worked (or didn’t) for them.  I came away enlightened, and with a renewed commitment to my novel.

My WayWithout telling anyone exactly how I was spending my ‘writing time’, I went back and started revising the first six chapters.  Bit by bit, the story began to tighten up, the characters became more authentic, and the conflict made more sense within the overall plot. Aha! I thought.  I’m on to something here.  This is what ‘works’ for me.  What I had discovered is that unless the first chapter is ‘right’, I will struggle with the second, and if it’s not working, the third will suffer, and so on.  I simply can’t push forward until I’m happy with what’s already been set down. I have to do it my way.

Now, for those of you who know me, that might seem like a great big ‘Duh!’  I’m hardly a pushover.  I like to do (most) things a specific way.  I can be opinionated, inflexible, and stubborn. But that doesn’t mean I’m beyond seeking advice when I’m exploring new topics, or stuck on something I’m trying to accomplish. I believe there is benefit to learning from the experiences (and listening to the advice) of others.  Quite often, this counsel is worthwhile and leads to new and/or improved ways of doing things. At other times, of course, it turns out to be total bollocks.  The trick is in knowing what suggestions to listen to (and follow), and what to ignore.

Get Advice When You Need ItSeeking advice when you are unsure about something is … well, good advice.  It’s important to be open to new ideas, new concepts, new perspectives. But it’s also important to consider the source: Is the person giving the advice an ‘expert’? Have they actually experienced and learned from the very advice they are giving? Can what they’re saying be qualified? Do you trust them?

Of course, the most important source for knowing what to do (or not to do) in most circumstances is your own intuition – that ‘gut feeling’ that alerts you when something is absolutely ‘right’ or terribly ‘wrong’.  We all have it, but sometimes we don’t pay (enough) attention to it!

For some people, ‘intuition’ takes the form of physical ailments.  If you are in a job, or a relationship, or just about any situation that isn’t working for you, you are likely to experience headaches, an upset stomach, weight gain or loss, lack of appetite, eczema, or odd aches and pains when you even so much as think about it.  That’s your intuition telling you to get out (and the quicker the better).  For others, it’s more of a sixth sense.  If you get the ‘feeling’ you should avoid certain people, places, or situations (either at the time or as a kind of ‘premonition’ beforehand), take notice. If something feels ‘off’, it probably is.

Listen to IntutionOf course, intuition can also work ‘for’ you.  Pay attention to the giddy feeling you get when you’re around someone you just might be destined to fall in love with, the rush of energy you experience when you think about a particular job or activity or location, the indescribable ‘knowing’ that something important is about to take place.  The universe is sending you a signal that good things are about to happen – pay heed.

In our lives, we have all made ‘mistakes’ (although I’m a big believer in the idea that there aren’t any ‘mistakes’ – just opportunities that present themselves in often difficult ways) and we all have ‘regrets’ – times when we wish we’d done things a different way, followed (or not) some advice we were given, pursued an alternate path.  While those things can’t be changed or undone (the past is past), you can learn from the experience – not by rehashing and bemoaning things over and over, but by reflecting on how you felt at the time and recognizing the signs that were clearly telling you what you should have done.  

From birth to death, life is one big learning experience.  Some things we learn through formal education, some from experience, some from listening to the advice of others.  We grow, we change, we evolve.  One of my favourite quotes is by the poet and author, Maya Angelou – “I did then what I knew how to do.  Now that I know better, I do better.”

So here’s my advice to you.  Do better. Do the things that matter to you, that make your life (and by extension, the lives of others) richer and stronger and deeper and more valuable.  Seek advice when you need to – but don’t apologize for not doing things the way others think you should do them.  Be who you were meant to be, the way you were meant to be.  Live your life to the fullest.  Do it your way, even when you reach … the other side of 55.

Do Better ... Maya Angelou

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4 Comments
  1. May 3, 2011 12:39 pm

    Thank you for posting this. I’m not writing a novel, only some family history stories, but what you said makes so much sense for just getting through life, reminding me that the doubts I’ve encountered and suggestions from others can be heard…then ignored…and I’ll just do it my way, which is what always worked for me in the long run anyway. Geez, it’s amazing what one learns when one is on the other side of 55. Life has it’s ups and downs…makes me think of something I think I heard in an old Bette Davis movie, “…hang on, we’re in for a bumpy ride.” Keep up with your novel, and let us know when it’s ready for us to read.

    • May 3, 2011 1:20 pm

      Whatever kind of writing you’re doing, its important to do it your way (as, I suppose, is true about any aspect of life). Thanks for the comment.

      Margo

  2. yvonne harris permalink
    March 20, 2011 7:22 pm

    Thanks. You just reminded me to get back to my own novel revision (I revise all the while I am writing, however once completed, I go back and really review-this is the boring part) I work by the axium of “spew, then review” but all writers do have to work by their own schedule, so soldier on and so will I. (LOL)

    • March 20, 2011 7:48 pm

      Yvonne,

      It’s good to know I’m not alone! I ‘sort of’ miss the ‘good old days’ when you wrote once on paper, then revised via type(writer) – once, maybe twice – and then sent it off. It gave you far less options for continual revision. I just hope each one is actually making the story better and not just prolonging the process! Keep me posted on how your work is going.

      Margo

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