For Authors: The Great Paradoxes of Writing

question-mark-1-1084630-mToday I thought it would be fun to explore some of the paradoxes of writing fiction. You know: the strange and counter-intuitive truths of the craft.

(I think I’ve been reading too much G.K. Chesterton. He LOVES to write in and about paradoxes. Anyway….)

We all deal with writing paradoxes. And when we’re starting out, it takes a while sometimes to understand that this is the way writing actually works. As strange as it may sound, we writers know:

1. WE ARE WORKING WHEN WE ARE DOING “NOTHING.”

The following count as work for a writer:

  • People-watching
  • Staring off into space while everyone else is watching television or a movie
  • Sitting on the couch, maybe staring out into the garden
  • Taking an obscenely long time to wash dishes, pass the vacuum cleaner, or fold laundry

You see, when we are doing these things, we are thinking. Plotting. Making connections between characters and events in our story. We are doing prep work for the actual “work” of writing.

That is necessary and important stuff!!!

2. IDEAS COME WHEN WE STOP TRYING TO FORCE THEM.

This one kills me every time. I have a plot hole. Or I’m stuck with writer’s block. I spend days trying to think through the problem, to solve it with logic or with deduction. You know: to take things from point A, to B, then C.

Nothing.

Then I give up in exasperation and devote the next couple of days to non-related pursuits. Out of the blue the solution will hit me. No warning. No real cause that I can usually mark: the ideas just come when I’m not looking for them.

This is also true for ideas for blog posts.

3. WE ADVANCE SOMETIMES BY BACKING UP.

This one is killer to the psyche when you don’t realize that this is how writing often goes.

We sometimes feel like failures, and get frustrated, and want to throw things when we’ve written seventy-five pages and then realize we’ll need to toss forty of those and rewrite everything from a different angle of approach, or take things in an entirely different direction. We feel like talentless hacks.

Honestly, it’s okay to be annoyed when this happens. But don’t think that makes you a bad writer. This happens to everyone, I think (or at least, it plagues a fair number of us. Especially those of us who write without outlines).

4. KNOWING YOUR WRITING STINKS IS A GOOD THING

First drafts are always awful. And if you don’t end up thinking your first draft is bad (even if it’s “awesomely bad”), you have no chance of fixing the things that are dragging it down.

The idea, of course, is that your writing will only temporarily stink. Through editing and the input of others, you turn that problematic beginning into a solid novel.

So, what have your experiences been with the paradoxes of writing? How did you learn them? Have you learned one I’ve missed? Let us know!

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37 responses to “For Authors: The Great Paradoxes of Writing

  1. I’ve been dealing with No. 2 until last week. I had spend an embarrassingly long time looking for a way to fix some scenes, and I just couldn’t think of anything that would work until I threw the towel. I worked on some other drafts, went running in the woods, and finally, bam, out of the blue, I knew that the solution was as simple as a change of POV character. This meant that I had to re-write two long chapters, but now the whole thing finally works. And I’m still not over the fact that it took me ages to find out that the flaw was as simple as the POV character.

    And thank you very much for the reminder that staring into space and making up scenes and plotting is actually part of our work! I’m one of those persons who tend to bash themselves for being lazy instead of actually writing… πŸ™‚

    • thanks for your examples!!! I’ve have brainwaves like that too, where you just end up thinking “really? It took me THAT long to figure that out? Really? What kind of a dolt am I?” πŸ™‚

      I think the key is distance. It’s sometimes easier to see things from a distance that we’re blind to when we’re too close and too invested. Missing the forest for the trees πŸ™‚
      Also, I am the QUEEN of time wasting :-/ It’s kind of bad. I need to remind myself from time to time it’s not ALL bad.

  2. 2) always flummoxes me when it happens, but it’s also a comforting feeling to know that it *will* happen sooner or later when I’m stuck again, even when least expected. It always does.

    The greatest paradox for me is that I get the most writing done when I actually have neither time nor focus for it. A few days off with absolutely nothing to do? Don’t expect me to write a single coherent sentence. Stress in the office with half an hour lunchbreak between meetings? 1000 words, easily.

  3. Ah, I feel so horrible for the blank staring off that I do (especially when my husband is attempting to speak to me), but you’re right. The mind is always going.

    I think it’s important for all of us to accept that everything we write sucks at the beginning (even if it only sucks to us and other people could/would/do enjoy it). It keeps us striving to improve, I think.

    And I definitely know what you mean about writing something and ending up having to scrap it. It’s definitely one of those things that makes me wish (occasionally) I was capable of outlining. But I love the thrill of ‘pantsing’. πŸ™‚

  4. #1: Me. But I can’t tell my boss that! He’d probably be quite happy to give me the opportunity to stay home and work on my novel(s) full time. And the bank won’t care if they get their money from me or from the people they sell my house to.
    I usually tell myself I prefer to write without any distractions in the quiet of the night when everyone’s gone to bed. Doesn’t always work. Last year with NaNoWriMo I found I could write reams of words sitting in the corner of a busy peak-hour train. Purely quantity over quality but at least I had something down.

    • That’s DEFINITELY the way NaNoWriMo went for me too: quantity over quality. I ended up a bit disillusioned and don’t know that I plan to do it again…. But I did enjoy the experience and I’m glad I can say I’ve done it πŸ™‚

      • Same here. I might have a go at finishing the one I started. I got exactly half way through the story by the end of the month so I’d like to finish it. Haven’t touched it since because I’ve been doing other pojects.

  5. Never considered this, but all of those are true. I’ve stumbled into them without thinking and walked away shrugging. Maybe it’s better for me not to dwell on it. I can’t think of any other paradoxes. That covers all I can think of.

  6. Your post is one of the best I have read so far. I have a memoir I would like to wreite and you have set me on the right path. Thank you.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post!!! And best of luck!!! Memoirs are usually very interesting for me! It’s cool to get a look at someone’s perspective on life and the life they’ve led to shape that view. They are very powerful.

  7. Great post, Victoria. I especially agree with the first rule. as writers, we never stop working.

  8. OMG, number 1. Everyone (even my friends) for the longest time thought that I was lazy because they never saw me work. I don’t know if they just thought that I pulled novels out of my butt or what. But it wasn’t until I started posting about it all on Facebook that they realized that it was actual work.

    • hahaha!!! YES!!!! Such a misunderstanding. People who don’t write themselves often have trouble understanding all the mental work and preparation that goes into shaping a story of that magnitude and depth. It’s not easy! Just like I think I often underestimate all the rehearsal and practice that successful singers must use. It LOOKS so effortless, so natural…. but a LOT of work is behind it.

  9. I agree with all of these. I love anyone that tells me I’m working when really I”m just staring into space. I’m convinced that the only reason my books get written at all is because of the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent hiking in my life, and there’s not a lot to do when you hike except think and plot and plan πŸ™‚

  10. I’m so glad I’m not the only one in the club, hehehe…
    Right now I’m throwing away half of my last work, after a few hours with one of my severest editors. When we got together to read my book, I was so proud and happy about my work. After three hours of going through it, I got back on my computer, forgot about other projects and started to rewrite my story.
    But I know I’m doing the right thing.

    • Good for you!!! That is always really hard but I it definitely sounds like you are doing the right thing. Best of luck. And have fun enjoying how much better this rewrite is than the original!

  11. Expecting writing (or) editing to be a linear process is what gets so many new writers in trouble, I think. Writing 50 pages you later delete, going back in and rewriting a character after a few days of people watching, and doing housework to come up with inspiration are all examples of nonlinear processes. When we get out of our own way and stop trying to force the writing process into what it “should” be, most of us do our best work, don’t you think?

  12. on the button. Good ‘ol Grefer. see you on the couch

  13. To add to this:
    My biggest issue with writing comes with the realization that many of my closest peers probably think that I have way too much time on my hands; it’s actually quite the opposite. But it’s embarrassing nonetheless.
    When I’m home from school, laying on my bed, I’m thinking…
    when I’m at the gym supposedly getting in some much-needed cardio, I’m thinking…
    When I’m teaching kids at work, I’m thinking…
    When I’m talking to my girlfriend and she figures out that my thousand-yard stare, I’m thinking. Or running away from a five-foot-tall maniac with a knife.

    • hahaha!!! LOVE this πŸ™‚ It’s so true…. Others often do judge we are lazy lugs πŸ™‚ It’s not true, and we know it, if no one else does!

      Seriously, love what you say about the thousand yard stare because I am a master of that too!!!

  14. That is very paradoxal if that is even a word (remember the master turned the tardis into a paradox machine.)

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