I was fourteen years old the first time I started writing a novel. The first time I finished a novel was a couple of months ago. I’m thirty-eight.
As you might guess, I have some experience with running out of steam.
Now, the first thing to understand is that I didn’t just live through twenty-four years of continuous attempts and failures to complete a novel. That was twenty-four years of attempting to write a novel when I became inspired to tell a story (I’m bolding “became inspired” for reasons I’ll explain shortly). My best guess lands at five or six distinct stories that I tried (and failed) to complete over that time line. A lot of these occurred early on; very few of them in later years.
Having never completed a novel, I began to accept the idea that some people are writers and I simply wasn’t one of them. I was a good communicator. I was certainly skilled at writing my thoughts down. And yet, whatever bit of internal wiring is required to tell a cohesive, 70K+ word story was apparently a gift with which I had not been born. Without any great deal of regret (I didn’t really know what I was missing out on), I stopped trying.
Let’s fast forward a bit to now, where I’ve published my first novel, it seems to be getting pretty well received, I’ve signed an audio book deal, and I’m well on my way to completing the second book in the series and starting up the third soon after. What the hell changed?
It’s actually pretty simple but the answer was so far removed from storytelling that I didn’t even realize it until fairly recently. The pursuit of two activities literally gave me all of the tools I needed to complete a novel:
Power lifting and software development.
These are two vastly different disciplines that have a couple important parallels: namely, they take a long time to do well and you will definitely not enjoy every part of the process.
The problem I had with writing was that I was pursuing it as a leisure activity, to be done only when I was “in the mood” or “feeling inspired”.
Developing software is a part of my day to day job and, if you’re going to produce anything remotely useful outside of a miniature test app or school project, it takes a lot of time. It takes time to first build an idea into a working platform and then it takes a significant investment of time to support that software and keep it from going stale (software of any moderate complexity absolutely will degrade and break down over time). I certainly enjoy developing software, but I don’t enjoy all of it. I like tackling difficult or unique tasks like developing TCP socket based command-response protocols, writing flight simulation software, or automating complex systems. Mundane crap like file IO, serialization, and GUI design are the pits; to be classified as the painful, repetitive garbage that I have to slog through each time I want to develop a new thing from the ground up. We design for code reuse and inheritance to mitigate this, but there is still always a point where you have to put a button somewhere or write the code to read a file. It’s mind numbing and I hate it.
But, if I want to enjoy the finished product, I have to plow through that ignominious work.
It was the same story with power lifting. If you’re of the inclination (not all of us are, which is cool), pulling a double body weight dead lift for the first time is an exciting, heady experience. Getting to a point where you can do that is a never ending, punishing, mind numbing slog unless you learn to love the grind. Power lifting is ALL ABOUT the grind. You make no progress; you see no improvement whatsoever unless you get your work in every day, you’re consistent, and you stick to the program. There are literally months of work invested for the sole purpose of accomplishing a lift that might take a total of ten seconds. The first time I hit a squat for 380 lbs, I spent roughly 8 or 9 seconds under load, followed by racking the bar, feeling fairly good about myself, and then walking out of the gym to the amazement of no one at all.
Nobody cared but me, which is as it should be (I don’t compete). All that aside, you need to understand that I trained for roughly three months to get to that point from my previous max (which at the time was 350, I think). Those three months were not fun. There were plenty of times where I would have been just as happy to stay in bed and sleep in rather than get up and go train.
In these examples, you learn that the days on which you aren’t feeling it are the most critical days of all. It’s not about what you can accomplish when you’re feeling inspired. Inspiration is bullshit. Inspiration is enough to get your ass moving…and that’s about it. By the time you’re looking at coming anywhere near the finish line, your fickle friend Inspiration is long, long gone (probably sleeping around on you, by the way).
When Inspiration has left, there is only The Grind. And what you do during The Grind determines whether you achieve your goal or fall short along with everyone else who quit at those most critical of moments.
Writing a novel is no different from pulling 500 lbs off the floor. That one act (i.e. publishing) is preceded by months of dedicated effort which must be spent whether you’re in the mood or not. The days where you simply aren’t feeling the drive are absolutely the most critical days. These are the times where you have to sit down and write no matter what. When you’d rather be sleeping, rather be playing video games, rather be watching some show on TV, rather be out with your friends; these are the moments where you’ll be able to tell if you have a snowball’s chance in hell of finishing what you set out to accomplish. If you can sit down during these times consistently and just write (even if that writing is shit), you have a good chance of finishing.
You’re not going to love every minute of writing your book. Get over the fantasy and learn to love The Grind.