I was going through my email today when I came across an old message I’d saved from 2006. It was from a friend of mine, who was once a fellow aspiring writer, and in it she sent me some links to several resources on “how to write”, such as character bio templates, outline templates and writing exercises you should do “before ever starting your novel”. She included a little blurb that ran something like, “I know you refuse to ever accept help from anyone, but though I’d pass these along, anyway.”
At the time that sentence annoyed me, though now I realize it was just a misunderstanding. I’m all for help when it comes to revision, editing, beta reading, heck, even just someone saying “I think so and so should do this.” In fact, even as I’m writing, I very often will stop and ask the opinion of whoever’s handy. Just the other night I had an issue with a fight scene and my Dad suggested they should hit them in the head with chairs and run, while my brother wanted a brawl. I did a combination.
Anyway, my friend’s certainty that I “don’t like help” comes from the fact that I don’t like all the writing theories. Say what? I’m talking about all of the how to’s and why for’s. “In order to write a novel you must do this, this and this. You must have this outline here, and this character sheet here and this pile of notes here and-” Now don’t get me wrong, there are people who use, or even need, these things, and they’re great writers because of it. But at the same time I’ve seen people get so caught up in the “have to haves” that they never actually “do” anything. Or worse, they stop what they’re doing, right in the middle, because they “weren’t doing it right”.
“Weren’t doing it right”? How on earth can you not be “doing it right”? So long as you’re writing, you’re doing it right! I subscribe to the theory “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, so, if you’re steaming along beautifully, writing your story, why in the world would you let someone else, who’s never read it, tell you that you’re going about it “all wrong”? Why would you suddenly put a halt on it and demand piles of paperwork from yourself; paperwork you don’t have the time for? I just don’t understand that.
So, how do you strike a balance between this “right” and “wrong”? I think that you look at what you’re doing and why. Are you spending so much time making bios and outlines and writing sample exercises, of how your character will react in any situation, that you’ve never actually made it to the book? Or are you using those things to help you with the book? If you’re one of the latter then great, but if you’re one of the former, you need to stop and ask yourself why. Why do you need all of this before you can ever put “pen to paper”? Are you actually using it to strengthen your writing, or story, or are you using it as an excuse to keep from having to actually commit to the novel? Or is it that you have such little faith in yourself that you “know” you’ll “fail”, so you’re using all of this as a crutch? Or, have you truly been convinced that to be a “real novelist” you have to have it?
If any of these three things apply to you, then you should stop, take a step back and ask yourself an even more important question: Why do you want to write the novel? Is it to be a “real writer”? Is it for “success”? Or is it because the story is burning inside you and wants to get out? And if it is, then why don’t you let it? Why in the world do you need to force yourself to stagnate while you work through mounds of “pre-work”? After all, it’s only pre-work, if work actually follows it. Make your paperwork a help, not a creative strangling hindrance.