I’m over a dozen chapters into “my book” now, and the characters and their issues are becoming important to me. They are an investment in time and effort and as they move forward, I am feeling responsible for doing right by them. Right now, I’m hovering at an important chapter and I’m afraid to start it. What if I start the first sentence with the wrong word, and then that leads to the wrong first paragraph, and then by the end of the first page, my book has gone somewhere other than where it should have gone? Because I started with the wrong word, maybe because I had a coffee instead of a tea, or because I watched Youtube videos last night until one in the morning, instead of getting a bit more sleep.
How do writers ensure they write their best thing, rather than their second-best or seventh-best thing? How do they know when to write and when not to write?
I started writing this story as a challenge to just get words out in some sort of volume within some time frame. This meant I succeeded as long as I hit a word count by a certain date. The story didn’t need to be great – it needed to be readable enough and of a certain length. This freed me up to not care about writing my best stuff at all times… but it was a trap! Once I was several chapters in, I wanted the story to be good, and to continue being as good as I could make it, no matter how many words, over what period of time.
I now have all the time in the world to procrastinate on chapter 15 if I want, because the word-count challenge is over. I succeeded at that. Chapter 15 can remain unwritten for a year, if I want to leave it that long. Or I can start it right now, and force it out by the end of the day. I can write it and then throw it away and then start again, a dozen times. There is no measure of success except the ones I choose. Even joining the word count challenge was just a choice.
I’m afraid of ruining my characters’ stories now. I don’t know how to measure that.
The only insight I can offer into my own question is that a book can’t write itself. I have to start typing, and then something will come out, and whatever that is will be a product of what I’ve put into myself lately: Youtube videos, muffins, coffee, exercise, anxiety, hope. The book is not separate from me at all, but an extension. The characters as well. My job as a writer is to make them their own, as best I can, but really they are still just projections of what I’m thinking and feeling and learning as I write. What else could they be? This means I can try controlling where it will all go, but those plans of mine may only take me so far – at some point, my day-to-day life will take the wheel, and the characters’ lives will be steered in new directions.
For example, Chapter 13 only happened because of something that was going on in my life during that particular week. But chapter 13 became a major insight into one of the secondary characters – the mother of the protagonist. Something not entirely under my control, happening in my own life, has clarified something very important about my book’s main character, right about when the book maybe needed that to happen. This changes everything going forward, hopefully for the better. What would have happened to my character’s backstory, and therefore future, had something altogether different happened to me that week?
I’m talking about something anyone who has written a book likely already understands. There’s nothing new here: write what you know. That’s what they say. I never really understood what this meant, but maybe this is what it meant: don’t pretend to be somebody else, when you’re writing. It doesn’t mean you have to know how to cast magic spells, in order to write about wizards; that’s not what write what you know means. I think it just means, let your own life into your writing. Then your writing can have real life.
Notice I’ve not spent this morning writing chapter 15 – I’m writing about not writing chapter 15 quite yet. I’m excited and nervous. I want these characters to overcome and to grow beyond what they started out being. What do they need me to experience next, for these things to happen for them? If they are extensions of me, then maybe the answer is simpler than I think. What do I need to do right now? My legs want to go for a walk. So I guess that’s what I’ll do. Chapter 15 will happen when it happens. When else could it possibly happen?