In the summer of 2012, we had just submitted Grace Under Fire for consideration. We attended Spocon, where the madness began. There, I received the greatest piece of writing advice ever given to me.
For those of you who have never read anything by CJ Cherryh, you’ve done yourself a disfavor. She’s a wonderful author, and absolutely one of the wisest people I have seen doing the con circuits. She also brooks absolutely no bullshit, and is quick to the point of incendiary to refute it when she hears it. I didn’t ask the question; someone in the audience did. They asked “I always start novels, but I can never finish them. How do you finish the novel?”
CJ cut the rest of the panel off, answering before any moderator had the chance to stop her. She burst forth with the best piece of writing advice I have ever received, bar none.
Put your ass in the chair and keep typing.
That was it. No other response could be given. It was that simple. Don’t stop writing. Even if you think the ideas are bad, don’t stop. Even when it seems like you’re up against a wall, don’t stop. Put your ass in the chair and keep typing. Do not worry about whether it sucks. That’s what revision is there for. You may end up changing everything but love of God, put your ass in the chair and keep typing. It is, bar none, the only way to finish a novel.
So let’s look at what Ms. Weiland, who appears to make her living giving advice on writing instead of doing it, has to say. Actually, Ms. Weiland’s most concise statement isn’t her own; she cribs it from Margaret Atwood’s article in Writer’s Digest:
You know when you’re not ready; you may be wrong about being ready, but you’re rarely wrong about being not ready. You keep trying, but you may wait a while between the tries. … I’ve had books that didn’t work out. I had to stop writing them. … It was depressing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. …sometimes you bash yourself against the wall and you get through it. But sometimes the wall is just a wall. There’s nothing to be done but go somewhere else.
Here’s the thing: stories aren’t magically ready to be written. There is no divine muse out there, waiting to wave her magic wand and inspire you with the muddle-in-the-middle portion of your story. There is only you. You and a blank computer screen, a yawning void waiting for you to try to fill it.
So what should you do when you hit a wall? Should you “go somewhere else?” Hell no. That wall is an artificial construct, it’s there because you put it there. Only you can remove it, and there’s only one way to do that. Put your ass in the chair and keep typing. Don’t make weak-assed excuses to yourself like “I guess this story isn’t ready to be written yet. Put your ass in the chair and start typing. Find ways around. Switch your perspective character, write from a different viewpoint. Write the end and work backwards. DO SOMETHING. But don’t sit there and tell yourself that, because you’ve hit a wall, it’s time to work on something else.
I did that. I did that for years. Do you know how many novel-beginnings I’ve written? ‘Cause I don’t. I have absolutely no clue how many tattered remnants of a story litter the hard drives of my various computers. It’s a lot, I’ll tell you that, but the one thing all of those novels have in common is this: I gave myself an excuse to stop writing them.
You can make yourself feel better by blaming the story. “This story isn’t ready to be written yet,” you can say, adopting the stance of the pretentious artiste whose work is a living thing. But that’s a cop-out, and deep down you know it. In any given project, you are going to hit a wall. It is Going To Happen. The moment you hit that wall, you’ve got a choice. You can take the easy path, walk away, start a different novel that will also die on the vine, or you can follow the wisest writing advice I have ever heard from one of the greatest authors I have had the honor to share a panel with.
Ass. Chair. Write. Now.