When I began, I had no intention of writing a novel. It started as a short story of a few thousand words. I showed a draft to a friend, whose opinion I trust, and he promptly told me that the beginning of the story had promise, but the ending was garbage.
So, I rewrote the thing — and in doing so, I set about fixing the finale, in which a secondary character died in an absurdly cliched manner. I started with the question: What if this character didn’t die? Well, then, the story would go on. And, that’s certainly what happened.
During the 4 years that followed, I agonized through several draft rewrites before my little 6-page short story exploded into a 140,000-word novel. The secondary character I’d initially killed off had become the story’s central protagonist, and they’re currently leading the charge through the follow-up novel.
I continue to learn a great deal about the creative process through sheer trial and error. My current book feels more cohesive than the one before it — but that definitely doesn’t mean writing it is easy. It’s helped to lean on the lessons I’ve learned.
To that end, here are five thoughts that can make the labyrinth that is the creative process feel a little less daunting.
Hemingway might’ve churned out the first draft of The Sun Also Rises in 2 months — and Stephen King seems to produce a new 800-page monstrosity every other weekend or so — but for the rest of us mere mortals, completing a creative work takes time. I’m talking years.
My first book’s initial 40,000 words took me nearly 3 years to produce because my dedication was sporadic at best. The next 100,000 works poured out in less than a year because I set daily word count requirements.
To be honest, I often missed the daily goal I set for myself. But even when I fell short, I still managed to get *some* work done.
Some progress is better than no progress. And 2 days of progress is better than 1 day. Then, 3 days is better than 2. And… you get the point. Consistent progress adds up fast.
When you’re working on any project over a long span of time, your feelings toward it are going to change. The creative process yields days when you feel like you have a clear connection to the muses, and others when you feel like an utter loser. Speaking for the writers out there, there are plenty of moments when we seriously consider setting our computers on fire and walking into the sea.
Through all that emotional whiplash, there’s one thing I’ve learned to do: Lean into them. Embrace the masochism that comes with doubting the merit of your work, your life, and perhaps the entirety of the universe. Celebrate the euphoria of breaking through a creative blockade. Put these feelings into your fictional characters, your song lyrics, or your art.
Sure, you’re going to develop harsh judgments toward your work — sometimes fairly, sometimes not. It’s often difficult to discern one from the other. So, keep charging ahead, regardless. Reach for that daily progress goal and count it as a win.
Unlike with the process of writing my first book, I have something of a plan in place for my second. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the whole thing is figured out, but I at least know where I’m going. That will hopefully get me through it much easier.
Having an idea of what you’re trying to say and where you’re trying to go can save yourself a lot of creative frustration. That said, too much organization can zap a lot of the needed spontaneity.
Be organized, but leave room for improvisation. Sometimes you’ll learn that one of your character’s motivations might stray from your initial vision, inspiring a much richer story. Sometimes a musician (especially jazz musicians) can color outside the lines of a song. This is when a lot of the magic happens.
Having a direction while giving yourself room to meander from the path is the best way to strike a balance between efficiency and discovery.
As I explained earlier, my short story that became a book was an abject failure. And that wasn’t just one person’s opinion. My appreciation for my ability to finish a project didn’t outweigh its lack of quality.
It was precisely this failure — and my willingness to accept it as such — that planted the seed for greater things. And even after the short had long since sprouted into the expansive, there were a number of situations that forced me to go back and start more or less all over again. The final product was ultimately better for it.
Don’t be stubborn. Know when you’ve taken a misstep, then go back and try again.
There will likely come a point (more than once) when you conclude that whatever you’re doing is just bad, and you’ll be tempted to throw in the towel. But this is precisely the time to push on through and finish.
Though it might feel like a waste of time, there are two good reasons to always finish what you’ve begun:
1. What looks like a dead end might actually be a detour. Hitting a creative rut is normal. But the answer often lies in turning around to find a different route. The key is to then arrive at your destination.
2. Even finishing last can teach you how to train better for the next race. The vast majority of published authors have a drawer or hard drive crammed with their early (usually terrible) books. Plenty of people waged numerous wars with their words before producing anything considered “publishable.” And, it’s those early battles that allowed them to develop the mental muscles necessary to triumph. So, even if practice doesn’t always make perfect, it at least makes you better.
You’ll often learn more by finishing a bad project than you will by producing a perfect one. You’ll gain a better understanding of what motivates you, how to perfect your creative process, how to properly use influences to develop your own unique voice, and you’ll develop the discipline to sit down and do the work.
If you’ve done it once, you can do it again.
Mark Twain wrote for nearly a decade before becoming what was considered the greatest author of his generation when he was 41 years old. Henry Miller penned several novels before his book Tropic of Cancer smashed the literary landscape when he was 44 years old. Annie Proulx wrote for about 30 years before her first novel Postcards set her on the path to receiving the Pulitzer when she was 57 years old.
I’m not saying that it will or it should take decades to complete anything of worth. Rather, even those of great talent have to practice their craft with the same persistence as someone learning to ride a bike or play the guitar.
Do the work. Stay consistent. And if you find yourself feeling discouraged, just keep going until you surprise yourself with a breakthrough that tickles your inspiration-bone.
Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, Men’s Health, Thrillist, Vice, and more. You can follow his travels and connect with him via Instagram or Twitter.