If you’re a writer, you have lots of different people living inside your head. You’re thinking about their lives, maybe killing them off (like me), maybe hearing them speak and watching them act. It’s not crazy – it’s what it’s like to be an author. But when you’re a writer, don’t forget about you while you’re thinking about all those other ideas in your head.
Truly, Madly, Deeply
There’s a scene in a movie I love. It’s about an author who’s having trouble finding her true writing voice. She’s writing about all sorts of fantastical things and inventing all sorts of passionate plots, until someone close to her tells her that she ought to write about things she’s actually experienced and people she knows. She doesn’t take to the idea at first at all, but later it becomes her inspiration. In the particular scene I’m thinking of, she sets herself right down at her desk and begins to write.
Mind you, this is a period piece we’re watching. When I say she sits down to write, I’m talking about there’s an oil lamp on the table and a feather in her hand. So this is real writing, here. The way the scene plays, she sits there and writes all night long. By morning’s light, she awakens from a brief nap (one assumes) and there is a gigantic pile of pages next to her.
She wrote the novel in one night. I love the movie...I hate that scene. It’s utterly ridiculous. I’ve staying up late into the night writing a chapter before, sure, but you’ve got to be part robot to write an entire novel in just one night.
It’s just not that easy. I might think about a book for weeks before I write a single scene, and no matter how well-planned I’ll still struggle over that scene – maybe for hours and hours. Then I’ve got to go back and read the darned thing, and take out all the inevitable errors I’ve made and words I’ve repeated too many times. Sometimes I might end up erasing the whole thing, because the plot changes or somehow the scene becomes unnecessary.
When it takes so much time, and blood, and sweat, and tears and sheer gut to write a novel (and it does, no matter what the movies say), you have to be the sort of person who has people living in your head just to live through it. You have to tune out the world and focus on your task, think and re-think your plot, really become those characters and step outside of yourself.
Just don’t get too far outside yourself.
All good writers have to set their own limits. Otherwise, we’d never get up from behind our keyboards. I’ve forgotten to eat and missed major events because I got too caught up in a story, and didn’t even really realize that time was passing. How can time be passing when I’m not even here? I’m a hundred years in the past, so how could any time be going by?
But it does, and all authors are only human beings at the end of every day. It takes a lot of time and energy to write a book, but don’t start losing sleep over it. Don’t start skipping meals, or blowing off your family, or forgetting about your other responsibilities. Don’t stop doing all the things you used to do before you started writing the book. If you exercise or walk the dog, keep on doing that. If you play a game for an hour each night, don’t stop. When you’re writing a book, don’t forget about you.
The brain and the body has to have a certain amount of rest and a certain amount of nutrition in order to stay healthy and continue functioning at its peak. You can definitely get by with less sleep, fewer calories and a lot more stress, but your goal should never be to simply “get by.” Your book is going to be a lot better if you approach it with a clear mind, well-rested, with plenty of energy from food in your belly. Continue doing what you do to relieve stress, and continue staying in touch with friends and family.
Self-published authors have a way of putting a ton of pressure on themselves with self-set goals and deadlines, but this can be damaging. It’s good to be disciplined, but it can be taken to a dark place. You’ve got to give yourself downtime and rest, too. You cannot work all the time, or think about the book all the time. Some of the best ideas come when I’m not thinking about my stories, because that’s when my brain is actually free to be creative. You can’t go up to your brain, scream “be creative!” when you’re tired and stressed out and expect to get results. Whatever you write under such conditions will be less than your best. And why would you ever want to present less than your best to a reading audience?