I have a friend I want to tell you about, because the chances are you might know someone just like him. You might even be someone just like him.
Now, I don’t want to embarrass my friend on the Internet, so for the purposes of this post, let’s call him Bill. I see Bill maybe once a month at various literary events, and sometimes in the pub. Bill wants to be a novelist. He really, really wants to be one. And not just any novelist. No, Bill has convinced himself that he’s going to write one of the great science fiction books of our time. After all, he spends all his time reading and criticising other books. He’s seen just about every science fiction film made in the past thirty years, and he has an opinion on just about any genre-related subject you care to mention.
However, Bill never writes anything. Oh, he talks a good game. He’s half-convinced everyone he knows that he’s a serious author. He can tell you all about the book he’s going to write. Like the character of Katin in Samuel Delany’s novel Nova, he can rattle off half a dozen literary theories without pausing to draw breath, and without ever commiting anything to paper. He never writes anything down for anyone else to read. Bill’s convinced he has it in him to be a world-class novelist, but he’s pushing fifty, working in a job he hates, and taking no active steps to achieve his dream.
Because Bill’s expectations are too high. He’s set his sights on writing a perfect novel without putting in the groundwork. He has so much of his self-image tied up in this idea of himself as a frustrated writer, a great talent waiting to be discovered, that if he ever actually finishes writing anything, and it isn’t the shining masterpiece he sees himself as capable of producing, he’ll be crushed.
So instead of writing, he makes excuses. He says he needs to find a physicist to check whether the physics of his idea are feasible; he says he needs to locate some obscure out-of-print book on sixteenth century witchcraft; and he says he can’t possibly work unless he’s alone with his muse for a month in a cottage on the edge of Dartmoor. These excuses are his security blanket. They are obstacles he puts in his own way, to avoid having to confront the fact that writing novels is hard, time-consuming work, and the only way to do it is to sit down and start typing. Better to feel that he could produce a brilliant book if only he could afford to take a month of work, than to just get on with it and be disappointed by the results. Better to cling to the comforting notion that he’s an unrecognised genius than risk disappointing himself by failing to live up to all his talk.
Earlier, I used the phrase “without committing anything to paper”, and that’s the key: commitment. I like Bill as a person, and I think the ideas he has are wonderful, and I wish he would write them instead of talking about them. But he never does. Like the overweight middle-aged guy who still dreams of being a professional footballer but never trains or tries out for a local team, Bill lacks the commitment to put in the hard work needed to achieve his goal.
If you want to write, you have to accept that the first draft you write will look pretty ragged. It will not be perfect. But the important thing is to get it written. That’s the hard part. Once you actually have it all written down, it becomes real. It exists, and you can then take steps to polish and improve it. Expecting every word that flows from your fingers to be perfect first time is unrealistic and self-defeating, as you tend to get hung up endlessly trying to write the perfect first line, rather than ploughing ahead and telling the story.
I’ve spoken to a lot of writers who’ve told me that the first line, and sometimes even the whole first chapter, gets rewritten once the rest of the book is finished. So why waste your time trying to make it perfect, when the end of your book might suggest a different way for the story to open?
A couple of years ago, I wrote the following in reply to a question on this site, and I think the words are just as applicable to Bill (and all the other Bills out there). I wrote:
“I will give you the best piece of advice I was ever given: just write the fucking thing. Getting the words down on paper is the hard part. And it doesn’t matter if your first draft sucks. All first drafts suck. The important part is that you write the story. Then, when you’ve finished it, you can go back and edit it, polish up the text to make it shine. Editing is easier than writing. So, if you have a story to tell, just write it down without worrying how it sounds. You will not hit perfection first time. But you will get a completed first draft that you can then work on, to bring it up to professional quality. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to edit as they go along – of trying to make each sentence perfect before moving on to the next – and that is deadly. Just write. Tidy up later. Go for it”