Last year, I talked about all the words I wrote in 2016 for my year in review. I also mentioned wanting to finish my book. Well, for 2017 I have no idea how many words I wrote. It took too much extra time to keep track of them, so I stopped.
As for writing the book, well, that didn’t happen, either.
I don’t feel qualified to speak about the practice of writing fiction because I have never finished a book (although, I have started many — most when I was much younger). Still, I feel confident saying one thing about my approach: When you care about a story — even a silly one featuring bizarre plot lines and characters with ridiculous names — you are always writing. When you’re at work, on a date, in bed, watching a movie, eating dinner, paying your taxes. Always.
It’s been over a year since I last added a word to my book, but I finally opened the document up again last night. There were entire chapters that I had forgotten about. I copied everything to a new draft and then deleted all but the first two. Over the next few hours I added 3,000 words, pushing past 3 a.m. because I just had to finish the chapter.
At first, I felt accomplished. I was flexing creative muscles I hadn’t used in a while. I had three characters come together with different motivations and goals, and all found unique roles to play in working together. And it just worked. I cannot tell you how long this had stumped me, yet it just poured out of me last night in a way that made sense on my very first attempt. This never happens. I am terrible with characters.
But quickly my sense of accomplishment turned into something more akin to regret. This wasn’t that hard. Why did I wait a full year to write like this? I could have finished this book by now! But writing cannot be reduced to efficiency, to words per hour, or even to words on the page at all. You write in your head and, as I’ve already said, you do this constantly. I don’t think I could have written what I wrote last night if I hadn’t already been writing it for the past year. By taking a year-long “break” from writing, I freed my mind, so to speak, and was able to actually develop a story.
Or at least, that’s my hypothesis.
There are times when brute-forcing your way through a chapter is the only means to get it done. Sometimes you need to pound out the basic shape with a sledgehammer before you can go in and refine it with a chisel. But other times, the most effective approach to solving a creative problem may be to ignore it. Because, as I’ve said, if it’s something you care about, you’re never truly ignoring it. It’s always there, and your brain — perhaps subconsciously — is always working on solving that problem.
I may yet never finish this book, let alone see it published or even read by another person. But the experience of creating a situation and populating it with characters who somehow work together and figure things out in a way that is both comprehensible (I think) and realistic (to an extent) is its own reward. It feels incredible. It’s like a runner’s high, but for writing. A writer’s high. Is that a thing?