Pep Talk from Malinda Lo
Dear Fellow Writer,
There are many myths about writing (writers are tortured artists; writers are drunks; writers are drunk, tortured artists). But in my opinion, one of the most insidious of those myths is the idea that you must be inspired to write. I’ve heard writers say things like, “I just wasn’t inspired to write today,” and “I’m waiting for that burst of inspiration, you know?”
I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you wait for inspiration to strike before you sit down to write, you’ll probably never finish a damn thing. Inspiration is like that hot girl or guy you met at a party one time—and when you talked to him or her, it seemed like you totally clicked. There was eye contact; there was flirting; maybe there was even a bit of casual brushing of your hand over theirs, right? I know. I’ve been there. At the end of the night they asked for your number and said, “I’ll definitely call you. We should hang out.”
But then they never did, and you were left waiting for a call that never came, feeling increasingly like a fool.
That’s what inspiration is. It’s seductive and thrilling, but you can’t depend on it to call you. It doesn’t work that way. The good thing is, inspiration is irrelevant to whether or not you finish your book. The only thing that determines that is your own sense of discipline.
Here’s what happens when I sit down to write. First, I turn off my access to the internet by engaging Freedom. (The internet is the number-one killer of writer productivity!) Second, I open Scrivener. (Substitute whatever word-processing program works for you.) Third, I force myself to sit there with my work-in-progress until Freedom says I’m done. (I always set it for at least one hour, and often three.) I don’t allow myself to get up to make endless cups of tea (one will do). I just sit there. That’s all.
How often am I filled with inspiration before I start writing? Pretty much never. Instead, I usually stare at my work-in-progress with a vague sense of doom. I often think to myself: What the hell am I doing in this scene? I don’t understand how to get my characters from Point A to Point B! I really want to check Twitter!
The trick is this: As long as I sit there with my work-in-progress, at some point I will write something, because there’s nothing else to do.
Whatever I write may not be any good, but that doesn’t matter. When you’re writing a first draft—which most of you are doing this month—the most important thing is to keep moving forward. Your first try will be riddled with mistakes, but that’s what revision is for. Right now, you only have to put those ugly, wrong words on the page so you can fix them later.
So, inspiration isn’t what gets your book written. Discipline is. However, inspiration does sometimes pop by for an unexpected visit. Picture this:
You’re sitting there with the internet off. You’re writing some horrible words, thinking this is surely the most miserable dreck ever typed into Scrivener. Suddenly, something you wrote will seem to leap out at you, as if the words themselves came to life and shouted at you to pay attention. You’ll look at that sentence you wrote and think, Oh. Wow. Is that what this scene is about? And then things will accelerate. It’ll feel like you’ve miraculously tapped into what’s meaningful about this novel you’re writing, as if you’ve been able to glimpse where you’re going and why you’re going there.
It’ll be as if that person you gave your number to—the one who never called—finally did.
Inspiration is fickle like that. It shows up when you least expect it, all sexy and exhilarating and reminding you why you put your butt in that chair and turned off Twitter (and the rest of the internet) and forced yourself to trudge through the valley of no-good, very-bad first drafts.
Enjoy that inspiration while it’s there. Enjoy it thoroughly because it is rare and precious.
Just don’t expect it to show up every day. The only thing that needs to show up every day is yourself—and your determination to see this through to the end. You can do it.