Small moves, Warry

I get frustrated.

In 47 years in the local news business, I have written thousands and thousands of news stories. Many times I’ve been in the position of having to write breaking news in 15 minutes to get it on a noon newscast or typeset by press time.

Today is the 750th consecutive day that I have published on this blog, usually new material, occasionally very short, usually at least 300 words, sometimes much longer. I can write prolifically, quickly and consistently. 

So why have I finished only three novels in 35 years of trying, only two of them worth publishing? This question of overcoming inertia has perplexed me for almost all of those years.

The difference seems to be in my attitude toward the finished product. For blogs and news, I have learned to develop the mindset that prolific writers have: Do the work, ship it, forget it and move on to the next project.

I have a feeling that if I can learn to bang it out and let go the way I do with my daily efforts, the novels will start coming. It’s not for lack of ideas; I have a half-dozen novels in various stages of completion and more than a half-dozen other ideas.

What’s different about the day work? I usually write quickly, do a cursory edit and release it into the wild. I care about the writing, but at the same time I don’t care — it doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to serve its purpose. (In the case of the news stories, I care about the facts being absolutely accurate, of course, but I don’t care if it’s not Pulitzer material.)

All the writing coaches say that’s the mindset that will produce quantities of longer works — short stories, novellas, novels, epic series, the works: Bang out the story and let it go. Dean Wesley Smith has written hundreds of novels that way.

Some years ago now, Robert A. Heinlein laid down five rules for writing: 1) You must write. 2) You must finish what you start. 3) You must refrain from editing except to editorial order. 4) You must put it on the market. 5) You must keep it on the market until sold. In the case of my fiction, I am one of the thousands of writers who get stuck on Rule #2.

Finish what I start? I have more than 50,000 words invested in three or four of those above-mentioned novels, as many words as a finished novel, but of course they instead are three or four unfinished symphonies.

Should I focus on just one of those novels instead of tinkering here and there? That’s been my strategy for the last year or so, and I have nudged the novel from around 10,000 words to currently more than 25,000, but regular readers know I often whine about my arduous pace. 

Should I set deadlines? I have set deadlines and blown right past them; I haven’t mastered the art of treating my longer-term deadlines with the same urgency I treat my daily deadlines. 

Here’s an approach I have not really tried: The old “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” routine.

One of my favorite movie scenes is the opening of Contact, the brilliant first-contact film starring Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway. We see Ellie as a young girl trying to reach another human, any human, on her ham radio, without success. Her dad comes in and encourages her to be more patient in the way she adjusts her radio settings:

“Small moves, Ellie, small moves.”

It works; by making smaller moves, little Ellie makes contact with another ham. The line is repeated to powerful effect much later in the film, driving home the value of patience and hope.

Several writing books have advocated breaking up big projects into small pieces. Don’t worry about finishing the next novel; focus on finishing the next chapter, finishing the next paragraph, finishing the next sentence. Don’t worry about the time it will take; focus on committing at least 5-10-15 minutes or a certain number of words a day. 

I won’t let myself stop until the news story or blog post is done; I remember finishing news stories during the commercial break just before the newscast. I have finished a few blog posts a few minutes before midnight.

That, I suspect, is a secret to overcoming the inertia: A simple commitment to do the work, and doing it every day. That’s gotten me a fairly impressive consecutive daily blog streak and a career in local news. I should see if it might get me a novel or six.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do.


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