Updated: Jul 25, 2022
What I’m going to say today applies to everyone who aspires to finish anything. It may be considered controversial and will likely irritate you, but in my experience it’s the first step to getting anything done. All the anecdotes and analogies will be writing-based (take a guess as to why) but the message is for everyone.
“Where do your ideas come from?” “How do you find the time to write?” “How do you motivate yourself to sit down and do the work?”
These are the questions often asked to writers; be they first novelists or bestsellers. After all, it’s no secret that making a book can be a pain in the backside. But the way I see it, these questions aren’t so much functional with helpful solutions as they are a distraction to keep the writer from facing the real difficulty at hand.
Take the first question: “Where do your ideas come from?” If you look at any interview with an author you’ll see them come up with all sorts of quirky jokes to evade answering almost entirely. Neil Gaiman acknowledges this in his Masterclass, saying writers don’t like this type of question because they’re not entirely sure themselves, and are terrified that if they answer it, the ideas will go away. The truth is there’s nothing all too unique about a writer’s mind. Everyone has ideas. Everyone has shower thoughts and dreams and daydreams. What I personally find that distinguishes someone who writes from someone who doesn’t is the courage, curiosity and perhaps borderline insanity to pursue those ideas further.
Here’s how I got “the idea” for Circle of Saints, the first book I published: I was twelve years old, playing out some ridiculous kind of superhero story with two Mr Potatoheads (one stormtrooper-themed, if that’s at all essential) when I came up with an event that served as a villainous origin for the evil toy. Evil potato-head was in a fight with the good-guy when he was kicked into a mechanical suit and crushed. Him and the suit were then bound as one entity, making him… I don’t know, some kind of cyborg I suppose? This moment itself was highly derived from the Five Nights at Freddy’s Franchise, a mystery-horror game series I enjoyed at the time, as well as a dash of Darth Vader in Star Wars three and perhaps a touch of the Cybermen from Doctor Who (let’s play… spot the geek). But for whatever reason, that image of a “bad guy” falling into a mechanical suit and becoming a monstrous, even worse “bad guy” stuck with me. I spent the next few weeks enacting a scene of my own making, based off what I’d done with the toys. I’d think to myself: Who would the characters be? What would make them end up in that situation? What would they do next? The story evolved and grew through various phases until it became a much darker police mystery novel with a sci-fi twist that I went onto publish, a story that was also heavily subconsciously inspired by countless other works such as the batman prequel show Gotham, the Saw Franchise and the BBC crime dramas I'd watch with my family.
You’ll notice that there was nothing remarkable, and certainly nothing original about the idea I had. What I did, however, was blend a few things in my mind based off things I’d watched and/or experienced into a story I enjoyed. This is similar to how any piece of music or art is inspired by the works that preceded it. To cite Neil Gaiman again, he compares the writer’s mind to a compost heap. Everything you experience, from the books you read, to the shows and plays and films you watch, to the games you play, to the moments you physically live feed into the heap in your brain. They’re all broken down and new things emerge. It’s not a question of who has the heap and who doesn’t - well all do! We all make stories after all, be it when we’re playing games, when we’re sitting round the campfire, when we exaggerate a funny tale to a friend or when we dream. The question is, will you unlock your inner creativity (some might say your inner child) and allow yourself to wonder what the story could be? Will you intensely rummage through the compost heap and grow whatever you find to its fullest? Will you question something you see in the world and think “What if was like this?” And then, will you have the courage and almost naïve conviction to decide your story should exist outside of your head?
So how about the other two questions? Because for me they’re really asking the same thing. I might not be in the working world yet, but I’m certainly not swimming with time. I have school, I have friends, I have jobs, I have a bunch of weird and whacky hobbies like playing musical instruments or acting or filmmaking. Yet I write books. If you’re claiming you don’t have time to do the things you want to do, I assure you; you probably do (I say probably because I don’t know you, but I’d certainly try checking your time as objectively as you can). You might not have the mental energy to write at the time, or the desire to replace something else in your day with writing, but that’s a matter of prioritisation, not the clock. If you’re physically able to write, you can write.
For example, take a look into your phone’s settings and glance at the section labelled “Screen Time.” There you will learn how much time you spend on various apps each day/week. There’s nothing wrong with using social media, or playing on apps, or anything of that sort, but it may be something you’d look at swapping out if your aim was to manifest a book into existence. Time management’s a difficult skill, but a vital one, and the first step into doing anything is to stop telling yourself and others you don’t have the time for it.
A lot of people also say they don’t have the skill to be the writer (as another aside, all these things that “people say,” are things I used to say too. The first book I wrote, before Circle, I gave up on. After Circle I tried it again and it’s now almost finished, and the start of the trilogy I’m publishing next. I’ve been there so many times myself, so I’m not saying this like it’s never happened to me, because goodness knows it has and still does). But how do you aim to improve as a writer if you don’t try to write in the first place? Your first work isn’t likely to be your best - which is good because who’d want to peak at the start of their journey? - but that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth reading to someone out in the world. Your first draft almost certainly won’t look like a book, but then that’s what the second, third, fourth drafts onwards are all for (let me know if you’d be interested in a blog on editing down the line, or any stage of the writing process). All writers doubt what they do - it’s a potentially unavoidable feeling - but instead of letting that doubt cripple us, we have to venture into the unknown, ready to plough through our uncertainty and learn from our mistakes.
But if the biggest stumbling block for a writer isn’t time or skill, then what is it? Well I’ve already given you the answer multiple times in a few roundabout ways. Ultimately, the greatest challenge for any writer is the ability to fight back those internal voices that says no; the dragons or demons inside all of us. They go by many names. Self-doubt, self-loathing, perfectionism, negativity, distraction, procrastination, excuses. If we can slay these dragons, we can move mountains, but you can’t make steps to do that without first realising that your biggest enemy in anything you do is within you. And that doesn’t just apply to writing, that applies to everything in your life.
So let's stop making excuses. Let's stop asking questions that we no have no helpful solutions. The greatest obstacle in the things we want to achieve is ourselves. Once we take control of the monsters within us, everything else it's subsidiary, and we can be unstoppable.
Today’s blog has been all about acknowledging the true enemy that lies behind our excuses and questions, and I hope it’s helped you reflect on what’s stopping you in your passions. Over the next few weeks I’ll try and suggest some weapons you could use to conquer these monsters, so make sure to join our mailing list through this website or join us as a member so you don’t miss those blogs. And if you have any suggestions for specific beasts you need to fight in the struggle for your art, feel free to let me know in the comments or forum.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Steven Pressfield from his book the War of Art:
“The amateur waits for inspiration. The professional knows that it will come after he starts.”
Don’t wait for inspiration. Get cracking.
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