GRETCHEN HAERTSCH: ON STAYING THE COURSE
In a recent blog on the need for discipline in the writing life, fellow blogger Marielena Zuniga points out the necessity of “controlling behavior to produce the desired result.” A full-time job as a writer can certainly provide that discipline. You have to somehow manage to grind out the words – and do it well – or risk losing your job. That’s one reason why newspaper writing has traditionally been a wonderful launching pad for novel writing (think Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, Mark Twain).
My husband (now a successful corporate writer) started his career as a newspaper reporter under a tyrannical editor in the 1970s. That editor would fire a cub reporter as soon as look at him. Of course it is the nature of that business to disallow resting on one’s laurels. I worked at the same newspaper and remember once when Tom did a bang-up job on a sensational area murder trial. While everyone admired his brilliant coverage, the very day his concluding piece hit the presses the sub-editor had a single sentence for him: “What do you have for me tomorrow?” It was a trial-by-fire way to start a career but boy did it teach discipline!
As want-to-be novelists, some version of that line is one we could well ask ourselves on a daily basis: what have I written today to further my effort to finish my novel? It’s establishing the discipline and habit of writing on a daily basis that will win this race. It doesn’t need to be a sprint; it could just as well be a long-distance marathon. An added benefit of this kind of discipline: we get much better at our craft very quickly. That’s something friend and mentor Jonathan Maberry often points out.
One thing is for sure: waiting for the muse to strike will not cut it. Writers who struggle with the ubiquitous “blank page” syndrome learn to just get something down on the page – anything. Whether you’re composing on the computer screen or in longhand, once there is printing on the page you have officially begun. You have something to work with.
It may sound odd, but I sometimes tell students who have a great deal of difficulty getting started on a writing project to begin with their name, the class title, the date. Not much creativity there, yet something is on that page. You have officially begun and can take it from there. More experienced writers can try the same trick. Tell yourself you will write for one hour a day – it doesn’t have to be good and you don’t have to even think about the long process that is “writing the novel.” A single scene will do. Then, if experience is any teacher, you will surprise yourself with how much you do write and how good it eventually becomes – but only if you keep to your discipline and stay the course.