I’m a failure, and I write absolute garbage. The words come out, and I suppose they’re technically English, and maybe they even obey the rules of grammar and syntax that make them vaguely recognizable as sentences, but they suck. Plain and simple. My ideas are crap, my execution is laughable, and there’s only one thing to do with this mindless drivel: banish it to the dungeon of my hard drive, the miserable and haunted DNR folder.
I think we all have one. I hope we all have one. If you’ve never thrown anything in the trash, chances are that your ego is getting the best of you. Even the greatest writers have moments of sheer fury and madness, self-doubt and self-pity that result in torn, crumpled pages on the office floor. Sometimes they go back to what’s frustrating them and turn it around. Sometimes they don’t.
And that’s how it should be. As much as I like to tell people not to give up after the first three pages, oftentimes it’s not an issue of writer’s block or the sudden, overwhelming grip of fear as you realize that 70,000 words is a lot to get through. Occasionally, you’re paralyzed because your story is crap, and it really shouldn’t ever see the light of day. The trick is knowing the difference, and there are only two questions you need in order to figure it out.
Does it make me happy?
Do you want to sit down at the keyboard? Do you want to know what happens to your characters or how the war turns out? Do you want other people to know? Are you ignoring this post because you’re flipping back and forth between my blog and your Word document, desperate not to lose a moment of typing time? Have you forgotten to eat today?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you’re probably in good shape. I mean, go eat something, but then come back and keep typing. But if you stop feeling happy…
Did it ever make me happy?
This one is a little trickier, but it’s even more important. The first flush of inspiration can mask many darker feelings, and it takes time and self-awareness to parse through them. I worked on a project once that I thought was going to be my magnum opus: it was dark and brooding and emotionally wrenching, full of chaos and fear and heroism and the triumph of love. It started out with an unexpected death that tore a family apart, and it barely got any more cheerful from there.
It was good, I guess. It was written well, and there were some scenes that I liked a lot. But I hated working on it, and it never made me happy. It never made me skip dinner or stay up past my bed time. It was a chore from the first page to the middle of chapter four, which is where it came to a sudden halt before being abandoned for good.
I know I’ve complained about The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun making me feel the same way. It’s a long, intricate story that contains a lot of the same emotions as that other attempt, and there was a lot of history for me to slog through. But in the back of my head, the fire was burning, and it never flickered and went out. Sure, it took effort to force out the words sometimes and get past a momentary block, but I wanted to get over it. I wanted to pick it out of the garbage pail and try again. I wanted to pursue it, because sometimes it made me very, very happy indeed.
That might be the only difference between a story worth pursuing and an idea that belongs in the DNR bin. I am proud of what I’ve ended up with (so far), and I’m glad that I was able to stumble through. That’s the real test. So next time you’re starting at the screen in a haze of forlorn anxiety, wondering when the words will come, ask yourself. Is there happiness in pursuing this, or should I move on?