This is – probably- a two part series on overcoming some of the most significant internal obstacles that new writers face as they struggle to complete (or maybe even start) that first novel.
I’m sure this will sound familiar to many writers out there (timelines are condensed, but you’ll get the idea):
It’s evening, and the time to finally start my first novel has come. I have my new notebook (or blank word document) open before me. I have the proper snacks and drinks on hand, and no one to bother me. It’s time to get to work. Let’s see…well, I guess I need to flesh out my characters. I have a hard boiled warrior, a wise wizard, and a dark lord. And a magic sword. And elves. And armies massing to battle each other. And dragons.
So my story has already fallen into the well trodden tracks of the writer who I admire the most: JRR Tolkien. My draft outline is sounding like a rip off of The Lord of the Rings. But you know what? That’s fine…it’s just a starting point. I’ll make it more original later. Now I need names. You know what a cool name is? Aragorn. And Gandalf. Actually, my names really suck compared to those names. But worry about that later. Get the idea on paper!
Fast forward three pages. Wow, that took a lot to get started, but it’s finally starting to flow. Let’s take a look. Hmmm. My warrior is talking like a Shakespearean moron. And the wizard isn’t wise…he’s restating the obvious. Nothing like Gandalf. In fact, my story is so trite and unoriginal that it’s an insult to say it was inspired by Tolkien. This is going to the trash NOW, before anyone sees it.
For years, this was the fate of nearly all of my attempts to write a novel. Instead of just being motivated by some of the literary greats of my beloved genre, I found myself using them as an unyielding standard for my own writing. And so hours of work would be wasted, and any momentum towards finishing my novel stymied
The worlds of Middle Earth and Arrakis were my inspirational playground for years. The motivation that I drew from literary masters like Tolkien and Frank Herbert helped power my desire to write for decades. So it was a complete surprise when I finally realized that these two were also some of my greatest obstacles to becoming an author. In fact, the unrealistic comparison of my work with my favorite writers is one of the chief reasons I never allowed myself to write more than nine or ten pages at a time. Invariably when I reviewed them (never edit your draft until it’s complete!) I would ask myself “would Tolkien write dialogue like this?” The answer of course was “no,” and in frustration I’d toss my work aside.
The more experienced writers out there already know this, but it’s worth stating plainly for novice writers who are struggling with your first manuscript: you’re not Tolkien, or Herbert, or any other author than yourself. You have your own voice, and you have to be willing to use it, to nurture it, and let it mature. When I finally admitted to myself that maybe I didn’t actually need to write “the next Lord of the Rings” I was able to finally use the inspiration that those books had planted within me to finish my own novel. To my shock, my first completed manuscript wasn’t even a fantasy story at all. But I have come to love it.
I found it difficult to separate the inspiration that Tolkien’s books instilled from the quality of the books themselves. This may sound ludicrous, but when you’re trying to find your own writing rhythm for the first time, it can be tough to see the writing forest from the already written trees.
So the first piece of advice is: find your voice, and when your book is finally finished, you may find that you’re no Tolkien, but you’ll be fine with that. Once you realize this, you’ll feel liberated, and your own words can start to flow. Good luck, and happy writing.