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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 33: How Not to Be Overwhelmed

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 33: How Not to Be Overwhelmed


Key points: beware of being overwhelmed by stuff -- too much podcasting, too much writing book advice, too much too much. Learning writing is like learning to play an instrument -- you aren't an expert at the beginning, and when you're practicing, you focus on specific aspects. Don't let the permanency of writing fool you -- you can always change it! Write something, and learn from your mistakes. Pick your favorite scene and write that. Get into the habit of writing. Kill the great golden idea -- you will have lots of ideas. Give yourself a deadline and develop the plot, or just start writing -- but get away from the worldbuilding and do something. Until you try writing, you don't know whether you like it or not.

[Brandon] This is the final podcast of the season, which really doesn't mean all that much because we'll still be here next week podcasting...
[Howard] There is going to be another one next week.
[Brandon] But we wanted to have an ending podcast where we talked... actually, I am targeting this at a good friend of mine who listens to the podcasts... he listened through a whole bunch of them at once and came to me and said, "This is actually making it harder for me to write because..."
[Howard] Is he going to remain Nameless or [garbled]
[Brandon] Yeah, I'm going to remain Nameless on him.
[Dan and Howard medley] Should we make up a name for him? John? Should we call him John Brown?
[Dan] I suggest Wilbur.
[Brandon] If we call him John, then I'm going to slip up and call him by his name, so I'm just going to say Nameless.
[Howard] Okay, that's fine.

[Brandon] Nameless came to me and said, "I'm having trouble. It's harder for me to write now because I feel so overwhelmed by all of the things that you've talked about in this podcast that we have to do." I thought about that and it's actually a very good comment, very astute. We went through... here are some of the things we talked about this season: setting, character, viewpoint, plot twists, writing groups, endings, three act formula, romance, publishing, violence, beginnings, worldbuilding, marketing -- we did a ton of different stuff. It's about nine hours worth of podcasting.
[Dan] That's on top of last season's...
[Howard] This season. Last season was nine hours.

[Brandon] How do you not get overwhelmed by all of the stuff that you need to do? The same thing happens when you read a writing book. You would read a writing book and there are so many different things that you want to try out, that it can be daunting. Advice to our listeners?
[Dan] At the risk of obsoleting ourselves, let's go back to... the thing that's going to help you the most is practice. That's going to help you so much more than listening to us.
[Howard] That's why the podcast is only 15 minutes long. We want you to listen for 15 minutes and then go write.
[Dan] Then go do something.
[Howard] We didn't mean for Nameless to listen to eight hours of episodes all at one go and then try to go write.
[Dan] Eight hours straight of us telling him all the things he's doing wrong. Allow yourself to write a bad book and your next one will be better and your next one after that will be better and you'll become better as you practice.

[Brandon] This mindset is very useful. I've talked about it before, too. I emphasize it in my class. The mindset is treating writing like learning to play the piano. Understanding that when you begin, you don't expect to be an expert at the beginning. When you are practicing your piano, sometimes you will practice certain aspects of it... you'll work on this scale, sometimes you'll work on this other thing. I don't play the piano, I play the trumpet. You'll work on your lip movement for the trumpet, you'll work on breathing exercises here, you'll work on scales here, you'll work on tone here -- you can't do it all at once. That's okay, you're practicing.
[Howard] Perfect one thing at a time.

[Dan] Don't be overwhelmed by the fact that what you write is permanent. When you're playing the trumpet or the piano, it's just noise that dissipates into the air and it's not saved forever. Whereas if you're writing something, then you've got those sheets of paper or those computer files that are going to be staring at you reminding you how horrible they are. Just don't let that bother you.
[Brandon] You can always fix it in post. Remember that. You can work on different things at different times. I once read a writing book by a famous agent, which a lot of the stuff the agent said I agreed with. But one of the things the agent said I disagreed with horribly. This was Scott Meredith -- very big, important agent, knew a lot of things. But one of the things he said was you want to train yourself to get it right on the first try. That smacked me completely wrong right then. Now what he was saying is correct, you want to learn to do the best work you can. But there is too much going on in the novel. Mister Meredith -- he's passed away, but if you're listening on the other side -- I disagree wholeheartedly because you can't do it all in the first draft.

[While playing this podcast, I thought I heard a faint voice at this point saying, "I can't fix it now!" but I'm sure that was my imagination:-]

[Howard] Focusing on getting it right the first time is not the way to get it right the first time. Focus on getting it wrong and learning from your mistakes.
[Brandon] Or focus on getting one thing right. I need to get the characters right in this chapter I'm working on... I really need to find their voices...
[Howard] Focus on getting it written. Focus on writing something. And yeah, telling a good story. And yeah, learn from your mistakes. I think that's the most important thing is to be able to write something, have somebody else look at it, and say, "I really can't tell the difference between these two characters." Then you go back and say, "Oh, gosh, you can't. I need to work on that." And you work on that.
[Dan] You see this with sports all the time. Whenever some newscaster is interviewing some poor basketball player after they just lost a game, they will always say, "Well, we did this wrong. We need to work on this. Our next game will be better." You never see a basketball player say, "I really need to go back and play this game again and get it right." You gotta move on, you gotta improve your skills.
[Howard] There have been a couple of times where I've seen a player say, "We played the best game we could, and they just played a lot better." But [garbled] you're not having a fight.
[Brandon] You guys are. I'm just...

[Brandon] Let's look at our friend Nameless. He is so overwhelmed he can't even start writing a book. What advice do you have for him, not even being able to sit down and put pen to page or fingers to keyboard? I'll give you a little more background... He's been planning his book for years and years and years and has never... he's a world builder, he's all this stuff, the more he works on it, the more daunting it is for him to actually consider starting it, and the more he learns about writing...
[Howard] In part, that's because he is seeing how huge this world is. Beginning to tell that story is just too enormous. My advice would be to go into the outline, pick your favorite scene, and sit down and write that scene. Don't worry as you're writing it that it hasn't been foreshadowed or this character quirk hasn't been explained. Just write that scene. Have fun with the dialogue, have fun with the action. Write it. It may be as he starts to write... as you start to write, you, Nameless one who are listening right now, it may be that what happens is you develop momentum and you realize, "Oh, wow, this is fun. I'm going to keep going and do the scene that comes next." That's fantastic. Write from that scene to the end of the book. Write from that scene to the end of the series. At some point, an editor is going to tell you, regardless of where you started, the editor is going to look at what you wrote and say "I don't really think you started in the right place."
[Brandon] Yeah, they do that all the time.
[Howard] They do that all the time. So start where you know it will be fun and enjoy yourself.
[Brandon] I think that's good advice. Advice I would give, maybe another piece of advice... I'll pitch this at you next, the a.m., so be thinking...
[Dan] Awesome.

[Brandon] What I may say would be, "You know what, you need to practice. Set aside this story and write something else. Pick one of the writing prompts that we give you or one you can find online, and write 10 pages on that writing prompt. Get yourself into the habit of writing and do that once a week."
[Dan] That's great. Going back to your music analogy, you don't expect someone to compose a symphony the first time they ever sit down to compose something. You start small, you start with something that you can handle.

[Dan]Just based on your description of this nameless friend and his idea he's been working on for years... That is the problem I see all the time, I went through it myself, and I call it the great golden idea. That is when someone wants to be an author, they start developing this great book, and they're going to write it and it's going to be awesome. They just are in love with it. That is almost the most overwhelming thing, you don't want to damage it, you don't want to ruin that great golden idea by not being good enough yet. So that paralyzes you.

[Dan]That is the same kind of problem we see with the eternal first chapter rewrite where they just haven't got it right yet so they want to keep with it. Someone who edits... who goes back and rewrites the same book 4 times instead of moving on to another book. It's that they don't want to lose their great golden idea.

[Dan]You know what, you're a writer. You have a million ideas. Maybe what you need to do is write something else first. Maybe what you need to do is pick the favorite scene out of your golden idea and go for that. But there will always be more ideas coming, you don't need to worry about burning this one.
[Brandon] The more you write, the more you will create them. You may think you've only got this one idea, but if you start writing, they will start flooding your brain.
[Dan] Absolutely.

[Howard] Brandon, have you written your great golden idea yet?
[Brandon] Yes. It didn't turn out very well.
[Dan] Neither did mine.
[Howard] Perfect. But people look at Mistborn -- people look at the magic system and all that and think, "Oh, wow, if only I could come up with an idea as wonderful as that." That wasn't your great golden idea. Now, that was something that came to you after you screwed up other stuff.
[Brandon] Exactly. You've got it exactly. I was lucky in that when I began, I had no clue how bad of a writer I was. You find this, for teenagers and early twentysomethings, no clue...
[Howard] 31-year-old cartoonists...
[Brandon] They're lucky. If you're able to start in that embryonic stage, then as you learn new things point-by-point you can incorporate them. That's a wonderful place to be. It doesn't happen to all of us. A lot of people decide that they want to start writing when they are older, and they have read so much and they have studied it so much, that they know all this stuff that they're supposed to do. Unlike myself who just sat down and started writing. So instead of being able to learn point-by-point like I did, they have all of this. They are in a nice position because they can pick and choose, but it's overwhelming because there is so much.

[Dan] I've got a friend... I've been reading her manuscript because she wrote a book and she wanted to get some notes on it and because I was dumb and didn't realize I would be as busy as I was, I said, "Sure, I can read that for you." Please note, audience, I don't do this anymore. I was reading through this and I said, "You are obviously a great storyteller. This one is not working. What are you working on next?" She said, "No. I'm just going to fix this one, with the notes you give me." I eventually convinced her to go ahead and start something new. Once she finally took that step, started something new and moved on, she realized that this golden idea that she had started with was not as cool as she thought it was. Her next book excites her so much more than that first one did. That's a major milestone for a first-time writer, learning to set your golden idea free and start on something new.

[Howard] I think it's coming down to break away from the worldbuilding and start writing.

[Brandon] Here's another thing I might suggest. Suggestion for Nameless. The break it down... break it apart... break apart from what you're doing and also break it down. Remember that books are written letter by letter, word by word. I would suspect I don't know this about Nameless, but I would suspect from people I've known who have done this before, they have spent years and years worldbuilding, but have not spent very much time on the plot itself. It's much more fun to devise all of these wonderful worldbuilding things then to think of actually what's going to happen. I would say switch tracks, give yourself a timeframe during which you can spend. Say I'm going to take one month. I've got one month and I'm going to work on the plot. And break it down. That's the goal with the plot -- goal, pick out what you want to happen, break it into smaller pieces, break that into smaller pieces, combine those pieces and make scenes.
[Dan] I would add to that, that breaking it down into character in addition to or instead of plot is a great way to go, because that's how I got I Am Not a Serial Killer started.
[Howard] I'm going to disagree here because you guys are talking about throwing him back into the same problem he's already got, which is outlining and planning instead of writing.
[Brandon] That's why I put a deadline on it. You give yourself a deadline. Sometimes, for people who are big-time outliners like myself, if you don't know where you're going...
[Howard] With the deadline, I will concede, but I still think that Nameless has a block that is more important to break through than anything else he can be working on. Just write something.
[Brandon] It is very hard for a... I think you are multi-drafter, a discovery writer, much more so than I am. If I don't know where I'm going, I can't start. I can't get more than a few paragraphs in. It doesn't work for me. I don't know... Nameless [garbled]
[Howard] I throw down a wide, a broad outline that gives me room to move. As I start discovering, I start jotting down notes about things that... the promises I have now made to readers as I'm noodling along. But I don't start writing without some sort of outline.

[Brandon] Any last words for Nameless that you guys have?
[Dan] A question that I always ask aspiring writers -- ask yourself this question. Do you want to write a book or do you want to be a writer? Those two things have very different goals to them.
[Howard] There's a difference between writing and having written. Many people want to have written.
[Brandon] Knowing Nameless, I don't think it's that. I think he really enjoys the worldbuilding, I think he enjoys all of this. But my advice is, until you try the writing part, you won't know if you like that even more.

[Brandon] Writing prompt. I'm going to go ahead and do it this week. Write a story about my friend Nameless.
[Howard] Oh dear. And his name isn't John.
[Brandon] No, his name isn't John. Nameless, I will see you for lunch on Thursday. This is been Writing Excuses.
Tags: getting it right, overwhelmed, practice, the great golden idea, writing excuses
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