Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due To Over-Analysis

 

frustrated-writer300x199Got a lengthy email from a writer who has attended my workshops in the past. He gave me permission to paraphrase the gist of his lament.

This writer has worked on his craft for years and felt he was making progress. He produced three novels, and at a conference had good feedback from an editor with a big publishing house. This editor told him it was not a matter of if, but when, he would get a contract from them. He was invited to submit at any time.

That was in 2012. To date he has not submitted anything.

What happened? He describes it as “paralysis by over-analysis.”

I cannot seem to get past the prison of being perfect in the first draft. Like writer’s block, it’s a horrible place to reside. Sometimes its paralyzing to start. At other times its critical negative talk in my mind remembering those sessions I attended.

The sessions he mentions came from joining a local critique group. Unfortunately this was one of those groups that was run by a large ego. The group sessions seemed mostly to be about “building themselves up by tearing down others.” Though this writer had great feedback from beta readers, his confidence was completely shaken as his pages were systematically massacred in the meetings. He finally left the group, but…

… I’m left with a nagging residual feeling that whatever I am writing it not good enough. I continue to write and rewrite my first chapters, never satisfied they’re ‘good enough’ to move on. Even though I’ve not lost the love of the story and series, I have lost confidence in my writing.

Finally, he asks:

Are we wrestling ourselves to be so perfect in a first draft we do not allow for a full first draft to later tackle or add (or subtract) to or from in revision? And why are we so pressured to get it perfect in the first draft? What can we learn or do to get out of that futile mental process?

I wrote him back with some advice, and thought it would be good to expand upon it here. It is based on Robert A. Heinlein’s Two Rules for Writing and Bell’s Corollary.

Heinlein’s Two Rules for Writing:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write

Bell’s Corollary

  1. You must fix what you’ve written, then write some more

You must write

Like the old joke says, if you have insomnia, sleep it off. And if you suffer from writer’s block, write yourself out of it.

With the paralysis-by-over-analysis type of block, your head is tangling itself up in your fingers, like kelp on a boat propeller. The motor is chugging but you’re not moving. You’ve got to cut away all that crud.

How?

First, write to a quota. I know some writers don’t like quotas, but all the professional writers who made a living in the pulp era knew their value. Yes, it’s pressure, but that’s what you need to get you past this type of block.

Second, mentally give yourself permission to write dreck. Hemingway said that all first drafts where [dreck]. So tell yourself that before you start to write. “I can write dreck! Because I can fix it later!”

Third, do some morning writing practice. Write for 5 minutes without stopping, on any random thing. Open a dictionary at random and find a noun and write about that. Write memoir glimpses starting with “I remember…”

If you’re an extreme paralysis case, try a dose of Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die. This nifty little online app (you can also purchase an inexpensive desktop version) makes you write fast or begins spewing a terrible noise at you. Set your own goal (e.g., 250 words in 7 minutes) and then GO.

You are teaching yourself to be free to write when you write.

You must finish what you write

I always counsel writers to write their first drafts as fast as they comfortably can. This means:

  • You step back at 20K words and make sure your fundamental structure is sound (are the stakes high enough? Are you through the first Doorway of No Return?) If you are worried about structure, just think of it as writing from signpost to signpost.
  • You only lightly edit your previous day’s work, then move on and write to your quota.
  • Then you push on and finish.

You must fix what you’ve written …

The time to dig into a manuscript is after it’s done. Put your first draft away for at least three weeks. Then sit down with a hard copy and read the thing as if you were a reader with a new book.

Take minimal notes. Read it through it with one question in mind: “At what point would a busy reader, agent, or editor be tempted to put this aside?”

Work on that big picture first.

Read it through again looking at each scene. Here is where craft study comes in. It’s like golf. When you play golf, just play. Don’t be thinking of the 22 Things To Remember At Point Of Impact on The Full Swing. After a round is when you look back and decide what to work on in practice. And when you have a good teacher to help, you learn the fundamentals and you get better.

Same with writing. There are good teachers who write good books and articles and blogs, and lead workshops. Learn from them. Use what you learn to fix your manuscript after the first draft is done. When you write your next book, those lessons will be in your “muscle memory.” You’ll be a better writer from the jump.

And here I should issue a general warning about critique groups. As with everything in life, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you find a good, supportive critique group, fantastic. But know there are toxic critique groups, too. Those are usually dominated by one strong voice, with iron-fisted rules about what can never be done, like: Never open with dialogue! No backstory in the first fifty pages! Don’t mention anything about the weather in the first two pages!

There can also be a tone of such ripping apart that soon enough, when you’re all alone, you’ll freeze up over every sentence you write. That’s what happened to the writer of the email.

For further advice on critique groups, see these posts by P. J. Parrish and Jordan Dane.

Paying for a good, experienced editor at some point is worth it. How do you find one? Research and referrals. There is now an abundance of editors out there who used to work for New York houses, until the staffing cutbacks of the last few years. The cost of this is high. Expect between one and two grand. If that’s beyond your budget, then hunt down and nurture a good, solid group of beta readers. See the advice of Joe Moore.

Then write some more

The name of this game is production. My correspondent mentioned a writer he knows who spent eight years workshopping and conferencing the same book, until realizing it would have been much better writing eight books instead.

Make a book a year your minimum. If you want to be a professional writer you have to be able to do at least that. Is it easy? No. If it was, your cat would be writing novels. But as Richard Rhodes put it once, “A page a day is a book a year.” One book page is 250 words.

Just. Do. It.

The good news is I got an email from this author after I answered him and he said

I spent the bulk of Tuesday at the keyboard and wrote/fixed about 4500 words in one of four sessions.  I feel liberated and just wanted to thank you. So thank you. Your Rx for my dilemma has been like a reset button. One long overdue.

So, TKZers, have you ever suffered from paralysis by over-analysis? How did you free yourself up to write?

13+

40 thoughts on “Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due To Over-Analysis

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Jim!

    It comes just in time when I finalize the first draft edit and re-write of my second book.

    I noticed something yesterday as I was incorporating changes: I wasn’t trusting the few editorials I marked on the hardcopy and started re-reading the chapter I was editing. I ended up with almost the same changes. But I had an inclination to read again not trusting myself. I was afraid the text was still not good enough. Even if I liked what I read.

    What helped was to become aware of this behaviour. This was the first step. The second and a bit harder one, not to judge this behaviour, but simply observe it.

    It also helped to see that I am more judgemental towards myself when I am tired.
    So I had a break, had a treat of Espresso and a piece of dark chocolate and set back at my desk. And I decided to trust the edits on the paper without looking too deep into unmarked parts of the manuscript.

    • Excellent, Victoria. Those are really terrific insights you had. I would commend them to any writer in such a quandary.

      And you also suggest the perfect antidote. I mean how can one improve on espresso and chocolate? Nicely done.

  2. At times, I think we all have that little voice screaming, “You suck!” The trick is, learning to keep on writing even when that murderous voice is trying every way possible to make you stop. Because eventually, another voice will emerge. A sweet, angelic voice that croons, “Yeah, you’ve got this. You’re creating magic. Let me kiss those talented fingers…mwah.” I wouldn’t trade either voice; they keep the ego in check, but it did take me years to learn how to balance the two.

    When I read the first half of this post I feel terrible for your correspondent. To have another writer be so cruel and frankly, so insecure in their own ability that they feel they need to shred others’ work to build themselves up, is disgusting. Thank goodness he found you, Jim. There’s nothing sadder than to hear about one of our own suffering silently in writer hell. I’m thrilled to hear he’s feeling more confident these days.

    • Sue, I think that “You suck!” voice haunts virtually all writers at some point. Even some of my very successful writing friends admit that they feel, with their current book, that readers will finally see that there’s nothing there “behind the curtain.”

      Some of that comes from raised standards. The more we know about writing, the more we can sense deficiencies. Getting heavily into the scene in front of you is one way to silence that voice.

      The other voice you suggest comes softly every now and then (to me at least). It’s when I finish a scene and think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty darn good.” I love those moments, but try not to stay there too long patting myself on the back.

      I guess the trick is to keep writing between those two voices, eh?

  3. I work on a minimum quota of five pages a day or a chapter a week. Revisions come later, when the draft is finished. When plotting the story, I do not over-analyze, plan each scene in detail, study structure, or determine theme. I tell the story as it comes, using my innate sense of pacing and structure that serves me well after 20 books. The nitpicking comes later, when I go through several rounds of revisions. Even then, I do not delve into themes or symbolism. People tell me it’s there. That’s good enough for me. My main goal is to entertain. Then when I get the book back from my editor for round one of her edits, I have even more to fix. Revisions are never done. At some point you just have to turn the thing in because you get too blind to see what’s in front of you.

    • Sounds familiar, Nancy. I track with you, only I do most of my structural work up front. Theme also begins to clarify at the “mirror moment.”

      But yes, above all, entertain!

  4. ‘have you ever suffered from paralysis by over-analysis? How did you free yourself up to write?’

    stepped away for a week or two then remembered another Heinlein’s rules, You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order.’

    I was doing the same as an earlier poster. Doubting my own editing, rereading the entire scene, page or chapter and tinkering with it more. Now I just look for the blue ink.

  5. Jim,

    Yet another terrific post, very well timed. Have I ever suffered from A-P? Funny you should ask. In short, yes, to the point of spending weeks outlining a short story. Nuts, I know.

    My latest episode was just this last month, after my newest publication (here for those interested: http://www.perihelionsf.com/1507/fiction_1.htm) when I decided to work on a sequel to that novelette. Overthinking, I have met you and you are me. The solution has to be fast drafting sessions. The story is more than outlined. Because it’s a collaboration, our working method is for yours truly to write the first draft, and then K.C. rewrites, and then we revisit. You’d think that would free me from the perfectionism attendant with the A-P mindset, but no.

    The other manifestation was the novel I drafted last year. I received two detailed editorial style letters from beta readers (both authors), and then filed the novel, having decided it was irretrievably broken and terrible beyond all measure.

    A few weeks ago my author friend Ken Scholes asked about that novel, “The Hardscrabble,” and why I hadn’t revised it. I told him it was broken. Knowing my writing, he said that was unlikely. So, I sent it to two more beta readers, who had some very constructive suggestions and overall liked it. (Upon reflection, last year’s beta readers found lots to like). I then re-read the book in a couple of marathon sessions as per your advice.

    The result–it’s a fine first draft, wobbly in places, not firing on all cylinders in a few other places, but cool and exciting in others. In short, it’s a first draft and needs work. Epiphanies: 1. It is hugely unfair to yourself to compare a first draft to the imagined finished book. 2. Give yourself the chance to do the work in revision of helping the novel be a better version of what it was in the first draft.

    Turns out the September issue of Writers Digest has a great article on a layered approach to revision which will help, as will your book, which has great advice. My big challenge will be avoiding the overthinking and A-P. Any advice you have will be cheerfully accepted!

    As always, thanks for this and your other great posts, as well as all your help via your terrific craft books. I consider you one of my writing mentors and appreciate all your efforts on helping fiction writers improve our craft.

    • Weeks outlining a short story. I shudder!

      I read that WD article, too, and it’s a good approach. The main thing is the main thing: just keep going, keep tapping, fix and tap some more.

      The nice thing is you can control the tapping. Thanks for the kind words, Dale.

  6. Oh yeah. Over-analysis paralysis has always been my #1 writing nemesis. Although it doesn’t stem from bad experiences with crit groups. In addition to working about getting the characters right and the story flow right, everything I write requires a lot of research so I’m always paranoid I’m going to slip up somewhere.

    I have found that forcing myself to write through it works best. My first manuscript was written in fits and starts, slowed down by that paralysis. My 2nd novel I wrote straight through, researching what I could and making notes to myself to follow up on other research details I couldn’t deal with at the time. It may result in a lot of re-writing, but thus far, that has been the best way for me to go.

  7. I worked around this problem by only submitting crappy first draft quality work to my critique group and asking them to only comment on “big picture” issues: timeline, character development, major plot points. That way I don’t have to deal with nit-picking and misguided efforts to rewrite the story when I’ve almost completed a final draft. I don’t resubmit revisions and can therefore remain relaxed with no “what will critique group say” pressure while I work.

    • I like your approach–the critique groups I have been in couldn’t let go off copy edit issues. More’s the pity, because I think big picture feedback is what a first draft needs most of.

    • That’s a big-time tip right there, Patricia. Only the big stuff, because that’s what you want to work on first and foremost anyway. Getting lost in the weeds too early is madness. Thanks for posting this.

  8. I get a second opinion. I’ve had problems with toxic critique groups where “I tell it like it is” is an excuse to brutalize a writer’s work. I am very lucky that my husband, a former English teacher and a newspaper reporter, is good at critiquing my work. He’ll tell me “this chapter is putting me to sleep” or “too many details here make the plot sag.” He also says, “You’ve nailed it” and “nice writing.” When I’m stalled, I’ll ask him what’s wrong.

    • I, too, know the value of a good editorial spouse, Elaine.

      Your first line reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield’s joke: The doctor said I had six months to live. I said I wanted a second opinion. He said, “All right, you’re ugly, too.”

  9. Jim, thanks for another great post.

    When I started reading about your correspondent I thought he might suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I was about to offer (or suggest) some medical advice. Glad to hear that he was able to fix his problem with your non-medicinal approach.

    I have some OCD tendencies and find it difficult to multitask. When I am forced to multitask, I find that I am less concerned with perfection and more prone to just get ‘er done. I wonder if having more than one project going at a time would help with over-analysis-paralysis.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • That’s an interesting theory, Steve. I like having several projects cooking, a la Isaac Asimov. I know other writers who can’t work that way and must stay focused on one project until finished. There are strengths and weaknesses to both, and I don’t know if paralysis is any less likely with either one. You ought to get a grant and work on it, Steve!

    • And I am always amazed that people are able to work on more than one book at a time. I can’t do it. I have to be all in on the one project while I’m writing. It’s too draining a process and I think I’d sabotage both works if I worked on more than one at a time. But I admire those who can.

  10. Dear Jim Workshop Writer:
    I am there with you in the oar-less boat in windless waters. My biggest problem as a writer is my willingness to give in to paralysis. Twenty-odd years and thirteen published books, and I still fight this. Every. Day.

    Listen to Jim! Don’t listen to that ugly voice in your head. Write crap! Write crap with joy! Just put something on the blank screen. Think of how much fun you’ll have deleting the crap the next day!

    Here’s where I am right now: I am struggling with Chapter 16. Have been on one friggin chapter for a full week now. Why? Because the first page is really sucky (I resorted to opening with weather AGAIN!) I knew it was bad when I wrote and I let that stew in my brain and prevent me from moving on. Well, yesterday I opened the chapter and this WONDERFUL message appeared in the margin of my Word document:

    WELCOME BACK. PICK UP WHERE YOU LEFT OFF?

    Hell, yes! So I hit that and it zip-scrolled me past the crappy stuff I already wrote. Didn’t have to even see it. And guess what? I got 1200 words written that day and finished the chapter. And as soon as I finish lurking here, I am going back and work on that bad first page.

    • Of all the clarion calls to go ahead and write crap the first time around, yours is the most resounding, Kris.

      The great thing is that being free to write that way will inevitably make the writing not as bad as you think.

    • And the “write crap” directive extends to other forms of art too–painting, drawing etc. I find I have the same problems when doing any of these things. It’s ok to do some duds. But it’s a hard lesson to learn.

    • So agree! “Dare to be bad” is my new motto. I will fix and improve it in post. Appropo of this–telling my wife about Jim’s post today, she mentioned Pixar Studios dares to write crap, and then they rework it, again and again if needed, which explains the finished films being universally superb IMHO.

  11. I can relate to the writer. A very similar thing happened to me when a new member of the writers group went to town on my short story. It was so nasty–really came out of left field. I’d had no interaction with this person before. She had been having lots of problems with other members in the group and was banned from the forums a bit later, but her comments to me hit deep, despite the fact that I did not want to admit this to myself for some time. I’ve only this past week gotten back on track. I think Jim’s advice is great.

    Others also mentioned a bit about the ‘voice in the head’. It seems this ‘voice’ becomes the main issue when this type of problem occurs and not whatever someone said or says about your writing. It’s almost like we give ourselves permission to bash ourselves, over and over. You may get 50 constructive comments/reviews and then get a really nasty one and somehow our mind gets paralyzed by the nasty one. The way I got over it was to realize this, focus on perspective, and simply not pay attention to the negative comments in my head anymore–just did the best I could do with what I was working on. The best a writer can do is write and let the worries fend for themselves; that is, allow the ‘joy of writing’ to be your guide, focus on what you’re doing and what you have control of rather than what you’re not doing and what you don’t have control of.

  12. You’re absolutely right, as usual Mr. Bell. Finish what you write. I have a friend with a similar problem, he’ll write a few thousand words, then go back and niggle and fret over them until they bleed, and he loses the momentum of the story. Get it all down – the good, the bad, the ugly. THEN fix it. You can’t fix what you haven’t written. As Anne LaMott says in “Bird by Bird,” the first draft is a gift. You can write a crappy first draft – in fact, if you’re human you almost certainly will – and no one will know about it because it’s your first draft. But get it down. Again, LaMott – The first draft is the “down draft,” get it down. The next draft(s) is the “up draft,” fix it up. The last draft is the dental draft, get in and check every tooth. But don’t get things out of order and try fixing stuff until you’ve finished getting it down.

    • Thanks for reminding me of Anne Lamott, John. Another great piece of advice she has is the “one-inch frame.” Just concentrate on writing about that one little bit of scene in front of you. Forget everything behind or ahead. Even if you work on multiple projects, you can do that with each one. A great mental trick.

  13. I’m there right now.

    First, it is part of a bigger depression issue and I am working on that.

    Second, the only thing worse than a bad critique group is an unfair unasked for critique. I posted something in a FB group that I didn’t realize was open. I didn’t post it for critique, but as a specific example of how I handled some writing issue that was being discussed. A well-pubbed-but-utter-midlister swooped in, sent me a PM, and just savaged me saying, “I normally don’t do this, but I HATE bad writing.” I was devastated. I’ve tried to return to that work and haven’t been able to. Just do not ever do that to anyone, no matter how bad it is (and it wasn’t bad.) It took one of Chuck Wendig’s hilariously foul “X Number of Ways to Be a Better Writer” to pull me out of that one. I was completely blind-sided.

    Third, I snagged a little ebook that is nothing more than the common sense I’ve read in a hundred blog posts compiled into 100 pages with specific examples and exercises. No great wisdom, just the right place at the right time. Because of it I’ve been sprinting and experimenting with dictation software. I’m pulling out a languishing short work that to experiment with. I’m sprinting through a short work and enjoying it. I had a trusted reader in the genre look over Act I and II and he nailed what I had suspected were the soggy spots. A little less dialogue, a little more exposition (I know!)

    The paralysis-by-analysis loop is deadly. I hope everyone pulls out of it.

    Terri

    • Terri, you reminded me of a quote by Brenda Ueland. “Work freely and rollickingly as though you were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.”

      Not bad advice.

      • Definitely on the know-it-alls. And it was a good reminder to always lead with something good before you point out the less than good.

        I am interested on how the dictation software experiment will turn out. The tests were amazing. Not a single error.

        Terri

  14. Good stuff, as usual. I feel bad for your hero (in this post), who took his story and his heart (on his sleeve) and was stomped back to square one by the big loud egos in the room. Critique groups can be valuable, but only if you put them into proper perspective. Too often they aren’t as advertised.

    The goal is to find what works for you and apply it. Too often we listen to what works for others – often in a critique group, sometimes in online forums where everyone is a know-it-all – and assign meaning. Far better to get an opinion from a professional (it’s not that expensive) than listen too closely to other folks in the same boat you are in. The world is full of stories about famous novels that were rejected dozens of times by agents and editors, and yet, look what happened (example: “The Help” was rejected by 46 agents, professionals all, then went on – with a revision after those 46 rejections – to sell over 20 million hardcovers. If those pros don’t really know what’s up, how can your critique group peers?

    If you ask for criticism, count on getting it. Better to seek out a credible source, someone with more chops than the guy sitting next to you in a critique group who doesn’t know a premise from a concept, a plot twist from a plot point, and a character arc from the arching furrow in his forehead.

    The principles that make a story work are out there. They’re right here, in fact. Better to focus on these resources than the noise in a room full of writers.

  15. So I didn’t finish the second draft of a 150 page, nor even a 220 page novel (that no one of seven readers liked) 10 years ago. I finished a 312 page novel. Damn it was fun.

  16. Great post as always, Jim! 🙂 I am also at this point in my writing. My particular problem is worrying if my story concept is worth spending a year of my life working on. I will get started on a story, fall in love with my characters and think, “This is it!”. Then self-doubt creeps in–whether it be through measuring my work to published best-sellers or over-analysis–and steals whatever momentum I had going for my WIP.

    I’m rereading your book “Plot and Structure” which is helping me SO much. I’m also going to implement your suggestions in this post.

    God Bless You!

  17. Great advice, as usual. I’ve learned not to take my early, crappy drafts to critique groups anymore. I’ve learned enough by now to be able to fix much of the crap folks at the same level of skill as me might point out. I read books like yours to help me get on the right track and then know what to look for in re-writes. I ask for feedback from fellow writers when I can no longer see what’s wrong.

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