The Inevitability of Murphy’s Law
The world is far from perfect, and no matter what endeavour you take up, things will not go to plan. For everything to work exactly as it is supposed to, without any issues to overcome, would require operating in test conditions, and even then it is not guaranteed. Writing is particularly vulnerable to problems as it is almost constantly affected by what is happening to the writer in real life. Some influences make themselves known on the page, whilst others prevent words being written in the first place. Even overlooking these, inconsistency of quality is a particular problem for a writer. The main problem with purging your brain onto paper is variation: sometimes you will craft incredible sentences; whereas the rest of the time you just have to get it down, no matter how poor you feel the writing is.
First drafts will naturally vary in this aspect, particularly with novels. Short stories, poetry, and articles tend to be easier to maintain consistency, simply due to their shortness; a first draft can, in theory, be written in one sitting. Book-length projects do not afford this luxury.
Writing is a stop-start process already. Inspiration is constantly required, as is logic and problem solving. Narratives tie themselves in knots—whether plotted in advance or not—and even tiny issues in the flow can cause obstacles that seem insurmountable. That being said, writers’ block is not the death of a project: first drafts are mountains yet to be scaled, and the act of writing them is climbing for the first time. Each further draft is reclimbing the same mountain, so the path becomes easier to identify and can be refined over and over. As long as you keep going, the mountain of your story can be scaled.
When writing a first draft, forget about making sure it is the best writing it can be. Instead, write the best characters you are able to, in the best plot possible. No matter how meticulously you plan it in advance, you will still find that elements of the story don’t work. Plus, the more complex your plot, the more obstacles you will face: a stream-of-consciousness of a character drifting through life, interacting with others, and gradually changing as a person will present less problems than a complicated tale of double-crosses told through multiple perspectives; it is a question of Murphy’s Law.
“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
Without fail, there will be problems with characters or plot. As such, to overcome them, beautiful prose will have to be shunned and replaced with simplistic, below-standard writing, or even notes or bullet-points to be completed at a later date, simply to ensure the narrative moves forward. This is a realistic assessment of what awaits writers, yet should not detract from the ultimate goal of completion; it should actually enhance it.
Embracing the concept of error and sub-par work feels pessimistic, but only when paying attention to the sentence, paragraph, or page that is being written. When looking at the big picture—the overall story—stressing over the perfection of writing at a single point is not only counter-intuitive, but also detrimental to the project as a whole. Small-scale pessimism is large-scale optimism, or at least in the case of writing a novel. By balancing the positive thought of “I can do this,” with the realism of “I need to compromise here,” the overarching story can be completed and the second draft—where these dips in quality will be addressed—can begin.
Writers’ block seems to hit at the exact moment when writing standards drop, characters lose depth, dialogue becomes formulaic, and exposition infects every page. As such, perhaps Finagle’s Law is a more appropriate view than Murphy’s.
“Anything that can go wrong will—at the worst possible moment.”
Whichever Law you subscribe to, remember to just get through whatever turmoil has hit you. Write it now, fix it later, or you will find yourself dwelling on a minor point that will break the momentum you have built thus far, ruining the flow of your writing, and you will be stuck at this minor hurdle for longer than you can stand. Just get it down and get past it. The next draft is for standardising the quality of your writing, this one is for putting it in place. Even though things will not go to plan, at the very least you will keep moving. No matter what Murphy throws at you, momentum is something that only you can maintain.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.