We focus on many facets of the writing process here at TheRightMargin, but occasionally, it’s important to step back, elevate above process, and consider the behavioral and psychological forces at play in our creative lives. I find myriad hobgoblins lurking in the shadows of our personal psychologies; destructive little beasts who can derail the motivation and morale essential to novel writing, despite our best efforts to overcome their intrusions through good organizational habits.

Last month, Charlie Jane Anders, formerly of io9 (and one of our favorite writer-thinkers on the planet), tweeted out an important, yet subtle thought about the novel writing journey that spoke to one of these intrusions:

I followed up with:  

It was a quick reply, but I’ve now been marinating on this idea for a few weeks  – reflecting on how often we obstruct the path to our own creative achievements. Early in my writing life, I often wrote what I thought I should write rather than what I needed to write. Now, I’m more satisfied, more confident, with my writing because I overcame this nebulous pressure to pursue ideas for which I had no passion, only the crushing gravity of obligation. 

First off, a quick distinction between need and should.

For our purposes, should carries with it external pressures and internal judgement. Should is a push mechanism; it pushes judgement and doubt upon you. This judgement can amount to an unfair analysis of our intention to write – a box we assume we need to check to be accepted as artists. This ceaseless inability to meet ever-present pressures of what we’re not doing or achieving invariably leads to suffering. A great many artists quit while mired in the dark, subjective fiction of suffering. 

Need is a deeper, perhaps more nebulous feeling, bound to the reason you started writing in the first place. Need is a pull mechanism; a calling or longing to tell a story or to explore a character who came to you in your dreams. Need means you have something to say, an idea to put into the world, and you won’t let judgement or fear, or a need for validation hold you back from releasing it into the world.

So, how do you overcome “should” and shed the false obligations of the doubt it heaps upon you? The first step is to gain clarity on the facts of why you’re really writing – and to align your intention around that objective point of view.

Why Are you Writing a Novel?

All writers face the challenge of discovering what to write about. But as writers wade deeper in the murky waters of the writing life, they discover a more dastardly leviathan lying in wait – the question of why you are pursuing the novel you’re writing.

This question may not be top-of-mind when you’re drafting; there is no way to plan for the time in your writing life you’ll inevitably face it. Rather, the question of why sneaks up during those moments of self-doubt, when you wonder why you’re not quite as inspired as you once were, or why you don’t feel quite as close to the story as you did in its beginning – or why you’re stuck in the same spot you’ve been in for a month or many years, and can’t seem to finish.

Defeating this beast is not for the faint of heart, but the answer to the question of “why?” may be equally, if not more, important than your subject matter and skill set in improving your novel writing and helping set your writing free.

Where “Should” Lurks in your Novel Writing

‘But why is this clarity important – or even relevant?’ you ask. ‘Shouldn’t I be, er, writing the book I should write?’ No, because that sense of obligation, and its associated encroaching doubt, most likely comes from one or more of the following scenarios:

  1. You feel compelled to mimic the style or subject matter of authors you admire rather than cultivate your own. These authors write real books with compelling characters, masterful plots, and detailed, engaging scenes. They – their styles, routines and creative output – are your measures for success. Shouldn’t you follow their lead?
  2. Commercial goals and dreams are driving you. You think if you write subject matter that is not commercially viable or marketable to a wide-enough audience, no one will represent you, publish you, or buy your book. So, you end up focusing on vampires and zombies because you should focus on writing about what’s in right now or what sells.
  3. You don’t have your project’s back. You find yourself making excuses about your story’s lack of clarity. People ask you about the story, and your responses aren’t passionate, but defensive; you end up saying “uh it’s complicated,” or even “the story’s kind of strange.” Your focus, plot, character motivations, story arcs, stakes should be clearer- but for some reason are not.  

These issues can hold you back from working on the book you need to write – the one pulling you, calling to you throughout your day; the character or setting you can’t shake, real or imagined. I’d wager every single author has, at some point in their career, faced each of these scenarios before finding their voice, the courage, and the passionate support of a story required to move forward.

And this starts when you stop saying Should.

How and Why to Cut “Should”

First off, and as coach and writer Hannah Braime says, when we use the word “should” when talking to ourselves, it is motivated by a lack of self-acceptance rather than encouragement.”

In other words, you’re reinforcing the negative perception of what you’re not doing. “I should be writing the next great novel,” is quickly followed by, “…but I’m not.”

The fact is you haven’t written a novel, not that you never will. And the measure by which readers will consider your work “great” is largely out of your hands.

Instead of focusing on those things out of your control, Braime recommends, focus on how that action will make you feel – as opposed to where that activity is or isn’t taking you.

If you love writing, think about why. What eras, genres, subjects, characters,  or settings inspire you? Write the answers down somewhere visible, constant, where you can refer to them during your writing, or in those moments of creeping self doubt.

If you focus on and revisit the answers, you may find the facts of need, rather than the judgement of should, tend to surface.

Instead of obsessing over where your writing may take you, or who will validate that journey, you could find you actually end up writing the novel you need to write.

Ready to finally finish your novel? Join TheRightMargin – We’ll show you how.