Almost every author I have met who has started a novel that is not yet finished is making the same mistake: They are all bogged down at around chapter 4 or 5.
Because they are editing everything as they go. Dotting every T, crossing every ‘i’ and writing and re-writing every sentence until it is perfect.
There are a few theories as to why you just can’t do this but let me just be clear up front:
YOU CAN’T DO THIS!
Long-form writing is a complex and interconnected web. Part of what makes any single part right, or good, is how they connect to the other parts. No part can really be seen as perfect in isolation. But this is what you do when you polish and re-polish your prose. You are trying to get each and every part to be perfect in isolation. Stop it.
Focussing so much on each and every detail really gets in the way of you seeing the big picture of where the entire work is going. You’ve heard of not being able to see the wood for the trees? Yeah, that’s it.
Stop being so god damn afraid. The REAL reason you are doing this is not because you are a perfectionist, or meticulous or OCD. Those are all lies. You’re just plain old, white knuckle ordinary SCARED! Scared you’re not good enough, not original enough etc etc etc. Admit that and move on to the next step.
There is also the left-brain versus right-brain theory. Writing is creative, which is right brain activity. Editing is rational, logical and process/rule driven, which is left-brain activity. It seems that, if you switch consistently between the two, the creative process becomes derailed by all the rules and forms. You scare it back into the shadows. You effectively get in your own way.
Related to this is that, on a micro-neurological scale, the activity of creative thought is a small, still voice somewhere in the recesses of your grey matter. The spontaneous creative association of thoughts requires very few neurons to fire, creating very little disturbance in the white noise of your everyday life inside your skull. Following rules and guidelines requires many neurons and much focus, which tend to simply drown out the small, creative insights. This is why you have great ideas when driving, in the shower, when your conscious mind is ‘elsewhere’.
A lot of this may sound impossible to do. It really helps if you have some sort of plan… a map to the story that you want to write. As Benjamin Franklin apparently liked to say, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Planning and plotting are the keys that will allow you to just write and leave you free to worry about the editing later.
Luckily, I have written about planning already. You can click here to read about it.