“Get Out of Your Own Way” – A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

(Art Holcomb knocked it out of the park for us with a guest post six weeks ago.  He’s back, another killer contribution. This guy is good. L.)

GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY

 by Art Holcomb         

 “An exhaled breath must be cast away from you before you can take another.” 

Years ago, a friend of mine was writing a mystery about a famous abandoned house in Northern California.  David had teased me with this book for a very long time and after much cajoling and nagging on my part, he agreed to let me read it.  

He finally showed it to me at a party over the Christmas break from college.  He sat me down in his spare bedroom, handed me this beautiful leather binder, thick with each chapter tabbed and labeled, and then quietly left.

I was in for a treat.  I held my breath for a moment. 

And I read . . .

And, as I read, I grew even more excited.  The first chapter was good, opened well, excellent visuals, with pacing and language that was capable and accessible.  And I loved the characters.  

The first chapter had been 34 pages long and absolutely left me hungry for more. 

I flipped the tab marked CHAPTER TWO over and  . . .

Blank paper. 

Twenty blank pieces of typing paper. 

I went through the rest of the binder and it was the same thing: 18 more tabbed sections of blank white typing paper.

About which point, David couldn’t wait any more.  He came in and nonchalantly asked how I liked the story.

ME: I love it! Where’s the rest?

DAVID: Well, that’s all there is so far.

ME: I thought you’d been at this for a while.

DAVID (proudly)I have been.  I’ve been rewriting the first chapter until I got it right.

ME: For how long?

DAVID: Eleven years this February.

I couldn’t believe it.  I was startled at first and then I experienced something that surprised me:

I started to get angry.

I wasn’t upset that he had been working on a story for eleven years; I, in fact, had several ideas that I’d been working on since I was in high school that I was never able to get out of me.  But eleven years on the same chapter, writing it over and over again, refining, polishing, rewriting, perfecting?  This seemed less a labor of love and more like Sisyphus pushing that boulder uphill.

At this rate, David was scheduled to complete his Great American Novel 54 years after his death . . . assuming he got past the first chapter.

It was a great effort doomed to failure.  The squandering of what I saw as a real and special talent and it upset me. 

We talked about it, but I was never able to get him to see that this was less a novel and more a delicious sort of penitence.  That unless he let that chapter go and move on, this wonderful story would be relegated to that binder forever. We discovered that there was a real fear that lie for him just beyond the tab marking CHAPTER TWO. 

We grew apart in the years that followed and, in that time, I met a number of people like David, who were caught in a loop, unable to take a step out of their comfort zone.

I’ve often wondered what separates the Davids of the world from the writers who go on to have long careers and satisfying relationships with their talents?

In the end, I think it comes down the combination of FAITH and TRUST.

FAITH that you have more than one idea in you, that you don’t have to be defined by a single effort, that your next chapter can be better than your last.

And TRUST in the breadth and width of your talent, and that not only can you see yourself completing that novel but that it will be just one part  in a great body of work . . .

And, most of all, that you will have an audience out there .

In the end, regardless of how any single effort comes out, you have to be able to let it go when finished . . .

And take that next breath.

Success will always lie in the difference between what a person can do and what that person WILL DO!

And you can do it.

Make your talent count for something.  Work hard.  Dig deep.

And then . . . move on to the next challenge. 

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter whose work has appeared on the SHOWTIME Channel and has written for such comics as Marvel’s THE X-MEN and Acclaim’s ETERNAL WARRIORS. He has appeared as a guest and taught at San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions.  His most recent work is THE MEADOWS (with Mark L. Haynes), a science fiction police procedural.

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25 Comments

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25 Responses to “Get Out of Your Own Way” – A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

  1. Cindy Hassell

    Another GREAT post. And a good kicker for those of us who are perfectionists.

  2. nancy

    “Stuck in reverse.”

  3. “Success will always lie in the difference between what a person can do and what that person WILL DO!”
    Words of infinite wisdom for any endeavor. The faith and trust mentioned can be the bridges to breach that difference. Thank you, Art, for pointing this out and for expressing it so succinctly.

  4. And here I was, feeling awful that I’ve already spent more than a year revising an entire novel. I guess I don’t have anything to worry about.

  5. Thanks for the great post. A good kick to every reader to set real stretch goals for this next year and then reach them.

  6. Eliza Tilton

    wow. You know, we spend so much time getting critiqued and revising our MS that we over do it. There will always be something to fix. I think some of us–myself included–don’t know when enough is enough.

    Great post and exactly what I needed to hear.

  7. Man…this kick in the ass hurts…

    I was just grinding my teeth the other day at how this current project is going into its fifth year…

    Here it is for me: “And TRUST in the breadth and width of your talent, and that not only can you see yourself completing that novel but that it will be just one part in a great body of work .”

    I have serious trust issues…

    V.

  8. Thanks for the needed prod in the posterior. Great advice and perfect perspective. Moving on it now.

  9. A friend in my writing critique group is in danger of becoming like your friend. She’s up to Chapter 2, but she has rewritten Chapter 1 at least three or four times. At our last meeting, another writer and I tried to convince her that she needs to just keep moving forward–make notes about anything that she wants to change in previous chapters, but wait on the rewriting until she gets to the end. I don’t know if she’s going to take our suggestion, but I fear that she’s going to get caught up in the rewriting and just end up rewriting rewrites over and over–and I’ll never get to read the end of her story!

  10. Love this guest post. I will be writing down the Faith and Trust section and saving it for later as a reminder on my own literary journey when I hit a road block. Thanks for sharing this, it is really motivating.

  11. Well put. The trust-and-faith thing will make it so much easier to snap out of the next loop. Thanks for the post.

  12. Art Holcomb

    Thanks for all the great comments!

    Since for much of my career (screenplays & comics) I have been under deadline, and since publishing/production schedules wait for no one, I ended up developing a series of “passes” I would make at an individual script before I sent it out. Each one was dedicated to either look for a certain thing or better develop a specific aspect of the script. This taught me to get the most out of the limited time I get to spend with each work.

    As for Trust and Faith, I think it comes from looking to that almost sacred conversation that we all have between ourselves and our Readers as we write – even if we haven’t introduced them . . .

    Yet.

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  15. Melissa Montez

    This was just what I needed–trust that I have another idea waiting–faith that I can do it. Thank you.

  16. J S

    This is the fear that keeps people from doing a lot of things, not just writing. They fear starting a business, because it might fail or someone might sue them, or some other imagined catastrophe. There are always risks, but without taking them they will never know or will always wonder. Writing at the beginning is nearly riskless. The writer is clicking those keys in the evenings or weekends while still having some other job. So be bold on the page.

    The next stumbling block in the writing process is you really need to outline the story (xmind mind mapping, libreoffice wordprocessor or spreadsheet). Whether bold strokes or details, you must have a road map to get to the end of the story (it also fixes the writer’s block problem too). I figured this out nearly thirty years ago when I found I was working on a novel that never got beyond a few chapters – because even though I had these great characters and plot elements, they were just out wandering around the countryside.

    Then stop sitting at home cutting bate and go out fishing.

  17. Working through my own novel and poetry projects I can definitely speak to the importance of just moving on. Especially with poetry. I have a (metaphorical) trash can filled with poems that never got past the first stanza, as I’d spend so much time editing those first few lines that by the time I was ready to move on (which was generally the next day) I had already forgotten what I wanted to write in the first place.

  18. Fiona

    Sometimes people are afraid of succeeding. Its a weird thing that as most people would assume fear of rejection. By not finishing the book, they continue to sabotage themselves and have a handy excuse.
    It takes so much courage to get to the end then put it out there.
    So for all of us who are afraid – finish the book. Like the Nike slogan says- Just do it! Find the faith and trust so eloquently raised by Art.

  19. Ceridwen

    Thank you for the post. It’s a very useful reminder! 🙂

  20. I think what I’d have to say to David on looking at the beautiful chapter is “You learned. That chapter was about gaining the skills to write it. The rest won’t be that bad. Get it down now and it’ll go a lot faster.”

    I couldn’t finish my first novel for twenty years. I kept trying, never gave up on it, had fragments of it, threw out many versions but the idea always came back. Eventually I had enough time off to concentrate on it and do nothing else – and then the manuscript that didn’t get tossed got almost done, all but the last three chapters. It was too big to throw away, I just got interrupted by needing to make a living again.

    Then I wrote something shorter and goofy that I didn’t take seriously because a friend was coming over to read a new chapter every time. Once I hit the end on that, I had finally put together “endings” and “middles” and finishing the 20 year project was a matter of scheduling it.

    Some people’s learning curve is that long. Life interferes. It isn’t over till it’s over – and whatever the fears, more novel ideas do come along the more attention gets given to each one as it comes to you. Just jotting it as an ideafile helps, it’s something to come back to at times you don’t know what to write.

    I knew someone like David, who got a great idea and rewrote the first 40 pages over several months until they were gold. He never finished that one because he hadn’t written an outline of his great idea. He forgot what happened in the rest of the book and it turned into a fragment.

    Some years later he got back to writing again, had new ideas and had learned to outline them when they emerged so he was able to start finishing these pieces.

    It’s not over till its over, and that doesn’t stop till you’re dead. So don’t give up on yourself if you fell into that problem for years, because you could be looking at breaking through it next weekend or next month or next year. That makes it all worthwhile.

  21. @Art, going through the third ‘pass’ of mine right now. Highlighted every instance of the wird ‘that’ and removing where possible.

    I like the ‘pass’ concept. I look for the word ‘was’ next pass, since it’s a good indicator of passive voice.

    Cheers,

    Tony

  22. Olga Oliver

    Art, the post of the year already. Interesting how the words faith and trust awakened everyone like a loud alarm clock – bang! bang! bang! I would add one more word – EXPECTATION. New notice is taped to my computer: faith, trust, expectation.

    Thanks Art. Gad! how we short change our talents.

  23. What a great post! I’ll be passing it on to a friend. It is so easy to get mired into wanting to make our words perfect.

  24. This sounds painfully familiar. I wrote a script in the Cynthia Whitcomb class that redefines WWII in a way I can’t seem to get over enough to shop around. Must. Move. On. Seven years is too long, but if it’s not eleven.

  25. Good one Art. Thanks to Larry too.
    Reminds me of the saying, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
    I, too, like your comment on making passes at your manuscript to focus on certain aspects the need improvement, one at a time. I’m going to try that.