Redux: “Get Out of Your Own Way” – a Guest Post by Art Holcomb

Apologies for yesterday’s technical problem, which sent this to you with only a headline and no context.  Thanks to Joel Canfield for the quick fix.  Anything by Art Holcomb is worth a second try… so here you are.  Enjoy.



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

-Thulani Jengo

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’ve been helping writers achieve their goals for a long time. And I wasn’t upset that David 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 was 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.

At this rate, David was absolutely doomed to failure.  This was a squandering of what I saw as a real and special talent and it upset me.

We talked about this for hours that night, 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 moved on, this wonderful story would be relegated to that binder forever. That he was paralyzed by a  real fear which lay just beyond the tab marking CHAPTER TWO.

David and I grew apart in the years that followed and, in that time, I met a number of people like him, 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 own 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, Trust and Faith 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 always lies in the difference between what a person can do and what that person WILL DO!

And the absolute truth is – I know you can do it.  If you’re stuck, reach out to an expert like Larry and get some help from someone who has faced this before you. You’ll find that, with help, you can quickly find your way back to the road to success.

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

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

ART HOLCOMB is a writer and writing teacher. He and acclaimed novelist Steven Barnes have developed a system to get your writing on the fast track and get you producing great stories every year.  Drop them an email at to find out more about their upcoming webinar for new writers in January 2016.


Still running two year-end story coaching discounts, one of offering a $900 savings… both described in the preceding post.


I want to share this paragraph from an email I sent to a coaching client today.  He’s a terrific writer with a monster story on his hands (and, he’s very coachable), one that he and I are wrestling to the ground with an iterative process of pitch, breakdown, feedback, revision and more feedback.

I hope you find value in this:

This is the reason stories get rejected: the author whips it all into a stew of a story, and they fall in love with it.  With the very notion of it.  And then, under critical eyes, they explain and defend, and when the critic doesn’t seem to shut up, they rationalize that the critic just doesn’t get it, or – and this is worse – that the criticism doesn’t matter.  First time authors, in particular, are well served to really listen and be open to change, when change is indeed called for in the spirit of making the story stronger.


Filed under Guest Bloggers

4 Responses to Redux: “Get Out of Your Own Way” – a Guest Post by Art Holcomb

  1. Mike Robinson

    I think that many people forget that “the marvelous story you just finished reading” did not START that way. The writer, no matter how “good” he is, probably did NOT just start typing and “that’s what magically poured out.” Likewise, when the writer was working-out the plot, the characters, and everything else … there were Decisions to be made. Constantly.

    You, Gentle Reader, see only the decisions that prevailed. You’ll never see the rejects. You see only the finished, polished writing that emerged after the writer AND the editors pored over it. If those people did their job well, you don’t see their effort. You only see the result, which looks like magic.

    Gentle Writer, don’t hold yourself up to a quite-impossible expectation, that the creative process isn’t a process. You have hundreds of decisions(!) to make, and every single one of them is yours. In hindsight and in retrospect, it all looks inevitable and deterministic. How soon we forget how we got there. (And in any case, the Gentle Reader doesn’t want to know. S/He wants it to be magic. So mote it be.)

  2. Mike Lawrence

    Thanks for the post, Art. As a self-published “author” how hasn’t quite hit his stride just yet, I can vouch for the validity of the just-get-it-done discipline. Once I had all the scenes for my first book mapped out, I wrote every single one without allowing any revision until they were ALL done. I knew that if I stopped to hone any particular scene as I went along, I would never finish the book!

    In the end, it’s not very good and I don’t have to take off my shoes to count the people in my audience. But the process of actually doing it is an invaluable lesson in all the little things involved in actually *finishing* a novel. And you know what? It’s OK if it isn’t all that great. If you haven’t completed that first novel that kind of sucks, you’re not trying hard enough.

    Obviously, you want to try to do it the best you can, but thinking about it and doing it are two distinct realms of existence. The unwritten novel will always have the potential to be good – which may explain why so many are perpetually “in progress” A written novel, on the other hand, has the very real potential of failing. Trust me. But I think a bad novel written is better than a novel never written at all. It’s an important part of the learning process. Have you ever read Nora Roberts’ first novel? No, you haven’t. And you never will, because it sucked and didn’t get published. But you may very well have read her second novel.

  3. Sorry I’m late. I took a few days off (first time in 3 1/2 years) to spend with my family. Art, this story boggles the mind. Eleven years on one chapter? Wow. I was the opposite, kept writing one novel after the next until I finally slowed down and studied the craft. Thank God I didn’t self-publish, or I’d be mortified by my earlier works.

    Hope you and Larry had an awesome Christmas! Larry, my cat burglar story got picked up, and I got word on Christmas Eve. Now I have to decide which house gets it. Thank you so much for your help. Best coach ever!!!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience with us it helps many people to survive and enjoy in college life.