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On Tidy Houses: Navigating the Gap Between the Story in Your Head and the Story on the Page

My house does NOT look like this :-(
I sometimes think the part of writing I like best is the part before. The part when there's a vast, glittering expanse of new idea mapped out in my brain and my notebooks, and everything feels like that moment at the start of a race where there’s a burst of speed and energy and insanity waiting in your limbs and you just need to run dammit run. Some details are sure and vivid, things I've daydreamed about over and over again. Some details come from aha! moments when I've suddenly realized that of course, this thing has to follow on from this thing because it makes perfect sense that way. Some details are things I've put a lot of thought into. Some are constructed hastily to make the surer parts fit together. And some details are still vague and elusive, but who cares because it's a story and it's full of amazingness and I am so tremendously in love with it, and it might quite possibly actually be the best thing that anyone has ever come up with in the history of humanity. Etc. (Because, you know, I haven't actually written anything yet aside from a lot of scribbled notes, so things can get pretty grandiose. )

But if the idea is really that important, at some point I obviously have to sit down and write the thing. And for some people, the before stage continues for a while after they start the first draft. A few hundred words (or a few thousand, or a few tens of thousand) will race out before they notice the gap between the thing they daydreamed about and the thing they are actually making. Me? I notice straight away. It’s like that moment when you arrive at someone’s house for the first time, and it turns out that they happen to be someone with a house which is vastly tidier than your own house, the terrifying sort of house you have seen pictures of in books that you didn't realize actually existed in real life, full of clear, shining surfaces and perfectly arranged cushions and furniture in pale, glowing colors. And then you track some dirt across the floor with your shoes, or spill a cup of coffee on a chair upholstered in Italian silk, and you start to have a sinking feeling that they won't invite you back because you are blatantly and obviously one of those people who creates mess just by standing in a room and breathing.

And this is also how it can feel when I finally start writing that seemingly perfect idea. Like I'm smearing mud everywhere with every single word I type, and the longer I spend writing it, the worse it is all going to get, and maybe it is time to go home before someone points out that I was actually meant to take my shoes off at the door.

No matter how great the idea is, and how experienced a writer you are, this moment is going to come, and probably on a regular basis. Or a daily basis. Or an hourly basis. Or it doesn't actually bother leaving at all and just hangs around, constantly blaring at you. It's that moment when you can still kind of see the thing that you wanted to write, except that it's becoming increasingly remote and hazy because of the thing that you are writing, which is some distance away from it. And it's not that you’re a perfectionist or anything. Of course not. It's just that you only like to write things that don’t have any flaws in them at all. And this thing that you are writing seems to be nothing but flaws, and the distance between it and the idea you first daydreamed about is not so much a ditch, or even a canyon, but a vast, gaping chasm that can swallow entire galaxies. A chasm full of fire and fury and despair.

But no story can be the dream of a story. It has to be the thing that you pour your words and your time and your soul into, a thing which is broken in some places and wondrous in others, a thing full of spiders' webs and dust and magic and all the grubby little unexpected details your flawless vision never encompassed. No story can be perfect or tidy in every possible way, because no story is meant to be. And when you’re in the throes of writing, it's easy to get caught by that lingering feeling that you will never, ever be good enough to write any of the things you dream of writing. And if you measure yourself against impossible stuff that can never exist outside your head, of course you won’t be good enough. You're looking in the wrong direction.

So next time you get that gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction with your abilities, and that sense that everything is hopeless and why are you attempting it in the first place and see that vast chasm looming up at you, look elsewhere. Because the thing that you’re writing is absolutely worth writing, regardless.

I sometimes think part of writing I like best is the part before. And then I realize that I’m wrong. My favorite part of writing is writing. All of it.

How do you navigate the gap between your vision of a story and the reality of writing it? 

Image courtesy of photostock /
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. Yep, my written story is always different from my original idea, but usually it's more interesting. That's what I love about writing: surprising myself with where my story takes me. Like it has a life of it's own!


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Item Reviewed: On Tidy Houses: Navigating the Gap Between the Story in Your Head and the Story on the Page Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin