This novel will get finished. Oh yes. Yes, it will.
A few weeks ago, Beyond the Trope, a group of local writing podcasters asked about the hardest part of writing a novel. I didn’t even hesitate.
I do have some tricks to get past that first word hurdle, though. Some days, it takes all of them to get going, but it’s worth it. The manuscript waters feel great once you get in. Here’s how to convince yourself to take the daily plunge.
- Learn to love the timer. Most days, the first step in my writing process is picking up my iPhone and telling Siri, “Set a timer for 25 minutes.” Siri usually responds with a list of movies vaguely related to timers, at which point I repeat the request louder and more clearly, and we’re off to the races. Telling myself I’m going to write for a specific amount of time works well to break through whatever resistance I have to getting started on my day’s work, and a lot of times I end up writing past when the timer goes off.
- Back up before you dive in. Whether I’m working on revisions or new material, I like to scroll back to the beginning of a scene at the start of a writing session. Inevitably, I find a few things to change, and those tweaks start the flow of words that will propel me through the rest of the day.
- Quit before you’re tapped out. It’s a lot easier to start on a new day’s writing if you know where you’re going. Some writers swear by stopping in the middle of a sentence, but that just frustrates me. Instead, I try to end each day at a spot with a clear view of the road ahead. It works really well to pack it in just after a question is asked. By the next morning, I can’t wait to type that answer!
- Two words: bribes and rewards. The first time I did Nanowrimo in 2001, The Sims had just come out for Mac and I was hopelessly addicted. Since the game required a CD to run, I had my husband hide the disc each morning before he left for work. He’d only give up the location once I made my daily word count. It worked a charm.
- Invite the shame. Okay, maybe not shame, but accountability for sure. I’m a big fan of Twitter for this. Even if you don’t have a regular writing partner, you can usually find a companion to cheer you on and hold you accountable there. When you tell Twitter you’re going to write, you’d better get your butt in the chair and write. I like the #1k1hr hashtag. Even if I rarely write that quickly, a thousand words in an hour is an achievable goal, and there’s a almost always a few writers there eager to sprint.
Rarely a day goes by when I don’t need to employ a cunning ruse to force myself into writing. Luckily, I have a lot of them up my sleeve. What’s your best self-motivation trick?
Oh, I’ll start to write. I’ll open the file, scroll down to where I left off. Usually, I’ll even manage to make some forward progress, but soon enough, I’ll find myself staring off into the middle distance, thinking about how much I need a new desk. Not just any desk. A designer-perfect, sit-stand desk.
And wouldn’t that make my writing better? Wouldn’t it make me more productive? I’d be such an awesome writer if I only had a sit-stand desk with memory settings, and a reclaimed-wood desktop, and maybe a treadmill so I could still get my 10,000 steps in without having to go outside for a walk.
Next thing you know, I’m online looking for a local reclaimed-wood furniture-maker who does custom work, and I’m pricing out ergonomic desk accessories, which is ridiculous, because I haven’t actually sold a book yet. I might never sell a book. I certainly won’t sell a book if I’m spending my writing time researching furniture. And I can’t afford to buy a spiffy new desk for my spiffy new career, if I don’t have a spiffy new career, because I never wrote anything, because I was too busy thinking about how my office should look.
And it’s not just furniture. I daydream about assembling a gorgeous wardrobe for writing conferences, and about how nice it would be to have a tiny house in the backyard just for writing, and about casually mentioning “my agent” in conversation (note: I don’t have an agent.) There are always so many wonderful things to think about besides the work I’m supposed to be doing.
I know better. I do. I (almost) always come back to the page, back to the characters I adore and the story I’m excited to tell. But, man oh man, I could tell it so much better with a gorgeous, adjustable desk, don’t you think?
Right now, I’m sitting in my unfinished basement because it’s 83° in my living room. I have my laptop on a folding table, facing a plain, black curtain that I put up to block the mess of half-full paint cans and plastic bins full of Christmas decorations. My thirteen-year-old son and his friend are playing on the Xbox above me, oblivious to the heat. They’re loud. Something exciting is happening. Something exciting is always happening.
I can’t help but think that if I were in my own little cottage, with a soft breeze and the trickle of a stream nearby, the words would flow more freely. If it were cooler or if we had air conditioning and I could be in my office upstairs, the writing would be easier. If I had noise-reducing headphones and a comfortable chair, I’d be infinitely more productive.
All of these things might be true (but probably aren’t.) As it stands, I don’t have a tiny writer cottage or a stream, the temperature is what it is, and I am where I am. I still have to write.
Several years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk on muses and geniuses. If you haven’t seen it, the whole thing is worth a watch, but there’s one bit that I’ve thought of often over the past five years since she originally spoke. It falls between the tenth and twelfth minutes, but the important part is this:
I’m not the pipeline! I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is that I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.
I think about this so much because I’m a mule too. No matter how much I want to be a pipeline for creative genius, no matter how much I want to be a winged, writing fairy, no matter how much I want to ooze brilliance out my very pores, writing is probably always going to be work for me. Fulfilling work. But still work.
Some days, being a mule is awesome. You get up, strap on your plow, and magic happens. Before you know it, the day is over and you’re looking back at a gorgeous, perfectly-tilled field. Some days, you hit a rock first thing and you spend your entire day pushing against rock after rock, until the day ends and you’ve barely inched forward at all.
Today’s a rock sort of day, but I’ll be back tomorrow. It will still be hot. I still won’t have a cottage, but maybe, just maybe it’ll be smooth plowing.
I have concocted ten plots, divided each of them into chapters, pounded away at ten manuscript files until they had at least 50,000 words each, and wrote the words “the end” as I came to the conclusion of ten story lines.
I have not finished ten novels. I haven’t even finished one.
Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I suppose it makes me sound like the type of person who starts projects and then abandons them willy-nilly. I’m not that type at all. I’m more the type of person who reads through to the bitter end of a novel she hates, just to say she did it. I’m the type who takes a dance class to get out of the house and, three years later, finds herself onstage in a $300 costume, with no clear idea how Step A led to Point Q. I’m the type who decides to put a few things up on Etsy and ends with a registered business and a sales tax license. This isn’t a result of relentless drive and an unsurpassed work ethic. I just forget to quit.
Unless something reminds me. The end of NaNoWriMo? That’s a convenient time to quit. Goal met. Achievement unlocked. Time to set the book aside and do something else. So that’s what I did. Nine times. I don’t regret it.
This novel, though? Number ten? I didn’t write it during NaNoWriMo. There was no bell at the end of the work day, nothing to tell me to stop, so I didn’t. I started revising. I don’t regret that, either
I was surprised to find I really like revision. I like how well I know my characters by the time I make my way back around to the beginning of their story. I like how clear the decisions are, how everything that was murky and difficult the first time through becomes clear and understandable on the second pass. I like how pretty the words look after I comb back through them, like a freshly raked zen garden.
And the ideas! While I was writing my first draft, I worried another book would never come to me, Now that I’ve turned off the drafting tap and switched to revising, the new ideas can barely be contained. As immersive as revising can be, it frees up the plotting part of my brain to explore other ideas. It’s exhilarating.
I’m sorry, nine books I didn’t bother revising. We weren’t ready to take the next step.
To number ten? Turns out, revising is awesome. Don’t tell the others.
There’s a lovely, little window that lives at the bottom right corner of my manuscript, called the “project targets.” This Scrivener feature calculates a daily word count target based on a deadline, goal, and weekly writing days that you set. Right now, my targets are set up to indicate the number of words I’ll need to add as I flesh out my second draft.
That obviously means I write to a daily minimum word count. What’s less obvious is that I also try not to go too far over. Here’s why:
- Pacing yourself keeps your momentum steady. When you blow past your word count one day, it makes it easy to justify slacking off the next. For me, one day often leads to two, two leads to three, and it’s all abandoned-hopes-and-dreams from there.
- Slowing down gives your subconscious time to sync all the elements of your story. Novels are like Indian cooking. In her book, Quick & Easy Indian Cooking, Madhur Jaffrey notes, “…avoiding dishes with too many spices? That would be like asking an Indian not to be an Indian! If you can put one spice into a pan, you can just as easily put in ten or even fifteen.” All those spices can take some time to meld, which is why Indian leftovers are so crazy-delicious. Novels are complex dishes that require hundreds of ingredients. Don’t be afraid to put the leftovers in the refrigerator overnight. They’ll taste great tomorrow.
- Keeping to the speed limit helps you see the road ahead. When you’re driving 100mph, bumps in the road appear too quickly for you to do anything about them. Some would argue that this is great for novelists, and I agree, there’s something to be said for embracing the unexpected. The danger is when the unexpected threatens to derail your entire process. A judicious application of the brakes allows you to make a choice, whether you want to head straight for the pothole or gently steer around it.
- Reasonable goals prevent burnout. Winning NaNoWriMo requires writing 1667 words a day for thirty days straight. I did that nine times. The result was nine novel files I closed on November 30 and never opened again. I know this isn’t true for everyone, and plenty of published novels have come out of fast drafts and marathon writing sessions. However, it’s important to know your own limits. Once you determine what works for you, sticking to it can be the difference between finishing a novel you’re still in love with and finishing a novel whose guts you hate.
- Reaching your daily goal means you can read. When you set a daily word count goal and don’t pressure yourself to blast past it, it means you have time to pick up a book at the end of the day. Enough said, right?
There’s a lot of emphasis on speed out there in the writing community right now. The “full speed ahead” method works great for some writers. I’m not one of them. If you aren’t either, remember there are plenty of good reasons to be a tortoise. Stay on target, even if your pace is a crawl.
I guess you could call it a rite of passage for a fledgling writer. There’s an author you admire. Maybe someone who’s been in the business a long time. Someone with deep roots in your genre. Someone who is universally both liked and respected. You get an opportunity to get your work in front of them, and you take it.
Not many things are scarier than hitting that “send” button.
I’ve always had a touch of impostor syndrome. I cringe when I notice others blithely committing grammatical sins, but I also wonder about my own blind spots. I may not type “loose” when I mean “lose,” but I did just stare unbelievingly at my spellchecker when it insisted that “imposter” was incorrect. Really? I never knew. What else don’t I know?
I don’t think of this constant questioning as lack of confidence, although maybe that’s part of it. I think of it more as retaining the ability to learn. I never want to be so sure of myself that I refuse to accept the knowledge others have to offer. Which is why I sent my first chapter off to someone who knows more than I do. Way more.
I have to tell you, it was terrifying… until the email came back. I held my breath as I opened the message. I might have been holding my breath since I sent the submission off.
If send is one of the scariest words in the world, this is one of the kindest: when.
Among other things, that’s what this well-known author said to me. “Send me a signed copy when it’s published,” she wrote. Not if. When.
For all I know, she says that to every writer who crosses her editing desk. I hope she does. I was already motivated to finish and polish my manuscript. I was already adhering to a regular writing schedule and making plans to pursue publication. I was already on the right path, but that when, coming when it came, boosted my determination to new levels. Now, I have to get to the end. I have to make this novel worthy. I have no other choice. When.
There’s still a long road ahead of me, but that’s okay. I know I’ll be able to travel it. It’s paved with when.
This past January, I opened a new Scrivener file and titled it “Penelope Wakefield, Book One.”
Blame it on the headiness of a new year, with its rosily glowing possibilities. Not only was I starting a new novel (my tenth novel), but it would be the first in a series and in a genre I’d never written in before. If at first you don’t succeed, think bigger and try again.
It’s six months later now and, no, this is not going the way you think it’s going to go. “Penelope Wakefield, Book One” hasn’t been consigned to the trash heap of abandoned resolutions. Right now, it looks like this:
Writing a book is a big project requiring, among other things, weeks of frozen dinners, copious amounts of coffee, hundreds of tweets, and dozens of Google searches for things like “ancient Viking jewelry” or “how avalanche beacons work.” It involves compulsive word-counting and wearing out the “s” key on your laptop (or maybe that’s just me.) And then there’s the meta-ness of it. Writing a book means spending a lot of time thinking about writing, which is basically nothing more than sitting in a chair and tapping at a keyboard. It’s so easy and yet, so much harder than you expect it to be.
Even writers who don’t particularly like talking about their work-in-progress (and I’m usually one of them) seem to like talking about the act of writing. Some days, it’s so difficult and so lonely, adding that first word to the manuscript, that it helps to make it into a production. So… you post a photo of your computer screen to Instagram. You use the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter. You blog about how you started your book six months ago and, god damn it, you’re still writing.
Guess what? I’m still writing.