It’s great when successful authors take time to write blog posts and articles about how to get your novel written and share their success. But I read those writers and feel even more discouraged because their advice doesn’t seem to fit with my life as a not-yet-published author who has to find time to write, justify finding that time, balance writing with family and the need to earn a living, care for elderly family members, walk the dog… so many things.
Last year I finished my first novel, had some really helpful feedback from an agent I respect and started to dismantle and re-write it. The main problem with it, that she pointed out, was something I’d suspected and tried to ignore, concentrating on the fact that the writing was pretty good even if there was this structural problem that let the whole book down. So I tweaked the bits that needed fixing, dismantled the existing text to see if there was anything to be saved (disappointingly little to be honest) and got cracking. I was given a huge confidence boost by Pitch Perfect at Bloody Scotland and Novel 2.0 is now well underway to the extent that I feel pretty confident of having a whole first draft finished in the next couple of months or so. Once I’m happy that the plot is strong enough and so on, then I’ll concentrate on polishing the text until it gleams.
So, from the point of view of a writer who’s been in the book trade for over a decade and who is shoulder-to-shoulder with you in the literary trenches, here are my tips on how you can make 2016 the year you finally get your novel written. Let’s hope that by the end of the year we all have something to celebrate.
● Get out of your own way. Hardly anyone genuinely doesn’t have the time to write; they just prioritise other things be that their social life, watching TV, wittering away on Facebook, stamp collecting or whatever. If you truly want to write, then write. We all have other responsibilities that take precedence but make your writing the next priority on the list. And the more you put it off and don’t find the time then the more likely it is that you’ll spend January 2017 reading posts like this.
● Break it down. A novel is 100k words (for ease of maths) and there are 52 weeks in a year. If you just want to have a first draft done by next Christmas, then you need to average 2,000 words per week. That won’t be a finished novel; it will be a first draft that still needs a lot of polishing and rewriting, but it will be a finished draft to work on. If you spend a bit of time each week thinking and plotting you can write 2k words in an evening, or a couple of evenings if you write more slowly. Cancel your Netflix sub, stop watching box sets and start writing.
● Try to write something everyday, even if it isn’t related to the novel you’re actually working on. A journal at bedtime is fine – it’s all about building the writing habit.
● Don’t imagine that your first draft will be perfect. At this stage getting it done is more important than making your prose elegant and polished. That’s what your next draft is for and besides, it’s more important to get into the flow and writing freely. For now, concentrate on getting it written and making sure that the structure works.
● Don’t get hung up on rituals. Yes, you feel happiest writing in your special place, with a cup of tea in your special mug, with your favourite candle burning and your favourite piece of classical music playing. But if you wait for all those things to fall into alignment you’ll never get started, never mind finished. If you’re trying to fit writing in around a job or looking after your kids or studying then you’re going to have to get used to writing when you can. An about-to-be-published friend of mine wrote much of her novel on her phone on breaks between shifts as a junior doctor. Get over yourself.
● Beware of procrastination. That’s what half of those ‘special things’ are – just putting off the moment when you actually have to sit down with that blank screen or page and write. You need to control procrastination if you want to be productive. I can faff around for ages answering emails, catching up on Facebook, seeing what’s happening on Twitter (because social media is important for writers isn’t it?) and writing blog posts like – um – this one, endlessly putting off the moment when I actually start writing. Download an internet blocker such as Freedom – you can try it for free. Second best writing investment I’ve ever made.
● Try new tricks to keep on top of your writing. The best 40 bucks I’ve ever invested in my writing career is Scrivener. You can even try it for thirty (not necessarily consecutive) days for free. I’m writing crime fiction and have a complex plot plus masses of research to wrangle and Scrivener keeps everything neatly in a virtual binder so that when I sit down to write everything is to hand and I don’t have to disappear into the time-swallowing internet to check something or ferret around in a thousand folders for the exact file I need. If you’re writing more free-form literary fiction it might not be the software for you but if your work is even a little bit more commercial then it’s an excellent tool. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll write another post about how I use it. You might also find this helpful little ebook called Storyteller Tools by M Harold Page useful for getting to grips with planning.
● Plan. Or not. If you need to use your writing time efficiently then know what you’re going to write. Some people plan, others work it out as they go along. I’m somewhere in the middle – I have a fairly lengthy (about 6k words) outline which changes as I go along, and I plan in detail a chunk at a time. Every time I sit down to write I know where I’m up to and where I’m going next. It’s worth trying because when you do have time to write you’ll spend more time writing and less time staring into space.
● Get to know your characters’ stories. Even when you’re not actually writing, spend some time thinking about your characters. The better you know them, the easier it is to snap back into their world when you sit down to write. I use a customised version of Scrivener’s character sketches to work all these details out.
● Write when you’re not actually writing. I’m probably not unique in that I have some great idea for scenes when I’m walking or lying in the bath but don’t actually have a pen and paper to hand. A voice recorder of some sort is really handy for those moments. And it looks as though you’re talking on your phone which is always preferable to looking as though you’re talking to yourself.
● Be professional. Some people want to write for the sheer joy of exploring their creativity and they can do what the heck they like to find their writing routine, special snowflake candles and all, if they even want a routine. But if you want to sell your work and make any sort of living from it then you need to be professional. Work out a schedule and stick to it. Half the battle is simply showing up.
● Enjoy yourself. Writing is fun and when it’s going well it’s energising and joyous. Don’t see it as a chore; look forward to your writing time and make the most of it.
What steps are you taking to make sure that you finally get your novel written this year?
(PS – if you’re a writer and you’re thinking that you should blog but all that talk of SEO and monetisation is a bit off-putting, then you might want to pop along to this series of posts I’m writing aimed at taking the terror away…)