As of this week I’ve written almost 58,698 words in my novel. Woo hoo, that’s a lot of words, right? Only 41,302 to go! (quiet weeping)
Yes, it’s true; I have a long road ahead. But I’ve made great strides from when I first started a year ago and I feel like I’m improving every day. Here are a few tricks and tips I’ve picked up from my daily grind at the keyboard.
Writing Begets More Writing
When I first started my novel I would spend long stretches of time just staring at a blank computer screen. I’d write a few sentences, decide they were terrible, delete them. Repeat. Perfectionism sounds great at a job interview but in reality, it’s a paralyzing trait.
It wasn’t until I adopted the free writing technique Peter Elbow (what a name!) describes in Writing with Power that I was able to break this cycle.
What’s free writing? A fancy name for writing crap. On purpose. Basically, it’s setting a timer for 10 minutes or more and writing without judgment or stopping until the timer dings. Stream of consciousness scribbling about your scene/topic. No worries about sentence structure, grammar, using the same words repeatedly, character development, etc. Just write.
The first time I tried, it was weird and sort of hard. But as I got the basics of what would happen in my scene down, new ideas emerged. Holes filled in and I didn’t feel so frantic about forgetting key details.
I could write vague things like, “The room was creepy” or “He was mad.” Instead of spending 30 minutes working out vivid show-don’t-tell phrasing. I didn’t have to stop to think about how to finish the sentence, “His fists clenched as his dark eyebrows…” Um. What did his eyebrows do? Slammed down? Furrowed? Drew together? Did I just mention his eyebrows four paragraphs ago? Maybe I should make him grind his teeth. Where’s my thesaurus? Hmmm…
It felt great to just push through and flesh out the scene without stopping. And when the timer buzzed? I had something to work from! I wasn’t staring at a blank screen anymore. I could take that crap writing and turn it into something better. Trim and expand, polish and texturize. The more I practiced writing badly; it freed me up to write betterly.
(Betterly? Yeah, you read that right. Made-up words are encouraged in free writing time!)
Stuck? Try Working on Scenes Out of Order
When I first began writing fiction I had the grand idea that constructing a story would be like unrolling a carpet. Start at the beginning, and then scenes and transitions would flow naturally until I reached the end. Right? Wrong.
There are times when I have no idea what will happen next in my story. I know the big events but can easily get stuck on transitions and minor scenes. This can be so demoralizing but I’ve learned to not get bogged down by it. The cure for me has been to skip ahead to work on something I’m more excited about writing.
So instead of rolling out a carpet it’s more like carving a statue from a chunk marble. Do I know what the completed statue is going to look like? No. But I know it will have a foot, so I’ll start carving that. Then if the shape of the ankle flummoxes me, I’ll move up to start on the elbow.
The same goes with scenes. Do I know how the vampire attack plays out in chapter 3? Nope. But do I know how the first kiss in chapter 10 unfolds? You’d better believe it, baby. So I’ll write the kissing scene and then work on linking up the vampire attack with other scenes later.
I may regret this system once I’m stuck with nothing but procrastinated scenes to write, but for now it’s kept me going when I’ve wanted to quit.
Beware the Research Time Suck
I’ve read a lot of authors state that research is their favorite part of writing a book. It can be a lot of fun and a good “working break” that’s making progress without actually writing. However, I have found if I’m not careful, a quick Google of the population of Rugby, TN can turn into a day of procrastination learning about dog goddesses or the Icelandic Huldufólk.
Time limits seem to help. Disciplining myself to limit my research for no more than an hour on any given day usually does the trick. I’ve also learned that I don’t have to earn a PhD on a topic to write convincingly. I just have to be one or two steps ahead of my reader’s knowledge.
No one reading this is an expert on physics or demonology, right? OK, good.
Trust Your Characters; They Know the Story Better Than You Do.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I used to cringe after hearing authors say things like, “And then my main character was doing things I never thought he would do! I didn’t want him to take up nude cross-stitching but he made it clear he needed to. So I wrote it.”
*GIANT EYE ROLL* Oh for heaven’s sake, it’s your own brain making the character do that, I would cry. Your character isn’t real! He’s not a magical angel whispering plot points in your ear. How ridiculous! How ostentatious! How stupid do you think people are to believe that happens?
Then it happened to me. Yes, I know it was my own brain. I don’t believe there’s book friends hovering over my shoulder whispering, “That’s not how it went down.” But there is something otherworldly about the feeling this phenomenon brings. Sort of like déjà vu or having a premonition –- it’s a certainty, not just a floaty idea, that the plan you had for your character isn’t going to work. It has to go in a different direction whether you like it or not.
It’s not always fun. There’s times when it happens and the implications can make hours or days of work obsolete. But there’s no way around it. A writer must obey.
Accept the 4-Hour Creative Limit
When I first started this crazy, wacky, kooky writing thing I felt a lot of guilt over not writing for a solid 8 hours each day. I had given up working in an office to make writing my job and yet, despite my best efforts, I could only manage about 4 hours of solid work each day before my brain shut down.
Like gloopy bowl of paste, after 4 hours my head felt sludgy, sticky, uninspired, and lacking in nutritional value. I tried pushing harder, reordering my day, taking more breaks, etc. and every so often I could do 5 or 6 hours. But I kept coming back to a 4-hour window for creative thought.
When I was complaining about this to my friend Karen, she recommended the podcast, Hurry Slowly. More specifically, episode 12, the interview with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. His study of the habits of creative people as such as Maya Angelou, Charles Darwin, and Salvador Dali found a very interesting commonality. While they all thought about their work constantly, they only spent about 4 hours a day in deep, focused labor.
Huh-wha? Yes! What a gratifying thing to hear. Four hours was a “physical limit,” people! I was in good company with bonus data to back up my pattern. The power of science freed me of guilt or worry! I could spend those other 4 hours of non-writing time doing things like reading, plotting, and sleeping. Hooray!
Schedule Time Away from Writing
Finding balance in my new lifestyle has been a challenge. At first I leaned a little too hard on the leisurely side. Then I overcorrected and went hard out on working.
I’m not a believer in the “write every day” dogma that a certain multi-millionaire horror author touts, but I do believe in spending time with your book each day. That can look like writing, outlining, studying books about writing, or even reading books in your novel’s genre (hello, Kresley Cole books).
But in taking my own advice, I wasn’t taking any time off. The days started to blur together and my brain became so very sick of thinking about the same thing. ALL THE TIME.
So I started taking the weekends off. Just like a regular job. And WHEW, what a difference it made. I didn’t feel that “I should be working” guilt and came back to my desk fresh on Monday. I also came back inspired because new ideas had been given space to percolate and brew during my down time.
Granted, some people — critical, mean people who don’t understand the dangers of burnout — might say this is the reason I’m not as far along as I want it to be. But those people can just shut up. I feel like the quality of the work I produce is much better with a little breathing room.
Also see Tip #5 and the book with a whopper of a title: Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.
I’m still learning about what works for me and trying to address my areas for improvement. I have a terrible internet scrolling habit, my perfectionism can be toxic, and progress toward actually finishing my novel has not been in line with my goals.
But I tell myself that becoming a better writer is a lifelong pursuit. And if I never publish anything, at least I gave it a shot and learned a lot along the way.