The 1st of April will mark a year that I’ve been working on the same novel. And I am astounded.
Seriously, I’m not the kind of person who sticks to routines. I’m the girl who has five separate routes to work so that I don’t get bored of one, who can knit and draw and crochet and embroider because choosing one craft and getting good at it goes against my grain. I don’t finish projects, or computer games, or even TV series.
So how on Earth have I managed to stick with this novel for this long?
Well, I’ve given it some thought and I’ve put those thoughts into writing here in hopes that they can help others who, like me, tend to get passionately involved in new things only to abandon them a few weeks later with nothing to show for their hard work.
Write every day (or so)
Lots of famous writers, from Rowling to King, preach that sitting down and writing every day is the key to great success.
Neil Gaiman famously said,
When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: ‘House burned down. Car stolen. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.
The idea is that if you can just get a few words out every single day, they will turn into a novel and you will develop a routine and it will eventually get easier.
This is all 100% true.
It’s also an unrealistic expectation for many people. Some days your family needs you more. Some days you’re too tired. Some days you just don’t feel like it.
And when you have one of those days, you’re so overcome with guilt that you feel like you’ve messed up this routine thing and what’s the point?
So the rule that works for me is that I’m allowed a day off, or even two, as long as it’s never three. Skipping three days means my mind is wandering. It means I’m getting swept up in other things, and swept away from the project.
Testing the rule
When I finished my first draft at the end of November, I switched to editing, but I kept the rule in place. Then I decided to take February off. I was rearing to go with writing in some new sections on 1 March… only to find writing just wasn’t working out the way it had before my break.
My lesson: writing all the time is very important if you want to stick with a project and not have it feel like you’re slogging through molasses every time you open it up. But writing every day is a huge commitment, so it doesn’t have to be every single day as long as there isn’t a huge gap between days.
I don’t think I would have been able to force myself to write (almost) every day for this long if it wasn’t for my Facebook writing group.
Firstly, we have a spreadsheet where we challenge ourselves to a certain number of words a month and fill in our words daily. Everyone can see the number of words you’ve done and if you don’t write for a number of days, or don’t reach your target, they know.
Truthfully, no one is going to laugh at me or judge me if I don’t keep up (I hope!) but somehow, subconsciously, it helps to know they’re watching.
Secondly, being part of a group of people doing the same thing makes you want to keep on doing it so that you can keep contributing to the conversation and excitement.
Thirdly, people following your journey start to care about it and you can check up on each other. When one of my writer friends messages me asking how it’s going, the last thing I want to tell them is that I’ve given up.
My lesson: Never underestimate the power of social influence. Make it more humiliating to stop than it is difficult to keep on going.
Discover when works for you
Filling in the group word count sheet also gave me something else: data. I was able to look at the rhythm of my writing and I was surprised by the results.
17.5% of my book was written on a Tuesday! Making Tuesday my second most productive day after Sunday. Why? How?
I would never have guessed that I got more writing done on a Tuesday than a Saturday and I never would have known that Thursdays are practically always useless for me.
Another thing I never, ever would have guessed is that I can write in the mornings. I’m a night owl by nature so my top writing time is always 10 pm onward, but at my current job I only have to leave for work at 08:50 am, so that gives me an hour of writing in the morning. And that writing is usually a lot cleaner than the writing I do at night after a long day (even if it is more difficult to get the words on the page).
My lesson: try writing at lots of different times and make a note of what works for you. Everyone is different and your own brain might surprise you.
It’s okay to fumble
Not all writing days are good ones. Or weeks even. There was a period – you can even see it there on the chart, August last year, – when I kept writing and rewriting the same few scenes for four weeks. So my over all word count wasn’t going up, so the social accountability wasn’t working (I felt humiliated anyway!) and the “sitting down and writing (almost) every day” rule was in serious danger of breaking for good.
What I discovered during those dark, dark weeks was that writing is sometimes the glorious scribbling down of hallucinations that flash before my eyes faster than I can catch them… and sometimes its fumbling around in the dark for a candle to light up the next one. I will almost always know what the next one is. It’s that scene I envisaged right back when I plotted this thing. But getting there… getting there can sometimes feel impossible. The plot ahead twists and changes, the characters feel wooden when you want them to do as they’re told, you’ve written yourself into a corner where no solution seems realistic or even exciting.
Sometimes, you just have to do what you’d do if you were stuck in the dark – feel your way ahead. Write the next bit. If it doesn’t fit, rewrite it. Then write the next bit. If that doesn’t fit, rewrite it. Hit a dead end? Backtrack and rewrite it.
Fumbling around like this doesn’t mean that your book is rubbish, or that you’re a useless writer. It means you’re finding the path. Sometimes, it’s the only way to find the path.
I think I always expected this to not happen if I plotted enough before I started writing. I’m sure it does happen more if you’re a pantser, but I’ve also discovered, at least in my experience, that some things you can’t know until you’re really there, no matter how much planning I’ve done in the lead up.
My lesson: a story is like a dungeon that you’re guiding the reader through. It’s up to you to cut the best path and that means that sometimes you end up stumbling around blindly for days. And that’s okay.
Clichés are okay
Wait! Before you jump down to the comments to tell me I’m wrong, let me explain.
I’ll let you in on a secret: the fastest way to take the wind out of my sails when it comes to a writing project is telling me it’s clichéd. If writing a novel is a battle, that’s my Achilles heal. Why? Because calling something a cliché is declaring it void of creativity. And if writing is not creative, is it even worth it?
There are two breeds of cliché. The first is what I call the micro level cliché. Becoming too aware of that can cause paralysis on a line-by-line level. For example: should I have used “wind out of my sails” up there or is that over used? Are people bored of the term Achilles heal? The second is the macro level cliché. A clichéd plot, cliché characters. Becoming too aware of those can cause you to toss out an entire manuscript.
When you’re writing a first draft, stumbling around in the dark looking for that mythical next plot point, the very last thing you need is to encounter the Cliché Hunter. If he’s out hunting micro clichés, you might get caught in one of his snares and that will slow your journey forward immensely. Which is super frustrating when you’re not even sure you’re on the right path and might end up rewriting this bit anyway. The real danger is if he’s out hunting macro clichés. That’s when he puts his cross bow to your neck and demands to know “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”. And when you can’t answer he might even kill you. Well, kill your novel.
So take away his hunting permit until you’ve got that first draft down. And give it back to him when you’re in editing mode, the way ahead is all lit up and pretty, and you have time to spar.
But this section isn’t called “clichés are okay in a first draft”. So now I’m going to get on to the really controversial stuff.
Sometimes clichés are just okay.
If you go back in time, all stories were pure cliché. One of the earliest forms of theatre, the Commedia dell’arte, had the same specific cast of characters for its plays (called “types). Many of Shakespeare’s plays are retellings of old stories that had been told before.
Carl Jung, the psychologist, gave these repetitions of the same stories with the same characters a name and it wasn’t “cliché”. It was “archetype”. There are things that hold the same significance for all humans. Figures like the wise old man or the shadow or the hero. We can keep telling stories about these people or events because they resonate with a very old part of what makes us human.
Some people say that the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are essentially the same story. Of course, they aren’t. But they include the same archetypes. Archetypes that one expects to find often in their particular genre.
Which brings me to the last point on this subject: genre conventions. How many romances have a rich, handsome man as the love interest? How many thrillers have a psychopath tracking down the detective who’s investigating him? If you like a genre you often like and even expect the conventions. The story isn’t 100% original, it’s the way it’s told that captures you or the mix of interesting characters.
With this particular novel I started out with a dream. No, literally, I had a dream. It was about a zombie apocalypse and a ship and a spy. It made me feel something. Something that I’ve been holding on to for over two years now and trying to capture on paper. But there was nothing particularly original about that idea. So, early on, when I first started playing with this idea, long before I sat down to write it, I made peace with the fact that there would be some clichés.
And you know what? A lot of them disappeared as I really got to know my characters. A lot of them fell away automatically from the plot as I started questioning cause and effect within my own universe. I’ve set the Cliché Hunter on the trail of a bunch of them, particularly the micro kind. I probably won’t find all of them. The ones that bother the beta readers will end up at the business end of Hunter’s crossbow and the rest… the rest are okay.
My lesson: Don’t be so terrified of going where others have gone before that you don’t go at all.
All you need is love
Talking of clichés… here’s one. In the end, love is all you need.
What I mean is, you need to isolate one thing that you love about your novel, that gets you excited about it. It’s very likely the first thing that made you want to write it down. It might be a key scene, it might be a character, it might be a relationship… whatever it is, make a note of it. Hell, make a Pinterst Board of it. Because that’s the thing that’s going to get you through those dark tunnels. And whatever you do – do not let the Cliché Hunter get hold of it.
I won’t tell you what mine is because hopefully you’ll read it for yourself one day, but I know that if it weren’t for that one good part that I love, I definitely wouldn’t still be going a year later.
My lesson: anticipate there will be times when you’ll lose faith in your story and keep that One Thing on standby to make you fall in love again.