Hello! I'm Charlie. I help writers by providing time and space away from the real world, and online tools to beat procrastination.
Be warned. If we meet in person, I'll probably try to feed you cake.
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Today’s guest post comes from Siân Rowland, who is Rocking in the Freelance World as a writer and education consultant (see how I’m putting the writer bit first, Siân?). Last year she…. no, wait, I’m just going to let her tell this story.
But I’d like to point out though that Siân is very modest about her achievements and though there were undoubtedly some lows in her year, I can count at least 3 things in here that would have me throwing cartwheels all the way round the garden and bathing in prosecco.
It was a snow day in 2010 and the local government office where I worked was shut. I was working from home at my computer dressed in warm, comfortable clothes, a cup of tea by my elbow and the radio on. Without the commute and the interruption of phonecalls, office gossip and school visits I managed to complete loads of admin and planning and had time to polish up a short story to submit to a competition. As I gazed at the snowy world outside (don’t worry, it’s all going to hit the fan any moment…) I mused on a perfect world where I would go to work on four days of the week and on the fifth day, like some literary deity, I’d be at home and Write Important Stuff. I wondered what my employer would say (in 3,2…)
I never found out because not long afterwards (…and 1) I was told that funding for my role had been cut. Compulsory redundancy…sorry…hand in your passcard and here’s your P45. Please don’t weep all over the furniture on your way out.
Be careful what you wish for as they say. I now had plenty of time to write but no job and no money coming in. At least not until the world discovered me and I was hailed as the new JK Rowling meets Hilary Mantell with a book advance to match. This has not happened. Yet.
I now have my own education consultancy business, run training for teachers and write and develop educational materials as a freelancer. It’s tough work and I’m always hustling for the next job and worrying about how to pay the bills but in between times (I think actors call it ‘resting’) I do now have time to write.
Like many putative writers, however, I’m a terrible procrastinator. I’m constantly pootling around Facebook and Twitter, checking out videos of cats doing oh-so-hilarious things, checking to see if the freezer has miraculously and magically filled itself with ice cream since I last looked five minutes ago or putting together a Spotify playlists. Hell, I’ll even clean the loo if it means I don’t have to knuckle down.
So when I came across Charlie’s 2013 Writing Year Planner (here’s the 2014 planner! It’s slightly shorter than the 2013 version) at the beginning of last year I stopped Gangnam Styling across the kitchen floor, sat at my laptop and printed it out. There’s something homework-y about a planner that really appeals to the teacher in me. The first task was reviewing the previous year: I had found a writing group I liked but hadn’t gone to many meetings. I had started a new blog but hadn’t written many posts. I had taken up an interim deputy headship in a large urban school which took up all my time and had recently been diagnosed with an auto-immune condition which left me tired and anxious. Could do better. See me after class.
I wrote down five big targets for 2013: finish writing and editing my young fiction book; send the book to five agents; go to my writers group regularly and at least two more writing events; broaden my circle of friends and colleagues to include more writers and creative people and spend 30% (I know. Get me!) of my work time on paid writing assignments. I broke these down into manageable chucks and in summarising wrote, ‘I will call myself a writer as writing will be part of how I make my living and how I see myself.’ This was a huge breakthrough. When I met new people and the, ‘so what do you do?’ question arose I answered with, ‘I’m an education consultant and trainer. And writer.’
Luckily most people get fixated on the first bit and wonder what the hell an education consultant is (for the record I train, advise and support teachers) so it soon felt natural to say, ‘I’m a writer too.’
And so on to the monthly planner and its theme. Commitment. It was the one topic that connected all my plans. I wrote it large and proud at the top of the sheet. I have to confess that I did it in pencil, just in case. But I pressed really hard.
It was important for me to hang out with more creative types to help me feel less of an oddball. Most of my friends are teachers and while it’s a very creative profession- you are actor, artist, author, comedian, juggler, plate-spinner and expert flying missile wrangler- our discussions tend to drift towards what we’ll do if we ever bump into Mr Gove in a dark alleyway where the CCTV is marked ‘out of order.’ While these discussions are cathartic and necessary I needed to mix with a wider circle of folk too. I wrote down tasks like, ‘have coffee with someone connected with writing’ and ‘attend an author event.’ By making this a focus I ended up meeting some amazing people. I went to a book launch, I was on the writer’s guest list of a radio recording, I hung out backstage at a West End show and wrote and performed a rap with a live band. Oh yes. It wasn’t always easy, I wasn’t always comfortable but I learnt such a lot and had fun too. I promised to blog twice a month and although I didn’t quite make it, I did blog more and committed to posting more often. I did make 30% of my earnings through writing assignments by writing educational materials for The Co-operative and John Lewis Partnership and although it’s not quite the creative writing dream it’s still practising the craft. I even got asked to write materials to go with the John Lewis Bear and Hare Christmas advert and saw the ad in their head office weeks before it went public.
I sent my book out to six agents in the end. I had rejections from three of them and heard nothing from the other three. One rejection was particularly brutal and I’m still a feeling a bit bruised by it, but I’m developing resilience and didn’t cry or check the freezer for magic consolation ice-cream.
And I had a bit of success. The confidence I gained in making the commitment to writing and in using the writing planner led me to attempting to write a comedy show. I wrote a short comic piece for my writing group and they liked it so on a whim I entered the Funny Women comedy writing awards in the summer. To cut a very long story short, I wrote a thirty minute sitcom pilot and it was longlisted. While I hadn’t won I had lots of positive feedback from the judges, was put on their ‘ones to watch’ list and can now say I was in the top twenty in a national competition. I sent the piece to a local theatre group who decided to put it on as a stage play with a professional cast and crew at Wimbledon Theatre Studios where it sold out. Seeing the characters that were so recently in my head brought to life on stage was an amazing and surreal experience and I got to hang out with a bunch of fascinating acting types. A friend reminded me that up until recently I had refused to share my writing at all and now here it was on a public stage.
I changed December’s task from ‘plan a new book’ to ‘plan a new play’ and wrote a half hour radio comedy instead.
So I stuck to some targets and went a little off track with others but looking back, I’ve made loads of progress and 2013 was definitely a year of commitment. Now I have to fill in my 2014 planner. But just in case, I’ll do it in pencil. You never know how things will turn out.
Here’s a little silly little online advent calendar to make you smile while you’re
What will you find behind the doors? Think festive games, inspirational quotes, useful links and free resources for writers, videos you’ll love and cute animals (because sometimes you just need to see something cute).
Check back every day from 1st – 24th December for a little writerly treat.
Do you frolic, freely but aimlessly, in the flowered meadows of your imagination? Or are you sobbing into your pillows after yet again failing to find the Muse in the dark caverns of your soul?
Find out what type of writer you are with this highly scientific* quiz.
*totally and utterly made-up. No scientists were harmed in the making of this quiz.
How do you approach planning?
A) Planning? What’s that?
B) Well, I do a lot of thinking and dreaming, and I kind of know what’s going to happen. In fact I’m sure I wrote some notes somewhere *rummages under chair*
C) Colour-coded story arcs, chapters mapped out, character sheets completed before a word goes on the page, check!
When do you tend to write?
A) Whenever inspiration strikes, often late into the night
B) When I can face sitting down and doing it, much less often than I’d like to
C) At consistent times of the day with reasonable regularity
What’s your writing style?
A) Lots of dialogue and action
B) Plenty of description – this is literature, I want people to feel it, to see it!
C) A bit of a mix
What’s your biggest problem with writing?
A) I run out of steam part way through the story
B) I’m constantly struggling with feelings of inadequacy and continually edit or re-start what I’ve written
C) Actually starting to write
How do you feel about other people?:
A) I’m pretty sociable
B) *hides in corner*
C) I like them a lot but I couldn’t eat a whole one
Scroll down to see your results and take part in the poll
So, which writer are you?
Mostly As: The Skinny Dipper
Otherwise known as the Pantser (as in, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants), you like to dive right in and see where you end up, drawing on inspiration whenever it strikes.
A charismatic, funny writer who engages readers’ emotions, you can be prolific and are full of ideas. You’re relatively okay with imperfection and know you can write if you try, so are less likely to get bogged down in the Pit of Procrastinatory Despair.
However, you’re disorganised and inconsistent. This means you’re prone to burnout during productive phases and don’t finish projects because your stories come to a halt when you run out of plot ideas or write yourself into corners. You may also avoid editing (booooooooring!) and need a constant stream of praise to keep going.
How to Skinny Dip with style:
Harness your strengths and borrow techniques from other styles that will help you be consistent and actually finish things.
Having a very rough plan will take the pressure off when you can’t work out what should happen next and prevent you from running out of plot. Keep it very simple (a post-it with 3 disasters and a happy ending, plus a list of all those random characters) so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming, and don’t worry if you rebel and deviate from the plan. After all, you can always make another.
Or, continue as normal, but have some games you can play to get things moving again when you stalled. Spend 5 minutes brainstorming ‘what if’ questions, work out what would be the best, worst and most unexpected thing to happen at this point, or read back and try to solve your plot problem using an existing object or character.
Or reverse it: write the last sentence first and work backwards. If you still struggle, have you considered short stories or non-linear narrative structures? You don’t have to play by other people’s rules to write.
Train yourself to write consistently, even if you don’t feel like it. Make it into a game that you’ll want to play and getting the positive encouragement you need by using 750words or setting a task to write for 5 minutes a day, every day. Get someone to reward you for every achievement (gold stars!) or join an online group where you can cheer each other on.
Mostly Bs: The Tortured Soul
Tortured souls are idealists and dreamers, pure souls who can dedicate themselves for years to the pursuit of their highest calling. Your writing is probably much better than you imagine it to be, and you may be of the literary persuasion or be a naturally good editor. You write with passion and your characters are likely to be rich, finely painted and intricate.
You’re not having much fun at the moment though. Crippled by perfectionism and self-doubt, you might not be able to see past the next comma let alone how to reach that idealised Book of Total Amazingness in your head, so you get frustrated and stuck.
You live in the Pit of Procrastinatory Despair because there’s no way you can live up to your own standards.
How to ease the torture
You’re stifled by thinking you have to write magical words that will make people ooh and ah all the time. That isn’t realistic. It takes a lot of bad words to reach the good ones, and you can choose to struggle horribly with writing your whole life, or you can choose to take one little step at a time towards dealing with that perfectionism and changing your mindset.
LET GO. Give yourself permission to be Gloriously Craptastic. Challenge yourself to write for 5 minutes as badly as possible. Have fun, and do this whenever perfectionism gives you that threatening stare.
The Book of Total Amazingness is an overwhelming prospect, so make a plan and break it up into very small steps (do this in batches as you go for flexibility). If you already know which step you have to write today, you can just get on with it getting hung up on the bigger picture. Just focus on doing your job for that day, and do the same again the next day.
Try to write every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. When you write, set a timer, drown out your inner voices with music, and write like the wind, setting a challenging word-count target so the inner editor can’t keep up. You don’t need it for a first draft.
Did you hear that? DO NOT EDIT before you need to. In fact, try not to read back at all during drafting. Onwards and upwards!
That voice in your head telling you how awful things are? It isn’t the objective truth, it’s just a mean voice. It doesn’t matter if an actor is feeling uninspired or unsure of their ability. Their job is to get up and perform. No excuses. Your job is to do the writing. No excuses. Act like a professional and do the job regardless of how you feel.
Bribe yourself, cheat yourself, join a writing group, take an NLP course, read other people’s rubbish first drafts, try meditation, find a writing partner… basically do anything you have to in order to keep writing.
Mostly Cs: Yes, Sarge!
You like deadlines, have a strong work ethic, are dependable with an eye for detail and have good organisational skills. Plans made and to-do lists written, Sir! You’re not easily ruffled by the chatter in your head and your determination means that you are more likely than other types to actually finish, edit and submit a book for publication.
However, you may have slight control-freak tendencies and be in danger of valuing productivity and deadlines more than minor details like, oh, creativity. Make sure that you aren’t so busy writing to schedules and plans that you fail to explore your world and create flat characters or writing that lacks emotional connection. You may also enjoy the planning stage so much that starting to write is a struggle, and you could be in danger of overwhelm because of the mountainous to-do list you’ve doubtlessly already made.
At ease, soldier
Make the most of your discipline by setting a regular timeslot for writing. You’re motivated by praise for a job well done, so bribe yourself with gold stars, happy faces or bars of chocolate when you reach milestones.
Then take a deep breath. Relaaaaaaaax, and learn to go with the creative flow from the Skinny Dipper. Instead of doing everything in a linear way, ask yourself which scene you want to write at this very moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s the next one in the sequence or one that isn’t even in the plan, let yourself write it just to see how it feels.
Free-write (anything that comes to mind without stopping) for 20 minutes from the perspective of your characters. Put them in situations, ask them about their childhoods, make them write letters. Repeat this until they really feel alive and distinct to you, and see if they behave in the way you’ve told them to. If writing is becoming a struggle, ask yourself whether your plan is still right, and write about it. Let yourself change the plan if it’s wrong.
Free-write on anything: ideas, objects, song lyrics, any random thing can loosen your creative muscles. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, what matters is that you don’t stop writing, even if all you do is complain about your day. If you find it hard to sit down and start writing every time, use free-writing as an easy way in. Once you’ve started, it will feel easier to settle into the real work.
You know that reading is writing-work too, yes? As is taking a shower, going for a long walk, or doodling. Stop feeling guilty, you don’t have to push all the time.
Writer Type Poll
Which one are you? Or are you a mixture? Remember, this is a wildly unscientific poll, and it’s normal to for your writing habits to oscillate anyway. Just take from it anything that’s helpful to you. Do your biggest writing problems fit your style, and if not what gets in your way? Let me know in the comments below.
Joanna Penn is the author of ‘Career Change’ and the #1 bestseller ‘How To Market A Book’. She also writes the bestselling ARKANE thrillers under J.F.Penn and currently has 7 books on the market in various formats.
Her site for writers www.TheCreativePenn.com has been voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for writers 3 years running and offers articles, audio and video on writing, publishing and book marketing. You can connect with Joanna on Twitter @thecreativepenn.
Here she shares some advice about the editing process. Take it away, Jo…
Many new writers are confused about what happens after you have managed to get the first draft out of your head and onto the page.
I joined NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year and ended up with 27,774 words on a crime novel, the first in a new series. It’s not an entire first draft but it’s a step in the right direction and the plotting time was sorely needed.
Maybe you ‘won’ NaNo or maybe you have the first draft of another book in your drawer, but we all need to take the next step in the process in order to end up with a finished product.
Here’s my process, and I believe it’s relevant whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.
(1) Rewriting and redrafting. Repeat until satisfied.
For many writers, the first draft is just the bare bones of the finished work and often no one will ever see that version of the manuscript. Remember the wise words of Anne Lamott in ‘Bird by Bird’ “Write shitty first drafts.” You can’t edit a blank page but once those words are down, you can improve on them.
I love the rewriting and redrafting process. Once I have a first draft I print the whole thing out and do the first pass with handwritten notes. I write all kinds of notes in the margins and scribble and cross things out. I note down new scenes that need writing, continuity issues, problems with characters and much more. That first pass usually takes a while. Then I go back and start a major rewrite based on those notes.
After that’s done, I will print again and repeat the process, but that usually results in fewer changes. Then I edit on the Kindle for word choice. I add all the changes back into Scrivener which is my #1 writing and publishing tool.
(2) Structural edit/ Editorial review
I absolutely recommend a structural edit if this is your first book, or the first book in a series. A structural edit is usually given to you as a separate document, broken down into sections based on what is being evaluated.
I had a structural edit for Pentecost in 2010 and reported back on that experience here. As the other ARKANE novels follow a similar formula, I didn’t get structural edits for Prophecy and Exodus. However, I will be getting one for the new crime novel when it is ready because it is a different type of book for me.
Here’s how to vet an independent editor if you are considering one.
When you get a structural edit back, there are usually lots of revisions to do, possibly even a complete rewrite. This may take a while …
(4) Beta readers
Beta readers are a trusted group of people who evaluate your book from a reader’s perspective. You should only give them the book if you are happy with it yourself because otherwise it is disrespectful of their time.
This could be a critique group, although I prefer a hand-picked group of 5 or 6 who bring different perspectives. I definitely have a couple of people who love the genre I am writing in as they will spot issues within the boundaries of what is expected, and then some people who consider other things.
My main rule with beta readers is to make changes if more than one person says the same thing. Click here for more on beta readers.
(5) Line edits
The result of line editing is the classic manuscript covered in red ink as an editor slashes your work to pieces!
You can get one of these edits before or after the beta readers, or even at the same time. I prefer afterwards as I make broader changes of the book based on their opinions so I want the line editor to get the almost final version.
Line edits are more about word choice, grammar and sentence structure. There may also be comments about the narrative itself but this is a more a comment on the reading experience by someone who is skilled at being critical around words.
The first time you get such a line edit, it hurts. You think you’re a writer and then someone changes practically every sentence. Ouch.
But editing makes your book stronger, and the reader will thank you for it.
You’ll need to make more changes based on the feedback of the beta readers and line editor. This can sometimes feel like a complete rewrite and takes a lot of detailed time as you have to check every sentence.
I usually make around 75% of the changes suggested by the line editor, as they are usually sensible, even though I am resistant at first. It is important to remember that you don’t have to change what they ask for though, so evaluate each suggestion but with a critical eye.
By this point, you cannot even see any mistakes you might have made. Inevitably, your corrections for line editing have exposed more issues, albeit minor ones.
So before I publish now, I get a final read-through from a proof-reader. (Thanks Liz at LibroEditing!) After Prophecy was published, I even got an email from a reader saying congratulations because they had failed to find a single typo. Some readers really do care, for which I am grateful and that extra investment at the end can definitely pay off in terms of polishing the final product.
Once I have corrected anything minor the proof-reading has brought to light, I will Compile the various file formats on Scrivener for the ebook publishing platforms. I will then back the files up a number of times, as I have done throughout the whole process.
This may be anathema to some, but the beauty of ebook publishing is that you can update your files later. If someone finds a typo, no problem. If you want to update the back matter with your author website and mailing list details, no worries. If you want to rewrite the whole book, you can do that too (although some sites have stricter rules than Amazon around what is considered a new version.)
Budget: Time and money
Every writer is different, and there are no rules.
But in terms of time, your revision process will likely take at least as long as the first draft and probably longer (unless you’re Lee Child who just writes one draft!). For my latest book, Exodus, the first draft took about 3 months and the rewriting process took about 6 months.
In terms of money, I would budget between $500 – $2000 depending on what level of editing you’re looking for, and how many rounds. You can find some editors I have interviewed as well as their prices here.
I believe editing at all these different stages is important, because it is our responsibility to make sure our books are the best they can be. But if you can’t afford professional editing, then consider using a critique group locally or online. The more eyes on the book before it goes out into the world, the better.
This article was reprinted with permissions from The Creative Penn.
At the start of this month I suggested setting yourself a writing challenge to complete by the end of 2013.
My challenge is to complete a novel draft and the first major structural review, meaning that if I want to let it settle for a month I need to finish the first draft by the end of October. Eek!
How are you doing with yours? It’s not too late to join in if you didn’t before, and it’s just a casual, free thing.
I also suggested coming up with 3 things that would help you reach that target. Now, honestly, this is the kind of thing that I often go ‘Ugh’ at and skip over; we all skip over the bits where we actually have to do exercises and think about things properly, right?
But blithely saying you’re going to do something without thinking about how to do it is, well, a bit pointless. If you decided to climb the Three Peaks by the end of the year but failed to choose a date, book your train, buy gear and do any training then it’s
not. gonna. happen.
So. 10 things I’m trying or have set into place to increase my chances of success are:
1. Give yourself time. For some people this means time when the family knows not to interrupt; for me it means I’m not allowed to feel guilty for writing rather than doing other work at set times. It takes time to write a book, much more than you think.
2. Plan. Doesn’t apply if you’re a Pantser, but my mind goes blank under pressure so my plot plan details every major piece of action that needs to happen.
3. Write on paper first. It feels different and means you don’t have to wait until you’re near a computer to write.
4. Prepare for procrastination. Turn wifi off on laptop the night before, bribe yourself with chocolate, use the Pomodoro technique. Whatever you need, but set it up ahead of time.
5. Set daily targets. For some people aiming for an amount of time works better, but I need a word count/time combo to push past the inner critic. Quantity over quality at this stage for me, I’m afraid.
5. Writing retreats! Of course. I’d love for you to join me on a one-day or residential retreat. If you can’t get to one though, get writing friends together or set a day aside to spend alone writing and ask someone to check up on you at the end of it.
6. Hypnosis. Yes, really. I’ve identified my biggest block (self-belief) and will see if listening to a hypnosis recording for a week helps. Let’s see what happens…
7. Start on the right foot. You have to actually want to make your end-of-year target and want to do it because it’s hard work. So I’ve read back over what I’ve done so far and through old notebooks to remember why I write.
8. Be part of something. Join a writing group, go to an event, talk to friends doing creative things, join in the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter, it all feels much more possible if you’re not alone. And to everyone who’s come to the retreats or been part of my online family this month, thank you, you’re ace and you’ve all really inspired me.
9. Stop self-sabotaging. If you don’t write for a week, how do you feel? Do you let it derail your writing for a month? Make a deal that until the end of December you’ll take it one day at a time.
10. Look ahead. I’m planning the next step already so that it’s less overwhelming. Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn is teaching a one-day masterclass for us on 27th October on how to finish and edit your book and get it published.
It’s probably best to just focus on a couple of these so that you’re helping rather than drowning yourself. They’re just a few of a huge range of techniques, and I’m aware that I have a particular take on it – so I’d like to know, what techniques you use to help yourself write and to make sure you can keep going through the tough bits?
Bank holiday is over, autumn isn’t be that far off, and with that back-to-school feeling it’s time to get back to work and re-commit yourself to your writing.
4 months to the end of the year… 4 months is a long time. You can definitely write a novel draft in that time – I know, I’ve done it. People start businesses, record albums, grow half a baby (give or take) in 4 months.
You probably have a job and a life that will do their best to get in the way of what you want to do, but those distractions will always be there. And if you can convince yourself to put in the hard work regardless, it’s amazing what you can do in 4 months.
So, what will you do? Will you create something to be proud of in 2013?
You don’t have to aim to have written and got an agent for the next bestseller either. It’s much better to think about where you want to be in a year or two and choose the goal that will put you in the best position to achieve that, whether that’s to work up to writing a little every day consistently or finally sending out that novel that’s clogging up your hard drive. Something that’s do-able and that you’ll enjoy and want to do, that will make you pleased you’ve finally pushed through and done it.
You probably know that I’m a bit goal-obsessed, so it’s time for you to join me in a writing challenge!
I’d like you to pull on your thinking pants and post in the comments below:
1. What is the ONE thing you want to achieve with your writing by 31st December 2013? Make sure it’s both specific and achievable.
2. What are two or three things you can do right now to make it easier to meet that goal and that will make it more likely to happen?
We’ll come back at the end of the year and revisit these, and I want to hear about completed novels, poetry pamphlets, plays being produced, agent letters submitted, competitions entered. You can do it!
(And if you need a little extra help doing it, I have spaces available on residential writing retreats in Devon from 17-20th September, and from 15th November. Come and join us!)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That’s how it felt for me, anyway. Fifty thousand words under my belt, the finishing line in sight, the light positively dazzling at the end of the tunnel. Almost there. That glorious point almost in touching distance, finally, where the only task remaining would be to mop up all the metaphors.
But then, without warning, where’d the road go? I’d been in Narnia, it felt like, dreamily wandering the pretty footpaths and then – oof – I’d hit the back of the wardrobe.
Ah, thought I. That’ll be writer’s block, won’t it? No. No, it wasn’t that at all.
Back when I wrote my first novel, I didn’t have much of a plan. Like many an aspiring novelist, I’d devoured endless how-to-do-it books, and, for reasons that now escape me, had formed this idea that as long as I beavered away diligently enough – threw enough imagination at it, really went for it – my story would probably just ‘all come together’. I’d started with such a clear sense of purpose, after all – started fast and pretty furiously, in fact, the words tumbling out of me, racing to grab the best spots on the page.
But a novel is a multi-faceted beast. A wild animal. You think you’ve domesticated it, but sometimes it strains against your stewardship, and at other times, it breaks free and gallops clean away.
My novel bolted. Upped and ran and made a break for the border, to ‘drawer-full-of-unfinished-novels-ville’. And though I reined it in eventually (if rather clumsily, with the benefit of hindsight) I learned the first of many lessons about novel-writing from the experience, namely that if you fail to plan you are without doubt planning to fail.
Which is no help to anyone who’s at that 50,000 thousand word point, which is why when I’m teaching, my single biggest mantra is ‘plan it first, plan it first, plan it first’. And by that I don’t mean sketch it out, throw some ideas together, lay out a few variables, I mean plan it in its entirety before you start. It’s the one thing I bang on about ad nauseum. Indeed, the first thing I tell my assembled would-be novelists every term is that if they are committed to the ‘start writing and see where it takes you’ method, they are probably better employed getting the bus home than listening to me wittering on.
Not that I’m some sort of despot or dictator. The truth is that writing in an exploratory fashion is an option. And if you’re not terrifically goal-orientated, it can be a creatively satisfying one too. But if you do have a goal, and that goal is to write a publishable novel in a reasonable time frame, you stand an infinitely greater chance of achieving that aim if you know two key things at the outset:
1. What you are trying to say (as in what aspect of the human condition will form the central preoccupation of your novel).
2. Exactly how you are going to say it.
Well, okay, not that simple. Even though it should be such a self-evident pair of statements, you’d be surprised how many would-be novelists fail to think either through, before embarking on a writing spree about some oh, so compelling character or other, in what’s invariably a great rush of inspiration and enthusiasm (‘I can see that first chapter so completely I can almost taste it!’) with only a loose idea of some ‘stuff’ that’s going to happen to them, that they’ll ‘sort out a bit more’ once they get there. (Ah, yes, that will have been me.)
So stop. Take a breath. Think what it is you want to say. About life, about the universe, about being human, above everything. Then, once you have the answer to question 1 nailed (the redemptive power of love, say, or the consequences of rampant megalomania) answering question 2 should be the first step on the novel writing process and ideally the one to which you devote all your energies before creating that exciting file called ‘chapter 1’.
Which might take months, even a year, so it’s easier said than done, obviously. You’re a writer – you have that itch and you badly need to scratch it, and it would be unrealistic to deny yourself completely. When I’m planning I often find myself writing whole pages of dialogue, just because the action of creating the framework of the story, makes them spring so beguilingly to life. (In writing terms, this is what’s known as a Very Good Day.) You might also find yourself scene-setting, describing minor characters, scribbling down important observations and reflections, writing ‘YESS! The REAL reason X feels so anguished about Y’s actions is because he thinks SHE was the one who did Z to A and B!!!!!’. Also good. You might even want to type yourself some kisses.
But the most important thing to know is how and where your novel is going to end. You need to plan to a degree which means you have the whole thing wrapped up. How else (think about this) will you know how and where to begin it? Because to make a fine novel you need those two points to be connected – to have a relationship with one another that’s clear to see.
Some disagree, I know, and that’s their right. Some speak convincingly about the mystical beauty of the unconscious creative process. Others make a case for there being no fun in writing a novel if you already know what’s going to happen. A third group wax lyrical about the joy of creating characters who run away on their own journeys and do as they please, however hard they try to tell them what to do.
But I beg to differ. Writing a novel is a completely joyous process precisely because you know what’s going to happen to your characters, in order to illustrate what it is you are burning to say. I write towards, always, because the journey is so thrilling. The thrill of getting to the bit where… the fun of knowing you’ll soon be writing the bit when… the tingle of anticipation you get when you know you’ll soon be penning that seat of the pants, life-changing row.
Yes, of course things might change. That’s a given. In that first novel of mine I was three quarters through when I found myself wondering if my original, sketchy ending was, in fact, the right one to choose. Should she forgive or should she not? Should she even want to? Now I’d taken her on her journey (note that’s ‘taken’, not ‘accompanied’; you, the author, are the supreme being here) I was having a bit of a re-think about her options. (That’s another good thing about being a novelist – you learn so much about yourself along the way). In the end, I stuck with Plan A, but I also learned another valuable lesson; that if you feel a powerful urge to radically change the ending of a novel, you will, in all probability, need to make radical changes to the beginning and middle of it too. (In writing terms, this constitutes a Very Bad Day.)
On the whole though, my experience is that if you do your planning properly, such potentially seismic plot-shifts almost never happen. Yes, the small glorious eureka moments still find you, and you’ll embrace them, but that gut-churning ‘this isn’t hanging together’ feeling shouldn’t, because you’ve mapped out your story in sufficiently fine detail that you’ll have already (oh, dear me – all these metaphors upon metaphors) spied them on the horizon and headed them off at the pass.
Which brings me back to that wardrobe. Or, more importantly, to ‘drawer-full-of-unfinished-novels-ville’, which lies just off to the east, by the dresser. Don’t let your novel go there – heaven knows, it’s already chock-full to bursting with them, isn’t it? Plan it before you write it. That’s an order.
NOVEL. Plan it. Write it. Sell it. By Lynne Barrett-Lee. Published by Thistle. 19.08.13.
NB: Amazon links are affiliate links, meaning if you buy through my link I will receive a few pennies someday. Maybe.
I’ve always hated mornings. We had to get up before 6 for our school bus and I had the same conversation with my mum almost every single morning, words I barely knew I was saying through the mental fog:
‘It’s too early, I don’t want to go to school today.’
‘I know. Let’s just stay here in bed today.’
Then she’d leave me alone for a few minutes before waking me a second time with a cup of tea. My mum is ace. And very patient.
Later I discovered it’s really hard to do important but non-urgent work at work, the thinky stuff. You’re constantly interrupted by phone calls and people asking for things, and it feels like you spend your whole life fighting fires rather than doing your actual job. So I started, very grudgingly, arriving an hour early sometimes to work uninterrupted and discovered it was by far the productive part of the day.
It’s just the same for creative work. People say that they don’t have time to write, that there are always a thousand other things that need to be done that seem more urgent and that make writing too easy to put off. Well, there’s one very simple thing you can do that will massively increase your writing productivity.
Get up early.
I know, mornings are hideous, you already have to get up early for the kids or that thing that pays your bills… but it’s by far the easiest way of carving out time for writing.
And you don’t have to get up hours earlier either, even 30 minutes a few times a week is a few hours more writing than you’d have squeezed in otherwise.
Benefits of writing early in the morning:
Your head is clearest when you wake, giving you the mental space needed for creative work.
You still have the whole day ahead of you and you can get the writing done before all the stresses and shoulds of real life get in the way.
You will feel smug and super-productive. This may even make you more productive in your non-writing life. Even if you’re great at making time to write, getting a jump-start on the day is an easy way of adding to your writing time that will make you feel great about your progress.
You’ll feel brilliant because you’re…well, writing. And writing is nice. We all know not-writing is a sucky feeling. As soon as you start doing this you’ll be treating your writing as important, and it will feel good.
Early morning is the time of the day when it’s easiest to write consistently, and habit is good. Having to turn down yet another night at the pub in order to write is more than most people’s willpower can cope with, whereas unless your friends all work in a market and like to booze at 7am it’s not an issue in the morning.
How to make it work
If you’re an earlybird, you’ll find this easy. Just wake up earlier and write for 30 minutes. If not…
Think about ways of making morning easier for yourself. Can you make lunches and iron your clothes the night? Shower at night? Take cereal to work for deskfast? Go to bed early 3 nights a week?
Set 2 alarms. Don’t kid yourself, you’re so going to switch the first one off. Turn a light on when the first goes off.
Prepare. Put cosy slippers by the bed. Write the first sentence of tomorrow’s work before you finish each day. Turn off the internet the night before.
Don’t do anything but write, and maybe get coffee. No turning on the TV or checking email. If you can’t write, freewrite whatever’s in your head or stare gormlessly into space. Anything but allowing in distractions.
Keep trying. If you’re anything like me it might take a few attempts, but trust me, you won’t regret it when you realise you’ve written 15,000 more words than normal in a month. Very few people are unable to train themselves to be early risers.
Take a look at this article I found about getting up early, which talks about early-risers being productive and proactive. Thing is, even someone like me who hates mornings (and, incidentally, washing up after dinner, another thing those proactive go-getter types are annoyingly good at) can become more productive and proactive by acting like someone who is. One day I hope to realise I’ve become one of those people. It’s a work in progress….
A lot of people dismiss the idea of waking early and writing because they’re night owls, but have you actually tried it? As a writer you need to learn to tap into your creativity on cue, and the simple fact is that there are fewer distractions early in the morning, meaning it’s easier to write consistently.
That magic that exists in the stillness between 11pm and 3am, my favourite time to work, also exists early in the morning. Go on. Try it for a week and if you don’t feel it’s good for your writing productivity tell me and I will eat figs.
I really hate figs. Grainy, weird, just…. ew.
Having said that, are you a late-owl AND super-productive? If so, I’d love to hear the techniques you use to write consistently…
In last week’s newsletter I posted a comment from a survey I did a few years ago by someone who still gets The Fear after 15 books.
‘Often I feel I can’t write another good sentence.’
Shortly afterwards I had a message on Twitter from author Judy Astley:
It turned out it wasn’t Judy who’d written the comment, but as she said,
‘a lot of us feel the same every now and then, however OK we’re doing.’
So I asked her to write a guest post for us about it. Here’s what she says – what I find interesting is that the frozen feeling she describes is exactly what someone like me deals with, it’s just the concerns that change. And if anyone knows the solution, it’s someone who’s written 18 books, right?
I once said that the trouble with writing for a living is that every now and then you get those awful terror times and think, can I actually ever write another publishable sentence? It’s a blankness of brain, the sense that the fickle Muse has flitted out from under my desk after more than 20 faithful years and flown away to shack up with some whip-keen young author whose talent is at that thrillingly fresh in-bud stage rather than close to running-to-seed.
For me this occasional horror is not so much Writer’s Block as a feeling of being frozen – as if everything I’ve ever wanted to say has already gone into my books and that even if I come up with a good paragraph I have the sensation that I’ve used the same phrasing before. I’ve even gone and looked through the book I think it might be in (and there’ve been seventeen of them so there’s plenty to check..), just in case.
The only way to deal with it is to write your way through it. Force yourself. Believe me, I’ve tried everything else, from re-painting the front door to going to Ikea for tea-lights I don’t need and a lie-down on their beds. I go to Waitrose or tend my greenhouse seedlings but it’s all sly procrastination and the longer you’re away from the keyboard the more you end up sidling past it and putting off the moment. There might be the odd moment of inspiration in the bath but mostly, words come from more words: here, at the Mac.
And when you DO get to the moment, I think you’ve got to allow yourself to write any old thing to get past the mind-mud and into the flow – after all, it’s not as if you can’t delete the dregs and no-one’s looking over your shoulder. Or write something completely different if you still can’t get into the novel. I sometimes write little pieces for Paragraph Planet (paragraphplanet.com) which have to be exactly seventy-five words. That focuses the mind. A while ago I wrote a piece for an international Life Writing competition too – 1,800 words that were not fiction. That was exciting (and 2nd prize – yes!), working a style and topic that was something completely ‘other’.
I thought I’d run right out of story ideas a year ago, but then I re-read my first novel, Just For The Summer, because someone had asked me how I knew what ‘rules’ to follow before I wrote it and I wanted to remind myself what I’d done (I hadn’t known ANY rules, that was clear, and yet it worked) and I started wondering what happened to the characters. So I started (tentatively) on a follow-up, bringing back the same characters to the same Cornish village but twenty years on. There were moments in the middle when I could feel that same mild “what-next?” panic but really it wasn’t too bad. I let myself just go with the rush of it and…relaxed. The result, In The Summertime, will be published by Bantam in July and Black Swan as a paperback in June 2014.
You can find Judy at www.judyastley.com, and she’s @Judyastley on Twitter. She has a particularly fine list of likes (includes cashmere, graveyards and liquorice comfits) and dislikes (tiny dogs, rubbish eyesight and people who think they’re in her novels) on her site, which you should check out.
*Amazon links are affiliate ones. You can, of course, just google her or buy on the links from Judy’s site