What I’ve learned about writing in the past two years

It was back in January 2020 (in The Before) when I was dreaming about writing a book, and it seemed an insurmountable task. After all, I’d been thinking about doing this for several years now, why should I be more successful at starting this year compared to other years?

“…that’s not the reason I am on the couch, laptop open, blank page staring back at me. It’s because I’m scared. If you’re reading this I assume you’re a writer and you’re familiar with how intimidating the blank page can be. On its own, it’s frightening. ” Mychal Denzel Smith

Lesson one – if you don’t start, you’ll never finish

As part of my work on Mel Robbins’ Best Decade Ever programme in January 2020 (seems long ago now – 2020 sidelined a lot of dreams!), she said that we should dream big, but start small with implementing our dreams. The key thing is to do something, to find some time in your day or in your week and dedicate that time to your dream. So if your dream is to write a book, the key is to get your butt in the chair, pick up a pen or put your hands on the keyboard and start writing. What you write may be terrible, but that’s OK. You wrote something.

“You cannot make something better in revision if you have not written the questionable first draft first.” Jenny Boylan

Lesson two – a book is the sum of its parts

Mel recommended the website 750words.com which she was using to work on her new book. I checked it out. What it gives you is a blank page and a word count and a check box when you reach 750 words written for the day. The idea is 750 words is approximately three pages of writing (the “morning pages” described in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which I have, but haven’t fully read). This is not something that will take hours to do but it’s space enough and words enough to maybe stretch your mind and give yourself a bit of a challenge.

And for anyone who likes to tick things off (and I’m as partial to a check box as the next person), you get cumulative points for the more days in a row you do. (But just a note – you can’t redeem these points for anything, so don’t go looking for a free coffee.)

The website is free for the first month but after that you subscribe for USD 5.00 per month. Every month you can download what you’ve written as a txt file which you can copy and dump into the word processing software of your choice. I found it useful because of the checkboxes. Don’t worry, you can also schedule time off without losing your writing streak. (I have been known to haul myself out of bed and fire up my sleeping phone to log into the website to schedule time off on days when I forgot to write in order to preserve my writing streak. Yes, I am that kind of person.)

So if I write 750 words today, and 750 words tomorrow and the next day and the next, eventually I will have enough words to make a book.

“But you are a person who writes, you get to say that about yourself every day that you do it. Here is a thing I do, here is an important part of me: I write.” Jami Attenberg

Lesson three – if you want to write a book you don’t have to do it in one sitting.

The next step I did was to work out how many words are in a novel. How many days will I have to sit down and do this? An average novel contains 75,000 words (although Gone with the Wind is 400,000+ and War and Peace is nearly 600,000; but let’s not set our sights too high) so it’s simple maths: 75,000 / 750 words = 100 days. This made me giddy. All these years I was waiting to start writing but actually I could write a novel in 100 days? Just three months?

“If I write at least 5,000 words a week, for three to four months straight – minus a few days on the beach here and there, good god, I’m not a monster – I get pretty close to finishing a first draft of book.” Jami Attenberg

This is much more realistic than sitting down and writing a whole novel all at once. Based on my typing speed, and allowing for some moments of staring into space thinking of the next thing, it takes me around 45 minutes to type 750 words. To extrapolate that up to 75,000 words would be 4500 minutes or 75 hours. Chances are I am not going to sit at a computer and write non-stop (no eating or drinking, no sleep) for three days solid. No, that’s not going to happen.

But could I find 45 minutes a day for 100 days? That’s far more likely. And indeed it was. I sat and wrote most days from January 2020 through until June 2020 and at one point that first novel idea had got as high as 77,000 words.

They were not all be great words and since then I have put that novel aside to focus on a second story line that felt more complete. That one is hovering around 50,000 words and there is still a lot of editing to do but that is a huge body of work I’ve produced. And because I did it in little pieces, it doesn’t feel like it was a huge effort. (Think about it – three days of writing non-stop, or 45 minutes a day for three months? Forty-five minutes is one long Netflix episode. Could you give up one Netflix episode to get a start on that book you always wanted to write?)

“I’ve always worked full time, except in grad school, when I worked part time on top of school. From 2005-2016, I learned to balance work and writing, which primarily meant learning to write when tired, and developing the stamina and discipline to stick to a writing routine. In 2016, I had my first child. She taught me to balance work, writing, and newborn-induced sleep deprivation. In 2019, I had my second child. He taught me to balance work, writing, newborn-induced sleep deprivation, and toddler mood management.”Liz Moore

I wrote my first two novels while I had a full-time day job. I wrote them late at night. I still get my best work done between eleven p.m. and two a.m. I think most writers with other jobs and/or young children write while everyone else is asleep.Courtney Sullivan

Bonus Lesson 3A – Thanks to the genius of word processing, you don’t even need to write your book in its final plot order. You have a great idea for a scene in the middle? Write it now. You can write the beginning next week. And Chapter 37 the week after that. And then Chapter 2.

Lesson four: When you run out of ideas, or don’t know where to go next, still show up to your writing and write something, anything, but something.

But what happens when you get stuck? How do you deal with writer’s block? It will probably happen unless you are some kind of writing demon who wakes up with a fully formed novel in your head.

When I’ve been stuck, I’ve done interviews with my characters. “Tell me about yourself…”, “What brought you here?” “What do you think about [other character]?” Sometimes letting the characters speak in their own voice will lead to interesting discoveries.

Maybe pick a character and write about them – not necessarily in terms of what happens to them in the book, but write about their work commute, what kind of car they drive, who was their first boyfriend/girlfriend, are they fussy about how they drink coffee or tea, do they have any irrational fears or hangups? This kind of meandering stream-of-consciousness brain-dumping may not move the plot along, but it might help you see your character more clearly. And you might just find out something that helps you move the plot along.

Another idea – rewrite a scene you’ve already written from a different character’s perspective. What was this other character seeing / thinking / feeling?

Or you could try and write the plot out from a remote perspective and puzzle out the thing that’s got you stuck: “OK, so what do we know at this point? What don’t we know? Where have we been? Where haven’t we been? What does it look like?”

Because I like lists (I might be a writer but I also like check boxes, as I’ve made clear already), I’ve also done an alphabet challenge to flesh out a character. An object, a physical attribute, a memory: three columns headings and 26 letters. Go through as fast as you can without overthinking. Jot down words as they come to you and see what you find out. An example: A = ants, a memory of being bitten by ants on holiday when a child. It doesn’t have anything to do with my plot but it helps me picture her family and her relationship with her sister.

All writers struggle at some point. You are not alone in this. The key thing is to push aside the voice that says you’re stuck and carry on regardless. For anyone who has read I Capture the Castle, you may recall that even writing the same sentence over and over again can create inspiration.

“Most of the time, what you need to do is get back in there and write that piece again, in a new way, with an open heart and a sense of exploration.” Jenny Boylan

Lesson Five – ignore the voice that tells you what you’ve written is rubbish (or Learn to love your writing)

You will probably go through some periods of self-doubt, wondering why do I bother? Who will want to read what I’ve written? Or maybe you’re suffering a stylistic issue – am I being too literary or too plain? Is this brilliant idea I had really … just… dull? Hard as it may be, tell that voice to shut up. Or give it a silly name. Or imagine this voice of doubt sounds like Mr Bean. Anything that makes it harder to take seriously. “I hear you, doubt, but I’m going to crack on anyway, because I can’t leave Megan standing on this cliff wondering about the meaning of life.”

“Give yourself the gift of taking yourself seriously. Your aspirations, your thoughts, your efforts. Even if it’s only for a couple hours, create a world where what you have to say is of the utmost importance. You will write, and it will matter. Your self-doubt can wait outside while you finish.” Arial Dumas

“Self-doubt is the structural damage that allows a million nasty little distractions to bore into your writing plans. Twitter. Texts. Chin hairs. The need for more coffee. The need to pee because of the coffee. The urge to nap (Naps™  – Craving death, but just a little? Then you’ll love Naps™). ” Ariel Dumas

Lesson Six – Inspiration is a fickle mistress, be ready for her

Are you the kind of person that has great ideas before you go to sleep but can never remember them in the morning? Then keep a notebook by your bed. In fact keep a notebook with you all the time, or get very familiar with note taking options on your phone, or send yourself an email. Whether it’s a whole plot idea, half a sentence, or just a phrase (“and then he flew away”), jot it down. Keep it handy. And maybe when you’re stuck in one of those blockages mentioned in Lesson four, go back to your notes, read through and think, “Aha! That’s the thing I wanted to say.” And then run with it.

“…the minute they come to me – no matter what I’m doing – I write them down. […] And then when my butt is finally in that chair, I can look at the note I took four months ago.” Carmen Maria Machado

Lesson seven – Not Writing can also be Writing

Sometimes you need to pause, walk around a park, ride on a bus, listen to people talking in a restaurant or coffee shop. Sometimes you need to read up on history or science or biology – you might be writing fiction but facts may also play a part. Sometimes you need to read back over what you’ve written and edit it a bit. So allow yourself a break now and again but remember, the blinking cursor is waiting for you. Don’t leave it waiting too long.

“If you can write a 1000 words a day, good for you! And if you can’t, so what! Just sit down and do the work, whatever it is. Write. Research. Read. Rotate when you find yourself stuck. That’s real progress, even if you can’t quantify it.” Alexis Coe

Lesson eight – open the floodgates and let your ideas pour out

I found that once I allowed myself to think that I could write, and once I started to put that first idea down in some kind of structured format, other ideas started to follow. I realised on reading my first project that M. wasn’t the main character, A. was. This meant cutting the written text in half and leaving a huge gap to be rewritten. While working on that, consumed-by-jealousy-L started to make her story known. I think that’s the one I can probably finish first, if it wasn’t for the funny-awful-Lady-B telling me the dark but funny stories of her life. I thought I only had one idea, but once I left myself start, it turned out I had many. My challenge now is to focus and complete one of these.

Lesson nine – sometimes the journey is the thing

One thing I’ve enjoyed in the past two years is just the fact that I am letting myself write. Taking my ideas seriously. Doing the work, showing up, thinking about plot and character, taking an idea and seeing how funny or dark or emotional I can make it. Not being too judgemental, treating all ideas as equal and jotting them down because “if not now then later.” Writing as a journey. How does that idea in my head look when it is filtered down through my fingers and onto the page? (Or screen.)

“To me that is always one of the most urgent and fascinating parts of any writing project. I don’t always know what I know or what I feel sometimes. And I’m not always aware of what I’m capable of inventing. But by the end of it, I’m sure going to find out.” Jami Attenberg

If you want to kick start a project and dedicate a proper amount of time to it, to see where it can get you, I recommend following author Jami Attenberg on social media. At least once a year she runs a 1000 words a day challenge. It’s the best feeling to know that wherever you are sitting and writing, you’re doing it in the company of thousands of other writers. And if you ever feel alone in your writing, check out #1000wordsofsummer on Twitter and see people cataloguing their triumphs and disasters. Join in, connect, support.

I want to give kudos to Jami Attenberg for running the #1000wordsofsummer challenge and for her regular internet posts where she talks about her writing process.

The quoted authors here all contributed to #1000wordsofsummer 2020.

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