We’ve all heard it before: writers write. Yes, but how? And what? And…
Writing isn’t easy, but it’s a skill. If you desire it you find the motivation to work at it. The more we hone our craft, the better we become. But it will consume you. If you are passionate about your project: read on.
Writing is a process. You won’t sit down and write a book. You’ll have ideas, make notes, flesh out parts of it. If you’re writing fiction you may have a timeline, character studies, chapter ideas. If your project is nonfiction you might start with articles, heaps of notes… In short, it’s small steps that build into something complex and inspiring. It’s consistency and work.
How obvious is that? Very, but how many people do you know who want to write, but… If you make a start, you’re already ahead of a lot of people.
So sketch out your ideas — make it concrete. Don’t only think about what will be in your book. Commit it to your journal or to a folder in Scrivener or to notes on your phone or a filing card.
There are so many calls on our time, so many distractions. Give yourself a chance. Have a regular writing time and deadlines and make it sacrosanct.
Get to the end
You might be a slow writer. You might take a year, or two or longer, but don’t give up. An unfinished book is vanother thing to beat yourself up about.
Breaking down the start:
1. What’s your subject?
Novels come from a myriad sources. It might be a chance encounter, an image of something you see happen on the street or a snippet of overheard conversation on the train. A character might come to you in a dream (as one of mine did recently) or a story might spin out of watching a documentary or seeing an art exhibition. It’s why you should never move further than the bathroom without a notebook.
Similarly, ideas for nonfiction projects have all kinds of origin. But whatever your genre, people are going to ask, ‘So what’s your book about?’
What will you reply? Write it down now. Make it no more than one or two lines and make sure you have it engraved on your heart.
This is mine for This is the End of the Story (the first novel of a trilogy)
Belief is Cassie’s gift. So much so that she lets others define and even name her, until an act of betrayal causes her to rethink the stories she tells herself and allows others to tell about her.
And this is the line for this book:
A concise guide to writing, editing and promoting a book to assist writers to shape a writing life, becoming their own unique stories.
2. Have a plan
Where you go from next will depend on whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. It will also depend on the kind of writing process you have, but for most of us there will be some kind of organisational document at this point. It might be a contents page with a couple of lines sketched out for each chapter. It might be a timeline for a story or a group of character sketches and main plot points. It doesn’t have to be complex or prescriptive, but think of it as a route map, one you might takes divergences from along the way. It’s there to give you an idea of main stages to land along the way and, if it’s nonfiction, where you are going to end.
Depending on your subject and genre, you might want to set a rough word count at this stage. For fiction, this could change. Someone I know started a short story a couple of years ago that is not a published novel — it kept growing and found its form.
But if you are writing a thriller or historical saga you might have a chunky word count in mind. Over 80,000 words is a good-sized novel and over 100,000 words gets into saga and epic territory.
In nonfiction having a word count plan can help you map out the chapters and stages of writing.
3. Find your corner
Sometime you need to shake up your environment to write in places that add to the creativity by disrupting the norms. But most of the time those of us who don’t travel all the time need to stake a claim to a writing place. I’ve recently taken over a spare bedroom that is now referred to as ‘ the writing room’. It has a selection of my most important books, a new desk and a couple of treasured ceramics that make it ‘mine’. It can be anywhere. It can be outdoors if you live in a climate that makes that possible. It can be in a library or café or a corner of a room where you can go inside yourself and write. What’s important is that the place signals to you that you are writing now. You are not answering the phone, messaging, checking email, cooking, cleaning… You are writing..
4. Give yourself targets
Over time, consistency will trump everything. Having an occasional marathon writing session can feel great, but if you don’t keep up the regular writing it will leave you with fragments that you have to reconnect with because of gaps between sessions. Make the goal sustainable. 200–300 words every weekday. Two pages a day. If you write more, it’s a bonus and if you often write more you can put more pressure on yourself. Regular and realistic gets the first draft of your book written.
5. Block out a time
People with busy lives will always have something else they could be doing at any time of the day. Get up early and give yourself an hour. If you work well in the evenings, write rather than watching TV for an hour. If you make a promise to yourself and don’t keep it, how will you feel? If writing is vital to you and you don’t do it, how will you feel?
So give yourself a regular slot that only urgent emergencies can interrupt and keep to it. This not only protects your writing time but also makes it automatic — it’s 7 a.m. I must be writing…
Breaking down momentum
Making a start is great. Keeping going can be hard. There will be other calls on your time and focus. There will be distractions that tempt you away so that you find yourself making bargains with yourself, knowing you are on the path to breaking the promises you made to yourself.
1. Be a writer
To BE a writer you have to DO what writers do. If you have a day job, think of it as the thing that supports you as a writer. Think of yourself as a writer and behave like a writer.
How do writers behave? They write. And they own up to being writers when asked.
2. Protect your environment
Your place to write has to be sacrosanct. And your writing environment has to be this place ++. By that I mean that you need to make as many features of your environment as possible support your writing life. This will sometimes mean shaking up your environment completely but it also means:
- letting people in your life know you are taking writing seriously and you need their support
- reading constantly. Books should be your natural medium.
- making connections. Some areas have thriving writing groups and some of these are helpful. If they turn out to be people patting each others’ backs, leave. But check them out. You might find writers online or connect through blogs or writers groups on social media. You don’t want to spend masses of time on this, but shift some of your social time towards others who share your passion. And go to book launches. Its a great way to support others’ writing along the way.
3. Make and keep deadlines
You’re already writing every day. You have a daily target. Now add a weekly one. The easiest way is to track a word count: 2000 words a week; 5000 words a week. Whatever it is:
- write it down
- make it public (if you don’t tell anyone you’ll play mind-games with yourself to let yourself out of promises)
- review it honestly
- celebrate the wins
4. Give yourself a break
Distractions are tempting because we get a little shot of dopamine and a few moments away from the pressure of writing. Instead of becoming antsy and reactive, plan for breaks. Do some stretches midway through your hour. Take a weekend with no writing. Build in ways to let your subconscious mull on what you’re writing. Sometimes breakthroughs come when we’re looking the other way.
This isn’t a call to procrastination, but to getting your whole self into the process. Half an hour of yoga might be more creative than pushing yourself for an extra hour. Going out for a walk (with your notebook) can get a cascade of ideas moving. In other words, make your life support your writing, right down to the breaks.
5. Get help
There’s a balancing act here. If you let others into your work at a too fragile and early stage they can derail it. If you show it only to people who would love you for writing a shopping list, you won’t be any the wiser about whether your writing communicates.
But if you write a 100,000 word masterpiece, then begin editing, spending years on it without any input, you could find you have something even your grandmother doesn’t love you enough to read.
There are lots of ways to get help:
- a high-functioning writers group with intelligent feedback
- a short residential writing course (get recommendations and read the tutors’ work first)
- an author or editor who you know and trust
- a mentor who will give you critical and valuable engagement for a set period
Some of these cost money, but you’re a writer — if you have any disposable income you should invest some of it in yourself.
If your project is nonfiction, trial some of the content and ideas on your blog or a platform like Medium. It’s a great way to see how people respond to what you are offering.
Breaking down the end
When you’ve finished writing the book, you have a first draft. You still have miles to go before you sleep. Let’s imagine you’ve done the editing (over and over) and have put the book away for a while to give yourself some distance. And then you’ve gone through setting up whatever process it is that will get your book into the world. You might have a publisher, who will have his or her own editing process. You might be be self-publishing or want the book as a giveaway to promote your writing. Whatever the case, there will be a deadline.
1. Respect the deadline
When that date comes, have a finished book. Then hit send. I work with authors all the time who feel sick when they let me have their book to edit. It’s not a lack of trust, it’s that this is their baby going into the world alone. It’s terrifying. But you have to do it. Parents have to help their children emerge into the world as autonomous adults. Writers have to do the same for their books.
2. Love it
Your first book might be a stunning success. It might meet with total indifference. It’s still yours. It’s the book you learnt on. It’s the first of many. However it fares, have a party. Launch the book into the world. Tell everyone and their cat about it. Be proud.
My first poetry collection is now out of print. The publisher disappeared without trace and that was a tragic story, but I’m grateful that collection is now hard to find. It was awful! Yet it started something. My early novels are sort of okay, but…. But they did the work of getting me to the next and the next book. It took until my fifth nonfiction book (about autonomous parenting and education) before I hit my stride there. And I love them all.
3. Breathe and start again
So take a deep breath and remember:
Be a writer.
Some writers have pauses between books. You might need time to focus on promotion or need to refuel your creativity. If you pause, keep the notebooks going. Keep a writing practice even if it’s blog articles or a daily journal. Don’t let the writing muscle get stiff and flabby.
Then start the next book.
Want to become a different story?
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