Teaching Myself New Tricks
I hope you are safe and well during such uncertain and troubling times.
Here in the UK we have entered yet another lockdown.
A week before the first UK lockdown in March 2020, like many others, I was made redundant. I spent 3 months unemployed and unsure of what to do with myself. My house had never been clearer but my mental health was lower than it had been in a long time.
Since June 2020, I have been lucky enough to find employment again in work-from-home positions. Although I am grateful to be working, the whole of 2020, and everything that happened within it, has reignited my passion and desire to fufill my dream to become a professional and paid novelist. A career that will bring me joy (as well as challenges) and allow me to be more in control of my future.
First though, I need to write, finish, and edit a novel. Something that I have been struggling to do my entire writing life. I have written and published poetry and short stories before but I have yet to publish a novel. My last attempt got me stuck in a major editing slump and affected my mental health to the point where I had to stop working on that particular project.
I then had inspiration for another novel around June 2020. An idea that would not leave me alone no matter if I was at work, watching TV, trying to get to sleep at night, or walking the dogs with my partner. Anxiety, following my previous novel project, tied my hands and made me doubt whether or not I should try to write another one. Finally, after 3 months of internal conflict, I had an epiphany: What if the problem was with me? With the way I was trying to write my novels?
My approach to writing has always been to plan a lot of the details beforehand, organise my plot outline into chapters, and write the narrative in chronological order. It was a very rigid, disciplined approach and I realised that, for me, it was also a mentally draining one. I needed to teach myself some new tricks.
So, I did my homework. I read my collection of how-to-write books and scoured the internet for useful articles. In the end, I found my inspiration in the NaNoWriMo Pep Talks. I have included the advice that I found and how it helped me form my new approach to novel writing below.
1. 'If [you] wrote everyday what [you] felt like writing that day, then [your] writing would not feel dutiful' - Aimee Bender, NaNoWriMo
I decided that, since many writing systems (like yWriter5 and Scrivener) set up a write-by-scene option as opposed to writing in chapters, I would try to write my novel in scenes. I wrote a list, which I would update every 2 to 3 days, of any and all scenes I could think of that I wanted to include in my novel. Then each day, when I sat down to write, I would pick whichever scene, or series of scenes, that I felt like I wanted to write that day. It definitely made the process much more fun and exciting for me. The idea of waiting until the novel was written to organise chapters felt very freeing.
2. ‘The way NOT to break your routine is to NOT show up at your desk at the regular hour, but rather by surprising yourself with an extra hour and a different desk. If you never write at lunchtime, one day write at lunchtime’ - Deb Olin Unferth, NaNoWriMo
3. ‘The single most important technique for making progress is to write ten words […] as long as you have to think about the novel enough to write ten words, the chances are more will come’ - Naomi Novik, NaNoWriMo
After these two quotes, I have been less rigid with my time spent writing. I now write in the morning in my 'at home office' before work and at my dining table in the evening before bed. I also only write for as long as my creative inspiration holds. This usually ends up being around 30 to 40 minutes but there have been times when I have written for 1 to 2 hours. Quote #3 comes into effect if I am struggling to write or stay motivated. I admit that, when this happens, I tend to still stare at my screen for 5 minutes until I get annoyed and then I force myself to write 5 to 10 words. I have often found that the inspiration would eventually kick in and I would then be able to write again for a solid 30 or so minutes.
4. ‘Resist the urge to tell friends and family your story […] Telling your story to friends verbally satisfied that need for an audience, and it diminishes your motivation to actually write it’ - Andy Weir, NaNoWriMo
5. ‘You’re not compelled to show your manuscript to anyone […] In fact, I’d advise you do the opposite. Keep it under lok and key. Guard it with your life’ - Sue Grafton, NaNoWriMo
Quote #4 has roots in a psychological idea that talking about doing something makes our minds less motivated to do it. From my experiencces, I do believe this to be true as, everytime I have made the choice to talk about my novel ideas to others, I have eventually lost all desire to continue the novel any further. Therefore, following the advice of these two quotes, I have been resisting the temptation to discuss my novel in depth until it is ready to be sent to beta readers for feedback before publication.
So far, this vow of secrecy has proven to be a challenge but one that I am currently succeeding in. To make things a little easier for myself, I decided to compromise. If anyone has asked what my current novel-in-progress is about, my current reply has been: A dark, quest fantasy novel filled with witches, an ancient goddess, dangerous creatues, and things that aren't what they appear to be.
I applied all of these ideas to my writing and followed this updated approach for a total of 105 days during which I wrote the first draft of my novel. I am so excited to have finished a fully developed manusript and am now ready to tackle the eding stage - check back here for further updates on this process!
After all of this, I would suggest that every writer, at least once in their writing journey especially if they are struggling to write, should try new tricks and practices to shake things up. Not everything you try will help and that's okay. Writing is very personal and individual to each writer and so we all need to find what works best for us.
Since trying this for myself, I do truly believe in the importance of this advice offered by Veronica Roth as part of the NaNoWrimo Pep Talks: ‘Don’t hold on so tightly to whatever writer identity you have formed for yourself that you can’t innovate, change and grow […] it’s not important that you stay the same writer you are now, or that you have a definite routine or pattern […] If [you] can let them go, [you] can become whatever writer each story requires [you] to be.’
Thank you for taking the time to read this post.
Stay safe and well!