I recently embarked on a rather formidable journey, writing a novel. Having never written anything approaching a novel before, I did what most aspiring authors did, stretched my fingers, opened up Word, and started hammering away at the keyboard.
Now, this went alright at first. I put down about 2 pages of writing before I hit my first roadblock, I didn’t know what to write. It was here that I made my first mistake, I put my computer away and went to do something else thinking to myself “I’ll pick this up tomorrow when I have more inspiration.” the problem is, tomorrow never came.
It was about three weeks when I came back to that small document that I wanted to call a book, I should mention here, too that this isn’t the first attempt. This was around 5 perhaps 6 of getting many pages into a book before either running out of steam or getting trapped in the “I’ll do it tomorrow” cycle. I was determined though, that this time would be different.
To overcome my initial obstacle, writer’s block, I decided to just leave small notes in place of any areas where I needed to flush out details, as a coder by trade, I chose the inline comment convention that one might use to describe a particularly unwieldy piece of code or perhaps fittingly leave a “TODO” to come back to this later. My novel-to-be now littered with dozens of
// this is what I want to do here
But importantly, I was writing again freed from the cuffs of writer’s block. Or at least that’s what I thought.
Over the course of the next few days I felt renewed excitement for the book, I was keeping a good schedule and getting several pages done each time. That was until the next problem started creeping in. Self-doubt.
If you’ve ever written a novel or really done anything new, you’ve probably had that nagging feeling that you’re not good enough and that you’re doing something wrong. For me, that feeling took the form of pacing and dialogue. See, I kept seeing the same patterns in my language over, and over characters would interact. There would be pages of dialogue and then something would happen and a new chapter. Rinse and repeat.
Here in lies the problem, once you don’t think you’re writing is good enough. You stop, and boy did I. Instead of writing, I asked my friend to review it and despite him saying the novel was good, and the pacing fine I still wasn’t satisfied. Off to the library, I went to get books on how to write and scour the internet for related articles. (p.s. to those of you who are having this struggle now and came to this. A heartfelt thank-you. Know that you are good enough, and you can edit it later your choices aren’t written in stone. Get words to paper now and flush them out later).
Ironically, the books spelled out to me exactly what I said above. You’re not going to have a New York Times best-seller in your first draft that’s ok. Your first draft rarely, if ever, bares any resemblance to your finished copy. These words, while true, rang pretty hollow, and so I sought further assistance in blogs, articles, and whatever I could find until I found a simple list of instructions to follow: Write down what you dreamed about, keep a notebook with you, write every day, and read lots of other books to get a sense of what writing you like. BINGO! A strategy that works! Well… sort of, see I took one thing from that list. Read lots of books by others.
See I started getting up early in the mornings, figuring I’ll take 30 minutes each day to write my dream down, and read a bit of a novel. Then in the evenings, I’d make dinner and spend at least 1 hour doing some writing. On day 1, I wrote my dream down and sat and did some reading, “Great I thought. This is sustainable, and I’m off to a good start”. But then the evening came dinner was made and eaten, and then I slumped down in front of the tv to “take a break” and “let my meal digest” flipped on YouTube and before long it was bedtime.
This became the cycle for a long time, mornings being somewhat productive (though in fairness, I didn’t write my dreams often..I’d “forgotten them” of course) and evenings being consumed by chores, dinner, the gym and any manner of other distractions. So what did I do to combat my newfound foe? Enter the mighty Calendar.
If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: A calendar is your greatest asset. That’s not to say, you should go out now and spend a bunch of money on a flashy calendar and spend the rest of the day/night meticulously entering your schedule into it instead of writing. Trust me that struggle is real. But you absolutely should make use of a calendar to organize your day. I personally use my phone’s calendar since I always have it on me. It alerts me of what’s coming up and crucially, it’s free! Of course, you’re not obligated to use a digital calendar, if you prefer a wall calendar, pocket calendar, or even a notebook that works too! The key is to schedule time into your calendar to WRITE and stick to it. If you say from 7:00 pm — 8:00 pm is writing time, then that is writing time. No ifs, ands, or buts. Put your phone into do not disturb, and turn the wifi off on your computer if you must in order not to allow distractions.
“But Jeff,” I hear you say, “What if I need to look up something for the plot or a word that I can’t remember?” to which I reply, Save these notes ether separately or inline with your writing and proceed past them (might I recommend the mighty inline comment?) save these details for ether editing, or better yet, allocate some time after your writing to fill in these details or do this research. The problem with research or looking up a word is this can lead down a rabbit hole and break your productivity. (ask me how I know)
Speaking of looking up words, turn off the spell-checker. Yes, your writing will be atrocious, and yes, you’ll stumble on how to spell the simplest of words because suddenly your brain is hyper-aware of the lack of spellcheck, but you’ll grow accustomed to this, and again you can go back through it later during editing, and I assure you, you’ll have plenty of editing. The trouble with spell-check is it serves as a distraction, something to pull you away from your creative flow. You might say to yourself “I’ll just fix this one word” but one word becomes two, and two becomes paragraphs, and soon you’ll find yourself spending the hour you allocated to writing (You did that in your calendar right?) turned into a wash. I’m sure you’re starting to see a theme here. Your brain will look for anything it can to pull you away from the task at hand. Writing is hard, and editing, by comparison, is easy. But editing doesn’t get the words on the page.
So you’ve turned off the spell-check, you’ve allocated the time, you’re sitting at your desk with your word processor of choice open hands on the home row and then it hits you. Wouldn’t it be great if I had a tool to reference my characters quickly when a type their names, kinda like Facebook or Twitter? Perhaps you didn’t have this particular brand of brilliant idea, but I’m sure you can relate. It seems the moment you’re ready to hunker down and write. Your brain comes up with all these great plans and ideas. Or perhaps it’s the chores that you have piling up that suddenly come to the forefront of your mind.
I have never in my life been so motivated to get the dishes done (hence the title for this piece) as I have been when I am supposed to be sitting down and writing my book. Under normal circumstances, I’m happy to leave a plate in the sink (or maybe a few), and leave the sweeping and dusting for later. But open up Word, and suddenly that broom has never looked better. I’ll always rationalize it, too, a clean space is a productive space, after all. The problem is, just as with the other distractions on this list, sweeping leads to moping and just for fun let’s re-arrange this room. A window view from my desk is sure to help with inspiration, right? All of these things are just one more excuse not to write your book. But what can you do?
Here is where I find my calendar, and notes come in handy once more. Brilliant idea to make writing easier? Write it down in my notes. If it still sounds awesome when I’m done, I’ll tackle it then (and given its lack of existence, clearly, it wasn’t). Need to vacuum the floor? Add it to my calendar or set a reminder for after my session. It always amazes me how re-arranging a room can go from a fun activity to a mundane to-do for later when you see it on your list after you’re done with your page for the day.
Writing can be an amazing, creative, fun, and emotional experience. If you write similarly to how I do, the novel you’re making is as riveting to you as it will be to your readers as tension builds and you write your characters into an ever more precarious position. But more often, it becomes a chore that you don’t want to have to tackle. There are a few ways you can condition yourself to get through this grind, though and make it to the finish line with your first book.
First, set goals. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes even through the monitor. You hear about goals all the time in school. Your teacher would hand out a paper and insist you have some goals for the year. You’d begrudgingly write them down to get your mark for the assignment before promptly shredding their existence from your mind faster than they can even collect the page. But your teacher wasn’t stressing the importance of goals for the good of their health. Goals work. Well, more specifically, writing them down works. You are far more likely to achieve a goal you commit to paper (or whiteboard or virtual notes) than ones you don’t. Want to make it even more likely? Look at that goal every. single. day. More likely still? Tell someone about it and have them commit you to it, and follow up. A partner, sibling, parent, or colleague are all great options.
So what goals should you be setting? Well, your preferences and needs will vary, but at a minimum, I recommend setting a daily writing goal and a completion date goal. It’s important you be realistic about your goals, you can’t expect your novel to be done in a week after all, but it’s equally important you set a goal that encourages you. I chose six months for my first draft to be completed, for example. While these goals aren’t set in stone, they should only be moved for a good reason (major life events, you’re writing a novel longer than the original goal allowed). As for your daily goal, it should reflect your target end date with some buffer built in. If you want 300 pages written in 6 months, then you should aim to be writing 1–2 pages per day; for me, that usually looks like 1 hour per day, give or take a page, depending on the day.
Now that you have your goals in hand, you need to have tangible rewards for meeting your goals. These don’t necessarily need to be food related, but they certainly can be. Me, I enjoy playing video games, and therefore if I meet my writing goal for the day, I allocate 30 minutes of time to do just that. Find a reward that you really enjoy, be it a video game, some TV, a walk around the block, a candy, or even a glass of wine. The goal is to associate your writing with a positive activity (something…something a dog and a bell). Jokes aside, building this routine of work and reward makes the task of writing your book feel like part of your day and less like something you must do.
Finally, plan some milestones for your writing. If you’re writing a novel, consider making your first chapter a milestone, then perhaps the halfway point. Add these to your calendar at intervals that make sense for your goal. This will give you a good checkpoint to make sure you are on track to meet your goals and something to celebrate when you make them. (perhaps upgrade to a nicer bottle of wine if that’s your thing!)
At the end of the day, writing a novel is hard, exciting, painful, slow, and absolutely worth it. Even if you never make it to the best sellers list, having your name in the local bookshop (and maybe the local library) is rewarding all its own. As a fellow writer, I salute you for taking the journey.