I’ve been tussling with this one for a while. Some people are happy writing when the mood takes them and produce plenty of work they’re satisfied with. Others find weekly word quotas work for them. I thought I was one of those people. But if that’s the case, why did I struggle to get back into my manuscript after a weekend break?
Over the last two weeks I’ve attempted to write every day, which I largely managed except for one day. Here are the things I discovered:
- Writing is a committed relationship
When writing a story, whether fiction or creative non-fiction, it’s as though you’re in a long-term relationship with your characters and story. By dedicating daily time to spend with your work you’re remaining connected. That means it’s easier to pick up where you left off the previous day. Your work is fresh, alive and growing, like a plant you have to water daily for it to thrive. Also, the characters and story stay with you, which means you’re more likely to be working on them at a subconscious level. It’s all about maximising your flow.
The other point about writing being a committed relationship is that if you treat it well like you would a loved partner, your writing becomes less like work and more like fun. With your story and character connection strong, you’re happier to nurture and spend time with them. This has to be a productive thing.
- Set time aside, even if you don’t write
By setting time aside every day, be it half an hour or two, you’re allowing the possibility of writing to happen. You’re receptive and open to the possibility, like you’ve put the kettle on or wine bottle in the fridge in anticipation of a good friend’s visit. This is about giving your characters permission to speak and allowing your story to move forward as it needs. Perhaps they don’t turn up on the day, but by creating the space you’re extending a welcoming hand. You never know what might happen.
- Form the habit
There are loads of myths out there about how many days of repeating something it takes become you form a habit, but my research showed the correct number is sixty-six. If writing becomes a habit, you’re more likely to do it regardless of your mood or circumstances or other forms of resistance. Do first, think later.
- Write little and often
You’ve probably heard the maxim that goes something like, ‘Don’t write a lot, but write often’. I’ve been doing a lot of this—an hour’s writing, half and hour of something else, another half an hour of writing and so on. For me it takes the pressure off having to sit down for hours, taking on large chunks of work, big themes and major events etc.. I can attack my work in bite-sized pieces and come back refreshed and willing to write the next bit.
- It feels better
Writing is an outlet and a purpose, and on the days I write I simply feel better. I feel more me, more grounded, more satisfied. I’m not sure I’ll write every day, but most days seems to work well for me at the moment. Try it for yourself.
You thought your novel was finished. Did you send it out to publishers who rejected it? Or did you put it away for a while like you’re supposed to and realised months later it needed more work?
What to do? This is the point where plenty of people self publish. If you’re convinced — and others in the know are too — that your novel is ready, then go ahead. But if you see problems with your manuscript and are serious about your writing (as in you want to continually improve it), you have other options.
You could shelf it. You could see your story as a learning experience and move on to the next project with a sense of liberation. On the other hand, is there a voice in our head niggling at you to keep going until you get it right? Perhaps your story is too good to let go or you’re simply stubborn that way.
1. Should you rewrite?
Recently I’ve been considering whether to rewrite my first novel again after already having rewritten it twice. I’ve had six months away from it, which has given me a new perspective on its strengths and weaknesses.
There might be things you can learn by rewriting and improving your novel. For example, in writing my new novel I’ve been working hard on improving my style and other aspects of craft, which I could apply to my old story.
When discussing this with a friend, however, they suggested that after three versions and much time, I should give the old story up and move on; I should focus instead on finishing my current novel. Are they right?
2. When should you let your manuscript go?
There are situations when you might consider giving up your novel such as:
- You can’t finish the story, it ran out of steam and there’s nowhere to go
- You’ve lost your passion for it and you can’t get it back even though you’ve honestly looked at everything that might be blocking you such as structure, style, voice, character etc.
- It’s just not working despite having rewritten it umpteen times. Perhaps you’re too close to the story or you’re being held back by the first draft, which you wrote when you were less experienced
- It’s destroying your love for writing after many attempts at rewrites. Ask yourself, is it worth it?
- You’ve put it away for months, tried to rewrite it and you have nothing more to give. Your story is dead.
I’m not at the point where I’m ready to let go of my first story. So what now?
3. How to rewrite your story for the umpteenth time and not lose your will to write:
- Apply new craft skills such as improving dialogue, heightening conflict, adding nouns and verbs, creating a compelling first page, showing not telling and so on. Really get into the words and challenge your grasp of technique. I love this stuff, even if it’s hard. It keeps me from getting bored.
- Change your manuscript sufficiently so the process becomes engaging again. Don’t just edit, which is where you tighten your manuscript by moving line by line from the beginning to the end. Rewriting involves meatier processes like adding, subtracting or deepening characters, making structural changes such as moving chapters or the order of events, and cutting large sections. Rewriting involves prioritising problems by issue, not fixing the smaller stuff in a straight.
I’ll let you know how this goes in six month’s time. I’m encouraged by author Richard Flanagan’s struggle with his Man Booker prizewinning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which took him numerous attempt over many years in various formats before he created something he considered publishable. The story was problematic, I suspect, because it was close to him, which is my challenge too.
My only decision now is should I burn/trash every single earlier version like he did before starting afresh? This sounds dangerous and scary, but possibly liberating. What do you think?
Keep writing anyway. If you can’t write, read a writing book, do some writing exercises or read a good book.
Another oldie but goodie is Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. Its good less so for technical advice but strong on how to deal with the roller coaster ride that is writing from the point of view of an experienced editor.
Lerner helps you sort out what kind of writer you are, and therefore what strategies you might need to invoke to get that manuscript finished, how to deal with rejection and has some practical advice for what editors are looking for and what publishing is like for authors. It’s done with compassion and humour.
Key take outs:
- Editors see themselves as de facto therapists in that their ‘author presents a set of symptoms as clearly as a patient visiting a doctor…When an editor works with an author they cannot help seeing into the medicine cabinet of their soul.’
- She has many great quotes, including this one from Don DeLillo: ‘The writer has lost a great deal of influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of culture. But isn’t this where he belongs? How could it be any other way?…This is the perfect place to observe what’s happening at the dead centre of things…The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become.’
- I’m not alone, there are other writers out there like me. Writing is hard for many people and that’s normal. Phew!
Score: 8/10 Reassuring
Recently I began doing morning pages again. Morning pages are Julie Cameron’s idea from her book The Artist’s Way on how to improve creativity. They involve doing three longhand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing (or even drawing) about anything top of mind each morning. Usually this takes me 20-30 minutes.
I read Cameron’s book years ago and tried them but didn’t find them particularly useful. Recently I saw her give a lecture and was reminded about them so I thought I’d try them for a few days.
Well, I’m a convert. I do them on most working days now and they’ve been quite remarkable. These are the things I’ve found they help me with:
- Setting daily priorities.
- This includes setting writing goals and not letting them disappear amid other life demands.
- Coming up with ideas on how to overcome writing problems. Later, when I attack them on the page, they don’t seem nearly as daunting.
- Venting and get things off your mind so you can focus better without such annoying distractions.
- Other things that have been bothering me suddenly come up on the page, usually with a resolution. Afterwards I feel a sense of clarity and lightness.
- They just make everything deeper, no matter how irritated I feel about doing them.
I find if I don’t do my morning pages, I’m less focused, my goals are less defined and I achieve less. My time fritters away and I end up feeling a diminished sense of achievement and even frustration compared to when I do them.
Maybe you don’t need them right now, but they’re a good thing to bear in mind should you find writing becomes more challenging. Happy writing.