I’ve just finished the first draft of my third novel. In the last year, I completed one sci-fi YA novel at 72 000 words (I started this one a long time ago but completed it in Spring of last year), one adult psychological thriller at 79 000 words and another adult psychological thriller at 75 000 words (but still a WIP). They are all stand alone novels and not part of a series. I see a lot of posts that are related to wanting to be a writer but just ‘not being able to write.’ I thought I would give my two cents.
1. GOALS, GOALS, GOALS
Daily goals, weekly goals and monthly goals. I used all three to force myself to write. Set yourself something ATTAINABLE, it is very difficult to meet a goal at 1000 words a day, though for some reason I see that as a standard in a lot of places. I set myself a daily of 500 words a day and that led to the completion of my first novel. I also set out a time. I’m a teacher and I had a spare everyday for an hour and that was when I would do my writing. One hour, 500 words. Easy. But it still didn’t get done everyday, especially on the weekends when my routine was interrupted but that brings me to my next point, it’s not about motivation, it’s about discipline.
We’ve all been there, we have this new idea or new character and we are feeling super excited and motivated to write about it. But that motivation is NOT ENOUGH to take you through a whole novel. You have to be disciplined about your writing, treat it like a job. Motivation is not sustainable. It’s like starting a diet, you feel all sorts of ready to get healthy and eat well on Monday but by Thursday, you’ve ordered a pizza and are gorging on breadsticks because that motivation dissipated throughout the week. If you are disciplined, you will say NO to the pizza and YES to peanut butter celery sticks. So say I AM WRITING TODAY. Do not give yourself another option. Some days you will be motivated and some days you won’t.
3. You Will Get Bored
This is similar to being disciplined but don’t be afraid of a little boredom. Sometimes writing becomes mundane. If you treat it like a job and force yourself to do it, it won’t always be the most exciting, most inspiring thing you’ve ever done. Learning how to push through boredom is the first step in becoming a professional writer. If your goal is to be published consider that in the future you will have deadlines and you will need to push through every day that you are bored in order to get a project done in time. If you’re bored all the time then, maybe, there’s a problem with the content of your novel. But for me, I had outlined my third novel completely before even beginning to write which meant that nothing was surprising when I was working on it. It wasn’t as exciting as just pumping out a writing prompt, but when you’re in a really good session and the characters begin to write themselves that excitement will come back. When you hit that daily or weekly word goal, you’ll be excited. When you finish that first draft, you’ll be ecstatic.
This is a bit of a controversial point but this is what worked for me. Not everyone likes to outline and some outline extensively. I am of the opinion that you need at least a little bit of an outline if you plan to complete a novel on spec. You need to know where your story is going, how your character arcs will develop and what conclusion you’re writing towards. I do brief point form chapter outlines, I know what will happen in that chapter but I don’t outline the specifics. Here’s an example from my most recent work:
Chapter 1: Anne baker, psychologist, meeting with patient when interrupted by Brandy, find patient in room, it was Brandy’s patient.
Chapter 2: call in police, police check out the scene, determine it was suicide. Leave it alone.
Chapter 3: Anne and Lewis go out for drinks. talk about the suicide.
This is what has worked for me. I couldn’t finish my first novel until I had some idea where the story and my characters were headed. Also, my outline changes all the time, the outline above is not what the final product turned out to be. Don’t be afraid to change things around if they aren’t working. Having a sort of skeleton allows room for new ideas to develop as you write. So you can slowly add fleshy bits and organs to your skeleton until it’s a full breathing human.
5. Goddamit, Read!
Read in your genre, read outside your genre. Read authors you’ve never heard of before, read your favorites. I taught a book discussion class last year and it reinvigorated my love for novels and storytelling. I started taking the bus at the beginning of this year so I have 20 minutes each way to read. I’ve completed 6 books this year and I can see the marked improvement in my writing, I chock up a lot of this improvement to reading. Writing is a skill. Writing takes practice. If you wanted to be a professional hockey player, you would probably take some time out to watch the NHL.
Don’t be afraid to branch out with your reading. I mostly had been reading psychological and crime thrillers and then I picked up Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a scifi. I suddenly started seeing his influence in my characterization and in my dialogue even though he writes in a completely different style and genre from my own.
6. Print it, Read it, Edit it
When you finish your first draft, take a break. Take a moment to be proud of yourself. I still struggle with this but taking a couple of weeks to let your book rest will allow you to pick it up for edits with a fresh perspective. Printing out a physical copy feels so damn good. Feeling the weight of your words in your own hands is so incredibly satisfying.
Read your story OUT LOUD. I’m fortunate that I have a very supportive fiance and I will have him read the book to me. You will catch mistakes in grammar, sentence structure, unnatural dialogue. As I listen to him I make notes of words that are overused or just sound strange. If you don’t have someone to do this for you, read it to yourself or there are lots of text to speech websites out there.
Edit, edit and edit. I’m a bit of a write and edit at the same time kind of gal but, for my second novel, I still did several rounds of edits and revisions before I started sending out to publishers. But figure out what works for you, some people like to vomit out a first draft and then do severe edits later.
“And that’s all I have to say about that.” – Forrest Gump