1) Schedule your writing time, and protect it with your life. There are 24 hours in a day, and those hours can be spent however you choose. During my college years, I would get up at 5am to get some writing in before classes, and then stay up late writing too. It wasn’t entirely healthy, but it taught me a lesson. I wanted to write, so I made the time to do it. I’m an adult now (or so I’m told), and so I schedule responsibly instead. I get up at a reasonable time, put the coffee on and sit down to write. I write from 9am-4pm. I work office hours, and my body and my muse finally seem in tune to that pattern. I’m also incredibly protective over that time. I turn the phone and television off, and if people invite me out for lunch? I politely decline. The problem is, non-writers don’t understand the process, nor the importance of your writing time. They think you have all the time in the world because you work from home, but that isn’t the case at all. You must treat your writing like a job, even if it isn’t yet. Make sure you turn up. 2) Set goals. There is no point in saying you’ll write that book or screenplay by January next year. That isn’t how it works. You must set yourself achievable goals, and by achievable goals, I mean word targets. I set myself the writing target of 2000 words a day. I don’t always reach that target, but that is what I’m working towards. On a bad day, I’ll only churn out 1000 words, but on a good day? I’ve been known to get 4000 words done. The point is, it’s all progress. Do the maths. 2000 or 1000 words a day x 365 days = a rather sizeable novel. 3) Write. Write. Write. Don’t wait for your muse. I’ve read many different writing blogs and spoken to numerous writers over the years, and all admit that their muse is unreliable. It’s a myth that writers are suddenly absorbed in a moment of sheer inspiration. They force themselves to sit down in the chair every morning, and they get to work. Inspiration will follow. Ideas will emerge, but this is still a job, remember? Creativity is only a fraction of it. Hard work is the rest. 4) Believe in yourself. I have battled with anxiety and self-doubt for many years, and it can be completely destructive. Don’t compare yourself to other writers, because it’s unrealistic. Your voice is unique, and chances are you’re writing something unique too. If you sound like your favourite author, then you aren’t using your voice, and that’s a damn shame. Believe in your voice, and believe in your work. You can do this.
I finished my first book recently, and I have absolutely no intention of getting it published. Why? Because it was part of a learning curve. I needed to learn how to write a book, and then how to edit one, which is harder than you’d believe. The writing part is easy. You’re creating something, and it flows beautifully when it works. The editing is difficult, because it’s technical, slow and methodical. You have to pull everything apart and look at it objectively. I started my first book whilst at university, and that process has stretched almost three years. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long, although I have a feeling it can be blamed on various things – procrastination, distraction, and having a proper job. My energy levels are not suited to working a 42 hour week and then coming home to work on a novel. I don’t have a clue how other writers do it. I absolutely admire your dedication. It needs to be one or the other for me.
I read through the first book, and decided I didn’t want to send it off for publication. I’ve decided to view it as part of the learning process. I’ve already started working on my second novel, and the process of writing has been entirely different. In essence, it’s better. I’ve taken time off to focus on attention wholly on it. I treat this writing process as a 9-5 office job. I rise in the morning, make myself a strong coffee, and then get to work. I set myself writing targets and individual deadlines, and it’s worked brilliantly. I’m now 27,000 words into my new book, and it feels less troubled by procrastination, focus and other commitments. It’s been great. Fluid almost, and better than I could have hoped for.
I think the key for me has been getting over the self-doubt. I questioned my abilities on a daily basis, which wasn’t healthy for the mind or the creative process. My first mistake was expecting the first draft to be perfect, which is absolute nonsense. ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ said Ernest Hemingway. This is comforting for someone like me, who read through the first draft of my first novel and decided I was doomed to be a failure. That doubt made me walk away from the book for a year, and I didn’t come back due to fear. Yes, fear. I was afraid of looking at it, and when I did? I picked holes at it, started edits and then abandoned them due to frustration. I didn’t believe in myself, or the book, which was the problem. When I finally began working on it properly again, I’d done my research, and realised that every first draft needs ripping apart and putting together again. I feel better equipped to be writing again now. I know what to expect, and this time? I won’t let self-doubt plague me into abandoning the work before it’s finished.
Wish me luck!
‘Men make mess,’ my Great Grandma used to say. ‘They come to you when everything is tidy. They mess everything up, and then they leave again.’
They were strong words to say to an eleven year old girl, and finally, thirteen years later, I think I understand what she meant. The ‘mess’ she was referring to was not the domestic image of unwashed dishes that I had previously assumed. She meant an emotional mess, and being in the shadow of your former ‘tidy’ self. She was referring to the great and sometimes painful process of falling in love, and what happens when it’s over.
My Great Grandma had always been a strong woman. She drove a tank during World War II, and did supply runs in armoured trucks over live minefields. She met my great grandfather during a raid, and she took great delight in telling us how he talked far too much. He was a skinny fellow, she said, who wore shabby shoes, and he was lucky he didn’t get his toes blown off. She said it was love at first sight, and when my Grandma fell pregnant, she came home to England and began building a home for her new family. She chose a quiet little village in Surrey, where the most exciting occurrence was Sunday Mass. It was a million miles away from war. It was perfect.
Sadly, my Grandma never saw her lover again. She explained to everyone that he had died in action, and that his body had never been recovered. When we asked her how, her eyes would gloss over and grow distant. She didn’t want to talk about it, and no-one pressured my Grandma into doing anything. This woman was a soldier.
It always made me sad to think of her, alone with a child. She was a resilient woman, who prided herself on being able to handle anything life threw at her. Rather than cry in front of people, and feel sorry for herself, she got on with life. She juggled three jobs at once. She was a nurse during the day, a barmaid during the night and a milkman in the middle of the night. People who knew her said she hardly slept at all. She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. She moved on, and gave my Grandad the best childhood imaginable.
When my Grandad was twenty-five years old, he died in a car accident. I remember sitting with my Great Grandma at the time, eating stew and watching her do the crossword. She didn’t react to the phone-call. She put the receiver down and shuffled back into the kitchen, putting all the plates away and starting the washing up. No-one really understood what was going on, and although everyone offered her support, she merely shrugged it off. At the funeral, she sat in the front row in silence, fingering the embroidered daisies on her dress. She cried one single tear, and it dribbled down her wrinkled skin silently. She spoke to no-one.
To say that my Grandma suffered a great loss is an understatement. She lost the man she loved and she outlived her son. I would spend most weekends with her, and she taught me everything she knew. We’d plant potatoes together, knit little blankets and do the crosswords. She told me to work hard in life, and always be mindful of other people. She said I had to go to school, because school would give me a life. She was the smartest person in the world, and I did everything she said. There were times when I grew bored and restless, but then I remembered her wise words and carried on.
My Grandma passed away last year, and she made a shocking confession on her deathbed. My Great Grandad hadn’t died in the war. He had already been married, but had failed to mention it until after she fell pregnant. He returned home to his wife and three children, and my Grandma never saw him again. Most people would have crumbled, but she coped. She accepted that she would never have her lover in her life, and so she focused on bringing up my Grandad alone. Maybe my Grandad should have been given the chance to find his father? When my Mum asked her this, my Grandma simply smiled and said, ‘It would have made a terrible mess.’
Writing and I have a turbulent relationship. When things are going well, it’s the best love affair I’ve ever had. I wake up breathless and excited every day, and cannot wait to see my work again. I drink copious amounts of coffee as I delve into it, and the feeling of enthusiasm never fades. It’s like a damn drug, and I stay up all hours, contemplating our next meeting. It’s blissful. Manic, but blissful.
It isn’t always so. When things are bad, I tend to fall into a black hole of depression, and view my work as though it were a treacherous ex boyfriend. Why did it stop talking to me? Why did our love affair end, and on what terms? I can’t figure out what went wrong. Maybe we had a different endgame in mind? I wanted to finish in a well-rounded and credible place, but my muse had different ideas. It refuses to offer any more inspiration or guidance. It’s cruel, and I start to question my own abilities at restoring the relationship, or ever creating anything again. Maybe I don’t have what it takes?
I’m sure I’m not the only person to have suffered this, and it’s a bitter experience. Nobody likes unfinished business, and an unfinished book is just that. It started well. I spent a year researching my subject matter, and created a plot plan which seemed flawless. ‘Seemed’ being the important word here. The plot wasn’t flawless, and I often found myself at points where I wondered where to go next. My characters took strange turns which were both fascinating and frustrating. I followed these turns in the name of narrative flow, and I was genuinely excited at the time, but then I found myself ill-prepared when new turns reared their heads. To put it bluntly, my characters approached complex situations, and then they stopped talking to me. I didn’t know where to go next. I went from being unable to function without being inspired to write, to…nothing.
The love affair seemed to be over, and I made the mistake of stepping away from my work. I turned off the laptop, and returned the next morning, expecting to find my muse. I didn’t. I sat and stared at the same amount of words, over and over again. My muse didn’t return to me immediately, and so I gave up. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I walked away and stopped. I’d invested years into this, but it only took two days for me to give up. Needless to say, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s the truth.
The New Year has come back around, and I’m thinking about the unfinished book again. I’m thinking about my inability to focus on something long term, and how I can fix it. During university, I didn’t have a choice but to remain focused on dissertations and assignments. Fixed university deadlines terrified me into focus, and I powered through the moments of self-doubt, and discovered inspiration again on the way. My New Years Eve resolution is therefore to make a plan, set myself deadlines and stick to them. I’m going to be turning off the internet when writing, and staying the hell away from social media. Facebook is an absolute curse to my writing. My self-control is weak, but things need to change!
And they will. Once I’ve checked Facebook one more time…only kidding!
Wish me luck!