In this article, I’m not going to address the mechanics of writing, as there are plenty of better-qualified sources on that. This post is really about getting the writing done–sitting down on day one with a three-paragraph synopsis or a two-page outline, and getting up again some weeks or months later with a completed manuscript.
BUTT IN SEAT
So you have an idea and an outline and it’s time to sit down and actually write. This is, unfortunately, when the mental gremlins come out to play:
I don’t have time to write.
What I write won’t be any good.
I’m too tired.
What’s the one and only factor that distinguishes a person who has completed a manuscript from someone who hasn’t? The former sat down and got it done.
“A writer’s life is about nothing happening for a very, very long time except you sit down in the same place.” — Anne Lamott
This is, I believe, the hardest part about being a writer. Everyone has days of doubt, exhaustion or boredom. But writers–not those who pin on the name, but those who actually write–do just that.
They write even when they don’t want to. They write when the one thing they’d rather not be doing is writing. They write for an hour or two hours or fifteen minutes or five. They write because they love to and when they don’t want to and when they can’t imagine they’ll have anything to say.
Every day, they put their butt in the seat and they write.
If it’s your bag, you can make it a daily practice to write at an appointed time. Early in the morning before everyone is awake, or late at night when the rest of the world goes to sleep (my personal preference). You can even draw up a word count schedule in your favorite calendaring app or on a paper calendar.
[Aside: I discovered a paper calendar worked very well for me as I was writing BITING COLD and the deadline drew nearer. I used printed a few months of this free calendar, taped it to my office door, filled in a daily word count goal with a pencil (in case I needed to make changes later), and marked off each day with a Sharpie when I was done. That part was particularly satisfying.]
Sometimes, in order to get the writing done, you’ll have to make sacrifices. I have a full time day job, so I write in the evenings and on the weekends. Sometimes I have to miss social outings and family gatherings to get the writing done. Getting the writing done despite those sacrifices is part of my commitment to my husband, my agent and my editor–and everyone else who depends on me to get the job done.
Of course, some commitments will be too important to skip. For example, I didn’t do any writing on my wedding day. 😉 With time, you will develop a skill– listening to your body and mind and distinguishing between the days you don’t want to write and the days you need to do something else.
Allow yourself the freedom to listen and learn what you need, but also to challenge yourself to push through the dull days when writing seems like the worst job in the world.
YES, VIRGINIA, YOU WILL GET WRITER’S BLOCK
Even if you write religiously at an appointed time and place, the day will inevitably come where you aren’t quite sure what to say.
A colleague recently asked me if my writer’s block meant I didn’t have any plot ideas. That’s not usually how it works for me.
There are definitely times in which I can’t figure out how to get Merit from point A to point B, but writer’s block usually exerts itself as a general blankness, a writer’s malaise. I stare at the page, and I simply don’t have the capacity for words. Sometimes this occurs because I’m tired, and sometimes it occurs because I’m just not feeling particularly witty.
I recall a discussion in Bird by Bird, in which Anne Lamott suggests the off days–those in which you decide to go to the zoo because the words aren’t flowing–are an important part of the writing life. I couldn’t agree more. While there’s something to be said for discipline (see above), I am a firm believer that being in the world–reading, seeing, watching, traveling–makes you a better writer. Writers are, at heart, observers. The more you observe, the deeper your writing well.
So, we accept that some days we’ll write well, and some days we won’t. Some days we’ll have majestic ideas; some days we’ll struggle. How do we cope with this roller coaster? The classic solution, I think, is to write anyway.
“You can fix anything but a blank page.” — Nora Roberts
Trust Nora; the quip is clever, but she knows what she’s talking about. The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It helps, of course, if the writing is reasonably strong and contains a clear-cut plot. But there’s room for error. There’s room for experimentation. If you aren’t sure how to move Scene A along, work on Scene B.
You may end up using this material; you may not. I end up cutting about 10,000 words from the first draft of a manuscript because the scenes don’t work. (And that doesn’t count the words we may cut later in the editing process.) Save the cut scenes for later. You never know when you might need them.
If you’re well and truly stuck, step back and consider these questions:
1. Are you stuck because you don’t know your book’s plot? Brainstorm and create an outline.
2. Are you stuck because you don’t know what your characters should do next? Identify your character’s motivations, and think about who they are and what they would do in the particular situation. What events in their past led them to the spot they’re in? How did they react then? What have they learned since?
3. Are you stuck because your characters have done something out of character, and your world is now askew? If so, backtrack, figure out where your characters went off course, and rechart.
Don’t be afraid to mix your media. Use pen and paper (or note cards, or markers and a posterboard) to figure out your characters’ motivations or the next part of the spell, or to outline the next few chapters. Draw a mini-comic of the plot or look for photographs on the web or in a book that capture the mood you’re trying to recreate.
RHYTHM AND MOMENTUM
Every manuscript is different, and the momentum of the writing can change throughout the book. (Note I’m not talking about the plot of the novel, but the progression of the writing.)
In some, the writing comes on strong–it’s super easy to write the first half or third of the book–but the end is difficult to finish. TWICE BITTEN was like that–quick momentum at the beginning, but I tired in the middle of the book and it was difficult to finish.
BITING COLD, by contrast, took forever to get moving, but finished up very, very quickly once the momentum kicked in.
I’m not sure there’s a particular way to deal with changes in rhythm and momentum other than to keep at it (Butt in Seat!) and accept that some parts of a book will draft more slowly than others. That’s okay. Writing is partly a creative process, and in my experience, the momentum is usually out there somewhere. You just have to be patient enough to get to it. 🙂
GOT QUESTIONS ABOUT THE WRITING PROCESS?
If you have questions about the writing process (that aren’t already addressed in my FAQ or Parts I and II of this series), feel free to post them in the comments! Throughout the week, I’ll select a few and answer them throughout the week!