Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 3 – Writing

This is a continuation of my series on The Labyrinth, that monstrous impossible maze so many of us writers get stuck in during our inbetween years. In the last few weeks, I talked about planning and outlining and the things that I personally learned while going through those steps with my  first novel (The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, available this summer!)

It’s the big one!

I can’t say that I had fun writing The Deathsniffer’s Assistant. Not exactly. Now, don’t take that wrong. Parts of it were fun. Parts of it were pure joy. And other parts of it were slow torture that I struggled through and bled over and lost sleep and tears to. Some days, it was effortless. Most days, it was like giving birth.

Now, with my work on Deathsniffer done and the rest up to my wonderful production team over at Curiousity Quills Press, I’m concentrating all my efforts on the sequel. And I’m shocked to find that this time? It’s fun. Writing this book has been something so wondrously close to the simple joy I felt writing about Mary the Mouse that some days I can barely believe that I’ve gotten to this place. I look forward to my writing nights! I’m disappointed when Starbucks closes and I have to leave! I think about my book whenever I’m not working on it, excited to get back!

I am actually out of the labyrinth. I can remember what it felt to be like in those walls, where every word I wrote was a new hot coal I had to step on to get to the next word, and the next, and the next. But a memory is all it is for me now, and it’s because of the things that I learned about this very step. I like to think that all the advice I’m giving is pretty solid stuff, but if you’re only going to take one of my articles to heart, make it this one.

1.Create a unique ritual for writing and minimize distractions while there.

My writing night is Thursday. Unless I’m so miserably physically ill I can’t even look at the computer screen for longer than five minutes, I will always write on Thursday. These are the ingredients for my writing night:

–       One of two seats at my local Starbucks.
–       A venti Very Berry Hibiscus refresher.
–       A prepared playlist of hour long electroswing mixes.

My writing laptop is pretty much just for writing. I don’t bring a mouse because I hate using the built in trackpad to websurf, which encourages me to just stick to the keyboard. I only allow myself one use of my phone: to text my best friend. And I can only text her about three things: Starbucks, my drink, or writing. Luckily, she has the same writing night as me, so we keep each other on track. The only webpages I have open are my email, to converse with my publishing team, and my twitter feed, to keep connected to all of you lovely proto-fans.

I take an hour and I write my weekly blog. I email a copy to myself and then I open Scrivener. I write until Starbucks closes. I stop only for bathroom breaks or, occassionally, to treat myself to a refill. When I get kicked out, I go home, edit and format my blog post, publish it, and then my night is over. If my momentum is good, I’ll usually come back to Starbucks on Friday or even Saturday. I repeat the exact same process, short the blog post.

The thing about all these strict rules is that they really help. You’ve probably heard that you should never watch television or read in bed, because it can cause insomnia. If all you do in bed is sleep, your brain will learn that “bed” means “sleep,” and you probably won’t have much trouble getting your rest as soon as your head hits the pillow.

When you have a routine and a ritual for writing, your brain will do the same thing. When I sit in this exact seat at Starbucks, pull out my laptop, and take a sip from my refresher, I immediately shift into writing mode. When I don’t allow myself to engage in distractions, I never leave that mode until I leave. And the more I keep to this ritual, the easier it gets. Your mind will want to do what it’s in the habit of doing.  So the sooner you can get break in your new habit habit and the closer you keep to your rules, the quicker the connection will form.

this is the part of my ritual where i turn to the semi-professional photographer I've hired and make this face like 'yes i am totes actually working on a book right now, yo'
this is the part of my ritual where i turn to the semi-professional photographer I’ve hired and make this face like ‘yes i am totes actually working on a book right now, yo’

2. Don’t compare your manuscript to anything else you’ve ever read.

While I was working on The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, I picked up a The House on Durrow Street by Galen Beckett, a wildly underrated book by a wildly underrated author. I loved that book so much. I loved that I could see the cracks in it, that it wasn’t a perfect novel, and I loved how despite that, it captured me and effortlessly wrapped me up in its unique charms. When I finished that book, I felt bereft. It was gone forever and I could never read it for the first time ever again.

And then – oh my gosh. Look at this piece of trash I’m writing. This book is so not anywhere near in the same league as that book! What’s the point?

Here’s the secret: I was completely right. My book wasn’t as good as The House on Durrow Street. And do you know why? Because The House on Durrow Street was a published novel that had gone through numerous edits – the author’s own, the agent’s, the editor’s, the proofreader’s, and finally it had come into my hands after it had been read over and over a hundred times times and tweaked and tweaked and tweaked.

The really important thing you have to remember is that when you compare your work in progress (WIP) to any other book you’ve read, you’re making a terrible mistake. Because every single book you’ve read is a finished product. And your WIP is a first draft. Of course your book isn’t as good as something that’s been tooled and sculpted and fiddled with for months, or even years. It’s coming through your fingers, raw onto the page. It if was as good as your favourite novel, you would be the best writer on the planet. Who ever lived. And I think we can all agree that aiming for that would asking a little much of yourself.

3. Don’t stress out about how to start it.

Something I see a lot is aspiring authors worrying about the first words they put down. Those are important, right? If anything, those are the most important words you’re going to write on the whole project. Your first words set the tone for the rest of your book and…

Stop.

I wrote my first scene for my book. That scene was later pre-empted by a prologue. Then, I cut the first scene from the first chapter, turning the second scene of the first chapter into the new first scene, after the added prologue. And then I completely rewrote the prologue from scratch, cutting it down to ten percent of its previous length. The original first words I wrote are long since on a cutting room floor.

(And, just because I know I find it helpful when people who have achieved some success admit ways that they flat out suck: that original first scene? It was my main character examining his appearance in front of a mirror and describing himself. For those of you playing the home game, that’s as bad as it gets.)

Stressing out about how you’re going to start is pointless, because I guarantee you: that first line you write is never going to make it into your final draft. Especially not on the first page. The beginning of your book will change numerous times. You don’t have to worry about it.

Start wherever and however you want. Because…

4. You are writing your manuscript in sand, and it’s a very windy day.

If you’ve never been through the professional editing process, it’s hard to even describe how much is going to change. I can’t overstate this enough. The simple fact of the matter is that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE. Between you, your workshop (if you have one), your agent, your editor, your proofreader, and all the people you show it to during that process, no millimetre of your manuscript is going to go untouched. The words that you’re writing down right now will be prodded, poked, tweaked, adjusted, and finessed into gleaming polished perfection. It doesn’t matter whether they’re good, because they’ll become good. Later.

There are so many scenes in my book that I hated to death when I first wrote them. And when I read them now, they’re beautiful. There’s nothing left of my frustration, the awkward phrasings, the uninspired dialogue tags where nothing would come to my mind but “said.” It’s all smooth and seamless and professional.

This is deliriously liberating knowledge once you really believe and embrace it. I find we get into this mindset where it’s easy to feel that every word we write is written in stone. But with modern technology, it’s easier now than ever before to make changes. You’ll be amazed at how shockingly simple it is to combine scenes, remove chunks, add things in, and have the underlying framework not look scarred. If you’re halfway through your book and suddenly have an idea that changes a lot of what you’ve written before? Just continue. I did when it happened to me. Twice. It’s easy as pie to add a line here, take a line out there, and thread that new idea into everything you’ve written so far.

What you’re really doing when you’re writing your first draft is putting the vague form into a sculpture. Or sketching the outline under a painting. That terrible scene you’re writing right now that you hate so much is not going to go onto a shelf. No more than mine did, or any other writer out there. You’re just building a framework that you can make better later.

And you will. I promise that scene you hate is going to be awesome someday.

5. Set your writing goals in progress, not word count.

It’s important to set goals for your writing. This is so obvious I’m not even making it its own separate point. Without concrete goals and milestones and scheduling, you’re never going to get any writing done. Instead of telling you something you definitely should already know, I’m going to talk about how to set your goals.

I used to tell myself I’d write twenty thousand words a month, which lead to a lot of marathon writing sessions on the 29th. I switched to demanding five thousand words of myself a week, which lead to a lot of sprint writing sessions on Saturday night.

Here’s what I learned about word count: the amount of words you have written does not necessarily tell you how much book you’ve written.

The same scene can be written in a thousand, five thousand, or ten thousand words depending on how much you write. And when you set your writing goals in word count, it’s easy to pour a lot of words into one scene and then pat yourself on the back for hitting your goal. At least, that’s definitely what I did.

I realized I was doing it and made a subtle shift: I had to write one chapter a week.

And the difference was huge. Right away I realized that it didn’t matter how much I padded my writing, I wouldn’t meet my goal unless I actually made progress in the story. I could spend a million words describing the scenery and not get to pat myself on the back for any of it.

Once you start getting through chapters faster, you build momentum on your story. The closer and more attainable the ending seems, the more you’ll want to write. I’ve started writing a lot more than a chapter a week, because once you’re in the habit, you want to write more. There are so many scenes from your outline you want to get to, and the more you write, the faster you can get to them!

Word goals encourage stalling and padding, but progress goals encourage brevity and build momentum.

BONUS: Try and have fun.

This reason this isn’t one of the main five things I learned is because it’s pretty useless advice. It’s not practical. You can tell someone headed to get a cavity filled to have a great time and that it’s only as bad as you imagine it’s going to be, but they’re still not going to meet that drill with a grin.

But once you start taking some of the other things I’ve said here to heart… you will start to have fun. And then it’s just all about letting it happen. If you catch yourself thinking the scene is paced weird, remember: you can fix it later. If you think a dialogue is running a little long but you’re enjoying writing it, remember: you can cut it later. Let it be fun. Precision and brevity and grammar and restraint… save that for draft number two. Right now, what matters is the writing. Words on paper. So let yourself free.

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