Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 4 – Writing 2.0

I’ve been writing up a storm on the sequel to The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, my debut novel, in the last few weeks. Taking time to blog about the Labyrinth has seemed so hard when I’ve been just chewing through words! But the more I’ve written, the more I’ve thought about writing and how much I’ve learned. I really wanted to talk more about the process of writing before I moved on to editing.

Well, lucky for me! I went to check my schedule, and as it turns out, I was so excited to get to my advice and experiences in writing, I had skipped a way less glamorous but no less important phase! I knew it felt like I had more to say than space to say it in!

I had intended to write a whole article on starting to write a novel, which is every bit as important as advice on writing a novel. I did talk a bit about starting last time, but there were definitely some things I wanted to cover and I didn’t!

So! Today’s blog will be Writing Part 2. I just have more to say! I highly advise you check out Part 1 if you haven’t! You can also find all my articles in this series here! Here we go: more advice about the biggest, hardest, most rewarding part of the process: writing.

  1. Have a scheduled day when you’re going to start writing your novel.

I actually did talk a bit about this last time, but it’s worth having it in its own point. It’s so easy to get caught up in planning and outlining. You convince yourself you’re getting all this work done when you’re really not. My path through the labyrinth was absolutely littered with projects that had thousands of words of planning… and not a single word of book.

Pick a date. Circle it on your calendar. Cancel all your plans. Decide what you want your writing ritual to be. Create it meticulously. Promise yourself at least three hours to do nothing but write on that night.

It won’t be easy. Starting a novel is the hardest part of writing it! Which is why you need to make sure you do it right. You’ll probably sit down, stare at your empty document, and panic. Don’t let yourself! You’ve planned and outlined. You have a road map, here. Make sure you go into this with a clear picture of what your first scene is going to be. Don’t be intimidated by it, because like I said last time, that scene probably won’t even make it into the final version. Remind yourself of that. This isn’t scary, it’s just another part of the process.

And then, don’t walk away from your word processor until you finish at least that first scene. Coming back to a couple sentences is the fastest way to drop a project. You need something that you can build on. Resist the temptation to check your email. Turn off your phone. Block your web browser. As insignificant as that scene is, the writing of it is the most important thing you’ll do.

  1. Try to get a whole lot of words written as soon as possible.

Every paragraph you write is going to be easier than the previous one. The most important word you need to remember when you’re writing is momentum. Momentum is what will take you through to the end. The more writing you have behind you, the more doable the writing still ahead of you looks. When you start feeling bad about your abilities, you just have to look back on what you’ve accomplished so far, and the more there is of that, the less daunting the rest of your outline seems. When you’re 5% into your outline, the other 95% looks insurmountable. But when you’re 60% in? You can almost just roll down a hill the rest of the way, especially if you write chronologically.

So it follows that getting a big chunk of book out as early as you can is a huge benefit. Which leads me to something I’ve talked about before, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

I have mixed feelings about NaNo. A lot of the rules are actually counter intuitive to developing a career in writing. But what I do love about it is the core: the promise to write fifty thousand words in one month. The Deathsniffer’s Assistant was sort of a NaNo project. The first ten thousand words were written without an outline one November. The next fifty thousand were written with an outline the next. When November was over, I had a really robust base to build on. That sixty thousand words is, I think, why my book got finished. With so much work done, it just seemed worth it to keep going.

Of course, if you finish outlining in June, don’t want until November. Too many people use NaNo as an excuse to put writing off until then. But fifty-thousand words in a month is a great place to start on a novel, and there’s no reason that month can’t be July.

I said last time not to set your goals in word count, but for building your base, I think it’s actually the right way to go! You’re going to hack your first fifty thousand words to bits. I guarantee they’ll be the most revised part of your book. In this case, quantity really does matter more than quality. What you’re looking for is that nice, hefty foundation, and getting it under you will really help you move forward.

  1. Write a lot.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it comes back to that same word: momentum.

One of my favourite things to say about writing is “the trick to writing a lot is writing a lot.” Phrased differently, the more you write, the more you will write. Writing is strangely addictive. The more time you spend with your book, it gets stuck in your head. And when your book is out of your system, you won’t want to write in it at all.

I always write on Thursday nights. Sometimes, depending on what I have going on, I’ll also write on Friday, Saturday, or even Sunday. Here are some interesting facts:

If I skip Friday, I’ll rarely do Saturday.
If I skip Friday and Saturday, I’ll never do Sunday.
If I write all four days, I find it a lot easier to write when the next Thursday rolls around.
Conversely, if the only day I wrote the previous week was Thursday, it can be really hard to get into a good writing headspace.
I do my best writing on the last day of an unbroken streak.
I do my worst writing on the first day of a new streak.
The hour when I first start writing is quite difficult.
By the time Starbucks closes, I hate to pack up my laptop.

The only thing that will put you in the mood to write is to write. And the worst offender that turns writing seem like a joyless, impossible task? You guessed it: not writing! The labyrinth is a terrible, self perpetuating monster. It’s so, so easy to get discouraged because of all the reasons I’ve spent months talking about. But the moment you give in and quit, even for just a minute, the frustration and apathy start creeping in. The only way to shake it off is to get back in there and write again, but now you have all this frustration and apathy to deal with. And it gets worse! Every time that you give in and don’t write, it gets harder and harder and harder to brush off the cobwebs! The cobwebs get comfortable. The longer you let it go, the worse it gets. You sit down and give up right in the middle of the labyrinth.

But the good news is that the opposite is true.

Pick yourself back up, gather your nerve, and force yourself to write.

Here’s my very practical, applicable advice: write one day a week. Every week. Hell or high water. Unless someone dies or you’re deathly ill, in which case, write the very next day. You can write more than that one day a week, absolutely! But never write less. The minute you slow down, the rust will start forming again. We’re all busy and we all have multiple responsibilities and commitments. But if you’re serious about writing, a few hours a week is nothing at all.

  1. Making goals is good, but sticking to them is a lot better.

There are carrot people and there are stick people and there are both people. It’s important to know which kind you are, because you need to know how to motivate yourself.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: setting progress goals is so important and so obvious that it doesn’t even need its own separate point. You need to set progress goals. It’s too easy to fart lazily around if you don’t have progress goals. You will never finish your novel without them. If you’re not willing to set and achieve progress goals, just admit straight up that you’re not serious about this. Progress goals are 100% non-negotiable.

But keeping progress goals is important, too.

Which is where we get carrot, or stick, or both.

Me – I’m both, but more stick. My favourite method of motivating myself is finding something that’s a little bit of both, usually something very simple. My motivation for finishing yesterday’s blog was that I wouldn’t hop in the shower until I had it up. So when I finished, I got to have a lovely long hot shower, and in the meantime, I needed a shower, ew.

It’s important to know which you are, and it’s important to actually reward or punish yourself until you get that momentum built up. Once you’re going, you usually won’t need it. But it’s critical that you can get yourself moving in those early stages, and if you ever falter, take that week off writing, can’t get into it next week – you need to get right back to whatever you’ve found works for you.

There are a lot of carrot people who try to punish themselves, and it just makes them feel guilty. And bad feelings make it harder to write. There are also stick people who try and reward themselves. In the end, the promise of those new earrings or that new game or that dinner at your favourite place just doesn’t seem worth the pain of blundering about in the labyrinth for hours, so no writing happens.

Of course, your carrot or stick or beating yourself with a carrot doesn’t work unless you actually follow through on that, too. Promising yourself a cookie after you finish and then just eating a cookie anyway does nothing. Nor will threatening yourself to put ten dollars in the Didn’t Write jar and then spending it despite having not written.

  1. Indulge yourself with what you really enjoy writing.

Last time I admitted that I can’t just tell you to have fun. Having fun isn’t just something that you can do on command. And I hold to that! But I realized something that I’ve been doing for a long time now that can actually help you have fun.

I think we all have some things that we enjoy writing more than others. For me, it’s dialogue, especially dialogue in the form of clever back and forth, or tense inter-character conflict. We also have something that we enjoy less. Mine is definitely any scene that requires a lot of choreography or blocking, especially action scenes. I’m just terrible at coherently describing what and who is where and doing what.

As I’ve said extensively, your first draft is a first draft. Very little of what you’re writing is going to be in the final copy.  Changing things is heaps and loads easier than you probably think it is. I’m reiterating this because of something I learned: you can fill your first draft with whatever you damn well want!

If you like writing clothing descriptions, write ten pages on everyone’s outfit! You’ll cut it later, but it makes the process more fun! The same is true with just about everything. Indulge yourself. Write a lot of what you love and phone in the stuff you hate. Why not? So long as you get a framework that works for every scene, it doesn’t really matter how much you overstuff it or how much you skimp on it.

And that’s it! Next week, I’ll talk about the first step of the editing process, which is a lot more fun and a lot less horrible than you probably think it is. I just want to leave you by stressing something I’ve been repeating far too much, but I wish every day I’d learned earlier. Please, please don’t torture yourself over your first draft. It won’t be a good book, and it shouldn’t be! Your first draft should have as much in common with a real book as a skeleton has with a living person.  The most important part of getting out of the labyrinth is understanding and then embracing that.

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