So You Want To Write A Book, Part 2: The Daily Grind
Hi again you guys! My writer-friends! My ones-and-onlies!
This is our third month of So You Want To Write A Book, and it's time to check in. How's it going? Are you still writing?
*stares at you expectantly*
Yes? Great! I'm so glad to hear it! Remember, I welcome check-in comments below. I'd love to hear how you're doing!
Well, today we're going to chat about the hardest part of writing a book. It's not getting started, and it's not (believe it or not) the formatting. It's the daily task of writing, of sitting down to put your words on paper or computer. It's not giving up when your plot gets tricky and your characters get out of hand. It's keeping focused, even when you're tired and frustrated and your eyes start to cross.
In short....it's writing.
But first, I feel like I need to check in with YOU, and let you know how my project's going, since part of the point of this column is that we're in here together. So....yeah, it's going. I don't recall if I told you what I'm writing, but it's a historical novel set during the Holocaust. It's maybe more literary than anything I've written thus far, and there's a big chunk of magical realism within these here pages. I'm about 50,000 words in now. Progress has been tough. There've been all kinds of life events here in Chucktown. My parents moved to a farm, for one, so much of my September was eaten up by helping them pack boxes, move furniture, and clear land (ouch). School started for my six-year-old, and so did the inevitable germ-wars. We've had stomach aches, headaches, fevers...you name it.
But still. I'm making progress, though in a way it's killing me. It's hard to stay present in this world that's terrified me my whole life. But...progress. Here are some of the ways I'm making it.
The Daily Grind
I've compared writing to running on many occasions (I mean, that's sort of the whole analogy for this column, isn't it?). If writing a short story is a sprint, a hundred-yard-dash, then we need to make the obvious comparison that writing a novel is like running a marathon.
Obvio. I know. But stick with me here, at least for a few more minutes.
To run a marathon requires training, dedication, and, most importantly, near-daily work. It's the same for writing a novel.
Once you've committed to your project, you need to simply write it. Of course, "simply," in this case, means sitting down every day (or every weekday, or every other day, or whatever your schedule allows) and writing words that will, eventually, make up your novel. I can't tell you what your daily schedule looks like — only you know that. I can only say that writing on a set schedule will help you make progress, and progress will help keep you writing.
How's that? Clear as mud?
Let me explain, at least based on my experiences.
For me, as a stay-home mom/writer, I write on weekdays only. My weekends are insane, with family and soccer and birthday parties and lawns that need mowing. But every Monday-Friday, from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. is my time.
Of course, that doesn't mean I'm writing the whole six hours. Then my house would never get cleaned, my laundry would never get done, I'd never have time for my non-novel writing (like this column), and I'd burn out FAST. So my schedule looks more like this (on a "normal" day):
8-9: Exercise (which means either running a few miles or walking our beastly puppy). I love exercise before novel-ing. It clears my head and gives my brain time to wander over those silly little plot points that may have been holding me up the day before.
9-11: Writing. This is where I write my novel-words. I try to stay off the Internet and focus on my book. I plan to write at least 2,000 words each time I sit down to write. It's an attainable goal — sometimes I can write that much in just an hour, depending on circumstances (like the scene I'm writing, or my environment). Sometimes, though, each word is near-impossible to get out, and on those days I just remind myself: tomorrow will be better. Because there will always BE a tomorrow. I will always have one more day to try again, with a clean slate. You can't beat yourself up about the bad days; you can only work harder to find the good days.
11-2:30: Life. Errands, cleaning, cooking, whatever other writing jobs I have to work on (like this). Then, at 2:30 I pick up my child from school, and am Mom-centric once again.
And that's all on a "normal" day. My days are often abnormal, and the time flips around and I write at 1 instead of 9, and you just never know what to expect. But here's the thing I do know: Monday through Friday are my writing days, and I WILL find time to write. And I will make progress, every weekday, because that is my schedule and I will stick to it. This is my JOB and it's what I DO.
And you can do it too. Find your time, stick to it, and when you need to: be flexible.
Tricks to Keep Yourself Moving Forward
Every day is not a great writing day. I'm sure you're figuring that out as you go. Know this: it's completely normal.
Some days, during my writing time, I can blaze through thirty pages without even noticing I'm writing; other days, a single page feels like I'm trudging through Death Valley on the hottest of summer days, and I'm out of water and energy and I just want to die.
We all have rough days. Here are some things I do to keep the rough days to a minimum, and to mitigate them when they happen.
First off, I almost always end a writing day mid-scene. I try not to finish a chapter, set my computer down, and go about my business. The thing is, if I have closure on a scene/chapter, I feel complacent. I don't think about it at night, after I go to bed. I don't spend my walk or run wondering how to get my character out of a sticky situation. I leave a character in some spot of trouble, be it mental or physical. I give myself little cliff-hangers to work out during my non-writing hours, so usually, by the time I sit down, I know how to fix the problem and save the day (or dig my hero in a little bit deeper so I have to work even harder the next day to bail her out). I often leave myself little notes after I've finished a sentence. "Up next: they have to figure out x and y, and get to z." You'd be amazed at how much those little notes help me out.
Also, I don't beat myself up if the day's not going well. I'm not afraid to give myself a break if I know I need it...especially if I've earned it. Last week, I started out on FIRE. Monday-Tuesday found me exceeding my daily writing goal by over 1000 words each day. Then, on Wednesday, I had a million errands to run and a bunch of messy rooms in my house, and I had to tell myself: It's okay. Take the day off. Get your other shit done. You've got an extra 2000 on your weekly goal done already; you can take the day. Once I decided that, I didn't sweat it. I got my other shit done. And the next day? Yeah, I banged out another 3,000 words with ease.
And finally....know this: sometimes, you need to get the hell out of Dodge in order to write. I did this last week, too. On Thursday mornings, I volunteer at my daughter's school for an hour or two. I drop her off at 8, then I volunteer at 9. This gives me an hour, during which I often run home, shower, try to write, etc. So last week, instead of doing that, I dropped her off and went straight to our local coffee shop. I know, I know...a writer in a coffee shop. Fucking cliche. But you know what? It WORKED. In that weirdo-in-between-hour, in which I typically get nothing done, I banged out 2,000 words. IN AN HOUR. I had new things to look at while I thought, strange little conversations between two nearby guys to inspire me, and in an hour I did more than I sometimes accomplish in a full day.
So try it. Change things up. I bet you'll be surprised at how much it helps. I know I was.
The Mid-Book Word Count Blues
This happens to all of us. You've been working for a month on this book, writing your heart out every day. You know you're hitting all these mini-goals, but how far have you really come with your novel?
This is when we look to our word count to see how it's going. And sometimes, it just doesn't seem like enough.
Like me, a few weeks ago. With this book that is killing me.
When all is said and done, this story should clock in around 95,000 words. I may not reach that on my initial draft (I'm an edit-adder, not an edit-deleter), but that's about where it'll wind up by the end.
So. I've been working on it for well-over a month now (more if you count the sporadic start/stop for the summer), and it feels a bit like forever. About a week ago, I took a look at my word count, to see how things were shaping up. I'd been writing so long, surely I'd reached, oh, 70,000, right?
Ha! I was barely at 40,000. Which meant there were still so many words to write!
This situation, which I like to call the Mid-Book Word Count Blues, happens to me every time I write a book. It's a panicky feeling, of "Ohmigosh, I've been working so long but there's still so far to go! I'll never finish!" It's a feeling of (comparatively minor) despair. Of failure. Because if I'm only at 40,000 words, that means I'm not even halfway THERE!
Know what I do to get through the Mid-Book Word Count Blues?
I keep writing.
Last week was a good week. Over 10,000 words in 4 days of actual writing, and suddenly, amazingly, I'm more than halfway done with this novel! There's just something (to me) about reaching 50,000 words. It's cathartic. It means this book is REALLY GOING TO HAPPEN. And continuing on is no longer an option; it's a necessity.
So if you hit that feeling of despair, be it at 10,000 words or 60,000....keep going! You'll thank me for that later.
To NaNo or Not: That IS the Question
Okay, so we've talked a lot just now about daily goals and word counts and such. This is a great conversation to have, especially considering that when I set out to write my first novel, I didn't even know how long it would have to be! And now that November is right around the corner, and National Novel Writing Month is looming large, we all need to ask ourselves: To NaNo, or not to NaNo. That is the question of the hour.
Here's the thing. In NaNoWriMo, you pledge to write a novel in a month. They say 50,000 words (which is a very low word count if you're writing for adults) = a novel, so you're pledging to write at least that. There's a whole web site where you can track your progress, connect with other writers, and find a whole new support system to help you in your novel-ing endeavor.
For some people, this is great. I signed up with my first novel, and wrote most of the first book in Undead America during NaNoWriMo of 2010. But for me, the process of checking in with other writers daily felt stressful. For me, having signed the pledge was enough. I wrote hard and fast during that month, with my stated goal of 50,000 words incentive to keep me going.
But the pressure! Oh the pressure! It was a bit much for me. If I missed a day, I beat myself up to the point where it was harder to sit down the next day. I felt like I was letting some Internet God down.
I haven't done another NaNo since. Instead, I rely on my own goals, goals I haven't typically put out there for the world to see and judge. And that's enough for me.
Some people, though? They thrive on the NaNo pressure! They live for it! They participate every year, and churn out good stuff every year.
It's a great program, if it's your thing. Check it out. It just may provide that last spark of motivation you've been lacking, to keep you writing until you get to the end!
Jealousy: He's Making More Progress Than Me!
And here's the problem I have with big writing challenges: I'm a jealous idiot. I compare myself to others. If they're making more progress than me, I hate them for it. I seethe with envy and self-loathing, because why can't I be that good?
The answer here is obvious: you have to let it all go. You have to worry about your words, not their words. You have to pay attention to yourself, and no one else.
This is by far easier said than done, and I have no advice on how to actually do this, as I'm still fighting it every single day (writer jealousy is the worst!!!). But I will say this, and only this: Writer jealousy will cripple you if you let it. Don't let it. You are YOU and no one else, and your book is YOURS and no one else's, and there's room for EVERY WRITER at this table.
Let it go. Play YOUR game. Run YOUR race. Don't even think about those crazy other writers.
I hope, after all that, y'all are still hanging in there with me! I hope you're still writing, and I hope this column is helping you to stick with it.
And as for me: it's time to go run MY race. Write MY words. Hopefully, I'll see you next month at the finish line.
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