by aprilswanson

Dear Future April

Hey there, future me. I thought I’d just check in and share a few thoughts. I want you to read this later carefully whenever you’re having one of your ‘moments’. Read, take heed, and step away from the brink. 

So, hopefully you’re still carrying on with 1000 words a day. It certainly works for you, and even if sometimes you get stuck, you can write some random stuff just to hit your word count. Most days it’s not a challenge, but some days it is, and having that 1k target keeps the wheels turning. 

Because I know you really well, I KNOW you will have toyed with the idea of writing more, of pushing yourself harder. You know, like those super-fast indies you hear about. But, dear April, do you not remember the time you published seven books in one year and burned yourself to a crisp? Do you not recall your tattered mental health and inflamed wrists? Well, I do. And so should you. 

Furthermore, I’ve done the maths, and if you want to publish even one more book a year (three instead of two), you’ll need to write 1600 words every weekday and cut your editing time from three months to two. That’s a big leap, April. You can write 1000 words every day no bother, but 1600 is 60% more. Will you be able to take the time you need to really think about the story if you’re pressing yourself 60% harder? Yes, maybe two books a year won’t be enough, but you need to at least try before attempting to do more. 

Here’s the thing: you don’t respond too well to pressure, April. Your Muse tends to shrivel up and then you panic, which only scares the Muse more. Without pressure, you can take your time with the story – while publishing two books a year. That ain’t too shabby, April. Not shabby at all. 

Also, take your bloody dictaphone with you whenever you go out. It’s better to record an idea and not use it than forget it completely. 

Also also, you are a headlights writer. Stop trying to be something you’re not. You’re not a super-organised planner or a crazy pantser. You’re a headlights kinda gal. You need to take some time to think out the next couple thousand words or so. It makes the writing fun, and so much easier. 

Last but not least, keep doing yoga, April. Seriously. Your back needs yoga. And maybe drink a little less. No? Okay, I knew that one was a long shot.

Big hugs, 

Past April

Back to Basics

I’ve been writing 1000 words a day … AGAIN. After sorting my index cards and making plans for the first chapter, I just struggled so much to have any enthusiasm. Then I wrote 1000 words in some random project which kinda rejuvenated me, then I returned to The Forest King and started from the beginning, going blind (ish), writing 1000 words a day. And it’s been working … 

Every time I write 1000 words a day it pulls me out of a hole. But I always stop for one reason or another. So this time, I read through old posts/diary entries and listed some potential pitfalls.

Potential pitfall 1: I try to write more than 1000 words, then burn out. OR I beat myself up for not doing extra editing in the day because I think 1k is too little. Solution: just write 1000 bloody words and not care if I get anything else done. I can write two books a year on this schedule, with half the year for strictly editing. 

Potential pitfall 2: I get stuck, then give up and try a different method. Solution: write in a different project if I get stuck. My brain needs time to think up the next bit of story. 

Potential pitfall 3: I plan my next 1000 words the day before, then get bored. Solution: think around the story, but don’t plan it.

Regarding that last point, I did have a blast recording all my ideas onto index cards, but, as with so many of my other plans, they did not translate into enthusiasm for a draft. Right now I’m writing into the dark, but I intend to roughly follow the story I brainstormed via index cards. Maybe I need that time to muse a story, to write down ideas, but rather than following a strict plan, I need to go off in a general direction with the freedom to wander whenever I want. Who knows. I used to be able to follow a plan but now I seem incapable of doing so – either my process has evolved or my mental health is still playing silly buggers. I can’t be bothered finding out which is right. Instead I’m gonna stick to my 1k and see where it takes me. Again.

Book Babies

Quick update from yesterday: I sorted my cards into piles, then typed out the story as far as I could (in very broad strokes) then talked the rest of it out on a walk. I realised I was lacking a rise in stakes for the final act, so I started brainstorming, and came up with a cool new development for the whole story. This is how a book evolves, my friends. 

Today, I didn’t brainstorm (don’t know why; you’ll need to ask my gut). Instead I opened Scrivener and started writing Chapter One. I had fun. Lots of fun, actually. Well, not WOO HOO PARTY! fun, but just a quiet, solid enjoyment. It felt good. Really good. I’ll keep writing until I get stuck, and then I’ll go back to brainstorming. 

Now, some writers can write their way through sticky patches. Their Muses fire up during the process of drafting. But mine doesn’t work that way, and I’m slowly coming to accept it. If I don’t know where I’m going and I keep writing, all I do is drain myself and make myself miserable. It’s not laziness, I promise. I know the difference. For whatever reason, my brain needs peace, downtime, and some scribbles in a notebook or rambles in a dictaphone to sort itself out and move forward once more. 

Which brings me to the tired metaphor of writing books as birthing children. A woman can be young, fit and healthy, and do everything right during pregnancy, and still have a difficult birth. No matter how hard she pushes, no matter how much pain she can endure, the baby will not come out. It’s not her fault, or the baby’s. It’s just the unpredictable complexity of Life. 

We can readily accept the role of chance in a physical process like giving birth, but it’s more difficult to accept it with regards to a mental process like creativity. Because we can manipulate some of our thoughts, we believe we’re in charge of our brain. Ha! That is a ridiculous notion. We’re in charge of some bits, but mostly, we’re just clinging on for dear life.

Back to writing. Sometimes we can set ourselves up for greatness. We can read widely, study grammar, free-write each morning upon waking, maintain proper posture, block out distractions, and we can write and write and write, even when it’s hard and painful, and still, despite all of this, the story won’t come. It’s not our fault, or the story’s. It’s just Life. 

So if you’re like me, and your Muse doesn’t respond to ‘just push through it’, then that’s okay. You’re not lazy. You’re not weak. You’re not wrong. Take a step back. Seek help. Tend to that story and give it what it needs. More importantly, tend to yourself, because you can’t look after your story properly if you neglect your own needs. 

And so ends my take on this tired metaphor. I’m gonna get back to writing 🙂 

star trek the next generation baby GIF

Writing Phases

Sooo for the last two weeks I’ve been using index cards to record ideas for The Forest King. I’ve filled a lot of cards. A Lot Of Cards. I’m now at the stage where I want to write words to make sense of this stack. But I’m worried about ‘starting too soon’, i.e. coming out of planning and going into drafting before the idea has fully materialised. Yet my gut says write so what do I do?

I was thinking about this yesterday on a long walk, and realised that I put too much emphasis on the different phases of writing – Planning, Drafting and Editing. A lot of writers seem to work neatly through these three phases, but I suspect I’m not one of them. Looking back to books I wrote before trying to become more productive and therefore breaking myself, I was planning, writing and editing all at once, all smooshed up into a ball. And I was a definite headlights writer, which means I knew the general gist of the story and a few core scenes, but planned each chapter as I came to it. I didn’t finish a rough first draft and then go back and edit, but rather I spent 3-4 months on a kinda okay draft, took a break, then went back in with fresh perspective until I felt I could go no further on my own. Then I sent off to critique partner(s), and then I worked with their comments, and then I polished until I thought it was done. 

There it is right there – my process. When I write it out, it seems so clear and obvious. I should sticky this post for my own future reference. Right now, though I’m loving the ease and flexibility of using index cards and my dictaphone to record ideas, I’m feeling a bit bewildered as to where to go next. My gut tells me I need to pause, take stock of the cards I have, and get some of it onto Scrivener, then go again… So yeah, that’s what I’ll do. But the trick is not allowing my brain to call it ‘the drafting phase’. There are no phases. The only phase for me is the ‘create novel’ phase, and then maybe later on the ‘send novel to people’ phase. (Oh, and lastly, ‘publish novel’.)

K. Deep breaths. I’m stalling for some reason. Maybe I’m afraid to return to my desk and sit in front of the blank screen, because it reminds me of miserable sessions of writer’s block. Maybe I’m afraid because now’s the time when I take my vision for the story and start mashing it to mulch. Or maybe I’m afraid I’ll fall back into old habits, setting daily targets, ‘first draft’ deadlines, forcing myself to write even though I hate every word, and pushing myself back into blockage. 

So what must I do? Remind myself that this is not the end of Planning and the start of Drafting. Those things don’t exist anymore, not to me. It’s all just one big gloop. 

Great. 

Idea Explosion

anna kendrick boom GIF by Pitch Perfect

Yeah this is how I feel right now. Totally owning it. 

This time last week I was feeling awful. I felt empty and full of despair, and totally without hope. And now – I feel great. This is 100% due to my new approach to use index cards to record all my ideas (inspired by this awesome vid by the awesome Susan Dennard). I’ve been having loads of ideas, and the best thing is I haven’t been judging them. Before, I’d be so quick to declare one idea better than the other, and just as quick to try and nail down a story ASAP so I can write the draft and get the thing published as soon as humanly possible. 

Pfft. Not any more, folks. Now I’m on the chill train. I’m writing all those ideas down no matter how crap they are. I don’t care if they all don’t fit together in one story, because I’m letting the story come to me, and eventually, I’ll instinctively know which ones don’t belong. I have separated my index cards into Character, Story, Setting and Scenes, because my obsessive side can’t handle too much chaos, but I’m not having a Discard pile until the book is done. 

Also, reading older index cards (and by older I mean a few days old), I’m shocked to see ideas I can’t remember having. Seriously, how many ideas have I let float away over the years? And when did I stop recording them all? I used to write those babies down as soon as I had them, but somewhere along the road, I stopped doing this. BRAVO, APRIL, SUPER WELL DONE!

Another awesome thing is I can actually see how one idea leads to another, so even if a load end up being discarded, they will be just as important as the keepers, because the latter couldn’t exist without the former. I like to think of these ideas as warm-up ideas. 

And one more awesome thing is I’ve just had an awesome Brain Explosion for The Forest King. The book has already morphed so much in mind from that original 30k draft, and I was a bit worried that it was changing too much. But today I suddenly put a piece of the puzzle into place, and understood that I was still trying to say the thing I’d always wanted to say. All that’s changing is the surface story. You know, a lot of writers say not to start with big picture theme stuff, but I’m not like that. I’m always looking for the deeper meaning in a story, and the actual story I’m wanting to tell via subtext. I guess I can’t commit to a novel unless I think it has a deeper thematic meaning. Anyway, if I’m approaching it all wrong, then sod it, I don’t care. This is how I create. 

Geez Louise do I feel GOOD! 

How long will this last, I wonder? Oh well, I’ll find out soon enough. 

Index Cards

I’ve been using index cards the last few days to record my ideas. Here is a list of random thoughts I have about this method.

1) Using index cards is a waste of paper, and this stresses me out. If I continue with this method, I will reuse any card I can.

2) I use index cards to write down all ideas, no matter what they are. This has made me realise how many ideas I used to forget, how judgemental I was of all ideas (i.e. only recording the ‘good’ ones), and how basically closing myself off to recording all ideas encouraged my brain to stop having so many. I’m having lots of ideas now. 

3) I naturally want to ask questions and try and hammer out a story, but using index cards reminds me to relax a bit, and let the snippets come to me. 

4) Right now a lot of my ideas are contradictory. I’m cool with this. I’m happy to let the story slowly emerge. 

5) It’s satisfying to hold a stack of index cards.

6) I prefer smaller index cards.

7) I prefer multi-coloured index cards.

8) This new WordPress editor is the worst thing ever invented. 

The Daily Torment

I called this blog ‘The Honest Writer’ for a reason. My intention is never to make myself look good, or to present a falsehood about how I create. My sole intention is to reveal the gory details of writing novels, and that includes all the self-doubt and flip-flopping.

If you read even a few of these posts, you’ll see I’m the world’s greatest flip-flopper. I come up with one solution, only to ditch it a few days later and try something else. I should stick with something, I know. But this is the real face of someone struggling to create. This indecision is self-doubt and anxiety at work. It’s why I post in real-time; I don’t wait a few months then write a nice little summary about what happened, leaving out details that make me look clueless. I’m not here to give anyone any answers. I’m simply here to share my experience.

The truth is, this blog is mostly for me. I look back at old posts and see patterns. It helps me understand what’s going on in my brain. I see the same arguments coming up then going away again. ‘I like to plot, I like to pants; I like word counts, I hate word counts’. Round and round it goes in a never-ending circle.

Well, I’ve circled around again. I watched a video from Susan Dennard about brainstorming and planning via index cards, and it got me excited. It made me want to write (and it made me want to write on a day where I thought many times that I wanted to quit). That’s got to mean something, right? Because here’s the thing: I genuinely don’t know if I’m a pantser or a planner. In recent years I’ve veered towards the former because my outlines have failed, but, it’s also possible that because I’m so much of a planner my outlines have failed because they haven’t been detailed enough.

star trek spock GIF

I am a highly organised person in real life. I’m logical. My brain is more maths-y than artsy. I see patterns quite easily. I’m never late. I plan my meals out in advance. I have a high measure of fluid intelligence – high enough to put me in the top 2% of the population. I’m not saying this to brag – there’s so much more to a person than their IQ score – but it tells me about the type of person I am, and the type of brain I’ve been given. 

Now, this goes against the romantic image of an author. A ‘true writer’ enters flow state and loses track of all time. A ‘real writer’ is chaotic and disorganised. And I want to be like that. I want to be the romantic artist. But the truth is, I almost never lose track of time, and I enter flow state for a few seconds – if I’m lucky. Mental and physical chaos stress me out. Social chaos in the name of change, however, does not. But there’s a big difference between these two types of chaos. One relates to personal organisation and structure, and the other relates to social justice. So they’re not comparable. I can fight against the Machine and still maintain orderly to-do lists. 

rachel green friends GIF

Which leads me back to writing. I think I need to accept who I am, and my own methods of creativity. I’ll never be the disordered genius with scruffy hair who hasn’t showered in days (because bleurgh, that’s nasty). At heart, I’ll always be more Monica Geller than Phoebe Buffay. One is not better than the other. They’re just different. 

 So, long story short, I’m stepping back from drafting again. I pantsed 1000 words yesterday and I was miserable throughout. I felt out of control, and stressed. I was flying, but not in a good way. Instead, I’m going to sit with my notebook and index cards and give myself some REAL SPACE to brainstorm The Forest King. I’m not going to draft until I’m dying to write. This is going to be really hard for me. I’ll probably start drafting too early, burn out, then have to read this post and realise I started too soon. But it’s okay. I’m giving myself permission to keep messing up, so long as I never stop trying. But most of all, I’m giving myself permission to create however the hell I want. 

rachel green friends GIF

Reasons for the Block

I’ve been thinking about the creative process in the hope to understand my writer’s block. I also asked some other writers for help, and received some very insightful answers. As a result, I’ve come up with the following reasons for my own blockage:

1) I’ve been trying to stick too tightly within a genre. After I wrote The Night Mage, I made an effort to make my second book similar in genre. I struggle with writing series and if I have any hope of success I need my standalones to be semi-related. But I think I’ve boxed myself in too tight. I got so fixated on writing fairytale-esque fiction that I closed myself off to other avenues. I think I need to accept that I will always be the type of writer who hops around genres. This will probably mean my sales will suffer, but I can’t sell a bean if I’m not writing, so…

2) Similar to the above, I’ve been fixated too much on the end product. As soon as I start writing, I imagine the cover, the sub-genre on Amazon, the related books that I’ll use in my ad campaign… Ever since taking indie publishing seriously and scrubbing up on marketing, I’ve totally killed my creative freedom. By focusing on the end, I put too much pressure on the story and don’t allow for errors, so whenever something goes wrong, I panic and bail. I thought I’d taken the pressure off by accepting I’ll never be prolific, but it seems there was still another kind of pressure weighing down on my brain.   

3) I’ve sapped all fun out of creation. Even though I’ve been aware of this for a while and trying to bring the fun back, I’ve not succeeded. Why? Because of the expectation and pressure outlined above. And another thing: in my mind, writing is formal and rigid. If I were trying to create music or art, I’d explore, improvise, muck around. But with writing, I don’t do that. Is it because writing is introduced to us as something serious and packed with rules, whereas music and art are presented as more free-form? As children we’re encouraged to mess around on the drums or with a paintbrush, but our writing must be neat and exact and in straight lines. Is this why it’s so hard to have fun with writing? Is this why so many writers suffer? Hell, I don’t know. But I bet it plays a part.  

I think these are the main reasons behind my Block. After much thought and soul-searching (and a teeny bit of wine), I’ve come up with a solution:

I need to vomit draft.

(Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?!)

Now, I know, I like to cycle back as I go because messy first drafts stress me out, but the great thing is I can do both. If I split the process into two parts, I can spew out x thousand words in the morning, and then go back and edit in the afternoon. Pants first, cycle later.

hilarious kermit the frog GIF
This GIF makes me happy

I used to put too much focus on word count instead of story, but now I need to take focus away from story, because I’m putting too much pressure on the story itself. If my goal each morning is simply to hit a target, then I’m not giving my brain any room to question what I’m doing. Any maybe this isn’t a method that will work for me in the long-term, but right now my goal is to bash this Block into oblivion. And the only way I can do that is to write. Write any old crap. No project titles, no book playlists, no end-goal in sight. Nothing but a cold hard target that I have to hit every day. Just…have fun. Bash it out.  

And what better time to do this than in November, aka National Novel Writing Month? 

Ms. Predictable

I’ve run out of steam again. Seriously, this happens every three weeks. You could set your clock by it. 

This time around, I don’t like my characters, the tone is too serious, and I think the story is ultimately predictable and unoriginal. So, do I keep going, or do I start something new? Because here’s my dilemma: I don’t know if I’m quitting too easily, or if I’ve simply not found my next good idea. Every novelist has unfinished projects; what if I’m simply going through a bad patch? It’s been two years now since I took an idea to completion. In the big scheme of things, that’s not so bad, is it? Or is it terrible? I don’t know. 

The only possible solution I can think of is to start something new and write it completely into the dark – i.e. with no bloody clue where I’m headed. If I don’t know what the whole story looks like, I won’t be able to say the whole thing’s crap. Right? Of course, there’s a whole host of other problems that come from pantsing a novel, but at least I can identify them. I know what ‘I don’t know what comes next’ looks like. Also, with cycling as I go, I can correct a wrong turn quicker than if I write madly through the first draft. If I properly cyclepants a novel (yeah I’m owning that term) and I quit at the three week mark, I’ll know FOR SURE that the problem is with me, and not the idea. 

K. I’m doing it. All I need is an opening line.

Game face on.

Here we go again. 

star wars shot GIF
Born ready. 

Cyclepants

This is my new Method. But more on that in a sec. First, I just finished reading this essay about ambition. I would recommend. 

But back to the Method. I’ve been stuck on the third chapter of The Forest King for a while now, and I also know that the first two chapters need redone. So, rather than flail around in Chapter Three forever more, I decided to go back to the beginning, and revise/rewrite what I have so far. I removed the word count from Scrivener, and focused purely on the story. I also gave myself permission to veer away from my rough outline (pants), and to take the time to make the words nice as I go along (cycle). Hence, cyclepants. (For anyone not familiar with the term ‘cycling’, it’s basically revising as you go).

I’ve been dancing with this method for a few years now, ever since I read Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith. I don’t agree with everything he says, but nevertheless the book struck a real chord with me. Ever since, I’ve suspected I’m a true pantser, even though I enjoy the process of outlining. (The problem comes when I try and translate that outline into a novel.) I pantsed the first 60 pages of Midnight Shrine, then got completely stuck. I wonder if it was because I wrote it longhand, meaning I couldn’t cycle back and correct the path of the story whenever I felt myself veering off track. I think for cyclepants to work, I need to work on the computer. BUT, I’ll always have my notebook nearby so I can ask myself questions about the characters and what they’re feeling at the time. 

Obviously, it is with tongue planted firmly in cheek that I declare this my Method, because I know I have no Method. My brain refuses to accept one (for anything more than a fortnight) and all attempts at ‘finding my process’ have failed. So what I really should say is this is my new Method for writing this part of The Forest King. It feels right. My gut is telling me to do this. So I’m gonna do it. 

Next week, maybe the week after, it will probably all change again. 

ready bring it on GIF