This blog is an open and honest account of what it’s like to be an author, in the hope it helps others on the same journey feel less alone. I change my mind, I babble, and I occasionally over-share. Please ignore any advice I give (except the advice about ignoring the advice).
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.
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.
I’ve been using index cards the last few days to record my ideas. Here is a list of random thoughts I have about thismethod.
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 indexcards.
6) I prefer smaller index cards.
7) I prefer multi-coloured index cards.
8) This new WordPress editor is the worst thing ever invented.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
This is my new Method. But more on that in asec. 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 yougo).
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.
Why do I keep switching to the present tense for The Forest King? It doesn’t work with the way the story is told. Yet every few sentences I catch myself slipping back into present.GAH!
(Seriously, just have to vent about this new WordPress editor again – it is the worst. The WORST.)
Anyway, I struggled with drafting today. My plan originally was to finish Chapter Two. I got a few hundred words in, then really started to toil. To avoid moving ahead, I reread earlier stuff and made tweaks here and there, which is when I realised that editing is moderately easier than drafting. As the old saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page.
So I decided to stuff the inner editor into a box, then put that box inside a bigger box, and then SMASH IT WITH A HAMMER!
The result? 1000 words of some real hairy drafting, but it’s all good, cos I can fix it later on. With Nano just around the corner, now’s the perfect time for me to get back into the habit of vomit-drafting. It’s funny, sometimes I feel like everything has to be perfect before I can move ahead, and other times I feel like I need to reach The End so I can see the whole story, and then go in and make big changes. And when I say funny I mean annoying.
In these dark and troubled times, I ask myself: how do we resist? Is the answer anger and aggression? Or is it understanding? But how do we understand people with so much hate in their hearts?
How can love and acceptance win when abuse, corruption and intolerance poison our species? And if we do choose to accept, does that mean we must accept everyone, including the sexists, rapists, homophobes, racists, abusers, cheaters, liars and money-grabbers?
In all this darkness, how do we bring out the light?
I don’t have the answer. But it’s something I’m thinking about every day. I want to believe the right way isn’t to fight fire with fire. I don’t want a ‘war’, because then there will be a perceived winner and loser, and people will do anything to avoid being on the losing side. I want to believe in peace and compassion, but right now, I have no idea how to successfully employ these ideals in the current toxic climate.
Anyway, that’s enough serious stuff for a moment. Back to writing stories:
Yesterday I finished the first chapter of The Forest King, and then immediately figured out what Chapter One should really look like (i.e. nothing like its current form). But, the cool thing is I was excited – which means my brain is here for the long haul. In a lot of recent projects, a realisation like this would have sent me into despair. This time around, however, I’m totally relaxed about doing lots of future drafts.
I’m not going to fix Chapter One now. Instead, I’m going to complete the full first draft, so I can see the entire story at once. Then, I’ll dive back and make all the major changes. Thanks to Scrivener, I can easily make all my editing notes alongside the manuscript. Oh Scrivener, where would I be without you?
I’m still struggling to maintain realistic expectations about how long it takes me to write a book. I said in my previous post that I wanted both Forest King and Midnight Shrine out by May 2019, but already I want to revise that to June. And even then…I’m prepared to push back if the books aren’t ready.
As for Midnight Shrine, I’m still in the brainstorming phase. Once I’m done with FK for the day, I turn my thoughts to MS. It’s a nice wee shift of gears. This multi-project thing is pretty fun. Should have done it a long timeago…
I had a GOOD DAY today! And I was knackered, and felt physically crappy, and the words took soooo long, but I still wrote 2000 words of The Forest King and brainstormed some big ideas about Midnight Shrine and I was super-dooper excited about both projects.
Oh, why can’t I bottle this feeling so I can have a little sip whenever it disappears? I guess all I can do is read this post and remember the good times.
Today I also mapped out a rough publishing schedule. I hope to have both books out by May 2019, but I’m also allowing myself to take longer if I need it. I think both these stories are more complex than anything I’ve tackled before, and they’re going to need a lot of work during revisions. I’m not going to rush either one. I just have to stay patient, and keep my head down.