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).
So, let’s see. Last time I checked in, I was writing 1000 words a day. In an unsurprising move, I’ve since ditched that approach (HA!) for the main reason that my story brain just doesn’t work that way. Yes, hitting a target every day is splendid for my sense of achievement, but for whatever bloody reason, my creative mind doesn’t build story bit by bit. It’s more of a dump-and-run kinda gal.
First Realisation (that I’ve already had but, as anyone who’s read more than one post on this blog can say, I change my mind about my process around six times a week): My story brain likes to work in big chunks, with breaks in between. Therefore, I’m better suited to heavy drafting days with time off, rather than a steady trickle. I wish this weren’t the case.
Using this approach, I’ve climbed to 36,000 words in Beauty and the Beast. Most of it is in my ‘Explorations’ folder, but hey, a word’s aword, right?
Nope. Because what I need are useable words – not words that take me down the wrong path.
Second Realisation (that I think is true but no doubt I’ll have the opposite ‘realisation’ in a week or so): I need to plan – and I mean really plan – before drafting. What I need to focus on is conflict. If I’ve worked out meaningful conflict, the scene practically writes itself. If I have crap conflict, I stumble, I procrastinate, and then I usually end up on the sofa watching Netflix and wondering if I’ll ever write anything decent ever again.
I think, in the past, I’ve not planned enough. Like, I’ll sketch out a scene that gets characters from A to B, think it’s alright, then move on. But what I really need to do is dig far deeper than that. I need to check conflict and drama. I need to make sure motivations are sound. It’s a little like testing a theory or a new invention. I can’t settle for the first thing that appears to work; I’ve got to diligently test every component, and accept that the first attempts will fail under scrutiny. But it’s better to get it right in the early stages in order to save me from hellish days stuck at the computer where I know the story has gone wrong and therefore I’m wrong and therefore I suck and oh god please give me the gin.
So yeah. That’s where I’m at. I’m planning. I’m working on central conflicts, chucking out most of it and keeping a nugget here and there. I don’t know when I’ll add to the manuscript, and I don’t know if, when I get there, I’ll feel like the fun is gone because I know what happens. If that is the case, I don’t know if that’s just a downside to spending so much time making sure my story’s foundation is solid.
I’m 16,000 words into Beauty and the Beast. It’s equally fun and difficult and daunting.
Yesterday I mapped out the two main threads, coming up with the primary scenes. Then I stuck them in Scrivener and sort of left it at that. Today, writing my 1k, I didn’t want to write any of them. Now, I don’t know if that’s because they’re ‘planned’, so the fun has been sapped, or if it’s because I haven’t envisioned them fully yet, so they’re still half-done. I’m not sure whether to keep hopping around out of order, or to try and cobble together a rough skeleton and write along those bones.
I guess the only thing I can do is to stick to my 1k, and plan the next day’s 1k every day, and just…see what happens. See where my brain wants to go. It’s frightening to have no plan. And it’s also frightening to know that my creative mind gets freaked out by plans and runs away and hides in a dark cave. Why does sitting down and typing stories have to be so bloody scary?
Talking about scary, I went to see BlacKkKlansman last night. Wow. What a film. It manages to be powerful, tense, deeply moving and upsetting, but also really funny. I came out of the cinema feeling numb and a bit helpless (and was kinda shocked to see so many folk smiling and talking. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that the ending is…impactful). Anyway, it’s a brilliant film. I wish it wasn’t still relevant in this so-called Modern Age, but sadly it is. Go see it.
I’ve accepted that writing is never easy. Those little nuggets of inspiration? Yeah, hard to come by. And they’re rare. Unpredictable. Impossible to conjure or command.
I’ve accepted – like, really, fully accepted – that writing is a grind. It’s a daily battle with the blank page. Often it feels like grim death. Occasionally it feels like a bliss so pure it brings tears to my eyes.
So, I’ve been continuing my daily 1000 words, and I have to say, it’s been bloody brilliant. I always assumed that, when I started to break myself all those years ago, it was because of my new 1k-a-day habit. But now I’m thinking it wasn’t the target, but the increased pressure I was putting on myself. The 1k was a symptom, not the cause. I dunno for sure. But it could be true.
Anyway, I’m around 12,000 words into my latest version of Beauty and the Beast (cannot believe I’m writing this!), and it’s starting to get hard, because now Nothing Is Happening, and my characters are empty, and my world is sparse, and I’ve got no clue what comes next.
From recent experience, I know it’s around 10-20k where I quit and move onto something new. Well this time, I’m prepared. And this time, I believe in the project more than I’ve believed in anything since Night Mage. And this time, I’ve got my 1k to keep me steady. All I have to do is get 1000 words down, and then another, and another…until the story begins to appear and I can start chopping and moving stuff around. It might take 80 days, 90, 100+. It doesn’t matter. Because I know I’ll get there, so long as I cling to my daily 1k.
When I first started the draft, I wrote linearly, as I usually do. But since getting stuck – maybe around 8k? – I’ve jumped around, hopping to any scene that comes into my head. Sometimes I almost panic, wondering if I’m making a massive mess, but then I calm myself down and remind myself to trust the process, trust my creative mind, and trust the steady beat of 1000 words every day. (Seriously every day – even days when I’m ill or hungover or really can’t be arsed. Only when I’m away on holiday, which is hardly ever, do I get to take a break.)
So, right now I’m a firm convert of a daily writing target (oh, if old me could see me now!) and I’m approaching murky waters BUT I’ve got my oar and a wobbly compass and I’m sailing forth, into the unknown.
Last night I told myself I’d have a few heavy writing days to get my word count up and push through the 20/30k mark for the first time in aaaages.
In other words, after only a week or so, I’m trying to push harder. Well, this morning as I sat at my desk, I realised that if I pushed for say, 6k, I’d probably fall short, or if I did hit the target, I’d be burned for tomorrow. And the words would probably be crap. And I’d start wondering why I can’t write 6k every day…
I’m not going down that road. 1k a day is a perfectly good target. I think I was pushing for more because I’m not far enough into the manuscript to start editing, so I’m a bit lost as to what to do in the afternoon. But, I can world-build. In fact, I can focus on pure world-building for the first half of the manuscript, and then in the second half, I should have enough material to know where the story is roughly heading, and so I can begin editing.
So. Yeah. My morning has already been packed with contradictions, which is pretty standard, to be honest. Now, I’m going to write one thousand words and spend the rest of the day musing the characters, building the world, and thinking about tomorrow’s thousand.
Another day, another talk to reassure myself that I am heading in the right direction and haven’t completely lost it.
So, I’ve kinda been writing 1000 words a day. I don’t know how it started or why I thought it was a good idea, given the last few months have seen me move away from word counts on the basis they mess up my mental health.
BUT, here’s A Thing – if I don’t write every day, my days can get a little unstructured, and if I don’t have a firm target, I can be too hard on myself and not know when I’ve done ‘enough’.
But if I write 1000 words every day, I create something new every day, and I have a simple finish line, and I also have bags of time to do the proper writing – the editing, the musing, the staring into space with my mouth hanging open.
So yeah, maybe I need a daily word count. Or maybe I don’t. It’s obvious I don’t actually know what I really need and maybe what I need changes on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and I used to be angry and embarrassed because I was so unpredictable, but fuck it, I’m an artist; I’m supposed to be a trainwreck. Guess I just have to live with it.
What a bloody brilliant show this is. I binge-watched all four seasons in like, six days, and then I learned that AMAZON HAS CANCELLED IT. According to the Hollywood Reporter “the move is…in line with the [new chief]’s directive to shift away from niche indie projects and deliver broader, big-budget swings in an attempt to land the next Game of Thrones”.
Well fuck that. God, instead of trying to replicate the last, inimitable big hit, why not do something bloody interesting and new and different – something like Mozart in the bloody Jungle.
I’m mad. And sad. And just…ugh.
(And this new wordpress editor is still the most ridiculous, convoluted piece ofcrap.)
But, despite my rage, I’m also feeling inspired. I want to make good art. I want to make my own, unique art. And in this new age of publishing, there’s room now for niche indie projects.
Urgh. WordPress have forced this new, unnecessarily complicated editor on me and I’m all confused. (I’m easily confused. I’m technologically stunted.)
But apart from that, something even stranger has happened.
On Saturday I was listening to Wolf Totem, by James Horner, and an idea hit me out of the blue: a complete story idea, with characters, world, and a general gist of the character arcs. Like, the kind of vivid idea I had when I cooked up The Night Mage.
And this new idea…it was for Beauty and the Beast.
(Cue me gasping in disbelief.)
Beauty and the Beast? Seriously? I thought I’d beaten that thing to a pulp. But no…it seems there’s a determined wee bugger in my brain that wants to write that story after all.
So, I’m not abandoning Midnight Shrine. No way. But I am going to play with this Beauty and the Beast idea on the side, and see what happens.
I’m sitting here listening to The Last Jedi soundtrack and bawling my eyes out. (It’s cool, I’m in an empty house.) I love that film more than any other. And I love Rey more than words can describe.
Seriously though I’m gonna have to reapply my eyeliner before I go out again.
Anyway, back to business. I have had, somewhat miraculously, an awesome day.
In fact, miracles had nothing to do with it…
It began when I pulled out a notebook of mine from 2013 (pre messed-up) and read through my old to-do lists (riveting morning, eh?). Anyway, these to-do lists proved to be very illuminating, because I saw that I made a list each day of the scenes I wanted to map/write/edit, the characters I had to think about, research I had to do, elements I had to weave through the book… Basically, there was no talk of page or word counts, or first draft this, second draft that. I mean, I knew my approach used to be far more organic, but I didn’t realise, until seeing it right before me, just how messy my natural process is.
Well, after reading it, I felt connected to that old me, and I immediately made a to-do list for the day.
And then I got to work. And the writing felt awesome. And I felt in control of the book, and daunted by the project, but in a really good way. I removed my word count from Scrivener and have had no urge to look.
It sounds so simple and obvious, but having a to-do list that operates only in terms of story (no cold word counts here) makes such a difference to my attitude. It’s kinda hard to explain…but all I know is I’m not giving up my to-do list ever again.
I’m hoping this puts an end to the last fortnight of funky mood. I’m ready to feel good again.
The Night Mage is available for only 0.99 at KOBO in the US and CANADA until the 6th of August, as part of Kobo’s Summer Price Drop sale.
BACK TO THE POST:
My problem is I’m too hard on myself. My other problem is I let myself off the hook too easily.
I don’t allow myself to be flexible. I allow myself to quit when the going gets tough.
I never used to be like this. Honest. Something went bad… In my search to increase productivity, I broke myself. That, my friends, is irony.
Anyway, I took my handwritten pages for Midnight Shrine and typed up the first two, then thought it was a waste of time because all of it would be rewritten anyway, so instead I typed up the page headings and listed them as scenes in Scrivener. There are two main narrative threads in Midnight Shrine and one is coming to me clearer, so I’m going to write that one first. I’d rather work linearly, but every time I think about the beginning my brain seizes with panic.
Every book is different. For this book, my gut is telling me to start with the easier of the threads, so that’s what I’m gonna do.
(goes to Starbucks and opens project, which I’m going to refer to as Midnight Shrine from now on, because I change projects so often that even I can’t keep track of what book I’m referring to in posts) Is this coffee actually decaf? (confirms with barista)
(reads yesterday’s work) This stuff is absolute garbage; I’m going to write out of order, writing a scene only when it’s epic
(reads old newsletters from Susan Dennard) I love Susan Dennard
(plays MS’s soundtrack; writes down fuzzy vision of what I want this book to be) I don’t have enough mystery for this book and the romance isn’t strong
I never had a flash of inspiration for this book; it all grew out of discovery-writing
Do I really want to write this book?
When was the last time I had a good idea for a book? Oh, THE NIGHT MAGE FFS.
(mentally searches through old half-finished manuscripts such as The Forest King and, god help me, Beauty and the Beast) I don’t want to write any of these books either
I have no ideas I am broken do I even want to be a writer and is it relevant because it’s clear I cannot write and yeah I have no ideas
(reads through old blog posts about how I’ve been quitting too easily and have been driven mad by perfectionism and pressure to produce) Ohh….
Okay maybe I’ve been quitting too easily
Maybe Midnight Shrine is the best I’ve got so far
Maybe Midnight Shrine seems difficult because I have much higher standards these days and I want this book to be utterly gripping and jammed with mystery and damn that stuff is hard to write and I simply have a lot of work to do to get this book to where I want it to be and Midnight Shrine is the most complex book I’ve ever attempted to write
I promised myself I had to finish this book because it’s been so long since I finished one and if I don’t relearn how to complete a book my fledgling career is over before it ever got going
Okay gonna work on Midnight Shrine
It’s a new dawn, a new day, and I’m gonna write this bloody book even if it kills me. Even if it turns out so terrible it never sees the light of day, this is about me proving to myself that I can still write a novel. I’m not broken. I can’t believe that.