The Honest Writer

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). 

When Not Writing is Writing

My lack of blogging recently means all’s been good. I’ve been plugging away at a couple of different projects, sticking to my qualitative approach to recording my days, and generally being a happy writer bunny. 

There have been times, however, when dodgy thoughts have crept into my head. One such thought appeared last week, when I was redoing the outline for my main WIP. A voice in my head said, “This isn’t really work.” 

And at first I believed it. After all, I’d done the outline the previous week. So this meant I was messing about, procrastinating, not really putting in any effort. 

But then I thought, “Hey. That’s crap. I am thinking; I am focused. I’m not on the internet, or daydreaming about nothing. I’m working on this bloody book. So it counts, Other Voice, and nothing you can say will make me change my mind!”

(Cue me fist-pumping the air in a busy Starbucks.)

This wee exchange got me thinking about work and writing. I think it’s problematic that one part of the process is actually writing, yet we call all of it writing. It’s also problematic when huge pressure to produce twists writers into thinking they can’t redo anything. In other words, they can’t make mistakes. 

I’m recovering from these toxic thoughts (only typing counts as work/every task must be completed only once), so now’s a good time to present the alternative. My current working model is this: choose the aspect of writing you enjoy most, and do as much learning there as you can. 

So, there are three parts to writing a novel: planning, drafting and revising. My approach now is to spend as much time in my favourite bit (planning), in the hope it reduces my time in the other two. Now, focusing on one area does not mean I’ll not make mistakes in the others. Every single part of the process will incur wrong-turns, errors, and realisations that the current stuff isn’t good enough. But hopefully by putting a lot of leg-work into the planning phase, it should reduce – not eliminate – the time spent in drafting and revising. 

As a thought experiment I worked through what my process would look like if I favoured any of the three parts.

Planning: I spend a lot of time refining outlines, building the world, checking the underlying structure, and fixing the foundations as much as I can, until I reach the natural point where I should begin drafting. Whenever I hit a snag in the drafting or revision phase, I immediately stop and go back to planning, and then continue where I left off. In theory, I shouldn’t draft too many wasted words, and revision shouldn’t be too hefty – dealing more with words and sentences than the underlying story.

Drafting: I spend a minimal amount of prep (if any) before diving into my story. I draft far more words than I need for manuscript, and learn about the story by writing it out. I read back every day, checking where the story has gone stale or off-course, and needs to be rewritten. By the time I reach The End, I’ve got a decent draft, thanks to all my rewriting along the way. Revision will be focused on little details. 

Revising: The typical Nano method. I spend a short amount of time on a plan, enough to get a general feel for the book, and then I vomit out a draft, not reading back, not correcting, but simply getting to The End no matter how hard it is. I turn off my inner editor and fly on momentum. Then, the hard work begins. I spend a large amount of time pulling the book apart and fixing it through revision. New scenes will need to be written, but drafting will be kept to a minimum. My job here is to fix what I have already. 

I favour planning, so my method looks more like the top description. I wish I favoured drafting, because I think that’s the best way to learn about your story. However, it doesn’t fit with my process. I certainly tried for a lot of the last couple of years to be the writer who explores everything through drafting, but I get stressed when I know I’m writing a mess, and then I get so deep into the book I can’t see where it’s gone wrong. I need to see the structure of a book from up high, usually in the form of many (many) spreadsheets. 

The point of all this is to demonstrate that every stage counts, and even if you’re not a lover of drafting, there are ways to get around it. Doesn’t make you any less of a storyteller. 

Fear

Nazgul. These dudes always scared the crap out of me. It was the idea of always being hunted, always being chased… I remember watching Fellowship for the first time (seriously the day my life changed) and being utterly terrified throughout as old memories stirred up (I started LOTR when I was a bit too young and stopped at the Prancing Pony). 

On a related note, I’m at 33 miles in my Walk to Mordor challenge, which means I encountered my first Black Rider yesterday. Think I might run today… Get them off my tail. 

Yesterday was an important day for Fear; not only did I brush past one of those scary mofos, but I also had a major breakthrough in understanding my own fear. I decoupled, at long last, the childhood survival-mode Fear from the adult me. Childhood Fear (which I picture living on the back of my neck at the base of my brain) was formed at a time when I was alone, afraid and unsure of my surroundings and relationships with others. It is terrified of failure for reasons that are no longer relevant. It’s terrified of dependency, not knowing that I need never be dependent again. I’m an adult now, and I can look after myself and my Childhood Fear. If we fall, I will catch us – no need for anyone else. 

This is relevant to writing because my Fear had latched onto writing, wrongly assuming that writing was associated with survival. It believed that if I fail at writing, we will Fail, and therefore have to rely on other people – people we can’t trust, or rely on to be kind and gentle and unconditionally loving. When in reality, my goal of becoming a successful writer is a privileged, top-of-the-pyramid dream, akin to attempting to become an astronaut or leader of a country. If it happens, awesome; if it doesn’t, well, it was a lofty goal to begin with, and I’ll learn to enjoy another path. But my Childhood Fear didn’t know the difference, therefore wreaking havoc on my mental health and leaving me in an almost-permanent state of stress, anxiety, fear and panic. It left me feeling like a child. 

But now I’ve cut the connection. I recognise the base Fear, and appreciate its role and the good things it’s given me (hey there, creativity, autonomy and tenacity!), and I’ve also gently removed its fingers from issues it’s not concerned with. If I don’t make it as a writer, then that’ll suck, but I’ll survive. I’ll find a way to make the most of life through other means. I’m an adult, and now it is my choice whether I rely on others or not. Childhood Fear can relax knowing I’m in charge, not other people, and that I have its back always. Unconditionally.

I can’t tell you how liberating this is. 

(But now, I must flee the Black Riders. Engage, Childhood Fear – you’re on!)

Walking to Mordor

No, not a euphemism for mental illness; I’m genuinely walking to Mordor. And back. Wanna walk it too? Scroll down to the bottom of this post.

I’ve decided that walking is going to be my exercise of choice because a) I like it, b) I have time to do it, c) I can take my dictaphone and Muse. Also, fresh air is supposed to be good for humans. Or so I’ve heard.

Anyway, I’ve been preoccupied with walking the last few days, so I’ve not been getting heaps of work done. I did outline two books yesterday, but that’s the most I’ve done this week. I have, however, figured out a way to track my productivity without being too tracky. Instead of counting time, pages or words, I’m simply rating myself out of four. 

My Scientific Ratings

1 – I did a wee bit of work

2 – I did a decent bit of work

3 – I did a big bit of work

4 – I did a bloody awesome amount of work and now I’ve sprouted rainbow wings

There are no official guidelines; I’m simply using my intuition. Using quantitative data with regards to writing MESSES ME UP. It’s cool for something like miles walked to Mordor, because you add to it every single day and you know you’re on the right track. But writing doesn’t work like that. It’s not as simple as putting your foot out the door and then one after the other. It’s back and forward, right, left, up and down, all over the bloody place. So, flying unicorns it is. 

Schedules and Word Counts

There was a happy time when I did not care about word counts. My goal was to write a chapter a week, or to fix X problem by March, or write a first draft during Camp Nano. And then I got sucked in by word counts, and the daily targets of different writers. My mind has been a mess ever since. 

My obsession with word counts also mucked up my planning and scheduling. I went from being a sensible, organised planner, to an obsessive one, constantly tweaking and amending, aiming too high, then freaking out if I aimed too low (I can do more than this, surely?). My diary became a stream of times (for a daily plan) and my hard drive became a graveyard of abandoned yearly spreadsheets. Looking back, I think I crept onto the spectrum of OCD. It wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t helpful. 

My solution to stop this has been to abandon plans altogether. I’m afraid to put a deadline on a book, or to set a daily word count. Yet, I still track my words. I’m not sure why, but I can’t seem to let it go. I feel like I’m losing some vital piece of information if I stop tracking. 

Which is nonsense. And I know it is when I write it out like that. 

(So why won’t I let it go?)

I don’t think either extreme is useful; it’s good to have a schedule, to have deadlines to meet. But I’m still learning how to find balance.

Another problem comes from being an indie author. The only deadlines I have are ones I set myself, which can be AWESOME, but also TERRIBLE. Because, how do I decide when to publish?  Many indies can produce at lightning speed, but I’m not one of them. Yet the established wisdom is you need to publish frequently to survive, and this is also seeping into the traditional side of publishing. A book a year is becoming standard, especially for new authors, and some are publishing two, even three a year. 

When you have all the control, you have to think about your own mental health, and about your work-life balance. You also have to think about your career, obviously, and how hard you’re willing to work. But the quality of the book can’t be compromised, and neither should the quality of your life. (Empty lives can lead to empty novels.) This is an awful lot to take into consideration, and it becomes very difficult when all the decisions land at your own feet. 

The question ultimately boils down to this: how many books do I want to publish a year? Because once I have that number, I can figure out my schedule. 

I have a lot of thinking to do.

Refining Realisations

I wrote 1000 words yesterday, which was a nice start to the week. I haven’t set myself a word target for April – I don’t think it would be helpful given my delicate recovery from the Block – but my goal is to write something every day. Saying that, I would like to get at least another thousand in today. 

As I’ve been refining my overall creative vision the last couple of days, I’ve realised that I was almost right when I thought I wanted to write fairytales, but I needed to drill down deeper into the genre. So, in the corner of fairytale fiction, I like to write fantasy that has a fairy tale feel (ala Night Mage), or I like to retell Scottish folk stories. I don’t actually like to write retellings of the big Grimm tales or other well-known western stories (mostly, I’ve come to realise, because those are not my stories to tell. I am not German or Danish or French); my interest lies in Scotland. As it should. Cultural appropriation is something I take very seriously. Scottish culture is appropriated all the time and it is annoying at best and offensive at worst.

Retellings aside, I also don’t like stories that involve lots of ballgowns and princes. Neither appeal to me. Instead, I like mysterious magic; dark, wintry woods; brave heroines; dangerous fairies and ill-advised wishes. That’s the sort of story I like – not pumpkins, wicked stepmothers and glittery frocks. 

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that it’s okay to change your mind, or to refine your ideas. Understanding the kind of stories I like to write is an ongoing learning curve, and no doubt my preference in stories will change as I grow older. But for now, I feel like I know where my little nook in the storyworld is, and I’m pretty damn happy to be here.

WIP: 1544.

Trusting the Gut Part 2

In light of my recent realisation regarding the book I had to be working on, I had another wee revelation…

The book is a standalone. The magic is low-fi. The biggest emphasis is on character, not world-building. It’s the kind of book I realised I wanted to write sometime in 2016. Before, I thought my heart lay in (typically 3rd person) big ole fantasy. But now I know that my favourite books and films don’t necessarily align to the type of story I want to write. 

The Night Mage was a pivotal book in my final realisation and acceptance of the sort of stories I want to tell – at this point in my life, anyway. After The Night Mage, I started a few other stories that never got anywhere, and then I landed on this story. I wrote 30k or so, then read it through, declared it a disaster and decided to write three traditional retellings (think girls in sparkly dresses) over the summer. Why? Because I thought it would make financial sense. 

Yeeaaah. You can maybe see just how messed up my thought process was back then, and how much pressure I was putting on myself. What followed was nine months of battling Beauty and the BLOODY BEAST, when what I should have done was realised my mistake, accepted that books can’t be rushed and need many drafts, and gone back to the stories I like best. My ideas petered out, then dried up completely. The Block hit. And my mental health – on a downward trend for a couple of years – struck a frightening low.

What’s kind of annoying is I made a similar mistake the year before, pursuing a book for months and months when it was clear I didn’t want to write it. Yes, books are hard, but if a book is giving you endless pushback, then I believe that book isn’t meant to be written. I should have learned my lesson and given up on B&B, but sadly, I kept going. Sometimes tenacity can be a flaw.

Anyhoo, as I said, my ideas gradually shrivelled up during my months of chasing Beauty and the Beast. Well, in the few days that have passed since my relearning of an old lesson, I’ve had four ideas spring up. These ideas will probably amount to nothing, BUT, it’s like the good old days, when I had bolts of inspiration on a regular basis.

The lesson I must learn is this, folks:

DO NOT write a story because I think it will be commercially viable.

DO NOT pursue a story that is fighting me every inch of the way and giving me nothing in return.

DO stop and think about what’s wrong if I feel myself becoming blocked.

DO pursue the kind of stories I love to WRITE, which might not be identical to those I love to READ and WATCH. 

I’m determined not to make these mistakes again. Always, always listen to the gut.*

 

*Ever read GUT by Giuilia Enders? I recommend it. Makes you think twice about where the centre of yourself lies… (And about the junk food you inflict on your poor digestive system.)

Trusting the Gut

I started writing! Hoorah! I wrote, ooo 250 words? then gave up. Now, that sounds bad. But I had a reason, and the reason was this: all the time I was writing, my gut was screaming at me that I didn’t want to write this book. 

I ignored it as long as I could, then took a break and skimmed through some old projects. One jumped out like a bolt of lightning. I wrote a very scruffy all-over-the-place draft around four years ago, and reasoned that, though it was a good idea, the MS was just too big of a mess to ever return to. 

But after skimming through it, the story now makes sense. I know which elements are relevant and which are not. I know my character’s backstory, and the road she has to travel. All of this makes perfect sense now because the story is far more autobiographical than I’d previously realised. I’ve needed this time to process my own crap in order to fully understand my main character and the journey she has to go on. In other words, I have to write this book and I have to write it now.

Good thing is I have the 3rd person mess to use as a guide, which I’m going to rewrite completely in 1st person. I also know my characters pretty well (and I dreamt about them last night, which is always a good sign). My goal is to write something every day for the whole of April. 

This is the book. This is the one I’m going to complete. I shall call it, Project Mountain. 

PM total: 280.

I have a long way to climb. 

Climbing Out the Hole

I’ve had a ropey last few days. Monday was grand; I came out of A Wrinkle in Time feeling so good, so positive, and then something went wrong on Monday evening. Each afternoon since then has been a drag of lethargy, leading me to the sofa, leading me to Bad Places. 

When I feel bad, I feel like a failure, like I have no control over my life, that I’m nothing but a useless housewife (no offence to any housewives; I simply want a career of my own, and not being financially independent while I chase my goal is intensely frustrating and scary for me). When I feel bad, I also feel lonely, and my life feels empty, and everything basically feels like shit. 

Well, I’ve had 2.5 days of feeling crap, and I’m determined not to have another day like it. I’m just so sick of bad moods, anxiety, depression… So my first step is to not drink alcohol or eat any junk food. I had a wedding at the weekend, where I boozed and ate some bad stuff, and I’ve been eating junk every day since. Funny thing about junk: it makes you want more junk. Today I woke up craving a pastry for breakfast (and not even a vegan pastry), but I forced myself to make my amazing banana milkshake, and now I feel full and satisfied without any guilt. I’ve got delicious sushi for lunch, and something nice planned for dinner. I’m seeing my counsellor today however, and I usually come out of that feeling very emotional and very much in need of wine, so I’ll need to combat that urge. Alcohol-free beer all round!

On the writing front, I’ve crawled forward on my story structure, and now I feel like I’ve done all the planning I want to do before drafting. I’ve had real problems finishing manuscripts in the last year – likely due to perfectionism and a self-generated pressure to make the book right in as fast a time as possible – so I need to constantly remind myself that first drafts are supposed to be crap. I’ve forgotten that. (I’ve forgotten so much in the last couple of years, as I’ve crushed myself under pressure to produce at a crazy rate… Sigh.) To fight this perfectionism, I think I need to get drafting. Get some words down, ugly words, and tell myself on a daily (hourly?) basis that this is fine, and all that fancy stuff about theme and story structure can come in during the second, third, umpteenth drafts. That was how I used to write, before the Great Darkness descended. 

Even as I write this, I’m scared. Terrified, actually, to start writing. I’m scared that what I’ll write will be terrible. I’ll waste words, which means wasting time, and I can’t waste time because- ohgodohgodohgod! I have to face my fear. I have to get over this! Get the words down, then fix the words. Rewrite them, even. But I can’t fix a blank page. 

How is it that seven years in, I’m more scared of writing a book than I was when I started? How does it seem more impossible now, even though I’ve completed numerous manuscripts, and published a few to boot? This is why writers drink and suffer a myriad of mental health illnesses. WRITING A BOOK IS SO FECKIN’ HARD. 

I can’t bring myself to finish this post because when I finish, I’ll need to start the book.

But I’ve got to. Fear leads to the dark side. I have to punch fear in the face, by doing the thing that scares me most. I have to tell myself I’m capable of doing hard things. I have to believe in myself. Believe, believe, believe. 

K. I’m going now. I’m going to write some words. And they’re going to be terrible and will probably get cut in revision, but write them I must. 

HERE I GO!

A Guide to Star Wars ‘Fanboys’

Rogue One: Female lead in a cast of men (I think there are seven female faces in Rogue One, all are white, and one is reanimated) whose goal is centred around her father, who loves another man, who dies.

“BEST FILM SINCE THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY.”

The Force Awakens: Female lead in a film that *just* passes the Bechdel test, who looks up to Han Solo yet wins a battle without his help.

“A WEAK RETELLING OF THE ORIGINAL WITH A MARY SUE LEAD.”

The Last Jedi: Female lead in a film with women of colour, women making key story decisions, women in command over men, women rejecting men, no women sexualised, women in command over men wearing long dresses, women taking the Bechdel test and smashing it to smithereens…

“LITERALLY THE WORST FILM EVER MADE.”

Suspicious Pants

*moonwalks onto the page*

I am feeling GOOD about this book. YES! I’ve been working on the main characters and their relationships (and I’m getting somewhere in the lovey-dovey department), and my next task is to cobble together a rough outline of all the stuff that’s going to happen. 

Which brings me to the issue of plotting and pantsing. (Actually, it’s not an issue. It’s just something writers like to talk about when they’re stuck on a problem.)

So, I was wondering how much to plot before drafting. I fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes (like 99.99% of writers out there, hence the lack of Issue), but, in the last couple of years, have drifted more to pantsy waters, the reasons for doing so being, A) I read Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark and it struck a major chord, and B) I grew suspicious of outlines that never stick the landing. What’s the point in planning something out if you always veer from the plan? Sounds like wasted effort to me. 

HOWEVER, I’ve had a thought. What if the reason I ditch plans is because I’m doing a crappy job matching my words to my vision? I mean, if I know the character well enough, then what’s the difference between planning their actions in an outline and writing them out in prose? Yes, it’s possible that rushed and shallow planning can result in character actions not making sense when it comes to writing scenes; however, it seems strange to me that, with proper thought, characters behave naturally in my head, then magically try to act another way when it comes to the actual page.

All of this has me wondering: is it more a case of reality not matching the imagined, thus causing me to give up? When I write by the seat of my pants, I don’t have a clue where it’s going, therefore I have no vision to compare it to, therefore there’s a smaller chance of me thinking it’s a pile of crap. Hmm… While I can’t say for sure, I’m certainly suspicious. 

With this in mind, I’m going to sketch out an overall rough skeleton for the book, and plan each scene before writing it. I’m hoping to have my outline done by the end of this month, so I can draft all through April. (Fun fact: I like to do big stuff in April, for the obvious reason. Last year, I made sure to publish The Night Mage in April. For luck? I dunno. It just felt right.)