Archives: Stuff I Learn About Writing

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

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. 

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? 

This Is My Problem

Well, one of my problems. 

My BIGGEST problem is this: I want writing to be simple. I’m not dumb enough to want it to be easy, but I want the process to be reliable and predictable. I want to write 1000 words a day and 100 days later have a first draft. I want to follow a nice editing to-do list that will lead me to a clean second draft. I want to make an outline and then write to that outline. Or I want to write into the dark, and have all the pieces magically fall into place. I want to write by hand and edit when I’m typing up. I want to brainstorm via dictation in the morning and then happily get words down in the afternoon. I want to find my process, my way of doing things. I want to find the perfect schedule, the perfect day. I want habit and routine and for everything to move along at a steady beat. 

Except, I also don’t want that. I’m rebellious by nature. And stories are too. They refuse to act alike. They refuse to act consistently across their lifespans. They’re difficult, unpredictable contrarians. Just like my stupid brain. 

So that’s my problem. I want control when creation is uncontrollable. I want routine and order when a deeper part of me prefers disorder and chaos. 

My solution is I need to soak up the truths from this Chuck Wendig article and remind myself every bloody day that my process is an unknowable, mystical being and my inner chimp throws a major hissy fit whenever I tell it how to spend its day. I have to be present; I have to do things because I enjoy being busy. I have to do something that contributes to the creation of fiction, no matter what it is. I have to forget daily word counts and routines and all that crap. I have to stick with my qualitative approach to recording my progress, because it’s good for me. I have to stop freaking out about all that stuff that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how I do it; I just need to do it.

Urgh. When will I learn?

Motivation

Motivation is something every writer deals with. Some days, the motivation flows easy. But other days – let’s face it, most days – it can be hard to ignore distractions and actually get shit done. I envy those writers who say they have a burning desire, almost a compulsion, to create. Look, I love writing. Bloody love it. And I believe it’s the Thing I’m Meant To Do. But I don’t feel physically compelled to do it – not every day, anyway. 

A common source of motivation, especially in the indie world, is to earn more money. To become one of those six-figure authors… But here’s the problem with me having a goal like ‘Earn X amount of money so I can buy Y’ – I don’t actually need money. I am in a position of SUPREME privilege. I have a roof over my head and food on the table. I’m not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t have to fret about whether I can pay my energy bills, or feed myself. I have a husband in a stable occupation, and I believe that if I needed to find another job, I’d be able to*. I am very, VERY lucky, and I know it and appreciate it. Yeah, sure, I wish I could go on more holidays and live somewhere a bit nicer, but I know deep down that pursuing such materialistic goals is shallow and empty. And I don’t want to be like that. I have enough. I don’t need anymore. (Obviously, I don’t wish I were living in poverty so I’d have more drive. I imagine the constant stress would actually drain any desire I had to write.)

money gold GIF by Aardman Animations

So, without ‘write more = more books = more cash’, sometimes I struggle to find motivation. I don’t have external deadlines, so I’m not letting a publisher down if I don’t finish on time. I don’t believe that my words change lives, and frankly, I don’t care if people read my stuff when I’m dead. I don’t want to be famous (seriously, that sounds the worst), and I don’t care if my name is known. All that sorta stuff just ain’t for me.

How do I motivate myself? Well, there’s ‘avoidance of guilt’, which isn’t very nice, and ‘just do it, you lazy mare’, which, also, is rather unpleasant. Buried deep inside is the Original Source – the old ‘love of story’ – which is fine when the story is chugging along nicely, but most of the time the story is slapping me in the face.  

star trek slapping GIF
My Story and I

My latest approach has been to focus solely on the present moment. I actually enjoy getting stuff done – I think most people do, even if they don’t realise it. Work isn’t always bad and play isn’t always good, even though that’s what we’re taught. I like to be productive. I like to stay busy. Because if I tire myself out, then I can fully appreciate the moments of rest. Therefore my motivation is now ‘because I like doing stuff’. And I use it across my entire day. I use it to exercise, to do the dishes, to deal with other boring stuff… I put a task in my diary, complete that task, tick it off, then write a new one down. And I have to say, this method has been working wonders. It stops me (mostly) from procrastinating, and from thinking about the future. It forces me to focus on the current task, and on the satisfaction I get from completing it. Big picture stuff doesn’t matter; all that counts is the here and now. 

Present moment. It’s a fine thing. 

Current Writing Status: I wrote 5000 words today so I am Champion of the World

Currently Reading: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (holy moly this book is good)

Currently Listening to: The Witcher III OST

Currently Playing: Horizon Zero Dawn

Still Loathing: This new effin’ WordPress editor

*famous last words

Writing Progress Sep 2018

I couldn’t come up with a more imaginative title. 

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 a word, 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. 

But it’s cool. Everything’s totally fine.

no problem thumbs up GIF

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.

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Totally fine.

star trek GIF

Stormy Seas

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.

disney how far i'll go GIF by Moana

Resist the Urge

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.

 season 1 episode 3 hbo westworld evan rachel wood GIF

Okay, Maybe…

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. 

frustrated season 4 GIF by Mozart In The Jungle