Archives: Writing Nuggets

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

Word Counts

Today I made a mistake. On my morning walk, I listened to a podcast about writing. And now, I’m struggling to write my three pages because my head is full of the business side of things (I’ve even paused during my pages to blog, because I need to empty out my thoughts before getting back to it).

Anyway, on the podcast a chap talked about how longer books sell better. This worries me. Not because I tend to write shorter books these days, but because it could encourage authors to write longer books for the sake of it, rather than being dictated by story

I’ve read many modern books that are bloated and rambling. I worry that trade-published books want to be bigger to appear ‘worthy’ of the higher price tag, and I worry that indie-published books want to be longer so they can charge more. (Even though length shouldn’t influence price, in my opinion.)

All of this focus on word count and page length detracts from what really matters: the story. A story is as long as it needs to be.

I estimate my current book will end up around 140 pages in the first draft, but that’s simply a guess, based on how long my recent books have been and how the story is unfolding before me. I used to write longer books, but then I got better, and became more concise. In my view, a story should be told in as few words as possible. 

So, this is my concern, and why I’ve struggled to focus this morning. Now I’ve spewed out my thoughts, I better get back to my pages. One down, two to go… 

Want More, Do Less

A realisation:

It’s better to stop writing when I want to do more, rather than push myself until the well is dry. That way, I approach the next session eager to continue. And as all writers know, starting is the hardest bit. 

It seems counterintuitive, but the key to doing more is to do a bit less than I can manage. I should be itching to carry on, not drained and out of ideas. 

End of realisation.

Current WIP: 18 pages. 

The Resistance

Related image

Nah, not that one unfortunately.

I’m taking about the resistance to writing. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s more subtle. 

For example, I started a book this week (hurrah!), and on the first day, all was grand. The second, all was less grand. I snoozed in the afternoon, and then on the second night, I couldn’t sleep, therefore ruining the third day. 

Oh, it’s just your sleep patterns, April. Nothing to do with resistance to writing. 

NAW. 

This is my brain being an asshole. After the first day, the writing was difficult because I didn’t know what happened next. In the morning of the second day, I felt really, really sick (nauseous, for all you non-Brits) and so I stopped writing. Then I felt sleepy, and so I snoozed. And yesterday, on the third day, I was so tired I ‘never got going’.

This is resistance. My brain is conjuring up fake illness to stop me from writing. And I want to know WHY. 

I know I’m not completely lazy, because I can point to the million+ words I’ve written in the last couple of years. I can actually get the job done (even though it’s a bloody struggle most of the time). 

So WHY?! 

I love writing. I believe it should be fun. But I think I’ve robbed the fun out of it by taking it too seriously. I’ve conflated ambition with lack of enjoyment. In other words, I’ve bought into the pervasive myth that all hard work must be a struggle. Fun and Work do not go hand in hand (Presbyterianism and the Industrial Revolution saw to that) and because of this societal belief, I think that my work cannot be fun. 

Writing is my work. Therefore writing cannot be fun. 

But here’s the thing: writing is fun! It’s making up stories, ffs! Yeah, sure, the nth proof-read can be less fun, as can expanding rushed scenes or formatting for publication, but all in all, this gig is fun. I mean, if this ain’t fun, what is? And more importantly, if I don’t find it fun, why on Earth am I doing it? Not for the money, that’s for sure! (Or the stability, the pension, the perks, the prestige, or the social interactions…)

know writing is fun. I’ve soothed my Fear, so I know I don’t have to write a gazillion books a year. I know I have time to explore and play and all of that… I KNOW all of this, but the knowledge is stuck up in the airy, cerebral management office, and hasn’t sunk down to the fiery furnace in my brain that actually pulls the levers and gets stuff done. 

How do I fix this? Form a union, send better memos? I don’t bloody know. 

Answers on a postcard.

 

EDIT: I have since found this article. Problems 1 and 4 most apply to me. I’m going to attempt the solutions…

Paws Aff

So, I was at a social function (gasp) last weekend. I knew very few people, and my anxiety was running high. Unavoidably, I got into a conversation with a man about writing. It actually turned out okay; we spoke about the craft of writing, and I talked about why I like to keep my writing separate from the rest of my life, and he was totally cool with it (because why wouldn’t he be?). 

Then, later in the afternoon, I got talking with another man. And this guy, in front of a room of people, literally demanded to know how many books I’d published – in a borderline aggressive tone – and then asked about my income. This was the first conversation I’d ever had with him. But sadly, it was not the first conversation I’d had of this ilk. 

WHY do some people think it’s appropriate to ask writers about their sales or earnings? And why do some people get so offended if I choose to keep my work private? Is it because they can’t comprehend someone who wouldn’t brag and show off at every available moment? I write for me, not for fame and adoration. This is MY career, MY choice, and anyone who can’t handle that can sling their ‘ook. 

I chose to move to a pseudonym because I was sick of certain people acting like they had a stake in my career, offering conditional support and ‘advice’, and basically sticking their neb in where it didn’t belong. I felt owned, like my success was their success too. Even when I explained that publishing in private removed a lot of pressure and stress, and helped me write more freely, people still couldn’t hack it. One even admitted to trying to FIND me. They had no respect for me whatsoever. I was nothing but a pawn, or a trophy. None of my friends acted this way – they didn’t take it personally when I chose to go private – but others? It was like I’d betrayed them. Like I’m supposed to make career choices FOR them, rather than for myself. 

Sometimes I wonder if I were male would I have to put up with this shit? Some folk can’t help but try and control women, especially when they’re off on their own, doing their own thing. Well, to these people:

over it GIF by STARZ

P.S. Isn’t Michelle Fairley the best?

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!)

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.

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 The Forest King. 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 (i.e. The Forest King). 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.)

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!