How can I finish my novel and establish an effective writing routine?
July 21, 2014 2:02 PM   Subscribe

I have been writing since I was about 7 and always enjoyed writing stories, sometimes hundreds of pages long. In my final year of English at school my teacher said that I should really turn the start of a piece I had written at the time into a novel. At the time I was flattered but I don't really think I considered it possible.

Next I went to University and studied English alongside Creative Writing, graduating last year with a good degree. My dissertation was the first few chapters of a novel and based on a subject I felt passionately about. Throughout the writing process I fell in love with the story and its characters. And even though it got a decent mark, I was dissuaded by some negative comments I received as feedback (and later learned that the harsher marker had recently been told her novel was unpublishable. I feel like she was projecting onto me to an extent). A few months later I had two short stories published: one in an anthology and another in a collection in London. I think this gave me some temporary confidence that I could do this, I could be a writer.

But after graduation I was catapulted into full time work and had zero energy to spend writing. I had also just suffered a bereavement and a foot injury in tandem and yeah - was just having a rough time all round really. One good thing is that in my day job I am a writer and I have been lucky to consistently have been working in writer-based jobs for about 5 years now, so the muscle is always being exercised. But when it comes to creative writing a small voice still tells me I'm no good.

Having said that I am energised again. I would like to turn that dissertation into the novel it was meant to be, to write the novel that was praised in my final year at school and two further collections to this. But. I don't know how to start! I have been carving out more time to write but it's never very focused. IE. I'll write some of a short story I see going in one of the collections. And then the following week I'll write a little more of the novel. But none of it is concentrated and honestly I think it's because I've lost 1) confidence and 2) I lack direction (I yo-yo between projects) and 3) one tutor once said we would find our 'thread'. I never found that thread - instead, I love to write both historical fiction and short stories that have nothing to do with historical fiction. It makes me feel like a fraud in some way.

Finally I should mention that I recently quit my full time job and found a very good part time job (and also freelance on the side). I'm not as rich as I was but in my mind I'm opening up more space now to get these writing projects moving. Can you help me do it?
posted by Kat_Dubs to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This is what National Novel Writing Month is for. Work on your writing for a solid month.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:09 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes. Write for an hour every morning. With a timer. That's all.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:15 PM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I am energised again.

But writing a novel is a long process (much much much longer than a month), and the time will come when you don't feel energized. But you'll have to keep writing anyway.

For me it helps to think of writing as the least romantic type of work imaginable, like laying bricks. When it's time to work, go lay bricks. In a bad mood? Go lay bricks. Don't feel "inspired?" Go lay bricks.

Having a routine is immensely helpful. Do it before work, after work, or even at lunch during work. For me, artificial time constraints help get me going. You don't have to do a lot each day, but do something as close to every day as you can.

Two other things that help me:
1) Leaving the house and going to an "office," such as a coffee shop, where I don't have much to do but work.

2) Setting a timer so I write for 10 minutes, take a 10 minute break, repeat. I believe it's a variation on something called the "Pomodoro technique."
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:22 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

While there are people who can do a little pirouette and a novel falls out of their butts, everyone else has to discover their own system.

I don't think you can damage your process by forcing yourself to become a planner from the start rather than having to learn to do it later. Spend the next month writing first a treatment and then an outline, maybe set aside 2-3 hours a day for that work. You can do discovery writing associated with your outline, but make the actual outline work a priority. It will help you to finish your novel if you know a) what's going to happen and b) how it ends.

There are worse ways to entertain yourself while you do housework than listening to the Writing Excuses podcast. It's short and process-oriented.

If you're working on multiple things, I think that's useful to be able to switch gears if you get stuck, but you probably need to decide what project is primary.

In a year, you will have a much better idea of how Kat_Dubs writes and can start refining your process for efficiency.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:23 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh and you have to stick to one project. Here's a dirty little secret about writing:


The grass is always greener on the imaginary project you haven't had to put in the hard work on yet. You just have to stick to one thing anyway. Don't expect it to be fun often, or ever. Expect to hate it and wonder why you ever chose such a dumb project to concentrate on when you can think of ten new ideas right now that are totally awesome.

I read somewhere that any writer who tells you they enjoy a project while they are working on it is probably a fraud. Having an idea is fun, and there's joy in having finished. But there's not a whole lot of fun in putting in the hard work in the middle.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:25 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just surround yourself with relevant papers, notes, drawings, cards, etc. so it's easy for you to work on it in odd moments. A routine will grow out of your ad hoc initial efforts and then you can clean up over time.
posted by michaelh at 2:46 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

And even though it got a decent mark, I was dissuaded by some negative comments I received as feedback

Yeah, so here's the thing.

You're gonna get negative comments. You're gonna get people who don't see what you see when you look at your work. Each and every suggestion that your work is anything less than the hot buttery leavings of God Himself is kind of going to hit you somewhere behind the ribcage and also approximately at the base of your brain in this oddly cold place, too. This is a good time to learn how to handle that: Let it come, and let yourself freak out a little, and realize that this part, like a lot of other parts, is a test. It's a test to see if anything can dissuade you from doing what you know you should be doing.

If you're wondering, "How can I stop bad feedback from leaving my ego in tatters?" you are asking the wrong question. Bad feedback will pretty much always do that. The trick is to make sure no one else knows it, and to then continue writing anyway. Let it fuel you.

For the rest of the advice I have for you, I'm going to just paste in things I've written on this site previously; take what you can use and leave the rest, etc. Here goes:

Here is a secret. It's not really a secret, actually, but it doesn't get acknowledged out loud much, because it's a little uncomfortable. For anyone who does anything creative - writing, drawing, whatever - it will invariably start out pretty fun. There's a honeymoon phase with any project. With writing, it tends to be the creation of characters, and worldbuilding, if that's your thing. Maybe the very broad strokes of a story, and a few scenes the writer has in mind. Prep work. This is the stage at which you will find most people who are Writing A Novel, because this stage is, as I say, pretty fun. The reason everyone who's Writing a Novel stalls out here is that, beyond this stage - after you've gotten your characters in mind and you have a sense of where they start and where they finish and you've probably written a first draft of a first chapter - it becomes work. And work isn't fun. It's work.

So that's where most people stop. But I can tell you from experience that if you keep it up, it starts being...maybe not fun, necessarily, but it starts to be intensely gratifying to see how far you've come, and that propels you forward. I'm working on a graphic novel right now. I finished three chapters of it - writing, pencils, inks, letters - then decided I hated it and I started over from scratch. I am now in the middle of drawing chapter three for the second time, and it's work, but then I catch my breath and I realize that I've written, drawn, inked and lettered something like a hundred-odd pages altogether, and this is just the beginning. Prior to this, the longest single comic story I'd told was maybe fifteen pages long. It's exhilarating. You realize how much you've done, even though it became kind of a slog almost immediately, and like I say, it propels you forward. But you have to get over that hump first.

There's always going to be a reason not to write. Something's on TV or you're tired from work and want to give yourself a lazy night or people want to go out or whatever, and suddenly you have to go to bed in an hour so it doesn't seem worth it to start, and you'll do it tomorrow, because today just sort of got away from you. Well, tomorrow's going to get away from you, too. So's the day after that. And the day after that. And suddenly, you're at a party counting down the seconds to the new year, and you think, "Huh, this year went by fast." Time will get away from you, if you let it.

There is no secret to making time to write. You just do it. You accept that your brain is going to try to stop you from creating, for whatever dumb fucking reason, and you push through. And then you push through again. And again. And again. Results will not be immediate, but you'll find that it starts to get easier as you force it to be part of your routine.

Oh, one last thing: Carry a notebook with you, everywhere. Use it to jot things down. Use it to draw up an outline of the plot of your novel. The middle is always the hardest part; once you have the skeleton of the plot ready to go, it gets a bit easier because you don't have that vast unknown staring you in the face. Good luck.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 2:51 PM on July 21, 2014 [10 favorites]

The kind of stakes you're describing as already being assigned to your manuscript -- lots of prior praise and expectation -- might be what's keeping you from taking it up again. A little like not knowing where to start with a really cluttered room. Except the clutter is, well, psychic clutter.

If that analogy makes sense to you, do what clutter cleaners do: Start small. Maybe start fun, too. Who's your favorite character? What's the section you like the most? What have you had in your head all this time that you haven't written down, and realize it's okay if you have to play with it a little once it's out?

If it helps, know that you don't have to write in exact chronological order, and that what you write doesn't necessarily have to end up in the finished work. But keep at it, no matter what. Do whatever will get you so invested in the world of the story that you don't care about all of the other crap. Like if it's fun. Or if you're a fraud.
posted by gnomeloaf at 2:56 PM on July 21, 2014

At least for me, "fixed amount of time" was useless; I needed "fixed amount of words." 1000 per day. Doesn't matter if it's terrible. Do that 5 days a week, 20 weeks in a row, and you've written a novel. A bad novel. Then go back and fix it.
posted by escabeche at 3:35 PM on July 21, 2014

When I wrote my first draft, I went by a fixed amount of words per week. I banged out 70,000-ish words in a little over three months and have been revising for about a year since then. I now work by time, between an hour and an hour and a half every evening (full time job in the day).

In the revision process, I have to be much more organized. It's too easy to jump around, changing a bit here and there and end up feeling like nothing is happening. I have to make myself take it chapter by chapter, scene by scene. I use Scrivener to make this process work. It's super slow but I can see improvement each month.

I also have eight novels that I read and re-read constantly. I picked ones that inspired different elements of my own novel. They are all written in the same voice (third person) as my novel. They keep me motivated.

And, as mentioned above, I keep a notebook handy for random thoughts when I'm not at a computer. I expect to be going at it for another year. Some days I think my writing is great, others I think it sucks. I never give myself a day off because eventually something happens where I have to take a few days off (vacation, special events, etc.).

I don't always look forward to my writing time, but as soon as I start, I get into it.
posted by perhapses at 5:03 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The best writing advice someone once gave me was: "Butt, meet chair."
posted by kariebookish at 3:29 AM on July 22, 2014

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