When it comes to novel writing it’s a jungle out there* and in there as well. You spend inordinate amounts of time deliberating and procrastinating and then crafting your work, before seeking out ways to get your book seen or heard or experienced, while simultaneously trying very hard not to starve or lose faith in the whole process. It’s no wonder writers – like other creatives – seem to have more than their fair share** of mental health issues.
Writing is a mostly solitary process where you live in your head and then try to sneak a book out, piecemeal, before your critical mind can stop it at the gates. Some days the muse can’t stop talking; other days there’s no forwarding address. Bill Withers singing Ain’t No Sunshine about sums it up.
If it’s that painful a process, why do we do it? All kinds of reasons. We have stories to tell, or personal history to make sense of. Some of us were so inspired by an author or a book that we thought: I want to be that and to do that for someone else. For others, books were an escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. And there are always those who think that novel writing is a clear path to fame and fortune. (And good luck with that!)
Whatever your reasons for writing, here are some suggestions for making the path a little less arduous.
1. Write consistently
If you can, write every day. And even if you can’t, develop a routine so that the muse knows where to find you. The creative mind can be trained, like a muscle, so if you start off small and consistent you can apply progressive overload to increase your word count over time.
2. Avoid the comparison trap
It’s easy to find authors with dozens of successful novels under their belt and then think ‘I could never do that’. Similarly, if you belong to a writers’ group or if you belong to online writing forums*** there will always be people with more talent, more success and more imagination than you. Conversely, there are also lots of people who yearn to write but lack the opportunity or courage. Chances are, you won’t hear about them. As a friend of mine said recently, even if you only write 500 words in a session that’s still 500 more than you started off with.
3. Let go of resentments
Seasoned writers understand that agent and publisher rejections come with the territory, but when you first start out it can be devastating to have your work rejected. But that’s just it – it’s your work, not you. And what about the agent who promises she’ll be in touch within eight weeks and you still haven’t heard a peep ten months later, despite a follow-up email and those semi-humorous nudges on social media? Or all the friends who promised to read / review / venerate your book, or those two TV producers you posted copies to, one of whom you had a meeting with a few years ago?**** It’s over – move on, my friend.
4. Seek feedback on your work
Not the first draft – yeesh, nobody else needs to see that. I keep a first draft in an exercise book and the only reason I still have it is that I fear its awfulness might render it fireproof.
What you want is: A What works and why? B) What doesn’t work and why? Run for the hills if you hear the word ‘nice’, or better yet ask questions A and B and try to receive the answers objectively. In a similar vein, if you’re lucky maybe that next rejection contains a nugget of valuable information. Perhaps having a chair as a protagonist might not be the best way to reinvent noir crime noir?
5. Develop your craft
The majority of first drafts smell like silage on a hot day, which is why we have second drafts, etc. But you have to have something to work with so get your ideas down and then you can get on with the serious work of revision and excision. The first draft is play and every draft after that is generally as playful as wrestling a giant hedgehog. Learn from other writers, both the ‘how to’ books and by studying what successful authors do in their own novels. Experiment, change the point of view, change your own point of view about your work, and if all else fails start again with something else. The first 10,000 word milestone can often be the hardest to reach.
6. Find your tribe
Whether it’s a local writing group, an online forum, or a dedicated bunch of beta readers willing to provide nuanced feedback on your work-in-progress, there are people out there who are able to help you. It doesn’t hurt to repay the favour either. Whatever you’re going through – whether it’s writers’ block, the rejection blues, or the sheer bloody frustration of trying to create something coherent out of nothing – someone else has been there before you and that surely means there is a way through it.
7. Let go of your expectations
A smart writer once said, “The price of adventure is uncertainty.” Well, okay, it was me, but I had a point. For every JK Rowling, Maya Angelou or Stephen King there are vast armies of wailing writers demanding their turn. Any writer who tells you otherwise is either a saint or a liar. But no one really knows what awaits us on the writing road. Does it help if you’re aesthetically pleasing, young, in the zeitgeist, well-educated, well-connected or independently wealthy? We’ll, now that you mention it, most of those ticked boxes will make the PR easier and a good education will give you better tools for writing – although these can be learned. But above all else – and we’re not talking celebrity books here – what makes a good book is good writing.
8. Step away from the screen
Even if you write with pen and paper, as I do sometimes, the chances are you spend an inordinate amount of time at your computer – and much of that time might not even be spent writing. (Finding old Klaatu albums or watching Quantum Mechanics videos doesn’t count as research unless your protagonist is a Quantum Mechanic and she enjoys retro Canadian rock.) Get outdoors, go for a walk, garden, get to the sea, or socialise (yes, you can take a notebook along to steal people’s conversations). How can you expect your characters to come to life on the page if you don’t live off the page?
8. Change your perspective
Maybe your world doesn’t have to revolve around your book? Maybe you have a choice and that starts with changing the way you see yourself. Labels may be descriptive but they can easily become restrictive too. I’ve been a novelist, a comedy writer, a greetings card writer, a columnist, a freelancer…but every one of those was also a construct in my own head. What happens when things change? What is a columnist without a column? (Impoverished, for one thing!)
Buddha apparently said that the root of suffering is attachment, so why not try letting go of your attachments as a writer? Remember that writing is a part of life and not the other way around.
9. Exercise choice
This is my own view so feel free to disagree: we always have a choice. Maybe we can’t change the external circumstances but we can choose how we respond to them. Choose kindness, both to yourself and to others. Choose discernment in how you use your time. And remember the people and things that are important to you, regardless of how your writing is going.
* A little nod to Monk fans everywhere, even though I’ve never seen it.
** I know; it’s a stupid phrase.
*** Yes, I could have used fora but I prefer not to.
**** You will let me know if this gets too autobiographical, right?