confessions / distractions / first-drafting / novels / writing

Writing a Novel and Seeking the Magic Fix

My state of mind while writing lately.

My state of mind while writing lately.

I am writing what will be my fifth published novel. Five is a number I like, so you’d think this would be a glorious experience, but nothing is ever as easy as I’d hope it to be, most of all writing.

This novel I’m writing was originally slated to come out Spring 2016, a year after The Walls Around Us, but I’m still writing it, so maybe it will come out Fall 2016. I don’t know yet. It all depends on how this draft goes, and if I make this deadline in January, and what my editor thinks once she reads this Thing.

By the way, I feel calmer when I call it a Thing, rather than a BOOK.

A Thing is a hairy little monster. Ugly. Misshapen. It yowls. It drools. No one expects a Thing to be polished and proper and un-embarrassing.

A BOOK is expected to not spit up on the floor. A BOOK is contained. It makes sense.

Right now, I’ll keep working on my Thing, thank you.

So I’m thinking, what are the optimal conditions in which to write a draft of a Thing/BOOK quickly?

(Also note: I said draft. There will be many drafts. This is just the first one. I don’t have any illusions that the Thing will be perfect when I turn it in.)

Well, in an ideal world I’d be in a quiet place with my own writing room and we’d have no bills or student loans to worry about so I wouldn’t have to work on the side and stress over finding more work and there’d be pancakes made-to-order from phantoms in the kitchen every morning and I would be totally healthy and not so tired all the time and I’d have a kitten to play with, because hey why not, in an ideal world I wouldn’t be allergic, and I’d have an intern to deal with all my emails and other randoms on my to-do list like remembering to pick up the almond milk, and, best of all, the internet would be down for months. Seriously, months.

But I live in this world. I live in a shoebox in a very loud city. (And I kind of need the internet! I might be addicted, plus I have a book coming out in March and I don’t want you to forget me!)

So I need to create optimal conditions here at home, in my loud shoebox surrounded by the internet. We all have to find ways to write in the cracks and corners of real life, which is something I said once when I was trying to write during one of my demanding day jobs (the old post is set to “private,” and I’ll keep it that way). But if I did it then, how can I not do it now?

In order to finish this novel, I need:

  • To stay off the internet for large swathes of times like a mature adult with some semblance of self-control.
  • To organize my time so I reach all my work and other writing deadlines and don’t get overwhelmed.
  • To find quiet and isolate when needed. (I’ve talked about this need before.)
  • To have momentum.

That last one is key. Momentum. Really, it’s everything. Because once I have momentum, I don’t care so much about the internet, and I make way better use of my writing time because I am so very FOCUSED.

The way I get momentum is to force myself to write every day. Every. Single. Day. Even when I have work deadlines. Even when I have somewhere to be. Even when I’m sick. Even when I’m sad. Every day.

Some days I might get 500 words. (That’s my optimal—and realistic, if I’m even bothering to count words.) Some days, like yesterday, more than 1,200! And some days, quite a few days, I get 8 words. Some days—many days, since I edit as I go—I am in the negative.

But the point is that I’m keeping up momentum. I’m working on my Thing every day, even for twenty minutes. I’m keeping my Thing (it’s a BOOK, or it will be) always in my mind.

This is why watching NaNoWriMo from the sidelines always cheers me up. I tried to do it once and failed to reach 50K (and ended up not using any words from that draft… they were crap… not worth salvaging). Writing that fast is not for me, and not my process. BUT what works really well for me is the rhythm of writing every day, even a little. And that’s what’s at the heart of NaNoWriMo.

So this November, and December, and into January, I, too, will be writing every day.

I may be getting -8 words or 500 words at best, but I’ll be doing it. Because when I keep up the momentum, I feel inspired. I feel close to my characters and my story. I feel connected. I feel overtaken. I feel on fire.

That’s what I need to write this Thing in my loud, busy shoebox. That’s all.

The kind of quiet I'm craving. (Taken at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, when I was teaching a workshop earlier this year.)

The kind of quiet I’m craving. (Taken at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, when I was teaching a workshop earlier this year.)

Next month, though, I do have a bonus.

One lucky break that fell from the sky into my lap is that I got a residency from Yaddo in December, and I’ll be there for a little less than three weeks, which is pretty much the longest I can be off the grid at this point. There’s no internet in the bedrooms or writing studios at Yaddo, which is a true blessing, so I hope to stay away from the noise as much as I can. I want to try to stay off Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and all else, if I can. (Unless there’s some news about my book I have the compulsive need to share.) I want to take a break from emails, unless they’re from my publisher or my agent. E will visit for the holiday, and I’ll attack him with pages and talk about the progress of my Thing—which always helps, he’s the only one I can talk to when I’m in this delicate first-drafting place—and then I’ll dive back in. I hope to come home for the New Year with many, many, many words. I hope. Because, once I get home, that deadline is days away.

But even so, I know that Yaddo, or any colony or retreat or residency or stay in a glorious hotel, isn’t the magic fix. All your problems and flaws follow you to a colony, you know. You still have to do the hard work once you get there.

The magic fix for me, no matter where I am, really is momentum. The fix—what will get me to deadline, and what will get me a worthy manuscript to show my editor—is putting in the time and effort and gaining forward movement every single day.

Even if it’s twenty minutes in a notebook, twenty minutes stolen in the cracks and corners of real life, like so many of us have to do.

What do you need in order to finish your novel? Bonus points for saying a kitten.

9 thoughts on “Writing a Novel and Seeking the Magic Fix

  1. Sadly, a kitten would probably be more of a distraction than a help. I know this is really strange, but one of the main things I need to work is some sort of noise… I typically keep Netflix on low in the background (currently I’m streaming every episode of the Gilmore Girls). I’m not necessarily watching it, but I need the noise. Besides that, I also need orange juice, pink lemonade and my cell phone ringer off.

  2. All these things have been on my mind lately (kittens included!). I need to write regularly every day. I’ve known this for a while, but only recently have I been able to put it into practice. It is grounding in a life of multiple jobs and responsibilities. I will always, always crave the quiet of a writing retreat or the inspiration that comes with travel. But I think that learning how to write in our own ordinary lives is how we become stronger writers.

  3. I need peace of mind to write – and to feel moderately happy. Unfortunately, both have been in rather short supply for the last 2-3 months. But I also know it’s an excuse… and I should just write, write, write, stroke the cat (no longer a kitten, but still as adorable), write…

  4. I need belief in it.
    Because without that, without trusting the THING is worthwhile and that I can (eventually) do it justice, I second-guess myself out of writing it. Which is what happened to me earlier this year.

  5. Love this post sooooooo much!!!! I write like you do–three steps forward and two steps back. I am doing NaNo because I always seem to learn a lot about myself and my process and kind of love the energy, but your thoughts on momentum are perfect for me after November. And good luck with that THING! And your honesty about your process ALWAYS makes me feel a little more sane. I appreciate that so much. (((((hugs))))

    • Oh, and what I need to write is accountability. Posting a goal calendar in the middle of my kitchen helps me stay on track. And chocolate. And running–I write better after I run. And lazy cats that used to be kittens. :o)

  6. Timely post – I have a little writing retreat that I have styled myself coming up in just over two weeks, it’s only 2 nights but still, I need to remember what you said “All your problems and flaws follow you to a colony, you know. You still have to do the hard work once you get there.”

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