Or, “How I learned that sometimes there’s a reason the advice keeps being repeated.”
When people ask me how long I’ve been writing my book for, I tell them 13, nine or one-and-a-bit years. 13 years ago marks the time when I realised I wanted to be a writer and started working on a book. Being a nine-year-old at the time, what I wrote was pretty awful, and nothing remains of that original plot besides the fact that the protagonist can do magic.
Besides that, the earliest elements that remain in my book today are from nine years ago. Through gradual refinement of the original storyline I developed the basic arc and major plot points over the next several years.
Throughout this time I would occasionally write a chapter or two when I felt the urge, but between school and general life the urge rarely came. I thought about it all the time, but in little daydreams of how one character might respond to something I saw on the news, or how I wanted to incorporate a thought into the storyline. I never got very far because every time I got around to giving it another shot I’d entirely changed my mind about the story and started back at chapter one. It was a little over a year ago that I finally realised that the only way I was ever going to get this story finished was if I could force myself to keep going. By this time I had refined the plot and characters significantly and had a more detailed framework from which to work, and for the next few months I muddled on writing new bits when the urge hit. Finally, just under a year ago I decided to take the advice I had seen so oft-cited but never followed: write every day.
I’d always been of the opinion that one should write when inspired. This serves me adequately when writing poetry, because the burst of inspiration lasts long enough to get a poem down on paper and edit it to completion. The same cannot be said for writing novels. It wasn’t until I isolated that as my problem that I started making real headway, and my draft is sitting at around 40 000 words. Finally, I have more than one chapter!
I learned that to write a novel I had to discipline myself to write every day. This is the oft-quoted advice, akin to ‘show, don’t tell’ in its omnipresence, that I’d never before put much stock in. I think this arrogance is common in beginner writers, particularly with regards to this specific piece of advice. Because we get these bursts of inspiration, when the feeling of getting the words out as quick as possible is as giddying as a pint of ale, we think writing is easy. I’ve learned since then that it’s not the case. It’s the single hardest thing I’ve done so far in my life. It’s the thing that has me sitting with a large cup of tea staring morosely at the computer screen, the thing that has me curling into a ball in tears from the fear that it will never be good enough, and the thing I cling to when I feel hopeless. And, surprise surprise, being disciplined enough to keep at it makes all those things easier to bear.
I’ve not been perfect at the whole daily-writing thing. For several weeks I wrote a thousand words a day, but then I went away for the weekend and broke the habit. Breaking the habit, it seems, is much easier than beginning it. Indeed, in the last few days I have been striving to get back into the habit of writing every day, but I find a a full thousand words more than I can reasonably handle, so I’m sticking to 500 for now in the hopes of gradually working my way up.
I said a thousand words is more than I can handle, and I’m sure someone’s laughing at that comment, because a thousand words really isn’t all that much; this blog entry isn’t much less than that that, and I’ve written it in about forty-five minutes. This brings me to the other thing I learned about writing daily: it gets easier. The first day, the day of inspiration, is fine. The second or third day is a slog, but after a week or so, it starts to become normal. Last time I was doing thousand-word days I sometimes found myself writing two or three thousand words in a single day, something I haven’t managed in months now because I got out of the habit.
More than that, though, writing begets inspiration. Getting into a character’s thoughts, into the plot and setting, happens so much more completely when trying to write it down on paper than any amount of daydreaming can make up for, and the more time I spend in the story, the more I time I want to spend there.
My book isn’t finished yet, but for the first time in a decade I’m at a point where I think I’ve got a good shot at it. More importantly, in the future when I see established authors all repeating the same advice I think I’ll be humble enough to take it to heart.