Lessons from the journey

I drew the line in the sand in my diary on the evening of Thursday 23rd December 2010 and decided I was going to write a novel. I’ve learned since that the writing life is a continuous journey of learning the craft of writing and learning to live as a writer. It will never stop and if it does, it will be because I have withdrawn from it altogether.

Dorothea Brande gives a warning in ‘Becoming a writer’ in relation to two writing tasks – early morning writing and writing by prearrangement:

‘If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.’

That is hard. Hard to read as a writer/wanna be writer. If anything, I must have ignored that warning when I read the book two years ago and ploughed on regardless. I’ve never done the early morning pages or turned up by prearrangement (well never on time anyway) and somehow pushed out three first drafts, one of which is now a completed novel.

Admittedly, I wish I could be more disciplined, I really do and I keep booking times in my diary to get organised and sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t. I’d say life and distractions get in the way. Them pesky distractions.

But how I got on and wrote more than the day’s date, I’d put down to a combination of things:

1. The decision to give it a go.
I’d written bits of two novels seven years before that date above, and then wrote another bit of a novel two years before the day I made my decision of ‘this is it, let’s just do it, prove I can do this or give up’.

2. Joining a writing group.
I joined one that started in September 2010 and bit by bit it found its feet. The short writing exercises were the start of recognising I could write even if it was only every two weeks. Support from a group is essential, if you don’t feel supported, find another group.

3. Taking a writing course.
The first one, a two day start your novel course, got me to write a first chapter. I wrote a couple after that; doubt set in and I didn’t continue. The second one, I got feedback on a short story and it made me think, perhaps I can do this. The third course I learned how to edit my work; made me realise what I was doing right. Teachers are critical to a writer – I’m glad of the ones I’m learning from, their challenges on how I view my writing and writing life, how I edit, and what I write (been writing performance pieces, one act plays etc… as well as the novel).

4. Reading about writing.
I read every book I could get my hands on about writing. I especially liked the Writers Digest collection on Dialogue, Plot & Structure, Description & Setting, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, and Revision & Self-editing. If I was starting again as a writer, I’d read those as well as: Self-editing for fiction writers, Browne and King; Nail your novel, Morris; Make a scene, Rosenfeld (I may be the only one who needed this). There are other ones on the shelf but these are the ones I’d read again.

5. Reading fiction, all sorts.
I read a variety of fiction, novels, short stories, poetry. Even snippets and samples of other writers, famous or otherwise make you realise your own writing voice. Sample the variety out there. My favourite novel is still Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’; I can dip in and out of it and find wonder at her descriptions, not static, moving, move the story forward.

6. Writing lots and editing.
Doing first drafts meant I knew I could get to the end of a story. Moving a novel from first to second draft meant I understood how to examine and revise the structure of a novel. From third to fourth draft, meant learning how to revise, cut, and reshape sentences to make the words and sentences work better. Fourth draft – read aloud to make sure that the ‘fictive dream’ is not interrupted for the reader. Fifth and beyond – feedback from Beta readers.

7. Believe.
The hardest one. Still learning.

So that’s my journey up to today.
What would you have said to yourself starting out?

Write. Learn. Repeat.

I was on the phone recently with a new writer who was stuck at 3,500 words of their novel and was hesitating to write further because they felt that they didn’t know if they could.

It reminded me of how I used to be at seven years ago, at six years ago, and then I didn’t write for about three years, still doubted myself.

Three years ago I did a weekend course on starting a novel and started to write what I called my first novel. I think of it as writing an idea now. Still doubted I could write though.

Then I joined a writing group. Some of us wanted to think that we would be published writers and some of us were there for the fun of writing. The group blossomed into a joy of writing group.

Then two years ago, I got another idea and merged it with the first and what is officially my first novel began. Eight weeks into the New Year, 2011, I was writing the full first draft of my first novel. It took me six weeks to write it working off chapter and scene ideas I had drafted beforehand.

I wanted to know more because I couldn’t begin to figure out how to move the novel towards publication.

In September 2011 I started the most amazing course on Creative Writing for Publication. The tutors were excellent and pulled from our rough drafts incredible final pieces for our homework submissions through their feedback on editing and critique at workshops in class.

By May 2012 the course was over and I took a two month break. With the course behind me, I began work on the second draft of the novel. Over the previous year, I’d tinkered with many ideas and after doing the course I realised how bad my first draft was but still the idea was there, the characters were there and I knew this novel was the start of possibly another one or two books. (I’ve decided that there’s room for one more, but it’s not a trilogy. What I mean is I still have loads of things I want to throw at my characters. Poor sods!)

So I started a second draft of this first novel. I also began putting the ideas together for the second novel. After all, the two followed each other so it was important to make sure there were no loop holes between them.

After two months I was floundering in ideas and problems with the plot. I struggled on for another two weeks and then stopped.

National Novel Writing Month 2012 was on the horizon. I’d noted it in my diary after meeting someone I met at an art exhibition at the start of the summer told me about it. I thought it would be a fabulous opportunity to start writing scenes in the second novel. I planned out the story structure and put together rough ideas for scenes for the major and minor plots. I was set.

Five days into November and 7000 words down, I was seriously stuck and stressed senseless. I couldn’t bear to spend another day worrying about these characters. I needed a break from them.

Over the last month or two I’d been fantasising about another idea. I knew the characters; I knew roughly what their backgrounds were and what was going to happen to them. I even knew how it would all end.

On one page I jotted down a few chapters worth of notes and began to write. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to know what was going to happen to my characters. Before I knew it, I was hooked on the idea and the plot poured out of me. (Except come Thursday and Friday I would get some lag, writers block, stuck.) My motivation now was that I wanted to know what was going to happen next, exactly as if I was reading a book for the first time, except I only knew as fast as I could write it.

This is what I told the beginning writer and I know I’ve read this somewhere before but probably didn’t believe it. Until now…

‘Write. Learn. Repeat.’

P.S. I would also add ‘Read loads’ to that list. And repeat.