… or, Why Everything You’re Doing to Write More & Better is Wrong.
Writing is hard. This is what we tell ourselves, over and over. Apply backside to chair. Force yourself to write. Don’t be tempted to do something more interesting. Writers write.
This makes it tough for us mere humans, who feel guilt and shame when we don’t write, anxiety and bafflement when we do. There’s a gap between the dazzling stories in our heads and the clumsier, flatter sentences that appear on the page.
I was feeling pretty glum writing my second novel, so I decided to make a writing course full of all the advice I wish someone had given me. It’s available now to stream or download for free, but if you want the distilled wisdom of the first couple of weeks right now, here are three core principles of transforming your writing practice, and learning to love storytelling again.
You know the cycle. You decide to finally take your writing seriously, get super-pumped, set yourself a daily word count target. Then on day three, the dog gets an ear infection, and you miss your target because you have to take him to the vet. Then it’s your friend’s birthday, and the car needs clearing out, and then a cold knocks you out for two days, and then you hit a tricky bit in your writing that seemed so much zingier in your plan, and…
If you tried to run a marathon after a year of little to no exercise, you’d expect to have a rough time. You might even injure yourself and be so put off that you conclude you’re ‘not a runner.’
Big, ambitious goals are very motivating – initially. But we typically underestimate how long they will take, and fail to anticipate and account for setbacks along the way. The big push turns into feelings of disappointment, and a subconscious lesson that effort gets rewarded with failure.
The counterintuitive way to get round this is to aim very low. I suggest no more than 10 minutes a day. And not every day, either. Six days a week. Take a day off. Don’t worry about quality either. Just set a timer on your phone, press start, and write on whatever subject you like until the alarm goes off.
Give yourself some easy wins. Your creativity needs positive reinforcement. Train yourself in small, fun bursts. Make it so you start to look forward to that daily 10 minutes, that you want to sneak in more when the bell rings.
Getting blocked when writing a novel is usually a sign of OTSS – One True Story Syndrome.
As your characters and their world feel more and more real to you, it’s easy to believe that there’s One True Story, one way that things must go, and that your job as the writer is to uncover it. That’s a very stressful, limiting – and usually subconscious – belief. Instead of being the author of your story, you’re reduced to its editor. You forget to embrace the uncertainty, the blank spaces in your plan and recognize them as possibility, potential.
A quick, easy and fun way to shake yourself out of this mindset is listing. Write lists on any topic related to your story, to get your creative mind working and to re-engage with possibility. One title could be: ‘Items Found In My Protagonist’s Bedroom.’ Another could be: ‘Ways That Kyla Could Learn About Prentice’s Betrayal,’ or even ‘Popular Foods In The Kingdom of Gloomshire.’
You can use lists for discovering more about your characters, for world-building, or for brainstorming original plot twists. Set a timer for 10 minutes and aim to generate as many options as you can. Don’t worry if they’re silly, improbable, or wildly out of genre (like a UFO snatching up the heroine in your historical romance) – it’s a rare chance to let your imagination off the leash.
Often, the answer to your big problem is hidden in the silliest of answers.
Keep a Record
Sometimes the most powerful tools are the simplest. I cannot stress how many people have written to me, amazed at how well this next tip worked for them.
Get a wall calendar. (Mine features guinea pigs, but any animal will do.) Every day that you manage your 10-minute timed write, mark an X on the calendar. If you hit seven in a row, you mark that week up with a highlighter, give yourself a cute sticker, whatever. At the end of each month, look back and see all the days you managed to turn up and write.
Yes, I’m sure Hemingway didn’t need stickers and guinea pigs (though you can make your calendar look super-serious and professional if that’s your thing) but this is about keeping a record of your achievements, and reinforcing every success, no matter how small, to give you an accurate picture of how little efforts, repeated over time, build up into something larger. Instead of setting yourself targets – life will get in the way – you’re switching your focus to acknowledging and rewarding every effort.
Slowly, you’ll find yourself snatching 10 minutes while waiting for your dinner to cook, seven minutes on the back of the bus, 15 minutes before bed. You’ll train yourself that no effort is wasted, and you’ll start to feel confident about your writing.
If you find these tips useful and you’d like a whole online programme to take you from wherever you are with your writing to being ready to write a novel, try my Couch to 80k Writing Boot Camp. It’s a free eight-week writing course by podcast. Every day there’s a short podcast with a writing exercise and a 10-minute timer embedded in the episode, so all you have to do is sit down with a pen and paper and press play. Each week builds on the skills learned in previous weeks, guiding you towards writing a full novel. Over 5000 writers have tried it out already.