Good writers are sensitive people. Sensitive people are often easily derailed by what life throws at them. Good writers are creative people. Creative people often rebel against structure and discipline. Good writers are imaginative people. Imaginative people often come up with a million reasons why something is impossible. So how on earth is a sensitive, creative, imaginative person supposed to be able to churn out an entire novel in a timely manner? With a lot of cajoling and trickery, I’ve found. Here are some of the tools I used to transform from Master Procrastinator to Moderately Disciplined Writer.
1. Be kind to yourself.
This is a big one. Don’t beat yourself up when you skip a day of writing. Or ten. I used to get so discouraged when I couldn’t force myself to write every day, and it would lead to me abandoning projects for good. The only way I’ve been able to keep chugging along is to let go of the difficult days and start each day fresh. This attitude is also helpful when trying to establish a consistent gym routine. Or so I’ve heard.
Be kind to yourself in other areas as well, because it will bleed over into your work. Instead of stressing about your lack of narrative structure, indulge in something that feeds you. Go to a movie, go for a walk in nature, go skinny dipping in the dead of night. Make sure to take time away from your writing and day job and whatever else is looming over your head to have an actual life off the page. Not only will it put you in a more at ease, relaxed state that is ideal for getting stuff done, it will make it a whole lot easier to deal with the fact that you’re not a famous writer yet. And that’s okay.
2. Allow your first draft to be terrible.
At the beginning, prioritize quantity over quality. You can spend days perfecting a single paragraph, or you can plow through two thousand words in one sitting. The more you stop to judge your work, the more freaked out and overwhelmed you become. If you get stuck on a plot point, just write the most contrived crap you can think of to get through it. It doesn’t have to be remotely good. You can always rewrite it later. Get those bones down on the page so that you have a skeleton to work with.
3. Limit your imagination to the page.
When it comes to your story, allow your imagination to soar. Outside of your writing, keep it firmly in check. An unbridled fantasy life can totally derail you. It will inevitably go something like this:
You have the tiniest inkling of an idea for a novel. You imagine yourself finishing your first draft, then rewriting, then you find a literary agent, then you find a publisher, then your book becomes wildly successful, then you buy multiple houses in multiple countries so that you can finally live out your dream of spending summers in the south of France eating baguettes and fresh goat cheese, then you’re wooed by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss who are just dying to turn your book into an HBO series, but first they’ll have to answer a series of trivia questions about the book before you give them permission, then you get to handpick your cast who will no doubt include every childhood crush you’ve ever had, then you will cast yourself in a role that has a nude scene with Mads Mikkelson, then you play out that scenario in your head a million different ways, all of them ending with him very passionately pronouncing that he’s never met anyone quite like you before.
Meanwhile, the blinking cursor on your screen is mocking you. Instead of getting caught up in a rampage of fantasies, just write. Don’t look too far ahead. Take things one plot point at a time. Every writer has fantasies of where their work might take them, but the more you allow yourself to indulge in these thoughts, the more your novel remains just an idea in your head. Not only that, but creating this ideal scenario in your mind where you get everything you want, and assuming it will solve all your problems, is dangerous. It adds undue pressure to an already daunting process. It prevents you from being able to enjoy all the steps along the way if you’re only focused on grabbing that brass ring. Also, humans are notoriously terrible at knowing what they actually want. Could be that you end up hating the south of France.
4. Treat yo’ self!
I often have to bribe myself in order to write. I’ll place a chocolate chip muffin next to my keyboard and stare at it angrily as I punch out some predetermined number of words in order to feel I’ve earned the right to scarf it down. Crude but effective. Do not attempt if you’re someone who wants to have a “healthy relationship with food”, whatever that is. Sometimes I give up and eat the muffin without having written anything. That’s okay too (see #1).
5. Find your inspiration.
If you’re simply writing a novel in order to strike it rich or impress your friends, you’re going to find it very difficult to sustain a writing practice for long enough to actually finish the thing. Figure out what it is you want to say. Examine the demons you’re struggling with in your own life, and find a way to exorcise them through storytelling.
What kept me motivated was my desire to tangle with big scary truths. On a micro level through my own experiences and on a macro level through universal patterns of human behavior. Throughout the process of writing my novel, I found myself making discoveries alongside my main character. I made connections and had revelations that I never would have come to had my character not come to them first. Writing, for me, is a form of therapy mixed with joyous self-expression mixed with a vehicle to put my soul out into the world. Figure out your own killer cocktail of motivations and then dive deep.
6. Take everything I’ve said with many grains of salt.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned throughout this process is that everyone is different. You need to figure out what works for you.
Many writing books stress writing every single day, but I’ve found that imposing a rigid routine doesn’t work for me. I need to approach writing in a more fluid way, nudging myself to write as often as I can, for whatever amount of time. Maybe I’ll write for ten minutes one day and three hours on another. I try to listen to my own body’s rhythms and take advantage of when I’m feeling particularly inspired. When writing feels like pulling teeth, I do what I can and then call it a day. I like having an outline before I start. I feel freer playing within the confines of a structure than just writing into a totally unknown abyss.
However, I’m certain that there are writers out there best served by completely different methods. People who feel constricted and bored working with an outline. People who get up every morning at 6am to write for two hours (I cringe just thinking about it). People who rewrite as they go along, ending up with what is essentially a third or fourth draft after their first draft.
I can’t tell you what to do. I can only tell you what’s worked for me, and tell you to try out different methods of attack until you find something that sticks. There is no “right way” to write. There are just whatever bits and pieces you can cobble together into a method that is uniquely tailored to your personality and temperament. Find the best ways to trick your brain into agreeing to do something as insane as writing a novel, and don’t look back.