At this slightly chaotic and twinkly time of year, I am studiously ignoring my pile of unwritten Christmas cards (sorry everyone) as I attempt to complete the planning and plotting of my second novel. Finding myself at this early stage of the process again, has brought me back into close contact with that half-forgotten weight of expectation, the practical difficulties of time management, and the huge task of maintaining your own morale and motivation, as you stand at the starting line of a marathon.
Going through the motions a second time is interesting. I can’t help but analyse the way I worked when writing ‘Waking’, dissecting processes that initially I navigated by instinct. I thought I would share a few of the biggest things I’ve learnt and found helpful. I’m sure I am not the only person who has struggled to squeeze novel-writing into their life.
Learn to differentiate between procrastination, and what I like to call ‘passive thinking’. Embrace the latter.
There is a fine line to tread between these two things – a tightrope that requires you to be very honest with yourself in order to stay balanced. Procrastination involves carrying out a diversionary activity that allows you to direct a mind that is perhaps anxious or overwhelmed by the challenge of writing, towards a smaller and more easily completed task, something that will quickly reward you with a sense of satisfaction. Today, I am meant to be completing the biography of my central character. Instead, I am writing this post. That is procrastination.
‘Passive thinking’ is slightly different, and something that I believe to be a vital part of the writing process. The difference between procrastination and passive thinking, is that the latter allows your tired mind a few moments of free and untethered suspension, a break where your brain is not focussed on or directed towards any particular thought or goal. An example would be me sitting down at the start of a writing morning and preparing what I am going to work on that day, but then going and doing the washing up and tidying the kitchen for half an hour. From the outside this might look like procrastination, but in reality I have engaged with my writing, before giving my brain something spacious and unfocussed to do, while I allow the cogs to start turning in the back of my mind. It is less confrontational than sitting wide-eyed in front of a blank page, but often more effective.
Honesty and accountability is necessary here, because it would be easy for me to do the washing up while thinking about what I need to pack in my suitcase for the Christmas holidays. This would turn washing up into procrastination. Or perhaps my husband is at home and tries to have a conversation with me while I am doing it. This would turn washing up into a distraction. If I treat the washing up as a kind of meditation, my mind will detach and float adrift in a watery space that feels a bit like nothing, but is actually a different kind of focus. This is important, especially in 2017, because the mind works most efficiently if it is given periods of suspension from direct thought, moments without stimulation, an information vacuum where links and connections can be forged in the background, unseen and unheard. If I give myself the space for this sort of passive thinking, I will often find a fresh and clear vantage point on a complex writing task, when I do eventually reapply myself. This simply can’t happen if I am stuffing my mind full to the brim with Instagram feeds and memes and videos and text messages and Whatsapp threads and e-mails.
The realisation that four hours of ‘writing time’ might only involve an hour or two of actual writing, is an important one. Don’t feel bad if halfway through a three hour writing session, you find yourself gazing into the middle distance for fifteen minutes while making a cup of tea. Trust that your mind knows what it is doing – it is still busy. Time spent not writing, can be just as useful as time spent making sentences.
Form a close relationship with a realistic timeframe.
Instead of trapping yourself in an abusive affair with an intense self-imposed deadline, cultivate a calmer and more forgiving relationship with a realistic schedule. If you are writing a novel, it is quite likely that you will need to adjust your timeframe a few times as you write, while you come to terms with the sheer enormity of the task. This is okay. It does not mean that you’ve done anything wrong.
I find, paradoxically, that settling gently into the vast thickness of the task ahead, and thinking in terms of months and years, rather than days and weeks, has the effect of making it easier to focus, and thus easier to make progress. Consider the criteria of Granta’s recent list of the best young American novelists: they had to be under the age of 40. If you, like me, are a twenty-something in a rush, hopefully this allows you a small pause for breath.
And if anybody asks you, with just the hint of a smirk, ‘are you still writing that novel?’ I would bet a fair bit of money (at least £11.50) that this particular person has not written one themselves.
Allow yourself to fall out of love with your idea.
Sit with feelings of dislike and boredom. Allow yourself to consider the possibility that your entire idea is weak. The length of time it takes to conceive, plan, write, finish, and edit a novel, makes it highly unlikely that you will wake up every day feeling excited by, and in love with, your idea. It is important to differentiate between a genuine realisation that something isn’t working, and the – possibly more likely – scenario that you have become bored with a good idea, because you’ve been thinking about it for 900 days now and are a bit fed up with the whole bloody thing.
My work has helped me hugely in this area. I produce short films, commercials, and documentaries. Almost every project I work on follows a similar arc of enthusiasm and inspiration, through difficulty and compromise, to achievement and joy. At the start of a production the atmosphere is full of promise, potential, and energy. But there is almost always a point somewhere in the thick of things, where everything gets a bit difficult. Sometimes the practicalities of schedules or the limitations of technology are the frustration; sometimes the idea itself becomes problematic. Whatever the reason, there is often a moment where I wish there was an exit route. Of course this is not possible when your job is to deliver a finished film.
Over time, and with experience, I have learnt that this sticky moment is often the most interesting, and the most valuable. In fact, it is those rare productions that cruise along with ease and without conflict, that can result in a slightly weaker piece of work. Making films is a difficult process, and it is inevitable that at some point those five hundred delicately spinning china plates will veer alarmingly close to one another. The sense of achievement and euphoria, of creative satisfaction and delight, that consumes you when you emerge with a finished piece, is magical. Repeatedly tackling the full arc of this process professionally, has been great training for writing – though of course, it is slightly more difficult when all the conversations and compromises are taking place inside your own mind, and there is nothing and nobody stopping you from pressing the ejector seat.
Writing a novel is a long-term relationship, a passion that will ebb and flow. Your work becomes a partner, somebody you may at times fear you are becoming disconnected from, but who might surprise you by reeling you back in colourfully, and magnetically, if you remain patient.
Let go of perfection.
You can read a longer post I’ve written on letting go of perfection here.
Letting go of perfection doesn’t mean sharing a piece of work before you think it’s finished, or settling for a standard that feels less than your best. It means realising that it is not possible to write something that is immune to criticism or impervious to feedback. It means understanding that as soon as you have finished a piece of writing, by its very nature as a completed thing, it will begin to feel out-of-date, a part of your past. You may even feel embarrassed by it, acutely aware of what it could or should have been, of what it would be if you wrote it now. Often this sensation, though entirely unpleasant, has an incredibly uplifting message at its centre: It is a sign of your evolution as a writer, a reminder that by finishing something, you have gained perspective on it, a better vantage point on your own ability, a chance to improve. If you are lucky enough to be always getting better, you will probably experience this a lot, so learn to enjoy that uncomfortable insight, suddenly seeing how you could have made more of an idea. Use it as fuel and put it in your engine for next time.
Don’t let too many people read your work.
As a new writer in particular, I felt very strongly that I needed to protect myself and my relationship with my own work, before sharing it with anybody. I’m sure that more experienced writers have honed a skill that is mature enough to be opened up to and dissected by multiple readers, but in the early days I considered my immediate challenges to be learning to believe in myself, trusting my own opinion of my writing, and developing a completely clear vision of what I was trying to create.
Readers are important, but only once you have reached a point where you know what you think of the piece you are sharing. If you have a crystal clear vision of what you are writing, of what you want it to be, you are likely to spot the ideas and notes that might transform your work, while confidently letting go of commentary that could take your book further away from the place you have intended for it. There is no doubt in my mind, that the best version of an idea does not exist confined inside my head, but benefits hugely from a carefully-chosen second, third, maybe even fourth pair of eyes. Choose your readers wisely, and only when you are ready.
Writing a book is a huge and inconvenient undertaking for someone who is no doubt already living a life that is full and busy. If, like me, you struggle to find the time to wash your own clothes and make your bed, squeezing a novel in is going to feel awkward and, at times, painful.
It is worth coming to terms mentally with the fact that, since novels don’t write themselves, you will have to remove items from your schedule in order to make room for it. At a practical level this might mean going out with your friends less, watching less television, or getting up a bit earlier. At a more emotional level it might mean that at times you will feel a bit selfish, saying no to events, people, or family, when you know that you are technically available. When you are with people, you might find yourself distracted, a fantasy narrative unfolding in the back of your mind as you go about your daily life. I think this aspect of writing is wonderful, albeit difficult. You will find yourself with a constant companion for one, maybe two, three, four (or more) years. My current idea has been a private stowaway in the back of my thoughts for the past eighteen months, coming to weddings and parties and on holidays with me, rarely leaving me alone. While it is a bit like wearing handcuffs at times, it also allows the idea to grow and evolve in the background, to take on new shapes and forms, and to be always alive.
Time will press ahead, whether you manage to write for a few hours a week or not. In five years’ time, it will be December 2022, no matter what. Imagine how close you will be to finishing your novel if you sit down with it every two or three days for a couple of hours from now until then.