Wednesday, January 02, 2008

So, You've Resolved to Write a Book

I did actually try to work yesterday, but I got distracted by a phone call and never managed to get back into it. Not that I ever really was into it. But now, the holidays are more or less over (though I actually kind of consider the rest of the week to be quasi-holiday) and it's time to get back in the swing of things.

For those of you who've made a New Year's resolution to write a book in 2008 (and for me, as a reminder), here are some ideas, tips and suggestions on how to get that done:

1) Schedule a time to write, then stick with it.
Different people have different lives, different schedules and different ways of working, so I hesitate to say there's one way of doing this. There are those who insist that you absolutely must write every day, but not everyone's life works like that. I know of some very fortunate and disciplined people who can write a whole book by dashing off a sentence or two whenever they have five minutes free. There are others who do best by locking themselves away for a weekend and writing non-stop. If you're reasonably new to this or getting back into it, I would suggest something in between. Just as you wouldn't try to run a marathon this weekend if you've been a casual runner or non-runner, it's really hard to sustain a big writing burst if you haven't been writing, and it's hard to get into a flow when you're writing only a few minutes at a time. Try for around an hour of writing on most days, to start with. It can take twenty minutes or so to get warmed up and in the groove, and if you only schedule a half hour, it's too tempting to get twenty minutes in with nothing much happening and declare that your half hour's up, and you really tried (or is that just me?). With an hour, you have enough time to get in the zone and do something. Of course, you can always go longer, but consider that a bonus. The important thing is to look at your schedule, find time to write, and consider that an appointment you've made with yourself. There's a big motivational difference between "I think I'll try to write tonight" and "I'm scheduled to write from eight to nine tonight." After about four weeks of doing a scheduled activity, it starts to become a habit.

2) Set realistic goals.
With any kind of new endeavor, it's natural to get started in a burst of enthusiasm and high hopes, then fizzle out. That's why it helps to break the big task down into smaller weekly and daily goals so you can get a sense of progress. There's a big mental difference between "I'm going to write a novel" and "I will write five pages today." To start, make your daily goal something you know you can achieve. If you set the goal too high and miss it, then you feel like a failure, and you won't want to keep doing something that makes you feel bad about yourself. It's better to set your daily goal lower so you start with a sense of accomplishment and success. Then if you find yourself easily hitting or surpassing that goal, you can raise it. Back to that marathon analogy, writing is something you build up to gradually.

3) Don't bog yourself down.
I'm not big on absolutes because everyone's brain works a different way. There are people who write straight through to get a first draft and there are people who edit as they go, and whatever works is great. But if this is your first novel, I would encourage you to write straight through as much as you can. Fine-tuning the first few chapters is one of the best delaying tactics around, and I know of far too many people whose first books stalled out around chapter three because they could never get the beginning written to their satisfaction. If you don't let yourself edit as you go, then you're more likely to get to the end of the book, and then you can go back and fix everything. Besides, perfecting chapter one before you go on is very likely going to be a complete waste of time. Chapter one is probably going to end up changing significantly in revisions, anyway, because you'll know a lot more about your characters and your story once you've written the end of the book, and that means you'll need to go back and fix the beginning to reflect that. You'll also probably find out that your initial chapter one is really just warm-up, and the story actually starts with chapter two (that's very common in first, second or even third novels). So why waste time perfecting something you're going to rewrite or even delete later? The first draft of the first chapter is supposed to be weak and rough. That's what revision is for. You may not come up with the perfect opening line until you've written or maybe even revised the entire book, so don't stall out on page one by refusing to move forward until your opening line is perfect.

However, there are times when it's worth backtracking. You're wasting your time if you force yourself to keep forging ahead when the story isn't working. That's when you go back to the point where things went wrong and get things on the right path before trying to go forward. In general, revise as you go for story issues, but don't try to perfect the words before moving forward.

Once you've figured out how your brain works after a book or two, you can develop your own working style, but that takes actually getting through a book or two, and that generally requires forcing yourself to finish a draft without making each chapter perfect along the way.

4) Don't talk about what you're doing too much.
A book in progress is a delicate thing, and people can easily destroy it without meaning to. If you tell too many people you're trying to write a book, you'll probably get lots of stories about other people's attempts to write a book, their co-worker's cousin who's a published author and who lost everything (because "published" actually meant "self-published" and they didn't know the difference), or the book they're going to write someday. You'll be asked how it's going, sometimes with true interest and sometimes with mocking or disbelief, like they're waiting for you to fail. Then there are all the questions about when the book will be published and if they can read it. There may also be people who try to sabotage you, deliberately or otherwise. If you mention you're going to spend the weekend writing, you'd be surprised at how many invitations you'll suddenly get to go out, how many friends who suddenly really need you to be there for them, etc. It's kind of like announcing you're going on a diet and suddenly everyone you know takes a cake decorating class or starts inviting you out for dinner. It's far more pleasant to announce after the fact that you've written a book than to deal with constant questions or comments about it as you write it. Tell only the people who really need to know what you're up to. If you need moral support or accountability, find it in other writers who are going through the same thing. You can find all kinds of online writing support groups where you post your daily totals.

I think it's also important not to talk too much about it because that dilutes some of your energy for writing the story. If you've told the story to someone, then what you write isn't going to have the freshness of a first telling. The exception here might be brainstorming with someone you trust, but I would suggest you don't even do that much with a first book. I think it's important for you to figure out your own style and voice before you get someone else's influence. Do the brainstorming and critiquing with the second draft. Even if you're aiming for publication, the first draft of the first book needs to be something you do for yourself. This is a period of exploration for you, for discovering your voice and finding out what stories you have to tell.

5) Reward yourself.
This could fit under the goals heading, but it's important enough to set apart. Writing a book is a HUGE accomplishment, so think of something physical and lasting you could get for yourself when you finish. Write down your goal and what your reward will be. Post a picture of your reward near your computer. Then when you achieve your goal, go get it. Every time you see or use that item, you'll remember what you've done, and that may help you get through the next book. You may or may not want to set a deadline for yourself for the entire book as a requirement for the reward. I'm very deadline driven, so that always helps me, but that can also be pressure you don't want or need.

You can also come up with little rewards to get you to your daily goals. When I'm really struggling just to get those pages done, I count out dark chocolate M&Ms for the number of pages I need to write that day into a little dish, then I get to eat one for each page I write. If I finish my weekly goal early, then I give myself some extra time off to read or watch a movie. Last summer, I had a new TV series DVD set I wanted to watch, so I made a deal with myself that as soon as I finished my page goal for the day, I could watch episodes until bedtime. That really cut down on my staring into space for hours and gave me an incentive to make my writing time more productive.

6) Take care of yourself.
Your brain works better when your body is healthy, so while you're writing, be sure to eat properly, get plenty of water (you need even more if you're also loading up on caffeine) and get some exercise. There have been medical studies showing that people are more creative after moderate exercise (I find that walking is good thinking/brainstorming activity), so don't just sit in your chair.

Good luck on your writing this year! Now I need to go put some of my own tips into practice.

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