These are some things I learned from writing a novel-length manuscript. If I’d known all this when I started, I think I could have achieved a similar result in less than half the time.
Perhaps you can only learn this stuff through inefficiency, wasted effort, and long nights spent weeping into your keyboard. If so, my list might not be very helpful to you. But I’m going to leave this here so that I can remind myself of a few hard-won truths before I start on my next project.
- Find your rhythm. I find it easiest to write creatively in the mornings after a coffee, but before I’ve had anything to eat. By lunch time I’m done. I can edit later in the day, but I rarely generate anything new and worthwhile. It took me a surprisingly long time to work this out. Until I did, I spent a lot of time feeling angry at myself.
- Look after your brain. Make sure you’re in a good mood and clear-headed when you sit down to write. For me, that means regular exercise, no hangover, and positive permission (internal and external) to ignore, for several hours, the chores, commitments and distractions that we’re all slaves to. If I feel like I’m neglecting some other thing I need to do, it’s all over.
- Some days it just doesn’t work. Rather than castigating yourself when the words and ideas just won’t come, do something else that makes you feel like you’re making progress – however small or incidental. Editing things you’ve already written fits the bill nicely. This is not the same thing as procrastination. You’ll know when you’re procrastinating because you’ll have that smouldering sick panicked feeling in your stomach that comes from the realisation that you have a finite number of heart beats left before you die, and you’re watching cat videos.
- Think hard before you start to write. I plotted out my book in detail before I started writing. But what I really wish I’d done more of during the early stages of my project (even more than plotting) is to think hard about characters and tension. Who are my key characters? Why should anyone care about them? What do they want more than anything? How can I keep them hungry and scared and desperate, so that every single scene matters? I thought I had the answers to those questions when I started writing, but I didn’t. That meant I spent a lot of time writing dull scenes that needed to be cut or re-written from scratch.
- Very much related to the previous item, you need to work out pretty bloody quickly what your work is about; what it is trying to say. When I started, I didn’t think this was so important for a genre novel. But it is, because if the scene you’re writing doesn’t help to advance the core idea of your work, then you’re wasting time: your time and any (future, as-yet-hypothetical) reader’s time. No one wants to read pretty writing that doesn’t make a point – just ask a high school English teacher.
- Talk to other writers to troubleshoot your work. I found that it’s not so important what they say (although they’re usually nice, smart people full of helpful suggestions – also some are batshit crazy); but improving a piece of bad writing is like overcoming addiction: the first step is to admit you have a problem and to describe it. Vocalising the difficulties and weaknesses in your work (which are legion, in any early draft) gets them straight in your own head, and as soon as you do that, solutions usually start to occur. Hearing about other people’s projects also provides you with comparison points against which you can identify strengths and weaknesses in your own writing.
- When the words do come, be mindful and cautious. Maybe even a bit skeptical. Sometimes when you get some momentum, you just want to write as much as you can before whatever creative wellspring you’ve tapped into dries up. You think something like, “I’ve just got to get all of this down. Expression doesn’t matter so much. I can always edit it later.” This can be dangerous. What seems at first like good progress (in the form of a large addition to word count) often reveals itself on a second reading to be a swamp of toxic prose that would be easier to re-write from scratch than to remediate with a deep edit. Now, when I sit down to write, I try to make every sentence as not-awful as I can make it, as I write it for the first time. There’s a reason writers are tortured souls. If you’re finding the process easy or pleasant, you’re not doing your best work.
There are plenty of other writers out there saying similar things in slightly different ways. But screw those guys – they’re probably hacks.