Have you figured out your writing goals for the months ahead? I’m in the process of trying to solidify mine into something realistic and achievable.
2014 was a landmark year for me. I finally finished and published my debut novel, Poison Bay. I still find it a bit surprising to be able to say that. You see, I’ve wanted to do it for such a long time that I had subconsciously accepted it would probably never happen — it had become a kind of myth in my life, the value of which lay in it being “out there” as a possibility to aspire to.
Working out how to live with a dream that’s become reality is not always as straightforward as you might think. And I’ve had to figure out how to get the next one done!
Maybe you find these thoughts odd, or then again, maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about.
As I plan the sequel (working title: Venom Reef), I find a number of popular myths about writing circling around me and nipping at my heels again. I have allowed them to herd me away from my dreams in the past. I don’t want it to happen again.
Maybe they’ve affected you too. Let’s debunk!
MYTH 1: A writer always writes
This one says… “A writer always writes. At weddings and funerals they furtively jot notes on the order of service. If you don’t write every chance you get, like a pathological syndrome or a literary version of Tourette’s, you’re not a writer.”
I can understand how this myth got started, but unfortunately it can also serve as a barrier to entry. How about we stop cutting one another off at the knees?
My experience and observation of reality
Sometimes, a writer writes. Other times, a writer goes years without doing any of the writing they yearn to do (or used to yearn to do, or wish they could yearn to do).
Writers go through seasons. Maybe they’re sick or a child is sick or work is beyond stressful or they’re supporting an ill parent or they are tired or feeling inadequate as a writer.
Or maybe they’ve read that writers always write and so they think, “If that’s true, I don’t qualify.” And they lose heart.
Sometimes they go through periods where they just can’t bring themselves to write for pleasure, because they write all day for a living, or all day-and-night as a student — reports, submissions, academic papers, brochures. Maybe they’re under pressure to churn out endless negativity as a journalist, or endless plastic peppiness as a marketer, and it sucks the joy out of it.
Sometimes they feel like they never want to write another WORD.
A saner approach to the myth
If you have a yearning to write, even if it gets buried sometimes, well then, maybe you are a writer, or even (consider this!) are becoming a writer.
Just do it when you can, how’s that for an idea?
And when you can’t write or life gets on top of you, that’s OK too. If you’ve had chunks of your life where you didn’t feel like a writer at all, no problems. I’ve been there. And I’m still a writer. I’ve been published in several types of non-fiction for years. And I even (finally, eventually) finished and published a novel. And I have another one in the works, plus several other books. [UPDATE: Venom Reef is still underway, but in the meantime I’ve published another book, Dogged Optimism, a lighthearted memoir about my daft dog. And yes, I’m startled that I managed to get that one finished, too!]
At the moment, I do tend to find I’m frustrated if I haven’t got something to write on everywhere I go. But it hasn’t always been so.
Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to be a writer, to wax and wane, and to grow into the job.
MYTH 2: A writer reads incessantly
RED ALERT. Before you get all up in arms and think I’m saying writers don’t need to read, let me defuse you right there.
Yep, writers will grow if they read widely and expose themselves to lots of writing styles: high-brow, low-brow and no-brow (whatever that is). Fiction and non-fiction, history and memoir, trash and literary prizewinners, bestsellers, obscure treasures, and occasionally, entertaining drivel.
BUT sometimes life gets in the way of this too. When I did a degree in theology quite a few years ago, I had to read so much incredibly dense and complex stuff to all hours of the night that I barely read anything else. It was like my readery was out of fuel. I almost never read for pleasure, for 4 whole years.
In the last year or so, once again I’ve been having trouble reading as much as I’d like. This time it’s because of stress… my reading timeslot is bedtime, and I’m finding that if I read anything suspenseful or too complex/mentally stimulating at that hour, insomnia is usually the result and I’m a wreck the next day.
My reading-for-pleasure has been curtailed for a time, and I often default to re-reading a few pages of an old favourite, because it’s more relaxing. Just now, big reading projects have to wait till my (extremely rare) holidays/vacations.
Hey ho. This too will pass.
A saner approach to the myth
Try to read to expand your mind. Try to pay attention to how it’s been written, and what you do and don’t like about it, and what you could learn as a writer from what did and didn’t work.
But if you’re going through a phase where reading is hard, be kind to yourself. It doesn’t mean you can’t be a writer. It’s a phase. You’ll get back into reading. Give yourself permission to be a Bad Reader for a while, and to grow as a reader in the future.
MYTH 3: A first novel never gets published
This one says… “A first novel is just practice. Move on and forget about it. It won’t be published, and nor should it, because you haven’t earned it yet, my sweet.”
Barriers to entry, much??
When someone told me my first novel would never be published, and first novels never are, I lost heart and nearly gave the whole writing game away.
However, I am a stubborn little miss, and I hate rules (if they’re stupid rules) with a deep and abiding passion. So I picked myself up and decided to ignore that pronouncement and find my own path.
I chose to see my first novel as an apprenticeship, rather than just a practice run.
I’m not going to lie to you. Because I was a newbie fiction writer, the learning curve on Poison Bay was steep and long. The redrafting/revising/restructuring task — once I had the eyes to see what a heap of drivel I’d written in the first draft — was enormous. I created a lot of problems for myself, and then had to baffle my way out of them.
I expect (hope) that the revision process once I’ve completed the first draft of Book 2 won’t be nearly so hard, because of the mistakes I made — and learned from — during Book 1.
There are ways in which it would have been easier to learn those hard lessons on a practice manuscript, and then toss it aside and begin afresh with a clean page.
However, I was committed to Poison Bay. I loved the plot and the characters and the setting in the New Zealand wilderness. I’d made a research expedition and interviewed a lot of people. And I had designed it to introduce a mystery/thriller series with ongoing characters. I wasn’t prepared to throw all that away.
So I entered it into manuscript development contests and got expert opinions on it. I learned all I could about writing fiction. I recruited a crack team of beta readers from various backgrounds who told me all the things I couldn’t bear to hear. I analysed their feedback to come up with a path through the wilderness (so to speak!) that resonated with me and was true to my vision for the project and the writer I was trying to become, and am still becoming.
Poison Bay is out there now. The debut novel that I love Exists. The groundwork for my series has been laid. The fact that I didn’t give up on my dream fills me with quiet joy (surprise, too, but we’ve discussed that).
A saner approach to the myth
If you want to write your first book as a practice run, that’s perfectly fine. Go nuts. Have fun and experiment with voice and style and structure.
But if you really love the book and want it to emerge into the world, how about this? Change the statement to: A first DRAFT should never be published.
Roll up your sleeves and get to work. There’s absolutely no reason why that unwieldy, poorly-structured manuscript can’t be pummelled into publishable shape, if you love it enough and you’re determined to learn.
Use it as an apprenticeship, and believe that each successive book will be a little better and a little easier to write.
Some inspiration from others
These are a few videos I stumbled upon in recent weeks and found inspiring. Maybe they’ll give you encouragement too.
Fear of rejection, pressure of success
The first is from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. She went from being a nobody devastated by rejection letters to becoming spectacularly successful. She talks about how one was as hard as the other — an insightful exploration of how success can throw us off balance as much as failure.
I’m still awaiting my “spectacular success”. 😉 But even the more personal “success” of finally finishing and publishing Poison Bay has left me surprisingly intimidated by the idea of trying to do it all over again.
Whether you are stuck in the rejection-go-round with your writing, or you have had a success (however you define that) and now you don’t know how to follow it up, her thoughts might help.
Procrastination and organisation
This one is by internet marketer, Jeff Walker, which might sound a strange place to find writing inspiration!
However, he talks about the method he used to finally get a book written. The idea is to set a timer, then just type for 50 minutes, and you’re not allowed to stop even if you’re writing garbage. I’ve seen that idea elsewhere before — it can help break writer’s block.
I’ve been trying out focus@will, a site that provides music designed to help with concentration, and it has a timer function built in. A bell dings and the music stops when the time is up. I’m finding it helpful (and they’re not paying me to say this).
Enthusiasm and joy
I already shared this one last September, when I announced my commitment to publish Poison Bay in time for Christmas. It’s just an ad for a British telephone company, but the message is beautiful (and funny). It challenged me to stop pussyfooting around and get the dang thing DONE – and enjoy it!
My plans for the year – and YOURS!
With fear and trepidation, I hereby declare that I’m aiming to complete Book 2 in my series, Venom Reef, in time to publish it this coming Christmas.
It’s an audacious goal, considering that Poison Bay was about 15 years in the making! But what is life without audacious goals… (Sure, I’ll be embarrassed if I don’t reach it, but what the heck. I’ve been embarrassed before, and survived.)
Would you like to state your writing goals publicly, in the comments? My experience from last year is that stating it publicly makes a difference, and NOT because it adds pressure. I’m no brain scientist, but I suspect it’s because it moves it out of the “myth” territory of the brain into a part more connected with concrete reality.
What are your writing goals for the year? This is a safe place… no one is going to point and laugh if you don’t quite get there. Quite the opposite — we will be congratulating you on your progress and cheering you on to the next step!
Featured image via Bigstock/PixelsAway