I’ve heard something like 95% of people who start writing a novel never finish the first draft. Not don’t get published. Not don’t start querying. That 95% failure rate is just the first draft.
Let that sit. Let it fester. Let it scare you. The first draft of a manuscript is terrifying. And that’s before all the obstacles and excuses get in the way.
Making dinner, working overtime, school, social life, computer crashes, getting fired, getting married, losing momentum, losing confidence, having babies, and the same thing we do every night, Pinky: try to take over the world!
And the king motherfucking death bird of all antagonists: writer’s block.
While each obstacle we encounter is unique, there are some things we can do to limit their effects on our momentum. Here’s four that work for me:
Some authors get up at 4am, make coffee, take a shit, sit at the computer, and write till 6:30. I believe these people are not actually human, but that’s an issue for another blog. The point is, they schedule. It sounds easy, but you and I know it isn’t.
I’ve tried scheduling morning hours, evening hours, middle-of-the-night-I-hate-the-fucking-world-insomniac-hours. None of them work for me. I like sleeping. My kid hates me sleeping. The powerful play goes on, yada yada yada.
But I have found a schedule. There’s 90 minutes after my kid falls asleep most nights when I can still function. There’s four hours every other Saturday when my mother-in-law babysits. It’s not a lot, and I’m not able to use each of these time periods every day or week. But I know they’re there, and knowing is half the battle.
My point? Figure out your possible schedule. Know when you might be able to rely on writing time. Commit to it when it’s there. Yearn for it like a skipped desert when it’s not. If you schedule it, the writing will come.
Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles) says she writes 1000 words a day. I’ve read that some authors stop in the middle of a chapter, or even a sentence, once they reach their daily word count goal. The idea is that stopping in the middle will keep them fueled to go back at it the next day.
If stopping in the middle of a sentence sounds like medieval torture to you, I’m on your side.
Stopping in the middle of a chapter when I have momentum? Fuck you! Stopping in the middle of a sentence? What kind of an avocado-on-pizza sicko are you!
But I do set goals. Not word counts. I discovered they didn’t work for me. Too much stress. Too much feeling like a failure when I pushed beyond a natural stopping point. Who needs that bullshit?
I set chapter goals. Chapters are natural for me. They’re like little short stories with definitive starting and (this is the best part for me) ending points. I try to write the first draft of a chapter in one sitting. Then I try to revise that chapter in my next sitting. What I never do is let myself stress over reaching those goals. If I get it, great. I might even crow about it on TwitBookGram or wherever. Sometimes I even sound my word count over the rooftops of the world. But it’s the chapter that moves me. Keeps me coming back. Makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, like the manuscript is one step closer to complete, and I’ve earned that day’s Scotch.
I knew an author once who storyboarded every scene in her novels. She would, at times, fan the sketches out on the floor to visual her manuscript. It was like seeing her mind. It was beautiful.
I can’t do that. I have all the sketching talent of a two-year-old trying to eat pudding with a fork. What I do is outline. Not Roman numerals and indented indents and all that high school crap. I make a list of what I think will happen in each chapter. Sometimes I outline the whole book. Sometimes I just go five or ten or twenty chapters ahead because I’m not sure where it all leads.
Then I write those chapters.
I write the first two or three of those chapters. Then I realize that my manuscript has taken a detour off the original outline. Decision time: change the manuscript or change the outline?
I change the outline. In fact, I write dozens of outlines for each manuscript, changing them every few chapters to align with the new direction my characters (and the story’s internal logic) demand. You see, for me outlines are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. They’re prompters. They’re doorways for when I’m feeling less than enthusiastic about writing. I pop open that outline notebook, read a few chapters worth of notes and summaries, and my brain starts firing. Then I get out of the way and let the writing happen.
Sketch. Don’t sketch. Outline. Don’t outline. Experiment. Find your doorway.
Just Fucking Write
Write a short story. Write an outline for a different novel. Write a fan fiction Buffy the Vampire Slayer screenplay. Write a comic. A shopping list. A guest blog. A manifesto. Whatever. Just fucking write.
When you can’t write the thing you should be writing, write something else. It’s the writing that will save you, not the deadline or the word count or the outline. Keep the juices flowing. Keep your better angels happy and your worser angels fed. Keep the fiendish beak of writer’s block at bay by not letting that shit bird into the house.
Go. Now. Write.
About the author: Michael Pogach is the author of the dystopian thriller Rafael Ward series: The Spider in the Laurel and The Long Oblivion. He is also the mind behind the “dirty and intense” chapbook Zero to Sixty and was a contributor to the Amazon-best-selling CAM Horror & SciFi Charity Anthology. Michael is a long-time creative writing professor in Pennsylvania. He is currently at work on Rafael Ward Book Three.
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