After a year and a half of blogging and working on a non-fiction project for the future, this summer I’m getting back into a fiction routine. I’m remembering how writing an 80- or 90-thousand word novel differs from blogging or posting Facebook updates. It takes some pretty effective strategies to ward off boredom, burnout, and the temptation to clean house instead.
My strategies probably differ from most people’s. I don’t have kids, and I’m retired, which is actually the only reason I can work on a novel at all. When I was teaching, first light saw me reading student research and papers; the rest of the day outside of class went to administrative tasks. But finally, now! A new routine!
I did worry that my new lack of structure would undercut this new chance to write. So I made myself some rules. So far, good prognosis: My new “Sarah” book is coming, words sneaking out onto the page.
I’m wondering whether these are the same kinds of rules that work for you, or whether you have tweaks to make them work even better. Let me know!
Some people actually write before daylight. I wish! First I read in the bathtub and then read the newspaper online. But when I begin my self-defined “workday,” Activity No. 1 is WRITING. Not blog posts, not query letters, not emails: no, writing on the book.
Write EVERY DAY.
Even on weekends. Okay, I confess, Saturday I’m going to a horse show, and I won’t write that day. Then there’s doctors’ appointments, taking the car for an oil change. Or the dog to the vet. Or, if you have kids, a thousand reasons to say, “I just can’t today!” But this next strategy is the one that keeps me writing almost every day:
Keep it DOABLE.
I developed this strategy when I was writing seminar papers in grad school and grading reams of student papers. Some colleagues would slog through twenty-five research papers at one sitting. Freed them up the next day, they said. But when you’re writing a novel, ten hours today won’t give you a free day tomorrow. And ten hours saps me, leaving me drained.
Instead, when I taught, I figured out how much I had to do each day to meet my deadlines. I’d do that, and no more. For my novel, I’ve been setting myself an easy, non-intimidating daily quota. Right now it’s one college-ruled notebook page. The secret, of course, is that when you get to the end of that page, you almost always keep going. But there are very few days when there’s not enough time to write just that one.
Find A GOOD PLACE TO WRITE.
In Florida that good place was in my canoe tucked into a quiet elbow on the Hillsborough River. Those live oaks just seemed to drip words. Sure, I would get distracted when a gator cruised down the inky river, or a wood stork slow-walked past. These days, I sit on my back deck with my feet propped on the railing. I admit I got distracted the other day when a bald eagle flew overhead. But there’s something about being outside, enveloped by trees and sky, that gifts me with language. Don’t know yet what I’ll do when the snow comes. I have a nice chair with a nice window. If I can keep the dog and the cats out of my lap, there’s hope.
Find something FUN TO WRITE WITH.
Okay, for those who compose on a computer, this one is moot. But I’ve always done creative first drafts in longhand. I love having margins for ideas, reminders, or metaphors to try out. Transferring text to the screen gives me an amazing edit. When you have to type a sentence, it isn’t all that hard to ask, “Do I really need this?”
For years I preferred Schaeffer cartridge pens, black ink, turning the nib upside down for a finer line. My handwriting is small, and I loved the actual shape of the letters as they flowed onto the page. Those days of near-calligraphy are gone; now it’s all barely decipherable scribbles. Schaeffers became harder to find. I’ve switched to a refillable fountain pen, still turning the nib upside down.
And finally, STOP WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT—SORT OF.
If I know, really know—that’s boring. But if I’ve created a situation, like Stephen King suggests, and plopped my characters on the verge of it, I seem to have given myself my own cliffhanger. Okay, Sarah and Nick have reached Enchanted Rock, and she worries he’s about to commit suicide. I know I’ll be back tomorrow to find out what happens next.
But here’s one of my main questions:
I’d progress faster if I wrote for longer stretches. Do you have a strategy for doing that? How do you keep yourself fresh to start again the next day? What other strategies help with your productivity? If you’re juggling family and a job, how do you get those words on the page?