Novels. They're long, like really frickin' long.
I've written two... they're quietly hiding away in a folder within a folder within a folder on my computer somewhere. Every so often I'll open my recent one, leave it up on screen for a few hours whilst I browse vintage dresses on eBay, and then inevitably run out of time and close it. I've been trying to get back to editing this novel for a while now. It's finished, as in written to the end, but it's a messy first draft. Surprisingly, banging all the words out was relatively easy as I did it for NaNoWriMo (50,000 words in a month), but trying to get myself to go back and read it? Well, I'd rather do the washing and the cleaning... and go shopping for something tasty for dinner, and bake carrot cake, and eat carrot cake... and well, you get the idea. It's called procrastination, and I know a lot of writers do it, but I wanted to get underneath that to see what it is that really makes editing so damn hard.
The thing about a first draft is, it's allowed to be crap, because it's a first draft. I've read a lot of articles which say not to worry about what it ends up like, just get the words out instead. Having the incentive and community focus offered with NaNoWriMo, I indeed managed to do that. I surprised myself to be honest, I didn't think I stood a chance... but then there's editing. That's when you have to take the mess and try to make it good. Uh oh.
Now I know I should "set aside time", "create a writing space", "get into a routine" and all that sort of stuff we're told to do. But if I simply do not want to do it, then nothing is going to make me. Nothing will stop me from shopping on eBay or eating cake, or binge watching Stranger Things.
I'm fortunate that I don't ever seem to get writers block. I always have ideas, so in fact part of the problem is that I always want to write new stuff instead of editing and finishing something else. This is dangerous territory as it results in folders full of documents which maybe should be 'out there' in the hope that real life people will read them one day.
The truth is, I think I'm just scared, and I'm sure many other writers are with me on this.
Editing a novel means revisiting your baby, which is terrifying because that 80.000 words you spent months or sometimes years writing will now be back under your critical eye. What if it's crap? What about all the time I wasted writing it? I long for the time I can read something and not worry about how rubbish it sounds. Sometimes I can look back at my own writing and think it reads like a five years old's.
Then there's getting it out into the world, if you do manage to 'finish' it (will it ever really be finished or do we just need to know when to let go?) Then it's open to the perusal of scary people such as literary agents, and that's even more terrifying. A novel is a piece of you, It's likely you poured your heart and soul into it and now that part of you will be out in the open for people to judge. You hate it and love it at the same time, and now you have to send it over to some fuckers who probably just want to change it anyway. The whole thing will be horrible and we question why we ever wrote the thing in the first place and swear never to write another, but then the ideas come. Then we realise that you can't not do it, and then write another.
Writers are bonkers. I wish I didn't want to be a writer. Or, do I wish I could be a better one? What even is a better one? It's all so subjective. Would I even realise if I was better? I try to tell myself that things I've written are good, I say this so much that I hope one day I finally start to believe it. It's hard to keep going until then, especially through the editing stage, because I'm constantly feeling in denial of the whole thing.
Then there's the lure of short stories. They're short enough to be able to finish and edit without the self-doubt eating away for too long, and if you're lucky enough to have a great writing group like I have (Stokes Croft Writers) then it's even easier. Often I find short stories bring variation when writing something longer. My novel is pretty dark and gritty so writing comedy short stories alongside keeps things a little more lighthearted. There's no doubt that writing dark, emotionally charged things are harder to work on, certainly for me. I feel a strong emotional connection to my characters and have to get really in their mindsets to be able to write. That's not necessarily fun when some of them are going through a very tough time!
I wish I could suggest a way to solve the problem, but I don't want to give all the usual cliche bits of advice. The truth is, I'm still looking for that magic answer too, and its through sharing my thoughts like this that I hope others will relate to it too (answers on a post card?). However, I had some great advice recently: pick a chapter of your novel you think might be okay. One that won't need much editing, or is short, or just one you like, or one that's funny. Whatever it is just see if you can pick one and just do that one.
I tried that and found it wasn't as hard as I thought, and in fact got on a bit of a roll and did several chapters. And in all honesty, they weren't as bad as I thought, which was a great relief. I think this theory of chipping away at different little bit of it may work, I'll just need to keep trying. This may not work for you, but if you try to give different things a go then at some point you'll find a process that works for you.
Don't give yourself a hard time - if you want to work on a short story, a blog or something else instead then just do it. It's all good practice.
The thing that ultimately keeps me going to knowing that if 80,000 words just sits on a computer, that's such a shame. Believing it is worthy of the outside world is hard to do but I'm determined to keep practicing, and I hope you can too. We're all worthy of having our work 'out there.' Let's start by just trying to be kind to ourselves.
Thanks for reading.
How do you write/edit? Do you have any tips for when you lose confidence or faith in your work? I'd love to hear your experiences and advice!
On the 2nd November I couldn't sleep. I was still up at 3am, mindlessly scrolling through the world of social media where nothing much was happening, until I saw some NaNoWriMo posts. I'd heard of it before but I'd never considered doing it. Writing a novel in a month? That was for pro's for sure. I'd already written a novel which had taken the best part of 3 years. A month just sounded impossible. But as I read the posts and tweets, I liked the community vibe and friendliness that was going on. It felt like an exiting, positive environment. With such a lot of creative people in the world I often expect more competition, but the more I delve into the writing world, online and offline, I realise how friendly and supportive it is. A friend in my writing group had decided to do NaNoWriMo this year, and suddenly it hit me (at 3am)...I should be doing it too. Yes, I was 2 days in, but I could catch up...right? I considered my month ahead, noting one weekend away but otherwise nothing to stop me from committing myself. I signed up to the NaNoWriMo website and explored, feeling more certain with every second that it was definitely what I needed to do.
Now, this is where I have to admit to my advantage. I already had a story, that's the only way I could do it on such a whim. I had already written a screenplay called 'Papercuts' which I aimed to write into a novel at some point, but I'd been putting it off. Another 3 years, like my last novel, just seemed so daunting. But, I thought, if I could at least get started with NaNoWriMo then it might give me some discipline and a routine. Even if I just did 25,000 words it's more than I would have done, so why not give it a go?
The first few days
I had to do a couple of days of binge writing to catch up, but I enjoyed it. I read each scene of my screenplay and just started writing, and the words pored out naturally. All the stuff I had in my head which had to be limited for the screenplay could come out and onto the page. My main worry was that the story I'd worked on for so long as a screenplay wouldn't work as a novel, or that it would change the story, but it didn't. All the same scenes happened, but I could slow it down and write all the little details around it. My characters could have longer conversations and get to know each better. The protagonist is a girl with a troubled past and lots of family issues, who travels to India and befriends an Australian monk. Their friendship became even more of a joy to write than the first time around in the screenplay.
I surprised myself by quickly getting into a daily writing routine. It wasn't at the same time everyday due to other commitments, but I always made space for it. This may sound sad, but I bloody love that table on the NaNoWriMo website. You can load your word count and it puts it into a graph and a table which tells you how much you've done so far (right). I loved updating it everyday and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as time went on. The theory is that, although 50,000 is not a novel, it a good chunk of one to get you started, plus it makes a manageable target every day of around 1,660 words. I found it much easier to stay on target that I imagined. When I started it was the 3rd November so I had to do over 10,000 in 2 days, and I did the same at the end to finish early. That felt like a lot, but I still enjoyed it. In fact, it's great to have those binges to get in 'the zone'. I was in my characters' world and could easily just get on a roll.
Little chunks everyday
So I kept going everyday for the first few weeks, and was still on target. I couldn't believe it. I started to realise that if I kept going, I might actually do it. I still didn't really believe it until I got close to the end of the month, I think that's why I did another binge at the end to make sure I definitely got there! It would have been a shame to get to the end of the month and only be 1000 words out. I got to just over 50,000 and allowed myself to feel proud, something I've often found very hard to do in the past.
Now, I know the ideal thing after NaNoWriMo would be to carry on at the same pace until the novel is finished (I was near the end but still not finished), but I had a busy week starting in December for my birthday. So I allowed myself the breathing space and had a very, very fun week: a meal out with my writing group, had a friend to stay, had a meal with other friends, and... (drum roll...) went to see one of my favorite bands growing up - Ash - and got a hug from singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler (who I've loved since I was 13! Best birthday present ever - call me sad, that's fine). Since then I've been busy getting ready for my trip to Vietnam over Christmas. I planned to work on the novel again in January, setting myself daily targets inspired by the discipline of NaNoWriMo, but I may even do a bit on the beach whist I'm away!
So what have I learnt from NaNoWriMo?
This is probably the stuff everyone says, but I realised that I can be disciplined if I really put my mind to it and have a clear target. I think it really works for me adapting from a screenplay (I'd hate to try and adapt the other way around!). I haven't yet decided what I prefer writing - novels, screenplays or short stories, or even what genre I like writing, I just like doing them all. I thought that 'finding my voice' meant finding the genre I write in, but that's not it. It's the words you use, the language and the style. I write simply, I don't use metaphors or similes and I don't use flowery descriptions. I used to think this meant my writing was rubbish, but now I realise it's just my style. I have't quite got to that confident point where I can say that my stuff is good (and I'm not sure I ever will!), but I've realised that it's not that bad, which is far from how I felt a few years back. In short, NaNoWriMo has really given me a confidence boost.
Thinking about doing NaNoWriMo in the future?
Plan, plan and plan some more. I think I only managed to bust out that many words because I knew my characters and the story so well. When I was planning the screenplay I had pages full of character details. I wrote a list of questions about favorite films, music, what kinds of socks they wear, what their experiences at school were like, and many more. I didn't necessarily use all this information in the story but I did it to get to know the characters inside out. I also wrote scenes on sticky notes and stuck them all over my wall. Even if you're a novelist, reading up on some screenwriting methods can be really helpful in terms of planning. Novels are so long that it's hard to keep track of where it's easy to get lost in it, so lots of planning can really help.
The thing I enjoyed the most about NaNoWriMo is the sense of community. Knowing that lots of people from all over the world are doing the same as you feels like a lovely connection to have. All these creative people all connecting through writing - it's so inspiring!
Give it a go one year, you've got nothing to lose! Even if you only do a few thousand words, it's better than nothing. Nobody fails at NaNoWriMo really, except for those people who have a novel in their head and never try it!
Happy Writing, and Merry Christmas!!