Note: One in a series of columns focusing on creative writing and the writing process in general. For columns geared toward digital/marketing content and promotional writing, visit my content development company’s website, Guiding Type and our writing blog.
It is daunting, surely. You may go mad during the process.
But turning the masterpiece that exists only in your mind into a piece of polished prose that you can share with the world will be worth it — trust me I just did it.
It won’t be easy. You can’t dither. You’ll have to ignore the human propensity for lazy excuses: “I wrote a lot the past few days so I deserve a break” or “my friends want me to hang out.”
And you have to control how much you likely will doubt your ability to do the writing and your ability to finish the job. But you can write a novel in eight weeks (or a little bit longer if you need more time). I managed to barely cross the finish line — 88,779 words in eight weeks. It’s not perfect. That I am certain of. But it’s finished.
And yes, I nearly lost my mind (to a reasonable degree). I was afflicted with a few stomach aches and a maelstrom of both positive and negative nervous energy. But the process from beginning to end was one of the most gratifying, exhilarating, and challenges experiences I have ever subjected myself to. Plus, I achieved one of my major life goals — finishing my first complete novel.
Here are eight principles I learned during that process that I want to share with you:
1.) Don’t look back. I’ll be honest: I broke this rule several times because I couldn’t resist the urge to re-read a few segments to make sure I was writing something that at least made sense. But I never edited a single word or sentence. I kept trucking. You don’t want to look back because you’ll get mired in the swamp of editing and you may find a few imperfect lines that will surely hurt your confidence. Keep moving: Do the edits and analysis after you are finished. You’ll have plenty of time for that. Plus, you don’t have time during this phase of the process (a very rough, but finished, draft is what we are trying to achieve here; and that's a major achievement). Run the race then evaluate how well you did.
2.) Perseverance. You will get tired. Your mind will be weary on some days — and oddly, so will your body. A zombie probably felt sounder in mind and more fit in body than I when I finally wrote the ending. But you have to push through the pain and avoid making excuses (I’m hungry. I’m sick. I can’t get into it. I didn’t get enough sleep). We can come up with 1,000 terrible excuses because we have a tendency to want to avoid the “pain” of doing work. That’s only human. But we have to transcend our nature if we want to do monumental things — climb a mountain, run a marathon, write a novel in eight weeks.
3.) Fear and Doubt. You will be frightened. You will doubt whether you are up to the task. At times, I was chock-full of fear, especially when that cursor was blinking on the first blank page on Day 1. At times (lots of times in fact), I doubted whether I had the stuff — the mind, the talent, the skills, the experience, the energy — to write a novel, never mind within a nearly insane timetable. Most authors, even the most accomplished and skilled, are filled with fear and doubt when they take on the extraordinary undertaking of novel writing. When John Steinbeck was writing The Grapes of Wrath, he faithfully kept a diary of his progress. In that diary, Steinbeck questions his ability to even write and wonders whether he was foolish to even become a writer. In those pages, he engages in so much self-loathing about himself and his abilities that it makes you wonder how he was able to write a book that became a canonical work. Feel that fear, deal with the doubt, process it, try to get over it, and just write — even if your hands are shaking with fear and doubt while you are doing it.
4.) Trust your instincts. You have lived through good and bad times. You have experienced the human experience. You have loved someone. You have felt pain. You have felt the exhilaration of success and the pit of failure in your belly. You know life. You are intelligent. You have a voice. Write from these things; write from your instincts (what you know, what you have seen, what you have experienced) and trust that those experiences and skills can be molded into words. Ultimately, what I am saying is you must demystify writing. You don’t need to be a sorcerer of words. Again, trust yourself, trust your abilities, and trust your instincts — keep moving the pen or your fingers upon the keyboard. Believe in the decisions you make on the fly when you write a scene; believe in your dialogue; believe in your knowledge of humanity; believe in your story; believe in your idea; believe in your mind; believe in your ability to do the job; believe in your heart and courage to do it.
5.) Imagination. An analytic mind cannot create beautiful prose quickly. Don’t be overly logical. Don’t be overly analytic. You’ll need to ride the waves of your imagination freely and constantly to be able to write rapidly and profoundly. You might need to toss aside the outline and just go for it. Think of your dreams, that tumultuous stream of often disassociated images. Think of film, how images are spliced together to form a whole that ends up becoming a film that wins an Academy Award. Take the stream of dissociated experiences and images in your mind that you accumulated in your lifetime and shape them into prose. Let the stream of your imagination flow upon the page — even if part of your mind thinks it doesn’t make sense. You might end up creating one of the most beautiful scenes ever written. Just let go and create. Trust your intuition. You dream. Why not dream on the page?
6.) Unrelenting schedule and strict word count. Create a schedule and stick to it — even if you get sick. I wrote Monday through Friday, beginning in the morning (usually around 10 a.m.) and wrapping up in the early afternoon. I told myself I must write at least 2,000 words each day: Not should; must. If I failed to meet my mark, I made up for it the next day (don’t do this too many times though or you will fall behind). And if you set a 2,000- words-a-day benchmark try to go for 3,000 some days because you will have days that you will need to ease up on word count because you will be slowed down by a technically complex scene or life will get in the way (a weary mind, or an extraordinary circumstance). I missed two days (one because of a colossal illness that I could not overcome even though I tried and harped on myself for failing) and another because I just couldn’t write. I was extremely tired. And in those eight weeks, I’d say about half the days I could have put up the surrender flag because I was somewhat tired, or I wasn’t feeling it (so I falsely believed). You need to overcome nearly all of those moments and stick to your unrelenting schedule and your strict word count. At the end of the day, you'll be happy (and fulfilled) that you did.
7.) Accountability. Building on that last point, you need to hold yourself accountable. By this I mean pay attention to your progress and record it — so you have a constant reminder of how well, or not so well, you are performing. I used Microsoft Word to write the book. When I finished for the day, I always typed in my word count and the date in a comment on the page margin at the end of each segment I wrote for the day. Every time I opened the document the next day to begin writing, the comment reminded me of yesterday’s achievement or lack thereof. This was a not-so-subtle and constant reminder that a certain degree of progress had to be made.
8.) Take breaks. We are human. We need breaks. We’re not perfect. We’re not machines. When you are done for the day, be done for the day. When you hit your count, you hit your count. Resist the temptation to go back and check over your work — or add to it. Once you hit your goal, close the computer or file away your typed pages. Make love, eat a good meal, meditate, work out. Give your mind and body a rest (and take care of both) so it can begin the next day refreshed. I refused to write my book on weekends. I needed those two days to recover from the past five mind-numbing days of writing - and an onslaught of constant thinking and plotting through the story. I also needed that time to let the story marinate consciously and unconsciously in my mind. At times, I would think about my plot, characters, and progress. You can’t help yourself. But try your best to avoid thinking about your work. Enjoy the sunshine; indulge yourself in a big heaping of fresh air.