Finishing my novel in six weeks doesn’t mean it is any good, as if that even needs stating. Anyway here’s how I did it:
I did not yield to the temptation to listen to music.
I discovered that for my writing to be successful music is my enemy. Whenever I would put on my earphones and sit down at the table or lie across the bed I would immediately lose any concentration I had built up.
Music and writing are two things that cannot go together in my opinion. I now think it is no wonder. The music I listen to has lyrics in it and lyrics are literally competing words with those I am also trying to generate in my own head. Perhaps with more writing sophistication I will learn how to tune out and use music as a motivation.
The other – embarrassing – issue I found I had with music is that it is a gateway to daydreaming. I would begin writing in earnest only to drift away into the realm of ‘what if’ and ‘imagine’ to the sound of anything upbeat. As I was trying to write one story, music would lead me into creating little offshoots for myself which drained time and energy. Writing is concentration and concentration is tiring.
I think I underestimated this because when I paint I have the radio on and when I sleep I generally let a podcast play in the background. With this first draft everything, from characters to plot, felt too tenuous not to be fully aware of what was happening at all times. The one time I did listen to a song it was to write a piece of dialogue and I looped it on repeat so that it became a consistent sound, nothing new for my brain to process.
Ditch the music. Stay with your story.
Even when I knew what I was writing was rubbish, I kept going.
When I was in the middle of chapter three I knew it was out of step with the rest of the novel. The voice I had been writing had gone awry and it sounded like someone had crept in to do an impression hoping I wouldn’t notice. The same problem happened with chapters seven and nine and ultimately all three now need rewriting.
It was a lot easier than I thought it would be to just sit down and ignore the rubbish of the previous pages. For someone whose default mode is to be critical I was surprised by how I could simply pick up where I had left off and be largely unbothered by what I knew to be, at best, not great.
In my first draft there a maybe six lines that I have scribbled over and they were only the victim of such a rash response because they actually didn’t make sense. Other than that everything is intact. I focused on writing the story and on getting it down on paper. Words can be changed.
I always stopped on a high.
I read this in an excellent article from The Guardian (linked here) regarding writing tips and it stuck because it worked. In a single day I would average about six to ten pages and on a couple of occasions I found myself at the end of the day having reached a natural break or the close of a chapter.
The temptation was there to continue. Surely this feeling was what they call “the flow”, the story was “flowing” and I shouldn’t have put a stop to it. Well, I did. If I hadn’t I think I would have had the equivalent of a binge diet attitude to my novel: some days writing a lot, others nothing.
I took it a page at a time but once I started to feel good about it, I stopped. I never overwrote anything and I did not eat, breathe and sleep my idea because despite the commonality of that phrase, I didn’t feel it was a healthy approach for me. I went out for morning runs, afternoon hikes and I engaged with my neighbours and my partner. I think this was key to getting it done in the time I did.
There was great discipline in this and that discipline left with the sense that my life was ordered which made me feel constantly in control of my abilities and not at the whim of them.
I did go to an isolated house in the middle of nowhere.
Yes it is a cliché but also yes it works!
I wrote the majority of my novel from a tiny dot of a village on the island of Corsica. There was only a single café in the village (which I never visited), no shops and no distractions. I was surrounded by nature and when I woke up the only thing that there really was to do was to write.
The location undoubtedly made the process easier. I say this because once I moved to Paris my writing output slowed enormously. There would be days when I would manage only a paragraph, rarely days when I would achieve the pages I was writing on the island.
Though I don’t know if isolating yourself is a strategy that would work for everyone, I think it worked for me because the silence allowed me a space to think. It felt like meditation for writing – I thought about other challenges, worries and the future, but I also realised how much city living intensifies these feelings for me. Without them, there was no pressure on my brain to be creative or to do something, it simply happened.
What I think I mean is: find the environment that suits you best. You probably already know what it is – I had always gravitated towards isolated life anyway and it worked for me. I guess your body or your heart knows what, and where, it wants to be.
I did not use a computer.
This would be the single biggest piece of advice that I would give to anyone thinking about starting a novel: don’t use a computer.
I had actually bought a new computer on which to start my novel. I had forgotten to purchase a Word packet and the little house in the little village unsurprisingly didn’t come with any WIFI so I started off writing it longhand with every intention of, the next day, buying and downloading Word in the nearest town and beginning to work that way.
For whatever reason something prevented me from doing so. Even when we visited the port cites in the south, I never felt compelled to get a programme which would allow me to work on the computer. I ended up finishing the entire novel in a notebook and on a couple of loose extra pages.
Writing it out longhand may not work for a second or final draft but for my first, it was perfect. It meant that I didn’t agonise over the small details or the exact wording. It took away the pressure to make it perfect – the ease of change that a computer allows for also makes it difficult to leave anything alone, in an imperfect state.
I didn’t cross anything out unless the sentence had become garbled or there was a glaring mistake (and even those I often left and just marked as need changing). Handwritten, the first draft shows no sign of me – the writer – and my narcissism or insecurity. It is the story I want to tell. Yes, there are plenty of recycled words, grammatical issues and sometimes (many times) the wrong word altogether but I can work with that because the plot is clear and the writing is basic enough to reveal that and that alone.
I am now into the second draft of the same novel and I wouldn’t mind any tips on how to tackle that because it feels daunting to the point of impossibility. While my boyfriend is in India though I will finish it off. No quitting, I’m pretty stubborn that way.