When to Write?

When I was younger, I thought that being a ‘writer’ would involve spending all day… well… writing. It just seemed logical. But now that I’m older and wiser (well, a little) I know that the world isn’t always a logical place. And it turns out that there are very few writers who are lucky enough to be able to write all day long.

Now, I may not currently have a 9-5 job ruling my weekdays, but I am at university, and contrary to popular belief, there’s actually still a fair amount of work involved in getting a decent degree. So that leaves me with the same conundrum as pretty much every other aspiring author: when do I squeeze in my writing?

It’s a question that’s asked a lot in the writing community and opinions vary hugely, but one of the most popular views seems to be that first thing in the morning is the way to go. You set your alarm an hour or so early, bash out your quota of words (most likely with the aid of a very strong coffee) and then start your working day knowing that you’ve already done the most important thing – made some progress with your book.

I think this is a great idea. It seems smart and practical and perfect for me, because unlike most students, I am definitely a morning person – I just don’t do late nights. But actually, I’ve tried the whole ‘writing early in the morning’ thing and I haven’t had very much success with it. If it’s university work I’m swamped with then yes, I can – and do – get up early to try to make progress, but when it comes to writing my novel, it just doesn’t seem to work.

During term-time, I’m sure one of the main reasons is the pressure of academic deadlines. As committed as I am to my book, the self-imposed deadline I have for its completion just doesn’t carry the same threat as those which come with my university assignments, and I find it very hard to focus on my writing when I know that I’ve got other work that I have to get done. But it can’t be just that, because even in the holidays, when I’m wonderfully free of academic assignments, I still find it difficult to write first thing in the morning. It’s my most productive time for so many other things, so why should writing be any different? I’ve pondered it a lot and I’m still not entirely sure. The only possibility I’ve come up with is that maybe I simply need a little time to connect with the world.

It may sound like a terrible cliché, but every day of life is an experience. Every single day brings events, thoughts, conversations, emotions, and even when I don’t feel like anything remarkable has happened, I always end up with a head that’s crammed full of stuff – stuff that’s just begging to be explored in words. I’m not saying that everything I write is simply plucked from my life – not at all. Imagination is a wonderful thing. But having some contact with the real world definitely seems to help me to get going, and lately I’ve found myself doing an awful lot of my writing last thing in the evening. I try not to stay up too late (I’m pretty grouchy when I don’t get enough sleep), but I can’t always help it. I find myself naturally reflecting on my day and reliving moments – a person’s expression, a snippet of speech, a flash of emotion – and then I start writing and I just can’t stop.

A year or so ago, if you’d asked me whether I was an early bird or a night owl, I would have said ‘early bird’ without hesitation. Now? Now I’m not so sure. Perhaps I’m becoming a strange sort of hybrid. I don’t suppose it matters, in any case. The only thing that really matters is that I keep getting the words down somehow.

Word count as of 23rd Feb: 32,704

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CC Image courtesy of vince42 on Flickr

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When Puppets Become People

Writing fiction is a curious business. At times, it can make you feel extraordinarily powerful – particularly at the start of a project. After all, you’re in charge of creating a whole new world! You’re the one choosing the people, the places, the events. You’re the one who has the final say on the colour of X’s hair and the breed of Y’s dog and the exact time at which Z likes to have his morning coffee. Every little thing in in your hands, and it’s really rather exhilarating.

What I’m starting to realise though, is that you don’t necessarily stay feeling quite so omnipotent. I’ve made some really good progress with my novel this week. I’ve now passed 30,000 words and there were times when I just couldn’t get the sentences down quickly enough (and my typing’s pretty good, too). But what’s perhaps slightly strange is that for a lot of the time, I didn’t actually feel as though I was the one making the decisions.

When I first started writing, my characters were like bare, crudely cut wooden puppets. They had rough shapes, yes, but they weren’t clearly defined, and they were still very much mine to do what I wanted with. But now, now they’re so much more. Now they’re people with their very own features, their very own voices, and inside, their very own minds. I know what they’re like, what they would say and what they would do – as well as what they wouldn’t – and there’s only so much I can manipulate them without them starting to resist. I feel like I’ve given each one a little bit of my power and although I know roughly the direction in which my story is headed, there’s an element of uncertainty, too. A sense that my characters might surprise me or end up taking me down paths I hadn’t originally planned.

I realise that to many people this might sound ludicrous. After all, these are fictitious characters in a fictitious world – a world that I created! How can I not be in control? It’s certainly true that I’m not powerless. I’ll always be able to change things and the control freak in me is immensely glad about that. But at the same time, it’s definitely no longer as simple as ‘doing whatever I like’, and more and more often I’m finding myself letting my characters lead me. I’m waiting for them to speak rather than putting words in their mouths, letting them act rather than trying to be a puppeteer. I’ll admit, it wasn’t something I anticipated when I first started out, but if possible, I think it’s making the process of writing a book even more exciting. It really does feel like I’m bringing a world to life, and you know what? It’s a pretty incredible feeling.

The Distraction of a Romance Festival

Okay, I’m not going to beat around the bush here: Last week was not a good week for my manuscript. I was very much hoping to have reached 30,000 words by now, but Friday night I was still a way off and then something called the HarperCollins Romance Festival happened.

Normally, I’m not a huge fan of social media. In fact, in many ways I think it’s evil – gluing us to our screens, breeding insecurities, destroying productivity. But HarperCollins’ second virtual Romance Festival put social media firmly back in my good books. Yes, it took me away from my writing, but on this occasion, the time spent online was completely and utterly worth it.

First of all, I learnt so much. With the internet, we have instant access to a ridiculous amount of information, but it’s all such a mess. ‘Quality not quantity’ – isn’t that how it goes? The Romance Festival was a wealth of information, but all of it came from people who really knew what they were talking about – writers, agents, editors, publishers. I was made to think about things that I’d never considered before and it was almost surreal, being able to interact with some of my all-time favourite authors.

Perhaps the best thing though, was getting to experience such an incredible sense of community. Writing is, by and large, a very solitary activity, and although I’m quite content being in my own company a lot of the time, I’ve often thought that the life of a professional author could be rather lonely. But seeing how readers, writers and publishers now come together online – sharing experiences, offering support, spreading enthusiasm – I’m not so worried. In fact, I’m excited. It’s like a huge family, and one that I can’t wait to be a bigger part of.

So it seems social media’s not all bad. In fact, far from it. Having said that, I really could do with it not proving too big a distraction this week.

The Pros and Cons of Reading

So, a week has passed and I’ve managed to get about 2,000 (more) words down on the page. Not amazing by any stretch of the imagination (most ‘proper’ writers will aim for several thousand words a day), but it feels like a reasonable bit of progress. On the other hand, the number would probably have been quite a bit higher if I hadn’t spent so much time this week with my head stuck in a book. And for that, I blame Carole Matthews. Entirely.

Most people seem to agree that to be a good writer, you have to read. I’m certainly not about to dispute that. I would be extremely surprised to come across a successful author who doesn’t also have a fairly deep-rooted passion for reading. But when I’m trying to make progress with my own work, I find that reading can be something of a double-edged sword.

Good books can undoubtedly be inspiring. They remind me just how powerful words can be and can make me even more determined to create stories of my own. But they have their downsides, too. From a practical point of view, they can be incredibly addictive. I can become so completely and utterly absorbed that I end up losing precious writing time – like I did this week, courtesy of Matthews’ A Place to Call Home (any fans of chick-lit out there who haven’t read it, you really should – it’s fantastic). Sometimes, though, it goes deeper than that. Sometimes, reading a good book simply ends up reminding me how far I’ve still got to go. If I’m having a bad day, it can be enough to make me question everything – am I wasting my time here? Will I ever be as good as X?

It can be even harder when I’m captivated by an author with a very different style to my own. Whilst it may not stop me wanting to write, seeing a different tense/structure/narrative voice working so well can make me doubt my own choices and want to adopt their tried-and-tested approach. Of course, I realise that it would be ridiculous to abandon my work or make drastic alterations simply because it’s different to whatever I’m currently enjoying; a new piece of work should be able to offer something original, and I don’t think any writer should be afraid to use their own voice. But even so, when I’m faced with a polished, successful novel that’s different to my own in so many ways, it can be very easy to forget that there is no ‘best’ way of doing things.

Now, don’t get me wrong: despite these potential dangers, I’m not about to stop reading, and I will always look for books that I think I’ll enjoy. However, on balance, I think my writing actually benefits most when my judgement fails me. I’ve read some fantastic books over the past few months (in fact, I may start posting the odd review as I come across more) but there have also been several which have left me decidedly unimpressed. I even gave up half-way through one not so long ago – something I very rarely do. But it’s these books which seem to give me the greatest motivation to keep going with my writing. Why? Because every single one has been published and well enough received to end up in a bookshop or public library, and I know that I can do better. Does that make me sound big-headed? Perhaps. But these books give me hope that I do have a chance – I’ve just got to persevere.

And on that note, I better get back to it.

photo credit: Phantoms via photopin (license)