Recently, I read this interview with the terrifyingly talented, tightrope-walking, Shakespeare-teaching Katherine Rundell. She’s the author of ROOFTOPPERS (beautiful, eccentric, hopeful, quietly kick-ass middle-grade) and she told an anecdote that resonated with me, because it’s something I’ve only recently learned – an editor once told her that in order to really begin the story, she had to get to the end.
Ah, getting to the end. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Just get from A to Z and make a bunch of stuff happen along the way. Finishing a project is something I struggled with, though, before I did my MA.
For me, inherent laziness combined with a short attention span can often mean having multiple first sparks of new ideas fizzling around my brain, making me fall head over heels for new characters and plots whilst I’ve (sometimes literally) left others hanging in mid-air. My love of writing comes from getting hooked on that alluring new narrative voice (essentially an imaginary friend) and waltzing away with it into the sunset…for about six chapters, before a new love affair begins. Between the ages of 14 (when I instinctively planned out a whole novel before starting it) and 29, I’d almost completely given up on planning – somehow I lacked confidence, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as going with the flow. The thing is, going with the flow didn’t help me finish any single project, and after years of poor discipline I wanted to make a stand of commitment to one story, until I’d seen it through. Sometimes, it comes down to hard, repetitive, disciplined graft, with an intense level of focus required.
My MA course seriously helped me to change my bad habits, and to take myself more seriously as a writer, but I’m still paralysed with fear that I’ll never be able to ‘replicate’ the process of completing a manuscript again. In part, that’s just crippling self-doubt, but I also believe that art isn’t necessarily a replicable process, because each story is an individual, with a different constitution, and will work in a different way. That means I feel like a rug has been pulled out from under my feet, every single time I return to my writing, unless it happens to be a moment of dazzling inspiration – but we all know we can’t rely on that. Somehow or other, a writer needs the momentum to keep the story moving forward, every day, not just on days when inspiration strikes.
What can be done?
At some point, plan (even if it’s the simplest/laziest/roughest plan in the universe)
One thing that really worked for me, in GETTING TO THE #?$%=~# END, COME HELL OR HIGH WATER, was something my first tutor taught me – writing a 30 point plan. It was pretty easy, as plans go. It contained the 30 *vital* plot points (taking in the shape of a simple, but taut, 3 act structure) and it changed, boy did it change. But once I’d written past the ‘dark pit’ of act two, and formal workshops with tutors had finished (SOB!) I stuck to that 30 point baby and wrote for my life, in a manner I’d hitherto thought impossible for someone as prone to procrastination as I am. On one occasion I wrote 8000 words in one sitting. The plan (and the freedom to change it) enabled me to keep up the momentum I needed, as though I was a machine that might stall (in the past, I always had.) Yes, vast swathes of the first draft were terrible. But I printed the whole lot out and commenced hard-copy edits, as objectively as possible, as though I were critiquing someone else’s work. I felt able to see my own mistakes because of my experience critiquing the work of others. I submitted some more chapters for workshop. Then I started to rewrite – because I was ready to begin the story, with a fresh, objective perspective.
It’s OK to ask for help with a writing problem. A shiny, finished book is a collaborative piece, not purely the work of one individual. A great workshop group can solve a problem that you’ve been losing sleep over in the time it takes to swallow a sip of coffee and choke out a startled ‘thanks!’ They can make the problem look tiny, rather than the impassable wilderness it had previously appeared.
Without my workshop group, I wouldn’t have made it through my (first) first draft. They wanted to know what was going to happen next. They were honest, constructive, hilarious. They wanted to keep up the pace of workshops beyond the end of MA classes. They kept up a healthy balance of camaraderie mixed with friendly competition. I wanted to keep up with my incredibly talented classmates – that’s what tightened my slack discipline.
Achieving a balance between strict deadline and freedom to be creative is important. Our course leader was known to tell a class that some of their most important work would be done by staring out of the window. Allow yourself time to daydream, because that’s how great ideas and voices will often surface.
Research can help you stay excited about your story. Think about those far-out details the kids will go crazy for (hopefully). As a writer for young people, I know that researching stingray venom and daydreaming about fantastical creatures is 100% legit use of my time, and it doesn’t get much better than that, really. Remembering the readership helps me include the plots and details they’re going to relate to, which means that even when I’m wrestling with that first draft I’m still having fun writing humour, gross details, eccentric characters, exciting, unfamiliar settings and strange beasts.
Switch off your critic until later edits
My favourite advice for ‘growing a story’ comes from a professor of creative writing at my university, who taught us that each story grows like a monster with its own needs – you need to feed it and give it time. Scrawl in journals. See where the story takes you. You won’t necessarily find yourself thinking in a linear way during the early stages. Try freewriting using different coloured pens if you need to loosen up. Remember how privileged you are to have this chance to write!
Haruki Murakami has spoken about his process of mesmerising himself into the right state of mind for productivity, using strict routine. I find this idea comforting, as it’s so attainable, with a little bit of will power. Lots of writers have spoken about using daily rituals to get themselves into the ‘zone’. This article gives a fascinating glimpse into the routines of famous writers.
Finally, always remember it’s a first draft, so write from the heart, but keep writing until the bones of the story are laid down. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have so much to work with.