Writing’s a long-form pursuit. Unless you’re dealing in flash fiction or snatches of poetry, you’re unlikely to see a project completed for weeks, months or years (and that’s before we get into the trials of getting the end result published, which I’ve touched on before). So, how do you keep up that head of steam long enough to get there?
Let’s take a look.
Have a Plan
A quick Google will show you there are plenty of ways to plan your writing, from a cursory synopsis, to the kind of scene-by-scene breakdown that software such as Scrivener encourages and enables. You’ll find just as much advice (often loud, forceful advice) as to which of these methods YOU ABSOLUTELY MUST BE USING. Yeah. Be wary of that bit. As I’ve mentioned before, writers have a tendency to define the road to ‘proper’ writing by the last mistake they stopped making. Bear that in mind when you read any writing advice. Does that include mine? Damn straight it does. But at least I know I’m doing it, which counts for something.
Let’s be honest, there are sometimes when you’ll need a very specific type of plan. A publisher needs a chapter breakdown. An agent wants a synopsis. If your paymaster (or gatekeeper to the same) wants some visible structure, then you need to provide it. If your plan’s for yourself? There’s no right way. For you, your plan is solely to give you the confidence that you’re on track; that each word you clatter out on your keyboard is leading you closer to completion.
Is that a 300-word synopsis? A ten-page chapter breakdown? A sentence? Depends on what works for you. Depends on what fills you with confidence, and it’ll probably take a bit of experimentation before you discover exactly what that is. Me? I’m a fluid sort of fellow. I’ll have a page or so of notes, a few ideas of key scenes, and I’ll get going. Other writers have a one-sentence pitch. Some plot out their tales in excruciating detail before ever committing to a word of prose. Can’t figure that one, myself. I like to engage with the challenge immediately before me, not twenty chapters away. But if it works for you, it works for you. That’s the point.
It’s important to remember that whatever your plan, it’s likely to change. Feedback from beta-readers, one-in-the-morning rays of inspiration – even your characters suddenly behaving like real people with free will, rather than your creations – all these and more can alter your course. Don’t worry about it. Don’t fear it. Take the opportunity to revisit your plan. Was your original course correct? Is the new one better? Make a decision, revise if you have to, and keep going. Just be warned that if you’re spending more time revising the plan than writing, you’re doing it wrong.
We’ve all done it. In that moment of super-excitement and drive, we kid ourselves that the mammoth task ahead of isn’t such a mountain after all. Four weeks, you mutter. I can write this in four weeks. Five days later, you’ve barely started. Nothing reads right. Your characters aren’t doing what they’re supposed to. One of them’s actually started sabotaging the plot. But it’s not their fault. You’re trying too hard.
One of the most insidious lies of our time is ‘I do my best work under pressure’. It’s a buzz-phrase, interview gold. It shows that you’re adaptable, flexible, level-headed. It’s also bullshit – and I’m speaking as someone who’s earned a reputation for being calm and professional during vicious deadline-hauls. Sure, I work well under pressure, but I work a damn sight better when I have time to peer out over the trenches and consider the next step.
Some people work better under pressure, some of the time. A rare few can’t work any other way. For most of us? Pressure leads us into repetitive spirals of crazy, where each iteration of our actions gets worse and worse until we finally put the brakes on and force ourselves to relax. Life is full of stresses and strains. You can’t control most of them. But the one thing you can control is how much weight you place on your own shoulders from your writing.
Always allow more time than you think you need. Take those bursts of enthusiasm where the words fly from your fingers, as bonus, not the norm. Accept that there are going to be times when the story isn’t going to flow, and you need to get up, take a walk, feed the cat, play video games or the piano until your brain resets. This is fine. It’s normal. It’s even healthy. What’s not healthy? Beating yourself up because you’re not getting any writing done. Some people might work well under pressure, but nobody works well when they’re pissed off with themselves.
I had an art teacher who once told me that she found it strange that people claim not to be ‘in the mindset to draw’ but never say the same thing about doing sums in a Maths lesson. Not a very good art teacher, in other words. Sure, art can be forced, but it shouldn’t be. You’ll just stress yourself out, trust me.
Get a Beta Reader
This one’s important. Find a friend who’s willing and eager to read your work. Editorial experience is nice, but it’s not vital. You can learn how to write better without a beta reader. What you can’t do without a beta reader, is have an outside presence who reminds you that you don’t suck.
No, I’m not advocating you find someone who’ll sycophantically sing your praises (although I’m told that’s fun), it’s about having someone be honest about your strengths as well as your failings.
The poisonous crevasses of the internet notwithstanding, you’re always going to be your worst critic, seeing doubt and dross in every sentence you put to paper. Having an outside voice tell you what works and what doesn’t is liberating. If one person likes what you’re doing, then why won’t more? Writing is about entertainment. As long as you’re entertaining someone (and not as a source of schadenfreude) then you’re doing something right. At the very least, it’s a foundation to build on, but you’ll never know if don’t share what you’re doing.
The last piece of advice is the easiest. Don’t stop. Pause. Re-gather yourself. Re-plan. Regain your enthusiasm. But never stop. Unfinished stories stare at you from your Documents folder, glaring at you with unspoken accusation. Too many of them, and you’ll start to feel like you’re never going to finish anything, and those half-written tales become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Art is never finished, only abandoned, is another one of those dangerous phrases. Really, it refers to the fact that artists can go on twiddling and honing their work long after the point that it seems complete to everyone else. It’s not a reason to bail on your project before it looks complete to everyone else. There is no better feeling – none – than getting to the end of a project, and looking back on it with that ‘I made this’ moment.
Don’t deny yourself that moment. Even if you later look back on what you’ve finished with dissatisfaction (and you will, everybody does), you’ve proved to yourself that you do have the will and determination to see it through. And if you can do it once, you can do it again. Only this time, you’ll make it better.
It’s not really a secret that I hate painting toy soldiers. Assembling them? Love it. Painting them…? The problem lies in the fact that pretty much any model I’ve ever slapped paint to looked better before I slapped paint to it, and it took sooooo long to reach that point. I guess patience is different for different people.
Writing’s not like that. You start with a blank piece of paper. Adding words to that paper (almost) always makes that piece of paper more interesting. Better. Each page you add after the first adds value to those that come before it, again and again until the tale is told and the work complete.