Eliminating blank page guilt – part 2
As Ginger noted last week in the first part of this article, writing isn’t just the act of physically transferring words to paper. After all, before we can even start on that we first have to craft those scenes and characters in our heads. That’s why it’s just as important to sometimes relax the pressure we have with regards to hitting arbitrary word counts and instead allow ourselves to live and experience the world, as that is what we all use as inspiration for our stories.
Last week, we broke rank and the golden rule of ‘write every day’ and suggested that it was okay to give yourself permission to embrace the blank page until a book was ‘ready.’
Now, that’s all well and good – but what happens when the book is ‘done’ in your head. What are some healthy ways to get back into the swing of writing and actually download your manuscript from your brain and into a computer in a reasonable timeframe?
Because while it’s healthy and much more realistic to give yourself permission not to write, books aren’t written by not writing them. How can you use the philosophy of ’embracing the blank page’ and yet still actually get words on paper, and finish your book in a reasonable timeframe?
A writer’s guilt
For me, the pressure to write every day is almost crushing. The best periods in my writing career have always been when I’ve been writing every day, publishing on a regular schedule, and getting books to market quickly. I’ve done all sorts of mental gymnastics in my head when I’ve skipped a day writing and use some totally unrealistic standards to hold myself accountable.
(For example, I once stayed up for 36 hours straight to write 30,000 words in a weekend, just so I could meet an ARC deadline. Therefore, in my head, I keep thinking: “I should be able to finish a 60,000 word novel in less than a week.”)
Obviously, this is insanity – but if sanity was the metric, none of us would be writers in the first place.
One technique I’ve learned that’s become incredibly powerful recently is to set yourself a goal not of words, but scenes. Each day, you tell yourself you’ll write to a certain point in your story… and no further.
This goes back to what I was saying last week, when I argued that most of a writer’s work is done long before they sit down in front a keyboard. I’ve written entire books in my head while cooking dinner, doing the washing up, or walking the dog. The typing part was just printing it. This technique involves knowing when to stop printing.
Scene by scene
Generally, when I plot out a book in my head or on paper, I have a rough idea of how different scenes will play out, but I don’t get to the details until I sit down in front of a keyboard. What I’ve found really useful is to decide where in each scene I’ll commit to stopping and not write any further.
I’ll continue writing, don’t get me wrong – but again, it’ll be the mental part of it, while I’m doing the washing up. I’ll be going through the next ‘scene’ I’m going to write the following day, with a similar commitment to stop when I’ve reached that point as well.
It basically means chunking out your book piece by piece, but just like setting a daily wordcount goal of 2,000 words, it gives you permission not to try and write the book all at once. Even better than that, by setting a cutting off point in the narrative, it means you can then spend the rest of the day doing anything but typing and not feel guilty about it.
For example, I might decide to set myself a goal of writing Chapter Four tomorrow, and I’ll know roughly what happens in that scene. During the rest of the day, I’ll run the story in the background of my imagination while I’m cooking or cleaning, and turn the rough idea into something tangible. I think about where the characters might enter the scene from. Where they’ll sit. How they’ll feel. What order the dialogue might go in. I focus on imagining that scene only, and then it flows much easier when I sit down to write it the next day.
But by setting a cutting off point, I’m not pressured to keep imaging what happens next… and next… and next… It means I can shut my brain off in the planning process as well (although the washing up doesn’t get done as quickly) and start focusing on time with my kids, or doing stuff that engages me in the moment.
Back to the printer metaphor – it’s like a cache in a printer. Try to print too much at once and it’ll time out.
I find setting a ‘scene’ goal is much easier to stick to than a wordcount goal because 2,000 words in a day is completely arbitrary. I’ve written a 70,000 word novel in 5 days once, but I’ve similarly spent a week crafting 500 words because I couldn’t get it just right. By using your narrative as your yardstick, you can feel like you’re making progress no matter how much you write, since it’s the story that’s the most important thing (and that’s true from a reader’s perspective, as well.)
You could think of this as storyboarding, if you will – and it’s most definitely made me a better writer as a result. More than that, though, it’s also made me into a better husband and father since I’ve pre-established the cut-off for my writing and made a commitment to focus on real life instead of always, constantly stressing that I’m not writing enough! Again, I gave myself permission not to write.
Funnily enough, it was only after discovering this concept that I learned many other successful writers use it too – for example, Ernest Hemingway once wrote:
“I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything.”Ernest Hemingway
That seems to fit with the other value that I discovered in having rigid cut-off times for writing – that you could focus on real life, and the rich experiences it brings (which ultimately make your writing much better.)
One step at a time…
All this being said, splitting your writing expectations into scenes rather than wordcounts is no less arbitrary – and no less difficult to fall short on. However, I have found it more manageable to use narrative as a metric for progress rather than wordcounts.
A wordcount is just a number. A scene is a scene. If you sat down and intended to write a scene and cut off when the hero and heroine embraced in a climactic kiss – but your kids demanded a drink, so you only got to the point at which he rang on the doorbell to surprise her with flowers – that’s still progress, and it’s a lot more easy to visualize that progress into the context of a story than it would be to log 543 words against an intended target of 2,000.
From there, you can revert to planning out the rest of that scene in your head while you wrestle with jabbing straws into juice boxes (man, why is that so tough) and hopefully knowing what you intended to write next will make it all the easier to get started the following day.
Writing is important but don’t forget to live!
Ultimately, I’ve found that what makes somebody really good at writing is that they pay serious attention to living. That is, after all, the point. We read books to live other lives – to feel the emotions and experience the sensations of the characters we become invested in.
As Anaïs Nin wrote: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
It’s all too easy as a writer to get lost in the demands of writing – to think of nothing but wordcounts, and goals, and deadlines – but ultimately it’s living that gives us the fuel for writing, and what often stalls writers is that they focus so much on the act of writing that they forget to fuel the tank by living in the meantime.
Yes, it’s important to write every day – but it’s also important to not write every day – to have parts of each day that you commit to spend away from the keyword, so you can have more to give when you do get back in front of your computer.
People are still arguing whether it’s a blessing or a curse, but the way Amazon has changed over the past couple of years has made the requirement to keep writing and keep publishing less rewarding, and momentum in your writing career is now built more sustainably through advertising than a rapid publication schedule.
Take that as an opportunity – and focus more on writing consistently in a way that is sustainable for you and your lifestyle than trying to meet the arbitrary goals that so many of us writers trained ourselves to chase. Successful self-publishing has now become more of a marathon than a sprint, and success comes from not burning out in the long term, rather than delivering unrealistic wordcounts that you can’t keep up.