I’m deep in the process of writing a novel, and I gotta say, it’s going pretty good. (I am superstitious, so excuse me for a minute while I find something wooden to knock on. Okay, I’m safe. We can carry on.) Mind you, this is not my first attempt at writing a book. I have a first draft of a memoir that is gathering metaphorical dust in a file on my computer; my justification for waiting to edit it is that the more time goes by, the more distant the 80s become and hence my book is like a slice of real ancient history. Or something. It’s the fine-wine principal of books.
I have one other novel that is about halfway completed. I started it as the requirement for my Master’s thesis, worked on it for a while after graduating, then started teaching composition and found I didn’t have the heart to keep going. Teaching was new to me then and I was constantly tweaking and changing and trying new stuff in my class, and the last thing I wanted to do when I came home was write. Plus I got stuck–really stuck–at a plot point, and writing is haaard, y’all. So I abandoned that book and began to write short stories–way less time commitment, quicker affirmation because it’s easier to get a story published (oh, the sweet joy of publication–I could become a junkie on acceptance letters if I didn’t have to live through the sting of all the rejections first), and I had the satisfaction of starting projects and FINISHING THEM.
Which brings me to now. A while back I had a good idea for a new book, did the research for it, and started to write last winter. At first, I had a great goal. “I will go to my office at school on my off days (Tuesdays and Thursdays), lock my door, and write from 10:00 a.m. until 11:00.” And it worked . . . for a while. Until I didn’t feel like getting public-gussied to leave my house. Or I really wanted to clean something. (Cleaning is a great excuse for not writing because it seems so noble–“I’d love to write but I need to do laundry and sweep and mop and do dishes and dust and wash windows and clean the buttons on my laptop!”) Or I would start watching a new show on Netflix and find myself deep in binge-land, muttering “Just one more episode.” (Don’t you judge me; let he without binge-sin throw the first stone.)
So my habit never really became a habit, and though I wrote some, I didn’t write enough. Finally I got so sick of hearing myself give excuses for not doing something I had been thinking of doing for fifteen years–finish a darn book already!–that I snapped and berated myself into submission. It was summer break and I had no teaching obligations for three months. I laid down some laws: 1,000 words a day, Monday through Friday. Editing on weekends. I played with time–morning? No good–it was easy for me to get distracted or overwhelmed by necessary life things. Afternoon? Nope. I have to take a nap at 4:00 p.m. or I weep and rage like an angry toddler. Night? Ah, my old friend night, the time when I like to walk, read, and surprise, surprise, write.
So 11:00 p.m. became my habit–a habit that actually stuck. I’m now 60,000 words in and I’m feeling hopeful and joyful. As such, I would like to offer some battle-won advice to other writers who may be struggling with making habits. So here it goes:
Stop just thinking about the thing and actually do the thing. Wait . . . did I get that from Nike? I think maybe I did. The swoop would never lie. Anyway, it’s true. Just. do. it.
A writer should write however and whenever it works for him/her. Some are morning people. Some aren’t. Be flexible at first in terms of figuring out when you’re the most creative, but once you find that sweet spot, dig in like a fat uncle at a family reunion picnic. To quote my young adult progeny: “You do you, Boo.”
Give yourself a break on quality–don’t obsess over how good (or bad) the writing is at this stage. You can fix it later. If you fear, like I do, that you may die unexpectedly and someone will read your crappy draft and think that’s the best you got (Shudder! Nightmare!), then make arrangements for that contingency. Upon your demise, instruct your nicest/most reliable child to throw your laptop into a pond. Give your husband permission to use it for target practice. Have someone destroy the evidence of your mediocrity because we all know you could and would have done better given a few more days on earth–your momma wasn’t lying when she said you were special. There are nights when I know that out of my 1,000 words, 990 of them will have to be cut because they’re utter crap, but that’s okay. I can close my eyes, satisfied that I have exercised the lonely office of writing for one more day, and if I die before I wake, my husband will shoot up my laptop with his biggest, loudest gun, and my daughter will throw the pieces in our neighbor’s pond, and everyone will surmise that I was probably a brilliant writer, and isn’t it sad that my masterpiece was never finished? Because it surely would have been amazing . . .
Sorry–what were we talking about? Greatest fears? Oh, right. Habits. You know what to do, so go on, get going.