This year, my fiance and I brought our first house. The place we ended up with wasn’t – and still isn’t – perfect. Its previous owner had a great fondness for textured and patterned wallpaper, but by the time we brought the house much of this wallpaper was peeling off. So whilst the work it needed was all cosmetic, it needed quite a lot of it.
When we moved in, I had several days where I had full panic attacks because I was overwhelmed by how much we had to do. I went round the house and looked at it room by room, and this just made it worse. It wasn’t just taking the wallpaper off and painting. It was fixing the skirting boards, the holes in the plaster, the floors, the radiators, the window frames, the doors…
It became too much. And when we actually managed to start, it got even worse. I’ve never removed wallpaper before, and as soon as we started to – even using a pair of steamers – it became abundantly clear that this was a huge, huge amount of work, and it wasn’t the sort of work either of us enjoyed. Almost five months into living here, we’ve managed to finish one room, and are about to finish a second – that’s it.
What advice would you give me in tackling the rest of the house? I’ve got to finish the study, then do the bathroom, the kitchen, the hallways – and those ceilings are so high, it’ll be awful – then the living room, too. We’ve barely even looked at the garden. How on earth am I actually meant to do all of this? It’s insane! And we’ve never done it before, so we might do it wrong, then we’ll just have to do it again – what do I do?
Think on your advice. Store it away for a moment.
Now imagine that this story I told you wasn’t about a house at all. Imagine it’s you, telling me about how you really want to write a novel. A bunch of times you’ve sat down, intending to do it, and then looked at it and…you just can’t. Think of how many words that is. Depending on your genre, it can be anything from 50,000 to 150,000 (or more if you aspire to be Brandon Sanderson). You might write 60,000 words of absolute garbage. You’re terrified of it, and with good reason.
Well, let me tell you a secret about writing a novel: you never stop feeling that fear. Oh, maybe the truly prolific authors who churn out dozens of novels a year have overcome some of the scary points about workload and where to start. But I guarantee you that almost every single one of them still gets terrified of their work not being good enough. That they won’t finish it.
So remember what you told me about how to overcome my fear of decorating my house. Because we’re going to tell that to you, now, about that novel you’ve always wanted to write.
It’s So Much Work!
Yes, writing a novel is a huge amount of work.
So here’s where we’re going to start – we’re going to stop thinking of it as an entire novel. We’re going to stop thinking of it as 100,000 words. Just as you probably would tell me to look at my house one room at a time, we’re going to look at your novel one room at a time.
You might know what the plot is already. It might have been swimming in your head for so long that you know the whole chain of all of the threads. Or you might have an idea so unformed that it’s just sort of there, but you can barely articulate it. You could be somewhere inbetween those two extremes – I know I tend to be.
Wherever you are along that spectrum, try starting by writing down three things. The beginning, the middle, and the end. Does that sound oversimplified? It is. Taking on a giant project is all about breaking it down; writing down these three key milestones will mean you can then fill in the gaps. You can write bullet points for the first third of the novel – for the second – for the third. Then you can break those bullet points up into chapters.
Suddenly, you’ll have a plan in front of you. It might not be the most detailed plan ever, and you’ll definitely deviate from it before you’re done. But whether you are the most stringent planner, barely restraining yourself from plotting by line, or whether you paint your plan in broad strokes – get yourself a plan. Because that, what you’ve done right there…that’s writing your novel.
It’ll Take Ages!
Yes, it will.
It took me four years to finish and release Mundane Magic. Some authors take far longer. Some take far less. Everyone writes at their own pace, and the majority of authors when they are starting out are writing around full-time jobs. You’re going to do it slowly, and it’s going to take a while. Unless you’ve got the luxury of time and perseverance, you’re not going to be able to change that.
There are two ways to approach being overwhelmed by this. You could free yourself from any concept of timeframe. Don’t calculate how long it will take to finish based on how fast you write, or how often you write. Just write a little every day, or every other day, and keep going until you’re done. This way of writing is quite freeing – it also doesn’t work for me.
What I do is work out how long it’s going to take me. I have a concept of how much, when I’m really focusing on churning out a draft, I can write in a day. In a week. So I calculate how many weeks it will take me to finish at that pace. I don’t tend to prescribe which section I am writing where – I find I write best when I can jump around the novel, writing the parts I’m really excited about on any given day.
Knowing that I have X weeks left, even when that number is huge, means that I can see that there is a finish line. It’s far away, but there is one. That makes the difference for me.
What If It’s Not Good Enough?
This is the thing that absolutely every writer feels. We have all sat there, either with a blank page or with a hundred pages, looking at what we have written and thinking…this is awful. I should never have bothered with this. Everything I write is terrible.
Here’s what I do when this happens: I stop writing. I step away from it. I do something else. A while later, I come back, and I re-read something I’ve written. If I’m starting a project cold I read something else; if I’m partway through writing something, I read whatever I’ve already written of it.
Generally, I find myself surprised by how much I like my writing. This feeling is precious, and I find it very hard to talk about it. Sometimes I just sit for hours reading my own writing, basking in the astonishment that I do not in fact think it is terrible. I worry that this feeling is prideful or arrogant.
But to be honest, it’s one of the most humbling feelings: the idea that what I create is worth something. That a single tree in a vast forest can still be beautiful, even though all the trees around it are more beautiful.
So step away. Take some time. Come back to it minutes, hours, days later – when you have remembered that you can love the things you make.
What If I Don’t/Can’t Finish?
Here’s your worst nightmare. You’ve actually managed to get yourself to work on writing a novel. You’ve written a huge amount – 35,000 words now, and going strong. Then something happens. You get busy at work; you become ill; you go on holiday. Something stops your momentum, and when you recover, you’re too far from that pace.
The novel is in the back of your mind the whole time. What if I don’t finish it? What if this is all I ever manage of it – what if I stop now, I give up, I don’t go back to it. This can be especially hard when you’ve had to take time away due to stressful things, because the fears pile on top of the things you are already dealing with in the rest of your life.
If you’ve told people you’re writing a novel, and they’ve shown excitement about it, it can be even worse. You’re letting people down. People are counting on you to finish this. You have to finish it, right?
Actually…no, you don’t.
Unless you’re in a contract with a publisher, you don’t owe anyone except yourself. And granted, this isn’t going to stop you feeling like you do. But it is nonetheless true that you do not owe anyone your novel. The question to ask yourself is this: why are you writing a novel?
You might be writing for the enjoyment of it. If that’s the case, find a way to enjoy it again. Make the time to read through what you’ve written, and notice where you get excited about the plot, or the characters, or the setting. Don’t look at it then as “getting back into the project”, look at it as “I get to write this scene!”. Get excited.
You might be writing to prove that you can. If that’s the case, remember that it doesn’t matter that you took a break. All that matters is that you get back to it. So open your text up, and write one sentence. Just one sentence. It can be anything. Break the back of it, and you might just find that you’ve written two sentences. Three. Four. A paragraph. And just like that, you’re writing again.
This is going to happen a lot. Each time, you just have to keep going.
And that’s it – that’s the secret. Things will go wrong, but you find a way to get back to it. Keep doing that, and one day you’ll have written a novel.