It's getting started that's the hardest part. Sitting down at the desk and being greeted by the blank page, or the new document, and the sure and certain knowledge that no words you put down are going to live up to the glorious vision of excellence that exists in potentia just beneath the surface of all that pure white. That writing the wrong word, an awkward phrase or failing to capture that perfect image will ruin your literary masterpiece forever, set it in stone as inferior to the novel that exists in the library of the never-written.
That's nonsense, of course. There may be book clubs and literary awards in the realm of dreams, but they are of little use in the physical world. Think of your favourite novel. At some point, its author had to push past the idol of the perfect novel and actually commit their words to paper. And aren't you glad they did?
I am a notorious procrastinator. I love writing, I really do. During a dreadful period of writer's block, my friend Hannah said to me with concern, "Katie not writing isn't really Katie at all." Didn't I know it! Perhaps it is reflective of me being unable to deal with reality without an escape into my own invented world, where I am the queen and control the things that are out of my hands in real life. But who's to say that's a bad thing? Perhaps it's true that we humans need a little madness to stay sane. I make sense of the world by translating it through the medium of story. It's how my brain works, for good or bad. And without that, life can become incomprehensible, overwhelming. Getting stuck into a story, moulding it, dreaming it, breathing it - that is when I feel most like myself, like I've found my purpose. And yet, to sit down and start putting words into some intelligible order is the hardest thing in the world. Some of this is the aforementioned fear of the blank page. But even with the acceptance that the first draft will probably be dreadful, (and that doesn't matter, honestly it doesn't, just put it on the page and you can perfect it in the editing stage,) the fact remains that writing is hard work, and, especially now you can get the internet in any room of any house, without even needing to plug in a wire, distractions are everywhere, and easy. I think that is why I write mostly into the evenings, and sometimes into the early hours - out of guilt about having nothing to show for a writing day except a handful of social media updates and perhaps a page of my colouring book for grown-ups.
Since I rediscovered creative writing in time for last November's NaNoWriMo*, I've tried to become more disciplined in my writing habits, and adjusted my outlook on my life and work situation to view living with my parents and working part-time as a gift, an opportunity, not a sign of failure. I'm most productive when I have a routine, especially when I have more than one day off together. Yes, I still waste a lot of time, but I have a collection of useful tools and rituals to help me to get focused.
There was a time when I wrote best in ink on paper, and certainly I still find some benefits in that. For one thing, they have not yet - to my knowledge - invented an internet-connected pen. And there is something about handwriting that makes me feel as though inspiration itself is flowing out through my hand, down the pen and onto the page. I pretty much write exclusively in fountain pen these days, with bottled violet ink. Not only does this make me feel like a "proper" writer, but it must be better for the environment, and in the long run, my purse, than buying dozens of biros that vanish into the abyss in every woman's handbag.
But I really only do my brainstorming and planning in ink. I outline each chapter, scene by scene, in a writing journal, but the stories themselves get typed into Scrivener. I've tried a couple of different writers' programmes, but Scrivener is the one that stuck. Not only does it allow you to create separate documents for each chapter or scene, but there is room for all your notes, character profiles and research, all in one place. The scene-by-scene layout has given me more freedom to move on, knowing I can easily find where I left an unfinished section, to write scenes out of chronological order, or to rearrange my story in different ways. There are tools for searching within a novel, reading all the parts of each subplot together, storyboarding and wordcount targets, even going back to previous drafts if you realise you liked it better before making modifications.
The other useful software I've discovered is called Freedom, which cuts out your internet connection for a period of time, forcing you to work on what you're actually supposed to be doing. But surely just switching off wi-fi will do the same thing? you say. Aha, I reply, but it's just as easy to switch it back on again. Freedom won't let you do that before your time is up, not without rebooting your machine. And that's probably too much effort for the sake of a bit of procrastination.
But even without the internet, there are a myriad other ways to distract myself at home, and if my mind just will not settle, sometimes it's worthwhile to take myself to my local coffee shop for an hour or two. LoveCoffee in Newport has a spacious upstairs, and is rarely so busy that I feel obliged to vacate my table as soon as I've finished my drink. I can quite happily spend a morning there outlining, journalling, or working on my draft.
For Christmas last year, I was bought the Ready, Set, Novel! writing journal from the creators of NaNoWriMo. Now, after studying creative writing for three years at university, I've concluded that there is only so much writing theory that one can learn from books before one has to learn by doing. And a lot of writers' idea books are more of a distraction than a help, good for brainstorming, but bearing little relevance to an extended project. But Ready, Set, Novel! has proven an exception for me, so much so that I bought a second copy to start planning for this year's NaNoWriMo. Even if you are completely lacking in ideas, Ready, Set, Novel is designed to help you to discover what you're actually interested in writing about, and when you have your initial ideas, takes you through the process of honing them into a novel, fleshing out characters, finding the tone through the use of setting, and discovering not only what happens in your story, but what it's about. It's helped me to discover more about my characters, the shape of the main plot and even to make sure that all of the subplots are satisfactorily resolved.
And then, onto the writing itself. Some people create music playlists to help them to get inside their character's heads, and in the right frame of mind to write. Personally, although I do have music I associate with my characters, I can't have it on during a writing session, because it's another distraction. What I do have is a carefully selected scented candle which is appropriate to the theme, characters or setting of my work in progress - at present I'm using Yankee Candles' "Champaca Blossom." Allegedly, smell is the most evocative of the senses. I'm trying to train my brain into associating a particular scent with settling down to work on a particular novel.
But even so, it takes a lot of willpower to get started. I bully and bribe myself just to reach this word count, to spend an hour writing, to finish this chapter by this date. And for a while my brain protests. It's looking at the clock. It's checking the word-count gadget after every sentence. But gradually, the characters wake up, and sometimes they do what I wanted them to, and sometimes they surprise me. From time to time, I'll discover that I've just solved a plot problem that's been troubling me for weeks, without even noticing until it's there before me in black and white (or purple and cream.)
Maybe your story doesn't really write itself, and maybe the characters don't really make their decisions on their own. But on a good day, the pieces come together in the back of your mind, and the result makes so much sense that you can't quite believe that it came from inside yourself. That is when your story comes to life. It's the best feeling in the world.
*National Novel-Writing Month
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