How to write fiction | Part 2: stop procrastinating and start writing!
Welcome back to another #WeeklyWritingWorkshop!
In Part 1 we found our idea and developed it into something resembling an outline. We met our characters and decided on the big ‘milestones’ they will encounter on their journey to change.
Now we can start writing that journey!
If you’re intending to write a long piece of fiction (like a novel), you will need to come up with a weekly writing schedule, and STICK TO IT NO MATTER WHAT! You might have an hour a day in which to write, or a two-hour window on Tuesday afternoons, or twenty minutes Mon-Fri during your lunch break. Fine. Nobody is expecting you to write every day. But it’s super important that you schedule in time to write, and during this time set yourself an achievable target. My goal is 300 words per session, because it’s easy, so there’s no excuse not to do it (even if you had a terrible night’s sleep and work is stressful and you’re coming down with a cold, you can still squeeze out 300 words). Plus, once I am in flow I usually end up far surpassing 300 words which makes me feel as if I’ve won the Nobel Prize in Literature. There is no point pressuring yourself by setting a ginormous word count, because stress is not conducive to creativity!
Even if you are writing a short story, you need to schedule in time to write, but you will use the time to ease into your story slowly and see how it flows. It may be helpful to use some of your allotted writing time to do some of the exercises we talked about in Part 1 – they will open your mind up and put you in a more receptive state, making it easier to receive cues from your subconscious. It is natural at this stage for your head to be filled with a lot of nagging uncertainties, and timed writing exercises will help you to burn through the bullshit and get to the good stuff.
The (first) Golden Rule
Right. Now I want you to take a deep breath and really, I mean really, focus all your attention on this next bit because it is one of THE GOLDEN RULES OF WRITING FICTION:
ALLOW YOUR WRITING TO BE SHIT!
So many writers fall at this hurdle because the thought of coming face-to-face with their own deficiencies is too unbearable, and so they can’t even begin. How tragic! Getting the first draft down is just that: getting the story down, in its ugly and unpolished form, so that you can move on to the next stage. I’ve heard writers call it their ‘vomit draft’, and I promise you that EVERY WRITER, from Dickens to Atwood, has had to endure this part to move forward.
Take another deep breath. Focus. And pay attention to this second, possibly even more urgent, rule:
DON’T YOU DARE start reading back what you have written and worrying about how crap it is and what a terrible writer you are, or (even worse) start editing while you are supposed to be vomiting. You will put your editor hat on later – for now, you just need to GET IT DOWN, through short, sustained bursts of writing, making sure you are following the emotion of the story at every turn. And don’t worry about the overall word count – the story will tell you how long it needs to be.
Writing in flow
We talk a lot about the elusive ‘flow state’, but what is it, exactly?
Flow state doesn’t just occur during writing. It can happen when we are running, or cooking, or having really great sex…basically any time we are engaged in something so fully that our active minds take a back seat to the experience of true aliveness. When it happens in writing, it’s like magic; for thirty seconds or six hours, our identity is supplanted by these characters we’ve created, and the story comes to life as though it is happening right in front of us. We don’t need to consciously think about the words we are typing because our fingers are somehow acting independently as they transcribe the story onto the page.
Once you have written something in flow state, you will spend the rest of your writing career chasing that high. But like all good things in life, there is flip side to being in flow, which I am going to call ‘stagnation’.
You can probably imagine what this feels like. You so desperately want to write well, to be in flow, but your stupid brain is locked in a kind of paralysis which makes coming up with the next word in this crappy sentence IMPOSSIBLE. Look, we are simple creatures. Our brains are wired to keep us from experiencing pain, and being in stagnation is PAINFUL. So when you are in this state, be wary of the thoughts popping up, which usually sound something like: STOP! PLEASE! THIS IS HORRIBLE AND I WOULD RATHER BE DOING ANYTHING OTHER THAN SITTING HERE LOOKING AT THIS PIECE OF SHIT STORY! YOU WILL NEVER BE GOOD AT THIS!
It’s usually around this point when our old friend, Mr Procrastination comes for a visit. But as seductive as he is, you need to resist his charms! Because – here comes another Golden Rule – the only way you will get good at writing is by pushing through the pain. Showing up to write even when it feels impossible. It’s like exercise; agonising at first, but the more you do it, the fitter you get and the easier it becomes.
The more you sit down to write, the more you will experience flow state, and the better your writing will become. There are other ways you can train your mind to reach flow state (meditation, for example) but nothing beats the practice of just sitting down and doing it.
And once again, louder this time: BE KIND TO YOURSELF – YOU ARE A LEGITIMATE WRITER!
OK. If you follow these rules, ignore the nagging anxieties for long enough that you can vomit all your ideas onto the page, you should have something resembling a first draft.
Congratulations!! Many people who want to be writers don’t even make it to this bit. So give yourself a hard pat on the back, then put the vomit draft away and don’t think about it for a while.
The next stage? Fleshing out those characters, streamlining the plot by stripping away the ‘dead’ elements, and figuring out what it is exactly you are trying to say.
If you thought vomit drafting was fun, just wait until the editing starts!