Words for Writers: Learning To Be A Writer Again

Those of you who are following my progress with NaNoWarmUp 2010, you know that I am failing.


The goal of NaNoWarm Up is to have 30 000 words by October 30th, so that when I jump into NaNoWriMo and do those 50 000 words. That way, when  I come out of November and land gratefully on December 1st, it will be with 80 000 words or, a completed novel.  Right now, on the 6th of October, I am at 12 700. That’s significantly less than where I should be. I haven’t even passed the halfway mark!  I have only two chapters finished and I should be wrapping up the third at this point. I am pathetic!

Confessing my frustration to a friend, he sat back, looked thoughtful and said, “But you’re out of practice.”

“Out of practice?” I said. “There hasn’t been a day in the last three years where I haven’t been in front of one manuscript or another.”

He shook his head. “No. That wasn’t writing. That was all editing. When was the last time you finished a novel?”

I thought back… “Uh, February 2009?”

“And the last thing you wrote?”

“My MA thesis in… April, 2009. Good thing I had the NaNo practice of pushing through, or I would never have been able to do it in three weeks.”

“Exactly. So. When was the last time you actually wrote something new?”

It was a revelation. Nineteen months. Nineteen months!

I hadn’t sat down to really write in nineteen months!

(Okay, so there was one weekend where I wrote a thing for the Secret Project Of Awesome That I Can’t Tell Anyone About Yet. But it had been percolating for a long time and I had already written the beginning and the ending of the thing, and just sort of needed to fill in the middle – it was less writing and more like finally putting the peanut butter and the jelly on the two slices of bread that had been sitting on the counter, waiting. Except in this case they were sitting on my desktop for like, a year.)

My friend was right. I hadn’t actually actively written anything new, I hadn’t switched from editor mode into I’m-so-excited-about-this-idea-I-need-to-sit-here-for-hours-until-it’s-all-out-of-my-head-and-on-the-screen mode. I talked about my new novel a lot; I was as into the characters and talking to my friends about who these people are as I ever have been. I had even begun to do was it is when I write a new story: this bizarre cross between pantsing and plotting where I write the first few paragraphs, and then the very last few paragraphs so I know where I’m aiming, and then start jumping around in the middle writing all the cool scenes that pop into my head. Eventually that all gets fleshed out as I run out of gaps to hop into and fill up, and voila, manuscript!

My biggest problem right now is that I am struggling with this transition. Instead of opening up the file of the manuscript and just sitting down and adding to my wordcount, I am instead re-reading and editing as I go. Which is swell, because it is still upping my wordcount, but so very slowly. And I fear that my main character is becoming too introspective – I, and therefore she, we are thinking too hard.

The strange thing is that I know it’s sort of because of the very help advice-sites that tell you how to craft your first chapter or write the perfect pitch, etc. The sorts of sites that I never read nineteen months ago when I was writing, and the sorts that I devoured after I completed my three manuscripts and began to edit and shop each of them. They are tremendously useful sites, and I wouldn’t have gotten as far with my books as I have had it not been for most of them. (SlushPile Hell, Miss Snark, and Elizabeth Craig’s Twitterfeed to name a few)  But I also was spending too much time thinking about what they said, thinking about the advice they gave, thinking about the crafting and shaping and editing process, and not enough time just sitting down and writing.

And the point of NaNoWriMo WarmUp is to get people slowly back into the habit of just writing.

So the question was, and is, at this point… how do I do that?

How do I turn off editor-brain (knowing full well that when the writing session is over I am going to either have to discuss something regarding “Triptych” or that I am going to have to sit down with the other two unsold manuscripts and massage them) and just experience the joy of writing again?

When I was younger, when I began to write, I did so a lot to keep myself occupied in school. I have posted previously about how becoming a writer was never really on my list of Things To Do When I Grow Up (it just turned out to be the thing I did best and I thought that I better make a career out of it, and be serious about the career, if this is what I enjoyed doing).  Writing had always been a hobby, and the stories had always only been for the consumption of friends and family, and occasionally the odd creative writing teacher.

I was extremely active in community theatre as a child and young adult, and it forced me to become very rigid about homework schedules and assignment due dates (to the point where my parents got exasperated with me for bringing a text to the beach on a family Christmas holiday in the Dominican Republic), which meant that I was always on top of school work. Which meant actually being in class was boring as heck. I amused myself with writing in math class, doodled in the margins in English, penned poems in science, and wrote plays in Drama.

There hasn’t been a time since grade nine that I hadn’t produced at least five hundred words a day.

Until I sold something.

Now my daily schedule looks something like this:

Wake up, shower and get dressed, leave house, get on the streetcar to work and spend the 45 mins on the crackberry answering emails for writing-career, update social networking stuff for writing-career, and organizing thoughts for writing-career.  Set up interviews, appearances, and other pop-culture/fanthropologist-career stuff.

Get to work, be the amazing research girl for work-career. Go for a walk for lunch, look at the sky through the glass canyons of downtown Toronto. Walk back to work. Maybe sneak a few hundred words of writing at the end of lunch. Back to being amazing work-career girl.

Streetcar home: more email/phonecalls/handling marketing for my writing stuff that currently requires my attention while on transit. Get home. Stumble towards a cup of tea and what leftovers I can scrounge. Sit down and edit or work on manuscripts I am trying to sell or are being published soon, or read over and amend contracts, or meet with editor via skype, or go do the interviews, appearances, and other pop-culture/fanthropologist-career stuff, build databases of reviewers I want to approach and awards I’m eligible for, etc. Pass out on my laptop and repeat.

Weekends – film book trailers, visit research sites, have meetings with consultants, publishers, or publicists, etc.  Sometimes in a fit a pique, I cuddle on my sofa under a wooly blanket and read a book from cover to cover. (I read Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” last Sunday. Amazing. Amazing!)

You’ll notice there’s very little time in there dedicated to actual writing.

“Maybe sneak a few hundred words in”?  No wonder my NaNoWriMo WarmUp word count sucks so bad!

I suddenly realize why writers need agents.  I mean, I always understood, but this weekend it really hit me WHY agents are so desperately needed for writers – because if we were to do everything our agents did, we would have no time to actually write.  I am currently paying a friend in favours and dinners for doing some volunteer admin for me.  (Alice, I love you!)

And to be clear – this isn’t “boo-hoo, pity me, I have sold a manuscript” crap. I am lucky, and I am grateful, and I have worked my ass off to be here. I am just commenting about how much work I am realizing also comes of being here.

So, when do I write? How will I get this glorious ideal of a full manuscript in my hot little hands by December 1st to become a reality?

Well, thankfully a lot of my outside commitments in regards to “Triptych” are nearly at an end – the editing process has moved almost entirely out of my hands, and the rest of the stuff to do with the book is now within the realm of the publisher, and not me as the writer. The book trailer is wrapped and in the can, and is now on its merry way to our post production wizard. I have queried about with my other novels and now am forced to sit and wait for replies.  And I have made a point of not agreeing to do anything in November, unless it’s really cool, I really want to, or I really have to. November has become the Sacred Bug-JM-And-Die month, and I have trained friends and family alike in this regard.

But the scheduling isn’t the huge issue.

It’s the turning-the-writer-brain-back-on that’s the problem.  I can schedule all the Thanksgiving Monday Writing Marathons that I want, but if I can’t make myself write when I am in that time slot, what’s the point?

So I am trying to bribe myself – NaNoWriMo WarmUp is one version of a bribe; a way to tap into my competitive streak and try to one-up my friend who is also participating in order to gain bragging rights for having the highest word count.  I also reward myself with NaNo swag if I complete my 50 000 words in November.

But when that doesn’t work…?

But at some point I’m just going to have to learn to sit down and write for the joy of writing again, to write because if I don’t write my head will explode and all these people and situations will come spilling out instead of brains. And that’s, I think, just a matter of discipline.

I keep telling myself that if I just had the time, I would be disciplined. If I just had an agent to take care of the marketing and the scheduling and the contracting, I would be disciplined. If I just had a publicist, I would be disciplined. If I was just making enough money to quit the work-career and focus on the writing-career and pop culture/fanthropology-career, I would be disciplined.

Would I?

The fact is, I don’t actually know. I would have to stay busy, I know that. I would have to have an outside engagement every day to force me to keep to a schedule, even if that engagement is nothing more than meeting a friend for coffee every Wednesday at 1 o’clock. I know this because when I was unemployed, I frittered away that time in being lazy and feeling sorry for myself, instead of taking it for the opportunity it was to have all day to sit at home and write (and get EI while doing it!)  It wasn’t until I was actively job hunting for several hours each morning that I was able to follow that up with several hours of working on my novels. (Editing again, no actual writing) When I had something to do first, massaging manuscripts became the treat, the desert at the end of the work.

But I honestly feel that with all this other stuff out of my head, I could focus on just the writing. I could just spend time with my characters.  I am not so secretly jealous of writing friends who can afford to stay home and write.

So, it’s a matter of willpower. I just have to cut that writing time out of my week, and stick to my own self-enforced time table.

This is the time I will write, this is the place I will write, and this is the amount I will write, every. Single. Day. No exceptions.

Okay, everyone. Get out your pom poms. I have 24 days left to write 17 300 words, and new resolve.

I can do this!


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Learning To Be A Writer Again

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