Picture of Sisyphus, by Titian

In November a young writer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of NaNoWriMo.  This annual event with the ugly acronym is the National Novel Writing Month, during which a bunch of mad writers attempt to crank out a 50,000 word novel in thirty days.  It’s not too late if you want to have a go!  Sign up is here, and I’m reliably informed that the tighter the deadline, the easier it is to rack up the words.

Quite why I decided it would be a good idea to do a blog post in November too, I can’t now remember.  (It’s only day two and already I’m finding it hard to remember my name.)  However, it does provide me with a good subject – the process of novel writing and the numerous ways in which a writer’s mind is their own worst enemy.

You’ll probably hear writers say that if they didn’t write, they would go mad.  That they would write even if no one was ever to read what they’d written.  They talk about how if they had the chance they would give up work and write full time, and they wish you to imagine that – if they did write full time – they would create any number of masterful works with a speed and surety that was dazzling.

Well, perhaps they would, but I know for sure that I wouldn’t.  You see, every time I begin a book I pass through every single one of the phases I will describe below, (and some other ones I don’t recall right at the moment, but will certainly do so once it’s too late:)

I have called the first response to all of these the ‘standard response’ because it’s certainly the way I react, nine times out of ten.  I’ve given a suggested response underneath because this is what I have tried to counter the problem and it has worked for me.

Step 1. “Argh!  This idea is so lame.  I can’t possibly make a novel out of this!”

Standard response:  Complain about never having any good ideas any more and go on a movie watching binge ‘for inspiration.’

Productive response:  Spend a day or so brainstorming ways in which the idea can be made less lame and more complex, until it is capable of supporting a novel.  Bring in some subplots and some new characters until you feel vague stirrings of interest.  If no interest arises after a week of brainstorming, look for a different idea.

Step 2. “But I don’t know anything about this era!  I’ll get everything wrong and have to rewrite it from scratch every time I learn something new!”

Standard response: Surf the web for interesting websites about the era.  Go to the library and order lots of books.  Read books for one or two years until you can no longer convince yourself that you don’t know anything.  When this stage is reached, realize that you don’t actually want to write the novel any more.  Return to Step 1.

Productive response: Move on to step #3 while simultaneously beginning to research the era.  Continue to research and write together.  By the time you’ve finished the first draft of the book, you will know enough to correct all your mistakes in the edit.

Step 3. “But I don’t know where to start!  The page is staring at me and it’s so terrifyingly blank, I don’t know what to say!”

This is much less of a problem for those who like to write by the seat of their pants, finding out what happens as they go along.  But it may be that you haven’t realized yet that you’re not one of those people.

Standard response: Go and do the washing up, prepare for a business meeting, decide that your cornflake collection needs to be arranged in alphabetical order, take up the tin whistle, go down the pub… etc etc.  This procrastination can be kept up indefinitely – as all those people who’ve always meant to write a novel one day can tell you.  You, however, do not want to be that person, so you will skip either to the Productive response, or (if you are a happy Pantser) go directly to stage #5.

Productive response: Spend another week brainstorming a rough plot outline.  Don’t worry, it’s not set in stone, but it will at least give you something to guide you through the swamps and mists of the primordial book.

Step 4. “But I really need to fine-tune my plan a bit more.  I don’t know what they have for breakfast on page 335.”

Standard response: Carry on refining the plan until you suddenly lose all interest in actually writing the book.  Return to #1 and repeat in an infinite loop.

Productive response: Go straight to #5.

Step 5. Begin writing.

Congratulations if you’ve even made it this far.  You have successfully battled the inner critic, the inner doubter and the inner procrastinator and have actually begun to create something.  But watch out, because they won’t like that, and they have plenty more tricks up their sleeves to make you fail.

Step 6. “I was really enjoying it at first, but now I’m starting to think it’s a pile of crap.  I think I started wrong/need to throw out what I’ve done so far and start again/need to edit these first five chapters, because I can’t bear to go on while I know the writing is so poor.”

Standard response: Start again at the beginning, either editing or re-writing from scratch.  Get to chapter 5 and realize that it could be even better if you changed it one more time.  Start again at the beginning…. And repeat in an infinite loop until you suddenly lose all interest in writing the book at all.  Put it into a drawer and start again at #1.

Productive response: Write down, in a separate notes file, what changes you think it will be necessary to make when you do the edit.  Carry on writing, satisfied that you won’t forget what you need to do in the edits, but you’re not derailing the writing of the first draft to do it right now.  (And it’s often the case that another few chapters along the line you realize that thing you were going to change is actually brilliant as it is.  Then, with only a single note to strike through, you’ve saved yourself two lots of total rewriting.)

Step 7. “Oh God, I’ve suddenly had the most fabulous idea for a bestseller/work of staggering genius.  I think I’m going to go and write that instead.”

This step tends to happen when you’ve run out of the first blush of enthusiasm but are not yet past the mid point of the novel.  In the face of all those words still to go you are suddenly consumed with the desire to start something much much better.

Standard response: Return to stage #2 and begin the whole thing again until you reach step 7 again.  Continue in an infinite loop until you learn the more productive response, or you give up writing and take up topiary instead.

Productive Response: Write down the fantastic idea in a notebook or file you keep for fantastic ideas.  Keep it for later – after you’ve finished this book.  Possibly you can even use the promise that you can start the marvellous book later as a carrot to motivate you to get this one finished faster.

Repeat Step 7. Step 7 will repeat a number of times as you slog on through the long grind of putting down words.  Repeat the productive response and don’t stop writing until you reach Step 8.

Step 8. “I’m so nearly at the end, and yet I can’t seem to bring myself to sit down and write it.  Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, I think I need to do the washing up/go on holiday/manicure my front lawn with a pair of nail scissors.”

For some reason – I don’t know whether it happens to you, but it always happens to me – every time I pass the point where the end comes in sight, I suddenly lose the will to write.  I think my subconscious is reluctant to let go of these characters and this world it’s been living in for the past nine months.  What will I be without them?  It’ll be so empty in here.  I don’t want to let it go!  And I don’t have to let it go if I never finish it… hey, that’s an idea!

Standard Response: Put the book in a drawer.  Bum around distracting yourself with make-work and feeling depressed for a couple of months.  Then get a new idea for a novel and proceed straight back to Step #1.

Productive Response:  Write it anyway, even though you don’t want to.  Even if it’s rushed and incomplete.  Just write it and finish the book.

You’ll probably need to start your editing at the end and work backwards, but that’s OK because it’s far, far easier to improve something you’ve already got than it is to do the magic first draft thing of conjuring up a whole world out of nothing.

Step 9. Realize that you have finished your first draft!  Freak out and dance.  Mourn the ending of a big part of your life.  Buy yourself a treat – you deserve it – and give yourself a fortnight’s holiday while you allow yourself to forget what the first draft looked like.

After you come back from your fortnight’s holiday you can begin the edits, which are a joyful time of turning your rough diamond into a scintillating jewel using a very small chisel.  But you have something whole and finished to work with, and that’s the main thing.  Continue editing until you are happy you cannot improve it any more, then send it to your agent/publisher.

Step 10. Return to Step #1

If you’re not a writer, you may wonder why we moan so much about the simple act of getting down 1000 words a day.  Why do we insist that writing is hard work?  It’s not like coal mining, for goodness sake!

Well, the above list of steps is one of the reasons.  Being a writer is a particularly Sisyphean task.  Every day we have to roll this unmade world up the hill of words, while fighting with our own minds, which are trying to get us to let it roll straight back down again.  And yes, there is a joy of creation, but there’s also a lot of  bloodyminded stubbornness and soldiering on while crushed beneath the weight of our own self-sabotage if we’re ever to reach the top/end.

Then of course we go and do it again anyway, because deep in our masochistic little souls we really weren’t lying when we said we’d go mad if we didn’t.