“Books break the shackles of time–proof that humans can work magic.” – Carl Sagan.
Writing is an incredibly solitary act and sometimes being stuck working away alone in a room can be really daunting. I am terrible for obsessing over the smallest detail and worrying because I know the stories far too well. Normally when this hits, I go into a full blown panic and bin everything off for a good few months until I feel like I can face picking up a pen again. I’ve had many instances of people offering to help me out and then months go by with no feedback only to ask and find out they completely forgot to read my work.
My wonderful writing friend Freedom Matthews just so happened to be going through a similar experience and so I offered to help her with projects by doing a weekly skype session where we would talk over writing in general, how she best works and the sort of editing she was after. She would send me a chapter or two and, just like homework, I’d sit and read while making overall notes along with focusing on any specifics she wanted to know As we carried on like clockwork on mostly the same day and time every week, Freedom was nice enough to ask about my own projects and when I mentioned a few of my own niggles I had, she jumped at the chance to even the playing field by reading mine.
What started off as a small chat to help out a friend has grown into a beautiful and valuable writing partnership. We can be brutal (though normally followed by a flustering of apologies in case we upset the other) and gush over each other’s stories. But more importantly, it’s such a relief to know that whatever struggles we face each week, we have that one person to go to who understands the situation but isn’t going to sugar coat if something doesn’t make sense or clearly isn’t working. Every time I feel like the world is going to cave in, Freedom is there with her words of wisdom and I end the call feeling so motivated to finish what I’m working on.
Having a beta reader is incredibly useful for any writing project. Just knowing that I have an unbiased person on my side means the absolute world and I think it’s an absolute must, especially when you get too attached to the story because you know all the twists and turns so it can be harder to spot the issues. I hope Freedom and I continue our little team effort for a very long time and reach a point where we can champion each other even more by buying a billion copies of each other’s books.
Do you have a beta reader?
Who do you trust to read your work when you have a bad day?
“One day I will find the right words and they will be simple.” – Jack Kerouac
While hard to admit, writing breaks are sometimes very much needed. I wrote a post recently talking about the immense pressure I put on myself when it comes to writing and how, as a result, I hit a massive wall. For the first time in a few weeks I found myself thinking about writing again; thinking about the worlds my mind had created. I felt that itch to return to my stories in a way I hadn’t for such a long time. It felt like an actual want rather than a obligation.
Of course, with the decision to return to writing comes the crippling self doubt. Have I lost my flow? Do I even remember how to write? What if it’s been too long and that spark won’t stay lit for very long? Obviously, it’s important to push those natural feelings aside and remind myself than even the most successful of writers goes through this when starting something new.
The additional issue I have returning after a break is working out exactly where to start. I never immediately go back to the project I was working on. So one of my working progresses is very much shelved into I can work out the knots in the tangled threads. I have many books at various stages and it took a while to work out a course of action. During my break, I received more rejections from agents, so I’ve started reworking my query letter and synopsis along with doing research into more agents I feel could represent me. It’s hard not to constantly think “is this sellable” whenever I’m working on something, but when I start actually writing aspects of one of my stories again I will limit my sprints to 10 minutes rather than 30. Less pressure= more opportunity for success. The less restrictions the better. After the queries are in the wild, I might properly plan my new idea, or just focus on editing to remind myself of my own writing style (you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget your own voice).
So slowly but surely, I’m working my way back. I am nervous but refreshed, and ready to create more magic.
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I think you could ask pretty much anyone who their “role model” is and they would have an answer. It could be a family member, a friend, a celebrity. Some may even have one from childhood and a different one now they have more of an adult perspective to grasp onto the world with. I’ve had many. I almost like to hord them as if they are trinkets from different parts of my past. When it comes to writing, the person I look up to the most is V.E.Schwab.
V.E.Schwab is a New York Times Best-selling author. She’s written Adult Fantasy, YA paranormal, graphic novels, children’s ghost stories but her very obvious success isn’t what draws me to her. Like many readers, my adventures with her stories began with A Darker Shade Of Magic and when I listened to her interview on the podcast 88 Cups Of Tea, she talked about how she had been told by those in the publishing industry to be less open about what it’s actually like to be in it. She responded to this by saying that it didn’t feel right to sugarcoat her experiences and act like, just because she got that book deal, her life is all sunshine and flowers.
I adore her honesty. She admits how hard touring is on her mental health and how it adds pressure to looming deadlines even though she very much loves meeting her readers. When it comes to drafting a new book, she talks openly about her struggles and how often she needs to remind herself that it’s all one big process and baby steps still get you closer to the end. She dishes out advice and it always seems to pop up on my Twitter timeline when I’m having the worst day and want to throw my laptop out of the window in the hopes that a passing car on the street runs it over.
It’s a reminder that even the greats – the authors that have made incredible impacts in the writing world – are just as human as the rest of us. They have to work through the same fears and problems that those of us aspiring authors do every day. V.E.Schwab has spoken about how, even with her raging success, she’s still had rejections for pitch ideas. Other big fantasy authors such as Neil Gaiman have said that their biggest fear is a blank page. No one is immune from this experience and I admire her so much for standing up and saying “hey guys, this is really hard and you know what? It doesn’t get any easier.”
Do you have any writing inspirations?
Do you have any writing mantras you turn to when having a bad day?
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap stuff and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.” – Octavia E. Butler
I am always doing something. More often than not, I’m multi-tasking too. When I wrote the notes that would become this blog post, I was watching a movie. While writing these very words, I am catching up on the latest episode of Jane The Virgin. I fill up my time with so many things that often I double up just to get through it all. This often leads to burning myself out. Which is the position I’ve found myself in with my latest project.
I’ve mentioned before about the little targets I set myself but those writing sessions only go so far when the story itself isn’t working. I’ve spent the past month jumping around the timeline to bits I feel like I’m ready to work on only to hit wall after wall.
So I’ve taken the hardest decision of all: taking a break. It’s not often talked about because writing is often seen as a rush to a metaphorical finish line, but taking time away from a project is just as important as working day in and day out on it. For now, this story needs that breathing space and I need to take the time to rest a little and recover.
It’s easy to feel guilty about it. It’s very difficult to do and I think almost every day about whether it is the right decision or not. But I need to stick to it. How long will the break be? I don’t know. Will I ever return to this project? I don’t know. And I’m starting to learn that it’s alright. Slowly but surely. This project, or whatever I move on to next, will be worth it for the time out I take right now.
Have you ever taken a break?
Do you feel guilt for not writing?
“Deadlines just aren’t real to me until I’m staring one in the face.” – Rick Riordan
Deadlines are a massive topic of discussion for authors in the publishing industry. As more and more contracted writers have started being vocal about the realities of three books deals etc, it’s kind of impossible to ignore just how stressful they can be. The main one that always springs to mind when I think of deadlines is best-selling fantasy author V.E.Schwab who did a series of tweets about the fact that she was set to embark on a three month book tour. Alongside meeting upwards of 300 people at events in each city, she still had to average 2,000 words a day in order to get her next book in on time.
It would be unfair to not acknowledge the slight advantage I have of being an unpublished the author: I have all the time in the world, in fact, too much time. I struggle greatly with the idea that I may never get published, that simply finishing and editing a book isn’t enough when there are agents to query who will reject me and even if I get that glorious “yes” there’s no guarantee that a publisher will buy my book at the end of it.
So long story short, I make my own targets. My mantra is “we measure time spent not words” because I think it is incredibly important to count any time spent researching or planning as part of the process. You could finish a writing day with no words written and feel completely defeated when in actuality you’re discounting the fact that you spent four hours looking into some incredibly niche thing you want to include in your story, or you did rubbish drawings of locations or even just worked through what you’d like to happen in a scene. Every little second, minute, and hour spent all adds up to the bigger picture. I am to spend at least 30 minutes a day working on my current project. It can seem measly but if I get a scene sorted, or even just a paragraph written, it’s one more scene or paragraph than I had the day before. Words are just sentences which are paragraphs which are chapters which are books.
Everyone talks far too often about word counts: from people creating their own writing sprint months, to writing sprints with the aim of 500 words at the end, to the big old NanoWriMo where people (and I made this mistake only once) try to write a whopping 50,000 words in a single month. It’s too easy to look at others and see yourself in comparison to how much they can achieve. But we all find our own ways to work; the best thing for us.
Do you set deadlines for yourself?
What do you do if you don’t meet them?
“The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them.”
I decided that the best way to talk about my planning process when it comes to writing is to break it into two parts. The previous part, “the skeleton”, focused on getting down the initial framework on my next project. This one is about the bigger details; what I lovingly call “the meat.”
Once I have the basics down – characters, motivations, locations, concepts- I then begin to work my way through the big plot points in the narrative. This step is different pretty much every time because sometimes aspects come to fruition quicker than others. But this is where I plan out any scenes, dialogue between characters, while also keeping things open to happen naturally during writing; it’s remarkable how much my stories evolve in the writing stage from what I first planned out. In the past I’ve posed two options to myself of where a plot twist can go and then something else jumps up while I’m working on it that was completely unexpected but just works so much better than whatever I had in the pipeline.
It’s also often this part of the process I return to when I hit a wall writing. I have to come back here and re-evaluate things and work out which cog in the machine needs replacing with a shiny new piece to get it working again.
Do you plan? If so, what are your tips and tricks? Do you have a particular thing you simply have to do?
“Overnight sucess is almost always a myth. Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit.” – V.E.Schwab
When it comes to new ideas I always start with what I call “the skeleton.” My stories nearly always begin with an initial concept or a random line; sometimes it ends up being a possible lead character just for my brain to change the game up a little. Slowly but surely, I start to build the framework.
I always focus on populating the world first- from characters to locations- to maybe even a central plot point that I have fully fleshed out in my mind before then moving on to the next stage which I call “the meat” (more on that in another post). I refer to this point in my planning as “the skeleton” because it’s all about getting those bones and putting them roughly in the right place so that everything can function below the surface.
It’s always the longest part of planning for me because I can’t start working on a story until I have enough of the proverbial map filled out to know where I’m going. Sometimes all the framework elements come within a couple of weeks from the initial idea or character motivation, others (like a project I’m currently working on) have taken several years to get to the point where I can even consider writing.
How do you tackle planning? Do you have a particular order things need to be done in? Or do you not even plan and instead chose to wing it?
“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.” – Doris Lessing.
When it comes to sitting down and committing to writing sprints, silence is my enemy. That seemingly never-ending quiet just makes it all too easy for my mind to drift, for me to pull open a window and call down the internet’s many rabbit holes, and make me feel almost uncomfortable. I can’t pinpoint the how or the why I work better with some sort of background noise (often I multi-task and catch up on my TV shows/ movies while working away at my laptop), but it’s always been the way and so I decided to embrace it many a year ago.
Joining the online book community and seeing how many of my author inspirations created playlists to act as the soundtrack for their books was really interesting. It had become a norm. While I’ve recently gone down the same route for my own projects to help me get into the right mindset for the varying narratives, my absolute gem for writing sessions is my generic “writing playlist” which is a compilation of my favourite score music from films.
Backed up by Harry Potter, The Book Thief, The Maze Runner, How To Train Your Dragon score tracks, I am able to become fully immersed in the worlds I’m creating and treat it as something serious that I’m working on rather than just a cute little hobby (but of course there’s nothing wrong with that)! It helps to block out everything around me while I weave the various threads of an every changing world together. And that is its own form of magic.
Do you have any special requirements in order to write?
Do you indulge in music or is silence golden?
“The first draft is a secret that no one ever needs to see, but it leads to the second draft, where the book really begins.” – Patrick Ness
I decided that, after another joint winning Twitter poll, my next writing pot would be focused on that dreaded first draft since I’m currently in the middle of one.
No one likes drafting. If even big name, best-selling authors like V.E.Schwab and Neil Gaiman struggle with them, then there’ really no hope for the rest of us. To me, a first draft is like breaking into a run only to collapse in a fit of exhaustion a few feet later. That shiny new idea feels exciting and fun but the second I hit a mental wall it’s far too easy for me to abandon a project; to convince myself that I’m just not ready to tackle it yet and I’ll come back later.
The big fact I have to constantly remind myself of is that a first draft is only going to be seen by me. Which is important to remember because I am of the firm belief that you need to enjoy your own story before anyone else does and the entire project becomes influenced by what other people think you should do. In this early stage I think it’s also too easy to get hung up on words because you don’t have any to work with yet. It can be very disheartening to work for an hour and find you’ve written 100 words. It’s easy to feel like you’ve not made any progression and completely disregard that you technically spent an hour working. This is where my mantra “we measure time spent not words” comes into play because why should time spent trying to make a chapter work and deleting everything, research, or planning not count as progress? After all, they’re just as important as writing. I tend to use the forest app to mark my progress (more on that in another post).
If I’m really struggling to keep momentum but I can visualise scenes later in the plot then I make that shift and write those. Words are words are words, and I’ll do anything to keep going. Even if I want to give up 90% of the time.
What are your tips and tricks for handling a first draft?
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck
It’s a common topic discussed and one that, in fact, I was asked to write about by fellow reviewer Anna. Writers are often asked if they are a “planner or pantser.” Simply put, do you plan or go in with no plan? When I tried to think of what other writers do, I remembered when I went to an event for The Iron Trial with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare and they talked about this very subject. Cassandra Clare has to plan every single detail down to when a character blinks, whereas Holly Black likes to go in with no plan whatsoever because she likes surprises. Naturally, you can imagine this made their partnership on the series a tad difficult.
I have to admit that I’m both a pantser and planner in equal measures. I have the initial concept in mind, along with characters and some understanding of location. When it comes to writing a chapter or scene, I like to have a framework – some idea of where I’m walking – but I never fully know what’s going to happen. I always leave room for things to happen naturally and so that the characters are able to think for themselves. It’s in these moments of no planning where new locations sprout, new characters join the story, and old characters have died. Sometimes I start writing and don’t even have the ending figured out.
I’m hoping to do a whole seperate post about how exactly I plan a new project. But for now I pose the questions to you:
Are you a planner or a pantser?
Do you have anything you need to do before starting a new project?