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Writing Lessons

Lessons Learned, both Dos and Don'ts

As it is the beginning of a New Year, I thought I would start off with a little reflection of lessons learned before I launch into the shiny new territory of 2023.

Specifically, as I get my thoughts organized on The Next Book, I wanted to see if there are things I can learn from writing the last three.

There are lots of things that spring to mind. I learned a lot through writing and publishing the books. But I’ve narrowed it down into two Dos and two Don’ts, just as a way for you, dear reader, to get a glimpse behind-the-scenes, so to speak, and to perhaps encourage any budding writers among you.

Don’t worry. I will not turn this blog into a writing advice blog. There are plenty of those out there who do that much better than I ever could. These are just a couple of reflections that might be helpful.

The Don’ts

Let’s get these out of the way first, shall we? Here are two major things that tripped me up the first time and made it much more difficult to get the books finished.

Pantsing

Oh, I hate to admit it. This really got me stuck in the mud a few times. I was firmly in the “pantsing” camp as a writer. As in, one who writes “by the seat of their pants.” One who sits in front of a blank screen and lets the muse take her where she wills. It’s incredibly exciting and fulfilling as a creative. The story flows from your fingertips at will, characters pop up unexpectedly, you race to the finish line just as in the dark as your characters are as to what’s gonna happen next.

Well, not all the time. Those things happen, sure. Occasionally. But there are lots of days where you have no clue what is going to happen, and can see no way out of the boring, drab place your characters are wandering around in, doing absolutely nothing that advances the plot. Plot? What plot? The thrust of the story can get bogged down in minutia of setting, character sketches, background, research…. until you have no idea what the heck is supposed to be happening anymore.

Or, you find an exciting trail and follow it, writing at a furious pace. Days go by. Months, even. Until finally you realize that you have written yourself into a dead end. The story can go nowhere from this place your characters have ended up in. Once again they are drooping around, snacking on the couch, having naps, going for walks….

Ugh. You are forced to hack out those last 20,000 or 50,000 words you just spent days, weeks, or months on, and you’re back where you were before it all went wrong. That was a waste of time, no? Well, to be honest, it’s probably not a complete waste of time. There might be scenes you wrote you could work in a little later, or you might have learned something about a character’s temperament or motivations. But is there a way you could have learned all that without spending so much time writing all those unnecessary words?

In a word, yes. Welcome to planning and plotting IN ADVANCE. Horrors, I know, but bear with me, fellow pantsers!

I hated the thought of planning. Plotting out all the chapters and scenes and even knowing how the book ENDS before you start felt like it would take all the fun out of writing. I made a few feeble attempts to do this when I got stuck here and there, but, nah. Couldn’t do it.

Or so I thought. Let’s face it. I’m not getting any younger. I can’t spend ten years writing the next three books. I needed to figure out a way to write faster. And a huge part of that is planning the story in advance. I’ve been reading some craft books and practicing this, and it’s actually making sense to me. Don’t get me wrong. I will never be a meticulous planner. But I love having the story take shape before I start. I imagine there might be some twists and turns that I don’t expect along the way, but I’m feeling pretty good about how things are going so far.

No Confidence

This is a tough one for any beginning writer. You just don’t feel like what you are writing is any good. I certainly have been plagued by this. But not right at the beginning. I had a fair amount of confidence as I wrote the first parts of the book that what I was writing was pretty good. I knew it wasn’t perfect, and would need some polishing, but, hey. I’d been writing short stories before I started on the novel, stories that had been accepted and published. Stories that had even won awards. I figured I was pretty good.

Until I had gone some way into the novel and went back and read the beginning pages to check on something. Ack. It was dreadful. I suddenly realized that I had improved as a writer since I began writing the book. I hadn’t been as good as I thought I was. Doubt crept in. Maybe my confidence now was just an illusion, just like my confidence then. Maybe I’m really not that good. Maybe I should just quit while I was ahead.

You see how it goes. It’s very hard to be objective about your own work. And it’s never going to be perfect. I had to slay the dragon of self-doubt and forge ahead. Otherwise I would have quit.

You do this by ignoring that voice in your head that’s telling you to quit, that your writing is no good, that you are wasting time. You really don’t know what you have until you finish it. Then you can bring back your inner editor and get to work. You can send your story out to beta readers and then to a professional editor. In other words, you will have something to work with. Resisting the impulse to give up is a great skill for any writer to learn.

The Dos

Finish

This was a big one. But it was something I had learned while writing short stories, and it saw me in good stead as I tackled the novel. It relates to what I said above. Finish the thing. This can be really hard, especially if you are a pantser. When writing stories, I would have a great idea, some interesting characters, a puzzle or a challenge for them to solve. I could get them going on their adventure. But after the initial excitement of the beginning, it would fizzle out. How would this thing end?

The result would be that I would get stuck in the middle and lose enthusiasm. There were many times I had to force myself to keep writing, to get past that block. To skip ahead. Or, to take the advice of some writer coaches, and make something bad happen. See how your character reacts. In fact, make the worst thing happen, the thing that will make it impossible for the character to reach their goal. Now what?

Often, that would get me going again. Because, at the heart, the story is really about the character and their reactions to their circumstances. If everything is cozy for them, they aren’t forced to do anything. Why would they? Which leads to the writer being stuck and the reader getting bored.

A writer has to know how to bring their story to a conclusion. Struggling through this in writing short stories helped me when I faced the same dilemma in the books. I can’t say it gets any easier, but at least I know I can do it. Comes back to that confidence thing again!

Be A Professional

Treat your writing like a job. This is an important mindset for any writer who wants to accomplish any body of work, whether they plan on publishing or just want to do it as a hobby. But especially if you want to keep progressing in your craft, you have to take it seriously. Set goals and targets for yourself. Decide when you want to have your project finished and work backwards from there, figuring out how long each day or how many words each week or month you have to invest to get the project finished.

I am getting better at this. I have learned that these goals really help to keep me going. I will be honest and admit I often don’t meet the goals. Life happens. But I don’t beat myself up. I just readjust and keep going. I find if I don’t have these types of targets, it’s too easy to drift along and put off writing. Turns out you actually do have to sacrifice something to keep getting the words on the page. Maybe that’s sleep, if you get up earlier to get in some writing before you go to work or before the kids get up. Maybe that’s TV time in the evening.

Taking myself seriously as a writer helps me to keep going. On the other hand, I’ve also learned a bit about balance. I was getting down on myself for not reaching my goals, for always having other things take the place of my writing. Everyone is different and has different levels of ambition. But I have learned that I can’t drive myself too hard. I have to leave some time in my life for the unexpected.

For example, this year I have set a goal to write one short story a month. I’ve figured out how many hours I need to work on short stories each day/week/month to get to the requisite number of words for the typical short story. I also have a tentative goal for the next book. I want to have the research and outlining/planning done by end of August, so I can start the first draft by September. I’ve set aside amounts of time throughout the week where I can do this. I want to keep up on blog posts – hopefully once a month, plus the newsletter, plus the marketing, etc etc.

I have all these things plotted out each week. But I can adjust as I go along. If I’ve been too ambitious, I can lighten up. Or if I’m progressing faster on the novel research and outlining, I can start the first draft earlier (wouldn’t that be nice!)

But at least I have a goal I’m working towards. The important thing is to sit down and write. So many times I avoid the blank page because I don’t know what to write about. It’s amazing how the words flow once you sit down and just write SOMETHING.

Conclusion

I’ve learned a lot since starting my first short story. And I learned a lot while writing the books. But my learning isn’t done. I know there’s more to discover on this writing journey. I’m so glad you are here to share it with me. A writer is nothing without readers. Thanks for giving me a reason to keep going

Featured Photo by Mike Tinnion on Unsplash


 

1 Comment

  1. Lesley Ferguson says:

    So interesting Lisa. I really don’t understand how you do it, but this gives me a peek into your methods of accomplishing your writing goals. I can, and do procrastinate when it comes to writing my book reviews for Goodreads until I’m 3 books behind!

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