BY TYLER MOSS
Let’s get real—writing a novel is difficult.
Especially if it’s your first time. Not only is it a test of stamina to see if you can stay committed and motivated to complete a full, book-length manuscript, but you have to explore and test out what practices work for you and which fall flat. It’s a personal science of experimenting with your own abilities and learning from mistakes.
Like many Writer’s Digest readers, I’m in the process of penning my very first book. Though I’m new to novel writing, I am not a new writer … but my background is in journalism. Though I’m well-versed in fleshing out 500- to 3,000-word assignments on a short deadline, as I’ve learned, an 80,000 word book is a very different beast.
Before beginning, I read dozens of essays and interviews with authors of all levels about what their writing process looked like. My goal was to emulate them as closely as possible, hoping to tap into the abstract energy that had bolstered their creativity. Advice about how, what and when to write is everywhere, including throughout the pages of WD. But as I approach mile marker 13 of this marathon, I’ve uncovered some myths along the way—supposed productivity prescriptions that might be holding you back more than propelling you forward. Here are four such myths, and how to push past them to find your most prolific self.
Myth #1: Adhere to a Strict Writing Habit.
When I finally made the commitment to pursue a novel last December, I resolved that early morning hours would be my time to write. I had romanticized this idea of sitting alone in my office, in slippers, fingers flitting across the keyboard as my story flourished in the quiet darkness—a space where my imagination was free to roam. Well, when implemented, the reality was far less charming than I’d imagined.
Inevitably I would wake up groggy, regardless of how early I went to bed the night before. Even with a warm cup (or two, or three) of coffee in my system to act as a jump-start, it would take a half hour before my brain would arise from its state of befuddlement. By then I’d wasted 30 minutes of my allotted writing window just staring at the screen, challenging myself not to yawn. I still put down words, but it was an incredibly inefficient use of my time.
My initial instinct was to take my poor early-morning function as a sign of my lack of dedication. I figured that I must not have the drive or the wherewithal to adhere to a routine. Clearly I didn’t want this book as much as I thought I did. Then I decided to try something different—using my lunch break instead. I’d use the hour to retreat to the cafeteria with some soft jazz in my earbuds to see what I could conjure. Because my mind had already been operating on all cylinders for four hours, ideas came easy, and my productivity almost doubled. Which is all to say that you shouldn’t discredit the idea of a writing habit, but should simply be adaptable. If something isn’t working for you, there’s probably a good reason, and perhaps a better approach will prove far more rewarding.
Myth #2: Make Up for Missed Time
It’s a popular practice among many writers to hold themselves aggressively accountable for missed writing opportunities. If a day is skipped—which it inevitably will be, whether you have a terrible cold or sleep through your alarm clock—then they assert you must make up that lost time by doing double duty on the next day, or by adding in writing hours on the weekend, during the time you would otherwise use to relax and decompress.
This is all fine and good if you miss a single day here and there, but sometimes life just gets in the way. And when those missed days start to pile up, it becomes easy to get discouraged, which can further prevent you from getting back down to business. The trick, I believe, is being able to shrug it off. What’s most important is not that you severely punish yourself for diverging from your standard schedule, but that you ease back into your writing routine. Whatever that means. You missed a few days—so what?
For my part, I do not write every day. I only write on weekdays, treating it as an extension of work. Weekends are reserved for reading and exercise, two components I see as vital to my emotional well-being, but also to idea generation. Sometimes during the week, a work lunch or other event arises, and I miss out on writing. Then the next day I return to my routine. Too strict of a diet can be overwhelming. It’s OK to have a cheat day, as long as you resolve to dive back in the next chance you get.
Myth #3: Aim for a Specific Word Count
Some writers work well with the goal of putting down a specific number of words per day. To them, it’s motivation. I hold myself to no such word goal. To me, the prospect is overwhelming. I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo in the past, and there was something about the 1,666 words/day objective that psyched me out. I’d curse myself at the end of a session where I’d typed a mere 500 words. I was falling behind. The same thing would happen a few more days. Then I’d get depressed and quit altogether. This happened twice.
See, the word count goal can be fun for those who operate well under pressure, who are able to find inspiration in reaching for that number. As for me, I try to celebrate the small stuff. I tend to write slowly, plodding along, sure and steady. My primary aim isn’t volume, but progress. Of any kind.
Some days I write 1,500 words in an hour, some days I can only muster 250. But that’s not a failure. As long as I sit down and am able to move the story forward, however incrementally, I consider that a success. So goes the cliche: You eat an elephant one bite at a time. Or in my case, one nibble.
Myth #4: Every Word Matters
As a journalist, I was trained to recognize the weight of every word I wrote. Each line had to be intentional, specific—perfect. Every stone had to be paved perfectly before continuing down the path. But authors can’t afford to spend 20 minutes debating the ideal adjective for a sunset. Is it resplendent? Dazzling? Sumptuous? Or does it really matter?
Don’t be precious—that’s a lesson I continue to struggle with. While word choice is certainly important, in a novel they serve so many functions—muscles, joints, connective tissue. Not every sentence needs to smack the reader in the face. The editing stage is where you can deliberate the merits of whether mahogany or merlot is a more appropriate color description for the puddle of congealed blood on the floor. The first draft should be about keeping things moving.
Personally, I’ve found there’s something liberating about good old-fashioned pen and paper. I’m more willing to scratch out a throwaway sentence longhand in an 8.5” by 11” notepad to get to the next scene than I am to memorialize it in Times New Roman in a word processor. Pursue whatever strategy allows you to keep the river of creativity flowing.
Now for a disclaimer: Take all of these lessons with a grain of salt. I’m no prolific New York Times bestseller, but simply wanted to share my own process of self-discovery as I continue on with this wonderful pursuit so many of us share. If you take away anything, let it be that whatever process keeps you writing is, in fact, the right writing process. As you learn about the systems that other writers employ, steal some strategies, take them for a test drive, and shun others. Each of us is replete with eccentricities specific to the way our own mind works; there is no perfect alchemy for producing a novel. In the end, you must go your own way.
[Cue Fleetwood Mac.]
Tyler Moss is the managing editor of Writer's Digest. Follow him on Twitter @tjmoss11.
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