Musings on writing

Any other aspiring fiction writers out there like me?

For the past year, I’ve been writing a novel in earnest. I’ve wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember, and in 2016 I decided to start slowly angling myself towards this goal by taking a writing class. A class turned into few more classes. Then a writer’s group. I’m now working on what I tell people is the second draft of my manuscript, but if I’m being honest, it’s more like the fourth (fifth?) draft.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I careen back and forth at least once a week between thinking the manuscript is a steaming pile of garbage that I should give up on immediately, and thinking it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Today, I’m in a steaming pile of shit frame of mind.

Since you asked, my strategy for writing is to block off 30 minutes to write every morning, after my workout and before I start work. I used to try to write before bed, but the one problem was that it didn’t happen. With the morning strategy, it’s extremely rare that I don’t get my 30 minutes in. I often spend some time in the afternoons or evenings on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I find that I need a good chunk of time to really think critically about plot and character, so the 30 minute sessions don’t cut it for that. I also take time on the weekends to prepare a 4000 word submission for my writer’s group and to critique other members’ submissions (there are three of us in the group, and we each submit 4000 words for critique each week). I know there’s no one-size-fits-all solution with respect to writing strategies, but this is what I’ve found to work for me. Something else worth mentioning is that I treat it like a job. I force myself to work on my novel at least once a day, even if I don’t think I can bear to open the word document without vomiting all over my computer. I don’t know if this is the right strategy, but it’s a strategy.

I’m now far enough into the thick of things that I find myself craving any and all information and discussion about writing novels. I’ve been gravitating towards writing-related books and podcasts, and I recently discovered a lovely podcast called Ctrl + Alt + Delete. The host, Emma Gannon, doesn’t know it yet, but I’m pretty sure we are destined to be best friends. I mean, it would be a relatively parasitic friendship, as I don’t think she’d actually gain anything, being way cooler and way more exciting than me. And also, I don’t have a glorious British accent like she does. But I digress. If you are not familiar, I highly recommend Ctrl + Alt +Delete, which isn’t solely a writing podcast (generally, it’s a female-focused podcast about creating a professional life that works for you), but many of the episodes feature interviews with fiction writers.

Today, I wanted to share my love for a recent from a recent Ctrl + Alt + Delete episode which features an interview with author Ann Napolitano.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of Anne’s work (yet), but her just-out third novel, Dear Edward, is a critically acclaimed New York Times Bestseller. As she shares on the podcast episode, the path to getting this novel into the world was squiggly and strenuous.

Anne wrote her first novel while getting her MFA, and it was rejected more than 80 times. That’s right: 80! She eventually tabled the novel completely, and started working on a second book. Then, she tabled that book, and wrote her third novel (Within Arm’s Reach), which ended up being the first of her published novels.

Anne’s story made me think about a few things. First, however horrifying it might feel after all the time and effort I’ve put in, there’s a good chance that the novel I’m writing will never see the light of day. Second, as an aspiring writer, things (rejection) will go easier if you can find joy in the writing process (which I fortunately do), not just the possibility of getting published. Third, I should try to focus on my novel (even if it fails to become anything) as a learning process, and a stepping stone towards my goals. This process has already turned me into a far better writer than I was, so that’s a win already.

Another thing I enjoyed about the podcast episode (yes, I’m still talking about that…I realize you probably could have listened to the episode already) was Anne’s discussion of her meandering writing style. She identifies not as a ‘plotter’ but as a ‘pantser’ (although I prefer to use Neil Gaiman’s euphemism of ‘gardener’ myself) and has taken 8 years to finish her last two books. She reports having “written 400-page tangents and then cut them” for her second novel. To put things in context, my complete novel comes in a just under 400 (double-spaced) pages. When writing Dear Edward, Anne says that her husband strongly suggested that she take a year to plot and research and plan, while not permitting herself to actually write the story. She followed his advice and said it helped her immensely when she actually did start writing. This was interesting to me. Often, writing classes and articles will advise aspiring writers to ‘just write’ and to ‘write anything’…and while I think this is important, as someone who has no problem sitting down and vomiting words on the page, I think I would have benefited from a lot more planning before starting to write my novel. Case in point: my novel is around 115,000 words. For my genre (Young Adult), I need to get it down to 85,000 words, and I’m having trouble figuring out what can go and what has to stay. The two others in my writer’s group (also working on their first novels) are ‘planners’ and neither has much to fix on the back end (so to speak) now that they’ve finished their first drafts. I’ve learned that I should be zooming out on my plot/overarching picture/throughlines every few weeks, or my writing will take me bushwhacking through some weird-ass territory that is completely unrelated to the story.

Finally, when Anne is asked how she decides which stories need to be told, she tells her students to pay attention to their obsessions. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around what makes successful people successful (in life, not just writing), and her advice completely jives with what I’ve learned. This article by Paul Graham on the ‘bus ticket collector theory of genius’ is a great read if you’re interested in delving into this idea further. Hearing this from a successful author was a great reminder to follow my curiosities, and not feel guilty about it.

My three quick take-aways from this podcast episode:

  • Don’t forget that the only way out is through. Don’t get too attached to your first book, and think of it not as a failure but as a learning exercise that is going to make all your future writing better.
  • If you’re a pantser gardener, consider blocking off time to zoom out and plan/plot/research periodically.
  • Pay attention to your obsessions, and follow them.

Have a wonderful weekend!