Easy Ways to Survive Writing a Novel

My memory extends back as far as, oh, about two minutes ago. And it’s J-Term, so I have no routine. And I never know what day of the week it is.

Okay, let’s be honest–I’m not even sure what time it is, much less what day it is….

Actually, I can’t remember how many weeks it’s been since I wrote a blog post.

(I have a really great one worked up — it’s all about pottery and clay and how I’m a perfectionist and totally terrified that I’ll make things explode in the kiln — but I’m saving it for next week, when all the pieces come out of their last firing and I know for certain whether anything of mine blew up or not.)

No blog posts does not mean no writing. I’ve been writing a lot, and it’s been terrifying, and I’m going to tell you about it…

See, I tried doing NaNoWriMo this year, and last year, and the year before…and you know what? November is a horrible month. November is Thanksgiving and final projects; it’s last-minute Christmas plans and last-minute registration; it’s reworking my four-year plan for the fifth time in two years. I gave up on NaNo because I spend the whole month feeling guilty–guilty for not writing whenever I’m doing other things, and guilty for not doing other things whenever I’m writing. It’s a lose-lose situation.

But January is J-Term, and J-Term is only two classes and almost no homework; it’s too cold to go outside and too quiet to be distracted. J-Term is endless pots of tea and supportive friends who do things like researching chemistry for me so I don’t overdose my characters and reading my awful first drafts and still telling me to be a writer. This is the J-Term of Actually Submitting Essays and of Resubmitting Rejected Things.

And it’s the J-Term of monomaniacally writing 50,000 words of a novel. This is a scary experience, but a few things are helping:

First of all, tea. Tea is not just about “oh Elizabeth is an addict.” (I am.) Tea is about putting your mind in a place that knows it’s writing a thing. Dieticians say (I know, because a dietician said to my mother) that if you build up a habit of eating something at a specific time or during a specific activity, you always feel hungry at that specific time or during that specific activity. Conversely, specific foods can make you think it’s time for a specific activity, like how that one spicy candle scent always smells like your grandma’s kitchen at Christmastime. I have taught my brain that when I sit down with whole pot of tea, it means it’s time to write a whole lot of words. This is not a guaranteed Writer’s-Block-Away, but it’s a definite help. (As a bonus, sipping at tea while staring intently at the last sentence you wrote improves your Wise Writer Appearance and looks impressive.)

The croissant is optional. The chocolate is not.


Second, Scrivener. I guess this isn’t really a tip of any kind, but I’m excited about it. I got the free trial over the summer, and I ran out of my free trial last week and bought the full programme. As an organisationally-challenged visual planner, it’s a lifesaver. It allows me to see my whole novel at a glance, to know where I’m going, to see tangibly how long or short the space is between an element’s introduction and climax. Plus, having spent money on it, I now feel compelled to use it regularly to make it worth the investment.

Third, attraction. Now, this can backfire, as I discovered. I’m spiralling into a depression because my favourite character is fictional and therefore not in my life, and I had to stop writing and go to bed the other night because I felt so guilty over breaking his wrist that I couldn’t focus. On the plus side, though, the more attracted I am to my characters, the more I want to write about them. When cranking out 50,000 words in a month, it helps if you want to be writing. And if you’re attracted enough to your character to want to write about him, you might also want to spend a while stalking celebrities scouring the internet for a playby–someone who looks similar. Snag a photo, keep it with your story, stare into your character’s beautiful eyes glance at it for inspiration when you’re not sure what your character would say or do at any point.

Fourth, prioritising–otherwise referred to as “stopping trying to change all the things before the whole draft is done.” Every time I start working, I remember some detail that will be important later and hasn’t been brought in yet. I remember some character who’s going to die and isn’t yet likeable enough to make the readers grieve. I notice that I called it a “wrought iron fence” in the first chapter and a “cement wall” in the sixth. I realise that Alex’s tell–the one Helen mentions a lot but never expounds on–only actually happens once. I realise I’ve mentioned Helen’s hair in every chapter and never said that Alex is blonde. But…I don’t fix these. Instead, I use the wonderful comments feature and leave a note to myself. “At some point, this needs to become important.” “Maybe we could make this consistent. Later.” “The second draft should probably include this way earlier.” And then I move on. It’s really hard to get words written when you’re busy trying to tweak other words. And a novel is kinda like one of those connect-the-dots pictures–until you’re finished connecting all the dots, it’s hard to know which lines you should have curved which direction. So I’m leaving the lines alone till the whole picture is done.

Fifth–no deadline. This is a personal project. I gave myself a goal to see if I could meet it. I told myself to finish during January because I have time during January, and in February I will not have time. But if I don’t finish by the end of January, nothing horrible will happen. I will not have an irate publisher or professor sending me angry emails or marking me down. My goal is 50,000 words by the end of January. If I get 40,000 done–or only 20,000 done–that’s still 40,000 or 20,000 more than I had at the end of December, and it’s still an accomplishment. Turns out I like soft deadlines. Not feeling panicked about the impending cutoff date clears my mind to think, to create, to critique. Turns out it’s easier to write when you don’t feel guilty.

Maybe I’m not a genius, and maybe you were hoping for a much deeper blog post–and maybe you’re a writer who’s feeling guilty about not working on a project, and today you needed me to give you permission to drink tea and search for playby photos instead of cranking out another few hundred agonising words.

I give you permission.

In fact, come by. I’ll make a pot of tea, and we’ll drink it together.

Books and tea


3 thoughts on “Easy Ways to Survive Writing a Novel

  1. Great post Elizabeth! I like what you said about being 40,000 words or 20,000 more than the month before. That’s the outlook I tried to have when I attempted (and failed) Nano this year. It’s hard not to be hard on yourself, right? Anywho, I haven’t tried Scrivener before. If I ever begin working on a longer project, I may try it out!


    1. Thanks! I find it extremely difficult not to be hard on myself. I think working during a month that isn’t full of other writers (working faster than me…) is helping. The free trial of Scrivener only counts down the days you actually open the programme, so it’s quite practical. Give it a shot!

      Liked by 1 person

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