An Unfocused Person’s Guide to Writing a Novel
My name is Sammie and I like to think of my self as a writer. I’ve written scripts, short films, articles, this blog, and now I get to add novel writer to that list. It’s been a long time in the making. The first time I ever sat down and considered writing a novel I was about 15 years old. That was also the first time I realised that I might not be cut out for it. I still might not be… I guess we’ll find out in a few years time after I’ve tried (and possibly failed) to get something traditionally published. Although, I feel hopeful that this time I’ll get it right.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, for as long as I can remember I’ve been scribbling down stories, spending hours and days dreaming up fantastic worlds and outlandish characters. It’s semi-annoying to look back and realise I knew exactly what I wanted to do over half my life ago. Although, I’m a great believer that everything happens for a reason and that I probably (see definitely) wasn’t ready back then. I really don’t know what the future will hold for me, all I know is that I feel ready now.
Therefore, I’m proud to admit that I have, as of 7th July 2022, successfully completed the first draft of my very first novel. I know this is only the first step in a very long journey to becoming traditionally published, but nonetheless, I am thoroughly ecstatic. It was a slog. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t. I dragged my heels. I had my doubts that I would ever finish. Yet. Here I am. It took me 7 months almost to the week. (Although, if you exclude the 3 month hiatus I took in the middle it was more like 4.)
So what is the book about?
It’s called ‘The Death of Honor Jeffords’ and it is a thoughtful western adventure set in the 1890s. The plot — as not to give too much away — is essentially a story about a man whose brother is murdered in cold blood, forcing him to travel through the dangerous San Juan mountains to bring the killer to justice. I’ll be honest. Historical fiction is not really in my wheelhouse but I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Like most of my projects, this novel had kind of meandering route to completion. I started this particular project many moons ago, and was originally going to write it as a screenplay, but evidently even the best laid plans can have revisions. The idea came about some time in 2019 when I was playing through Red Dead Redemption 2. Hence why this one deviates somewhat from my usual genre, which is typically futurist fiction/Sci-Fi.
My Writing Process
I’m not sure about anyone else, but I generally start out with a nugget of an idea, and then I marinate on it for several weeks. During this time I’ll sit and ponder about it. Write myself lots of illegible notes scribbled at lightning speed on usually the smallest scrap of paper I can find. In extreme cases I will wake up in the middle of the night to write down entire scenes or just segments of dialogue. All of this errant elucidating I believe is my brain’s way of clicking the ideas into place.
When I eventually had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the story, I fired up FadeIn Pro, which is my current favourite screenwriting software (not intended as a plug, but it is really good, just saying). I began blocking out the story into scenes and got to writing the thing. I probably got to about 30% done before I got stuck and decided to stop for a while. As I famously do. You see. I have a slight problem in the fact that ideas seem to flow quite freely for me, I just struggle with actually following through with them.
So then I sat on the idea for a while. Probably about a year before something called NaNoWriMo came about. For anyone who doesn’t know NaNo (AKA National Novel Writing Month) is a community challenge in which participants must write a full 50K novel over the month of November. I was really eager to do NaNo but I didn’t know what project to work on. I knew this script idea had been kicking about in my head for a few months, and I had a mostly fleshed out structure, so I decided to use this story for NaNo.
A few days leading up to NaNo, I spent some time translating my structure over to Scrivener, which is a novel writing software (which again, not a plug but this is a complete game changer. I’ve tried to write novels previously using a regular wordprocessor and really struggled. There’s lots of novel writing softwares on the market, but I do genuinely love Scrivener). I started off strong with NaNo and within the first week I was about on track with the 1667 daily word goal. I though, wow, I might actually do it this time.
But then… as so often happens, I started to get lazy and distracted. I’d forgo certain writing days and promise myself I’d just write 5k words over the weekend to catchup. Safe to say I didn’t catch up and by the time November 30th rolled around I’d only reached around 25k words. I didn’t exactly disgrace myself but I definitely didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. I was pretty disappointed in myself, plus I started a new relationship literally 2 weeks into NaNo, which didn’t help much with my motivation.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have this particular pattern of procrastination that has plagued me my whole life. I’ll get an idea, get really excited about it, be all consumed by it for several weeks and then opps I’ll hit a road bump. Be that a relationship downturn, self-doubt, “writers’ block”, worries that I’m in the wrong job, or just bog standard burn-out. Suddenly I’ll lose all desire to work on that particular project and segue to the next, or just stop writing completely for several weeks.
Trying to motivate yourself to work on a writing project, I’ve learned, is very similar to starting out on a fitness journey. Most of us just want to rush to the finish line. So you start with a fad diet and an insane workout regimen, neither of which you can sustain long-term, meaning you quickly give up and feel even more dejected than you did when you started. I do very much the same thing with writing projects.
You see, I’ll spin my wheels, write bits and bobs, switch projects, think about writing while never quite managing to sit at my computer and do it. All the while I’ll be getting mad at myself for wasting time, berating myself for how lazy I am, and how this all means I will never achieve my dreams — because we writers are self-flaggelating masochists. Then one day I’ll get a fire under me. I’ll restart my project, but under the strictest circumstances possible, to make up for all the dicking around.
I’ll set myself an INSANE writing goal like 3,000 words a day while also working full time; starting a new diet and workout regimen; writing 7 new articles a week for my blog; juggling personal relationships as well as leisure time (both of which I’ll usually forgo in my pursuit of my #Goals). Then I wonder why I give up after 2 weeks and go back to procrastinating. Working on this novel has finally helped me break this habit.
How I Finally Reached the Finish Line
During my 3 month hiatus following NaNo, I really did wonder if I was temperamentally cut-out for writing. A lot of evidence was pointing to — no. I was struggling to keep up with my blog posts, I had yet again peaced-out to finishing a novel (with three incomplete manuscripts sitting on my hard drive at the time), 10s of feature screenplays and TV pilots half-finished. Maybe everyone was right. Maybe it was a dream that was only achievable to some people.
Then one day I thought to myself, why don’t you just try to finish it? It doesn’t matter how long it is. Doesn’t matter how well you write it. Just try to complete all of the scenes you set out to write when you planned the novel within the next 3 months. So, I set myself the goal to reach 50K words by the end of July. Then I did something utterly groundbreaking — I took it easy on myself. I still set a vague goal of trying to write at least 500 words, 5 days a week. But if I really couldn’t face it on a certain day, I just didn’t write that day. No harm, no foul.
I did this for a few weeks and something really strange happened — I actually started to enjoy writing again. Now don’t get me wrong, I love making up stories and dreaming up characters and places to fill them, but the actual process of drafting isn’t always the most fun thing in the world. But day-by-day I was not only hitting my word counts, I was exceeding them. By the end there wasn’t really a day that I didn’t spend at least 30 minutes writing. That’s it.
Doing all of this I not only finished my first draft, I finished it 3 weeks before my deadline. It’s taken me many years to truly understand what great writers have been telling us for years — Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. Any progress, no matter how slow, is moving in the right direction. You don’t need to overwhelm yourself with an insane weekly word count in order to be a “proper” writer. Some authors take 3 months to finish a manuscript, some take years. Neither is wrong. You set your own goals. The only person you need to compete with is you.
I am now currently working on finishing another manuscript, one that I started before the one I finished. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons from writing my first novel, so here are some of my biggest lessons from working on this manuscript:
Perfectionism is not the goal, getting finished is.
Chipping away at things really works
You don’t have to have everything worked out, I discovered some things along the way that I think will influence my next draft
Pomodoro method really works for me, I have a VERY short attention span and need frequent breaks.
Tracking word counts and setting goals made a huge difference to my motivation. I began a little competition with myself that spurred me on to meet/exceed my word counts each week.
Reminding myself that if this book doesn’t get published, it was good practice and a good experience.
Little rituals can really help get you in the mood to write (mine involved listening to ‘Good 4 U’ on repeat and allowing Alexa Donne to yell at me before each writing session)
Remembering to not be so hard on myself - some days you will be more motivated than others and that is just a fact of life. Try your best and push yourself, even when you’re feeling bleugh.
What are my next steps now I’ve finished the first of my manuscript?
Well, to begin there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make this manuscript ready for publication. My first step in this process is to rest the draft, after which I will do my first developmental edit. I find it a lot easier to work on a page than on a screen when it comes to editing, so I printed my manuscript using a company called lulu.com. This is a service I found that binds and prints manuscripts for a fairly cheap price (particularly compared to highstreet stationers). So far I’ve had a good experience with this company, although their website can be a bit buggy.
While I’m resting the manuscript, I am working on my research agenda (something I will elaborate on in another article) so I can better understand the historical setting of my story and try to interweave this into the next draft. I have also been working to finish another part done novel, and I am confident I will finish the first draft by the first week of September (I’ll update in the next one whether or not I achieved this!).
I’m not really sure what my plan is for this first novel. Originally I was going to work on editing it and then focus on another novel for publication. I love this story, but I’m not sure I will ever write another historical novel, so it didn’t seem like a good option for trying to find an agent. However, after researching some agents, I think I actually will query this novel. If it doesn’t get published, I know I won’t be crushed about it, and it means I get some useful practice in the querying process (and maybe an agent, if I’m lucky!).
If you are thinking of writing a novel, or are struggling to finish one, please don’t give up. I never thought I would finish mine and now here I am having close to two complete first draft manuscripts. I may never see any of my books traditionally published — but I can honestly say I don’t care about that at this point in time. All I needed to know was that I could finish a manuscript. Fifteen year old me would be so proud.