Five days before Christmas, I closed the manuscript I’d been working on after a furious final day where I cranked out 3,000 words while the kids were at their last day of vacation care for the year.
For the next seven weeks, I did no writing. I thought deeply about the manuscript, but I didn’t touch the computer. I walked and brainstormed. Surfed and chilled. Considered options for the plot, but also gave my subconscious time to refresh.
When I came back to the computer in the first week of February, I was excited. I thought I knew exactly what I needed to write – a new first chapter that would inject a little more tension into the plot, and two new key characters. I didn’t bother to re-read what I’d already written. I just wanted to get started.
But after two days of struggling to write this new opening scene, I had to concede it just wasn’t working. I had to ditch the 2,000 words I’d written and do what I desperately did not want to. I had to stop writing and re-group.
Maybe you’ve been in this position too. Perhaps you have a half-finished manuscript that’s been sitting in your bottom drawer for the past two years and you really want to finish but aren’t quite sure where to start. Or, maybe like me, you’ve had a shorter break but are still finding it difficult to know where to begin. Whatever your situation, I’m here to assure you that it is possible to pick up and start again.
Over the past five days, I’ve added 10,000 words to the draft – one of my most productive weeks of writing ever. Here’s what I did to get back on track:
I re-read the work, without judgement.
What I mean is that I read what I’d written and made a couple of minor changes here and there (typos and character details) but I didn’t substantially change any part of the 30,000 words I’d already written, mainly because I want to get this first draft done. Quickly. I have a vague idea of how this story’s going to end, but I’m not precisely sure how I’m going to get there. It’s like that EL Doctorow quote on writing: It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. Right now, I can only see about 100m in front of me. I can get to the end that way, but there’s a good chance it’ll be a long and winding route. At the end, I’ll definitely have to re-trace my steps and work out how I could have got there smarter. This is why, right now, there’s no point in editing the first third of the manuscript. Things will change, but until I can see the entire picture, I can’t say exactly how they’ll need to change.
Remember: if you continue to tinker with the beginning of your novel, you’ll never get to the end.
I brainstormed ideas for what might happen next to the characters.
My best ideas tend to come when I’m either walking or in the shower. Basically, anytime I’m alone and far, far away from a computer, inspiration strikes. I try to think about three possibilities 1)What should the characters do? 2) What could they do? 3) What would be the third, ‘unexpected’ option. All three are valid paths for characters to follow, it simply depends on the type of story you are trying to tell. But don’t discount any idea. Let it sit, and follow through the consequences of having your characters behave in particular ways – ‘If X happens, then Y might follow and the outcome could be Z.’ It’s useful to have some idea where the idea might take you, just to ensure it doesn’t take you to a dead end.
I picked up a book I love and started reading it again.
For me, that book was Liane Moriarty’s ‘The Husband’s Secret’. There’s nothing I don’t love about this – the plot, characterisation, the humour, the element of suspense. This is the kind of book I want to write. When reading it, part of me screams in my head. This is so good, I can never do this! The other part of me says: Wow, how does she achieve that effect? What tools is she using? How has she structured this paragraph? This scene? This chapter. This type of critical reading is what publishing insiders are talking about when they advise aspiring authors to read widely in their genre. It’s not just about reading for pleasure. It’s not about copying ideas. It’s about reading to understand how and why the story works and using those tools to craft your own novel. Another alternative is to read a book on the craft of writing. A good one will prove inspiring.
I ignored the doubt.
Every writer suffers self-doubt, and I’m planning to write about this more in coming weeks. A few years ago, attended the Sydney Writer’s Festival where Malcolm Knox, the author of more than 30 books, discussed his crippling self doubt. Thirty books! And still he doubted himself. From that day onward, I vowed to accept ‘impostor syndrome’ as being part and parcel of the writing process. I figure, the worst thing I can do is to let self-doubt stop me from writing.
My advice: Don’t stop. Let self-doubt sit on your shoulder but let it not take over your hands or your heart. Keep typing. Take it word by word, but just keep going.