“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”
–Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
As someone who’s attempted NaNoWriMo two years in a row now, I can honestly say that Flannery O’Connor’s assessment of novel writing is absolutely correct. I say this, and I haven’t even been writing for very long- it wasn’t until last year that I began to write creatively on a regular basis, and I’m still working on things that I began five years ago. But I’ve been writing long enough to know that writing is unbelievably hard. Writing well is practically the equivalent of a walk into Mordor.
Some time last year, when I realized I was in a major slump when it came to the written word, I set myself a goal: Write 500 words a day. Whether it was my NaNoWriMo novel, fanfiction, a long-abandoned idea, or poetry didn’t matter. Just 500 words a day minimum.
I know that there are some people, published authors, who don’t bother with the notion of “write every day.” They say that their writing just doesn’t work that way (I once went to a panel of romance novelists, one of whom said that she could only write a few paragraphs a day and that if she sped up her work, the quality suffered). And to some extent that is true. I’ve churned out loads of drivel during NaNoWriMo and other writing sessions where speed is key. But I also know from experience that taking my sweet time and letting a book stew doesn’t do anything for my writing. In high school I tried the route of writing only when I felt inspired to do so.
And my writing stagnated. Horribly.
Writing sentences isn’t a hard thing to do, but in this age of texting, email, and internet speak, it’s getting harder to write good sentences. I know that I have a hard time coming up with good description that paints a vivid picture without bogging a reader down. I’m certain this is because I’m used to seeing films and television shows where the setting is established by a sweeping camera shot. It’s hard to put a picture into words, and do so in such a way that’s engaging and establishes the mood. And trying to find the right words for that picture can feel like I’m pulling a tow truck with my teeth.
Dialogue is less difficult for me, but still a struggle; trying to come up with ways to convey ideas without sounding banal is a chore made harder by the fact that most people don’t speak very coherently in real life. Yet that doesn’t give me an excuse to try and replicate people’s stuttering. The words have to be crisp and fresh because they aren’t a spoken conversation- yet they have to read as though they are being said by living people. Finding the balance between unbelievable language and language that is far too conversational is a blend of listening and revising, and it’s not a very glamorous process. There are times when my dialogue feels like recycled soap opera leavings.
As if that wasn’t enough, I struggle with bringing a story idea to fulfillment above a situation and characters talking. And I have immense difficulty in finishing anything- which is why completing a forty-three chapter fanfiction last year was a huge accomplishment for me, despite the fact that the beginning is horrible and the character development mediocre at best. My writing as a whole still has many flaws in it, and that’s not even going near my storytelling skills. But they aren’t going to improve by my sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. I have to keep writing if I’m to have any hope of getting better.
500 words a day.
The main reason I like this number is that it’s not an impossible one to meet, but it still gives you some time to explore your story. If this is the beginning of a short story, you have to establish certain things about your world and characters in a concise fashion. If you’re in the middle of a chapter, 500 words is a good frame in which the main action can be arranged. It’s enough words to hint that something’s brewing, that there will be a new player in the game, that the weather has changed suddenly, or that someone has made a dreadful mistake.
And if you end up hating what you’ve written, 500 words can be deleted without massive amounts of weeping. Yes, it stings a bit, but it’s nowhere as bad as tossing a few thousand, or twenty chapters (I’ve done both). 500 words is not a very large number, though sometimes it can be almost an impossible goal to fulfill. If I’m trying to get myself to write a blog entry, I suddenly feel completely drained of ideas and have a random longing to go browse TV Tropes for five minutes (hours). School is also a difficulty- having classes to attend, books to read, papers to write, and deadlines to meet all make for some obstacles to writing. And I often don’t meet the goal I set. But it’s still there.
I’m curious- how do any of you reading this get yourself to write? Is it a rewards system? A set deadline of “Get to __ scene by 3:00?”
Let me know! Maybe there are some tips we can exchange.