If you’ve read my last blog, you’ll already know the process that I went through to commit to writing a novel. It wasn’t a commitment to anyone but myself, but I felt it personally and deeply. It seemed a challenge that would be meaningful and perhaps difficult, but something that I could do that would provide a level of satisfaction. I was soon to learn that my ambition was, in so many ways, well beyond my ability.
I am not suggesting that my writing is in any way aligned with the great Stephen King (not even a Shadow😁), but I’d read that he wrote most days and wrote about 6 pages a day. He has been such a prolific writer for such a long time, so I considered him someone that I could learn from in terms of effective writing habits. I had no idea how many pages it would take to tell my story. It would take as many as it would take. So using Stephen King’s work as a best practice to aspire to, I figured that writing a book of between 150,000 and 200,000 words, 300 to 350 pages, might take me up to 12 months, given that I didn’t intend to tackle the task every day and that I was new to it. I intended to fit writing around all of the other things in my life, which has its benefits and shortcomings. The biggest shortcoming in that strategy was a lack of continuity. Sometimes I didn’t touch the book for several months and that meant reading and re-reading the lead in chapters to ensure continuity. That didn’t always work though. Once I (thought I) was done, I found multiple events that lacked the story attachment from earlier in the book, that I had intended. I discovered that to then retrofit such attachment within the storyline had serious knock-on impacts on other elements of the story. I found this endlessly frustrating and it often resulted in me taking another hiatus from writing while I stepped back to try and figure out just how to regain alignment.
My learning here was that I needed to adopt a more regular routine of writing and that a focus on the chronology of the story was so important. Using Stephen King as an example again, as I understand it, he writes for about 4 hours every morning (with next to no exceptions), during which time he entered what he called a ‘writing state’. I don’t think that I ever found such a sweet spot, but I did, at rare times when the words just flowed from my mind to the screen, suddenly find that hours had passed, with many pages written. The pages that materialised during these windows also happened to be parts of the story that I was happiest with and my most mistake-free form. So maybe I did nudge towards a sort of ‘writer’s state’ occasionally. I subsequently learned that the Australian best-selling author, Jane Harper, whose work I love, was also very disciplined and wrote every day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until near the end of my work that I adopted the ‘write every day’ discipline that then helped me so much in continuity and productivity.
My poor habits are why it took me so long to finish ‘The Shadow’. As I pointed out in an earlier blog, I started thinking about the book a decade ago but hadn’t progressed beyond a broad outline of the plot and a few pages after five years. Clearly, I wasn’t serious about it. Then my employment situation changed and I had more time, but with my sloppy work habits, it still took me another three and a half years or so to finish my first draft. That time passed quickly but when I got to that point, I looked back on what had held me back and ate away at the calendar. It came down to a few things. Firstly, a basic lack of a writer’s discipline. I’ll be much better at that (and other things) in the future. Secondly, I was torn at times about how deeply I could go into detail with elements of the story that actually happened, where people were deeply hurt and are still hurting. I didn’t want my book to become a vehicle for deeper pain. And lastly, I can attest that there really is something called ‘writer’s block’. I looked for a definition and it’s basically a condition or problem that prevents a writer from writing or finishing a piece of work. My longest period of blockage was almost six months. That doesn’t mean that I disassociated myself from the book during that period; far from it. I thought about it every day but had trouble deciding how to get to the next place I wanted to take the story. I tried mind mapping, I tried reading other people’s work, and I tried not even turning the computer on, but nothing seemed to help. In the end, I committed to spending time daily with the story and writing something. Anything! I needed something to get the juices flowing again, and eventually, they came. I estimate that in total, around 12 months were lost to writer’s block. This was almost exclusively an issue in the first couple of years. As I applied myself more, the issue disappeared, so that was another lesson learned.
Stay tuned and next time I’ll share the challenges I had once I proudly downed tools on my completed first draft.