Now that the year is coming to a close, I am at work on my writing plans for 2014. I always need lots of plans to produce a little something. Making plans is one of my favourite activities. Plans make me feel secure and happy for that long period that I am drawing them, before the actual writing begins.
One of my resolutions for 2014 is to start and finish a first draft of a manuscript within the year. I’ve never done anything like this before. This is a terrifying prospect for a slow writer like me who prefers writing word-by-word, particularly as I also intensely dislike writing first drafts. Most writers I know are clear on whether they belong to the first draft camp or the re-drafting camp. Possibly some lucky ones exist who relish both stages, but I am yet to meet them. Personally, I have a phobia of that metaphorical blank page. It evokes all my insecurities – that I have nothing worthwhile to say, that my voice sucks, that my imagination is insufficient to develop a gripping story, that I’ll somehow offend my dog with what I write. The re-drafting stage is where I have my fun. I love moulding and remoulding the existing material. To motivate myself (and hopefully some of you too) on this first-draft-project, I asked eight writers whose work I love to share their one best tip on how to persevere.
The author and literary journalist Jane Sullivan, whose writing I follow religiously, draws her inspiration for persistence from Beckett. This is what she wrote to me:
Happy to pass on my favourite piece of authorial wisdom from Samuel Beckett: Never mind./Try again./Fail again./Fail better. I find it curiously comforting and somehow it keeps me going.
Another beloved journalist and writer, Ramona Koval (I keep re-reading her fabulous interviews with writers when I need some motivation), has developed a self-talk strategy that helps her with book-long manuscripts:
Perseverance is often about understanding that it is much easier to pursue your own writing project in your own time in your own way than it is to work in a cold, noisy, soulless factory from dawn to dusk. That’s what I tell myself.
Canadian author Ayelet Tsabari, whose debut short story collection The Best Place on Earth (Harper Collins) I devoured, needs deadlines and to be accountable to somebody:
During the first summer of my Master of Fine Arts, I was required to submit a short story draft every week to Camilla Gibb, my mentor and thesis advisor. It was an ambitious schedule. Every Monday I thought, there is no way. It’s impossible. I’m never going to make it. But by Friday I had something to submit—albeit raw and messy. I’ve never been more prolific than I was that summer. At the end of the semester, I had a solid draft of my book. I learned that I needed firm and near-impossible deadlines, and that I needed to have an ongoing conversation about the work with another writer who’s involved and engaged with the material. It worked so well for me that I’m attempting to reproduce that experience for my next book by committing to a writing group with other writers whose work I admire.
After years of inspiring countless writers in his role as the former director of the writers’ house Varuna, Peter Bishop, my mentor and dear friend, is finally at work on his own book. He wrote:
To me, the essential thing about involvement with a major work is to listen carefully to the structure that is being created by the themes you’re working with and the conversations and relationships that are developing among them. Structure is a constellation of things that are alive, each thing reaching out. Don’t make decisions too soon: decisions inhibit discoveries and it’s discoveries that create structure. Little things and ridiculous things are much better at creating life and movement – structure – than unwieldy big things. Always remember that structure grows from within – it is breath and bloodflow rather than straitjacket. The most common problem with a major work is that about halfway through the writer stops listening to the complexities of growth and breathing and allows rigidity to take over. I’m always listening to Robert Frost: “No surprise for the writer – no surprise for the reader”.
The novelist Charlotte Wood, whose collection of essays about food and recipes Love and Hunger (Allen & Unwin) I keep buying for friends, finds list-making useful:
Fear is a great barrier to completing a draft: fear of the blank page, of not knowing where to turn next, of failure. Minutes turn to hours of futile staring at the blank screen, plagued by guilt and stupidity. For me, the best tool for combating this fear is what I call The List – a list of creative tasks. Rather than vaguely aiming to “write my book”, I take TV writer Joss Whedon’s advice: get specific and break things down. A list of scenes to write saved me during a recent intensive writing week, during which I finished a novel first draft. Mine went like this: “1. Mushrooms – collecting, testing. 2. Hetty’s doll. 3. Yolanda – runaway girl. 4. Corridors – space stuff.” For next draft, the list will be more craft-oriented: themes to expand upon, characters to develop, timeframes to resolve. I often don’t stick to the list, but it’s a calming safety net.
The three other writers I approached all advised to focus on one step at a time so not to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project. The wonderfully funny, bestselling American author AJ Jacobs (on whose immersion projects I am hooked) wrote:
My biggest tip is to divide and conquer. If you think of your book as one big chunk of 250 pages, it can send you spiralling into depression and despair. Instead, think of it as 25 chunks of 10 pages linked together (chronologically, thematically, etc.) At least this works for me!
Kate Holden, the author of gripping memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic (Text), which I often use in my teaching, wrote in a similar, and also rather philosophical, vein:
My advice on finishing a big manuscript is never to look too far ahead. Perhaps just to the end of the chapter, or the next killer line, or the delicious moment of suspense, or the edge of what you’ve thought so far. This is rather how I live my life too, and it achieves both a dulling of the horror of pre-fatigue, and a sharpening of the sense of cheerful amazement when anything actually happens.
It is only apt to finish this mini-survey with the poetic words of the non-fiction author Anne Manne, whose wise essays are a staple food in my reading larder. Manne draws her inspiration from the rural landscape of her home:
Writing a long book is arduous. If I feel I am being buried alive, I go to the beginning of the very long, steep hill we live on. Looking upwards, the dirt road stretches out in a thin ochre ribbon, and looming way above me is the summit. I put my head down and start walking, forbidding any but the occasional glance upwards, as it is always still too far away! Instead I watch my feet fall, one after another, over and over, hearing their slow and steady beat above the sounds of the bush, and the sound of my heart beating harder. Then, just as I feel I will never make it, suddenly it is easier, my breath slows, and the earth starts falling away. I have arrived! Back at my desk, encouraged, I put my head down, hunch over the keyboard, and write one phrase, one paragraph, one chapter at a time.
I found this an enlightening experience to hear from all these accomplished writers. Next year I’ll try to implement their advice and will update you about all my – hopefully better – failures, to paraphrase Beckett. My own strategy will be to give myself permission to write badly but to be strict about achieving a daily word count I am yet to set for myself. My aim is to finish this abhorred first-draft stage as soon as possible and get to redrafting.
And do YOU have any tips for me?