A day in the life

It’s been six months since I started writing full-time and I’ve developed a satisfying, productive weekday routine.

My writing day starts just after 8am, once the kids have left for school. I usually walk my sons part of the way, although we’re working up to them making the trip on their own. This provides me with a mini-commute to my own home office (pictured above!). I do miss the longer walks that I used to have when I walked to work everyday, and I’d like to get better at integrating more walks (or other exercise) into my daily schedule.

Once I sit down at my desk, I shut off my email program and open up my bullet journal to make my daily to-do list: at the top is always the goal of writing at least 1000 words.

Next, I open up a lined notebook and dash off three pages of longhand journal-type writing. These are my morning pages; stream-of-consciousness, near-automatic writing where I unload all my random thoughts onto paper in order to clear out my mind. Sometimes I use these pages to work through questions or difficulties about my characters, or to generate ideas or details for my upcoming scenes.

As soon as these pages are done, I open up my draft in Scrivener. If I’m mid-scene, I’ll read over what I’ve written so far; if I’m starting a new scene, I’ll read the mini-synopsis and notes in my outline. Then I’m off! My main philosophy is to keep up the story’s momentum, so I try to suppress my perfectionist tendencies. Once this draft is done, I know I’ll be editing and revising every scene, so there’s no point in agonizing over the right vocabulary now. Of course, I’m always aiming for interesting images or phrasing, but I try not to get bogged down or overly frustrated with individual paragraphs.

I like a quiet working environment, so I don’t listen to music while I’m writing. I wear comfortable clothes (yoga pants are the best!) and I tend to bundle up in multiple layers, since my little office is poorly heated. I try to wear clothes that are decent enough for me to answer the door. I don’t always write in my office; I will move around the house sometimes, working at my dining room table or standing up at my kitchen counter.

Other than a coffee break around 9:30, I write until I’ve got my 1000+ words done. Ideally this is at the end of a scene, so there’s a natural finishing point. I aim to be finished by lunchtime, and I always record my actual word count in my calendar. Then I close down my program and get on with the rest of my to-do list. This often includes writerly tasks like submitting stories to magazines, critiquing friends’ work or working on short pieces of fiction. However, this is also when I send emails, make phone calls, tidy the house, do laundry and work on all the other non-glamourous tasks involved with keeping our household running smoothly. By 3:30, I’m outside my kids’ school, back in parenting mode and ready to bring them home.


Stepping Stones

Working from my outline gives me a hollow sense of security.

All the scenes for this draft are laid out in order like stepping stones across a raging river; all I have to do is step from one scene to the next until I reach the triumphant end, right?

Of course, in that metaphor, I’m the one who placed the stepping stones to make this path. I’m well aware that the river is dangerous, that some of my stones are too far apart or dangerously slippery or set in deep water, ready to shift underfoot.

There are lots of metaphors for writing a novel. Some people talk about crossing a tightrope or driving down a highway at night. Even when it’s going well, it’s a precarious, lonely journey through the dark.

I’m faithfully following my outline, writing scene after scene, day after day, but I have so many doubts: What if my subplots are too confusing? What if my characters aren’t consistent? What if my backstory is too convoluted? What if nobody wants to read this mess?

I have to keep swallowing my qualms and moving forward anyway. Instead of looking too far ahead, I try to focus all my energy on each scene as I work, doing my best to make the setting clear and the characters come alive. I have to keep faith in the structure I’ve created and trust that these stepping stones are going to lead me safely to the other side.

Doing the math

As of today, I’ve written 40 000 words of this draft of my novel.

My original goal was to make this version 90 000 words long. When I track my progress on my scene-by-scene outline, however, I can see that I’ve only written about a third of the scenes I’ve laid out for this draft.

I seem to average about 1000 words per scene. A few are much shorter (less than 300 words) or longer (over 2000), but they all tend to balance out to 1000 words.

I just counted my remaining scenes, and there are just over 100.

Aargh! If my math is correct, and I think it is, this draft could end up being more than 140 000 words long.

One hundred and forty thousand. That’s 50 000 more than I expected or planned.

This also means that my original March 31st deadline is completely, insanely unrealistic. I generally write about 5000 words per week, so if I keep going at this pace, I can expect to have this draft finished in about 20 weeks. That takes me all the way to June 30th.

Aaargh, again.

And yetok. If that’s how long this is going to take, so be it. I could make more of an effort to keep my scenes shorter, or I could step up my daily writing goals, but in the end, I need to get the story written, and that will take as long as it takes. Once the whole draft is finished, my beta readers and I will be able to read it over and start figuring out how to trim it down to a more reasonable size.

Or maybe the next draft will be even longer. (Aaargh!) Time will tell.

Dreams come true

Fantastic news today: My short story “Foreign Bodies” has won the 2017 Open Season award for fiction! It’ll be published in the Spring edition of the Malahat Review.

I’ve been writing and sending out short stories for over a year, but this will be my FIRST publication. The fact that my story will be published in one of Canada’s most prestigious literary magazines is incredible, and the cash prize is amazing.

Basically, I am running out of adjectives to describe how ecstatic I feel.

My life as a writer is mostly quiet and solitary, especially since I’m working on a novel that won’t be finished for a long time (a year? That sounds daunting but it’s probably accurate, or even optimistic). Other than my monthly writing group, I don’t have many opportunities for feedback on my work. I sit down at my desk every day, open up my laptop and launch myself into whatever scene is next in my outline… but nobody’s there to reassure me when I dissolve into doubts or to pat me on the back when I’ve written something great.

This award is the most validating, encouraging outcome that I can imagine.

As a beautiful bonus, sharing the news on Facebook has brought out so many positive reactions from people near and far! I am very moved by everyone cheering me on and celebrating this moment of success. I was worried that people wouldn’t understand or support my decision to stop teaching and start writing full time; instead, there’s nothing but love and approval. Thanks, all you lovely people!

(The image I’m using is the artwork from the current cover of the Malahat Review: it’s their “Indigenous Perspectives” issue. Definitely worth reading!)