Peer support

About once a month, I meet up with a writer friend to talk about our works-in-progess.

Carly and I met at a short story workshop run by the Quebec Writer’s Federation. She is younger than me but has already published a number of pieces, both fiction and CNF (creative non-fiction). She just completed her MFA and is now working on a full second draft of her novel.

In short, we have a lot in common.

Every few weeks, Carly and I get together at a cafe to talk shop. Over coffee, we commiserate about the difficulties of the writing life and cheer each other on when one of us feels daunted or overwhelmed. We talk about technical issues like narrative structure and point of view, and we share news of local writing events. We celebrate each other’s achievements and hold each other accountable for the goals we set.

Writing a novel is a long, laborious, lonely venture. I have lots of support from family and friends, but I am lucky to have found a colleague and friend who really gets it, who is wrestling with all the same challenges and pursuing the same dreams as me.

We got together today, and as always, it was both cathartic and encouraging. Every time we meet it boosts my spirits and gets me through the next few weeks of solitary writing work. Thanks, Carly!

 

Tracking numbers

I’ve been sitting down every day with the same writing goal: 1000 words.

This has worked out pretty well, as you can see from this glimpse of my calendar. I record my actual word count at the end of every writing session, and you can see where I struggled and where I faltered, but also where I succeeded or surpassed my goal. It’s immensely motivating to look back and see the steady progress I’ve been making since December, but this week I decided to step things up and set a new goal:

1200 words a day.

Today I was done by lunchtime. Yesterday it was nearly 2pm before I’d finished, but I got it done. There’s a funny thing about increasing my word count goal: it makes me write faster, plunging ahead and tackling scenes that I’ve been anticipating with anxiety. My number one priority is getting the pages written, not getting hung up on perfection.

Knowing that I’m moving faster towards the end of this draft is also helping me to increase the momentum of my scenes; I’m spending less time on description and dialogue and focusing more on action. This is shortening my scenes but also propelling me forward, along with the story.

All good news, right? Hopefully I can sustain (or even increase!) this new pace over the remaining weeks it’ll take to finish this draft of the book.

 

Losing the plot

 

Things are getting tricky.

There’s no denying I’ve reached the dreaded “saggy middle” of this novel. This is the section that seems to meander aimlessly, sapping the energy out of the whole story.

I’ve been here before, in previous drafts of this project. It’s always so exciting to start writing, so much fun to create characters and plots, to wind them up and set them spinning. At a certain point, though, the action slows down. Logistics get complicated, confusing. After 50 or 100 pages, the writer runs out of steam: this is the “saggy middle.”

So here I am. I had really, truly hoped that following my meticulously-plotted, scene-by-scene outline was going to prevent this problem. I thought all my cunning little subplots were going to keep the momentum going in this manuscript, that I’d skip happily along my well-marked narrative trail, from rising action all the way to the climax.

And you know, without my outline I might be giving up at this point.

But not this time; I’m too stubborn. I planned this thing and I’m going to see it through. I may be gritting my teeth and racing through some of these scenes, but I’m not skipping anything. Yes, it’s painful to write a scene while my inner critic is yammering away, insisting that these pages will be the first to be cut when I get to my next draft.

But there can’t be a next draft until this one’s done. So I persevere.

Looking professional

Being a writer isn’t always about writing. It’s not enough to be an artist; you also need to present yourself in a professional way.

With this in mind, I signed up for a free online workshop called “Love Your Author Photo.” It was put together by writer/editor Rachel Thompson and photographer/activist Vivienne McMaster, and it was all about choosing and/or creating a professional author headshot.

Why should I worry about this now, long before my book is finished, let alone on its way to publication?

Well, when my short story won the Malahat prize, they asked for my headshot… and I didn’t have one! Luckily, I was visiting my brother, who’s a talented amateur photographer. We went out to his apartment’s parking lot, where he took about 30 pictures of me with my phone. I ended up picking one of these for the magazine, which you can see here along with my interview. I look happy and relaxed but a little rumpled. It’s a nice picture, but does it work as a professional headshot?

During yesterday’s webinar, both Rachel and Vivienne provided tons of supportive, positive suggestions for taking better pictures and becoming more comfortable in front of the camera. They addressed the vulnerability that comes with putting a photo of yourself out into the world and gave strategies for circumventing the inner critic.

The idea that really stood out for me was that my professional headshot needs to represent me as a writer, not just me as a person. As a human being, of course I want to look friendly, attractive and likable in pictures. But are those the most important qualities in my writing? I should really be using a photo that hints at the style, energy and authenticity of my work.

Thanks to this webinar, I’m resolving to take more selfies and to be braver about sharing these with the world. You can already check out my Instagram feed for some of the pictures I took yesterday during the workshop. One day, I’ll hire an expert photographer to take a more professional portrait of me. In the meantime, though, I’ll experiment with ways to represent myself and my work visually as well as through the written word.

 

Crisis of confidence

This has been a tough writing week.

I’ve reached the midpoint of the story for one of my main characters, and I’ve been looking forward to writing these scenes. This part of the book is set at Hillside, an outdoor music festival held every summer in my hometown of Guelph. It’s a great setting and I want these scenes to be vivid, exciting and dramatic.

Instead, they feel flat. Uninspired. Cliché, even. I type a few lines, then erase them. I’ve gone back to previous versions of the scene and mined these for usable material, but I’m struggling to fit it all together in a way that moves the story forward.

It gets worse: my difficulty with these scenes is making me question the big picture. Maybe I’m having a hard time because this character isn’t plausible. Maybe none of the plot is working and I’m just realizing that now. Maybe this whole book is an awful mistake.

These are not helpful thoughts.

This whole project requires that I sustain confidence in my ideas, my plot and my characters, as well as in my ability to write this story. When my confidence gets shaky, the whole venture starts to seem insane. Who am I to think I can write a novel? I’ve never done this before!

I’m not about to give up on this draft just yet; I keep reminding myself that many of these scenes are just shitty first drafts which I can revise and rework or even delete if necessary if they aren’t working. “How bad can this be?” I ask myself.

I guess we’ll find out!

I’ve made a deal with myself: don’t look back. Move forward. Follow the outline; write as well as you can, but try to maintain the momentum even when it feels like it’s not going well. Once this draft is done, I can be critical. For now, it’s full steam ahead.