The end of the beginning

This isn’t really the end. I’m still writing everyday, still aiming to get this draft of my novel done by the end of July.

I started this weekly blog back in August 2016, right at the beginning of the school year. As I switched from teaching to writing full time, I wanted to keep myself accountable in terms of productivity and time management. I also thought it would be interesting to document my new career as I muddled through this first year. (Can I call it a career if I really don’t make any money?) All year, I’ve slowly adjusted to working from home. I’ve learned to tolerate solitude and fine-tuned routines to keep me focused and creative.

Every Friday, all year long, I’ve written a blog post to record the week’s progress (or lack thereof). I’ve charted my ups and downs, from publication (woohoo!) to rejection (far more common, sadly).

Now the end of the school year is in sight. All my teacher friends are cleaning up their classrooms and marking final exams, while my own kids are finishing grades 4 and 8 and coming home for the summer holidays.

I’ve spent this blog writing about writing, and now I’m going even more meta and writing about blogging about writing (Inception! As my daughter would say).

Although this year has gone by incredibly fast, I really feel like a writer now. I’ve nearly finished this draft of my novel, and I’ve also completed several more short stories. I’ve gradually gained confidence and patience with my writing process. I am deeply satisfied with this shift to writing full-time, so much so that I’ve decided my teaching days are officially behind me. (unless I end up teaching writing workshops at some point!)

I am an introspective person by nature, so I’ve enjoyed using this blog to analyze my time and my development as a writer. That being said, I’m not going to keep posting every Friday; just when I’ve got news or something interesting to share.

This post marks only the end of this academic year; the end of the beginning of my writing career.

Multitasking

I’ve spent this week juggling projects.

As always, I’m plugging away at my novel. Scene by scene, I am advancing through my outline, with The End slowly becoming discernible, way out in the distance. I’ve reached a highly dramatic section of the book, featuring a main character’s drug overdose and subsequent hospitalization. Rather than take the time to research medical details, I am making things up as I go merrily along. This is very freeing, and I figure I can always check with the experts if I keep these scenes in my next draft!

Another priority this week has been finishing a short story to submit to an upcoming contest in a literary journal. This has involved revamping the plot, adding a new ending,  developing the characters and polishing the language. It’s a fairly dark, satirical little tale, so it’s been lots of fun to write. I am going to find some time this weekend to work through feedback from a couple of writer friends, then I can send it off on Monday. I also need to come up with a better title before I submit this story!

Finally, as if two simultaneous projects weren’t enough, I’ve started a brand new short story. It’s my turn to submit a piece to be critiqued by my monthly writers’ group, so I’m trying to finish a decent draft for next week. This will be my first story with a male protagonist, which is also kind of fun.

Overall, I’m happy with my progress on all three projects. It has helped that they’re in three completely different stages of the writing process: drafting something new, writing from an outline and editing/revision. Considering that I’m also house-training a puppy, I think I’ll call this week a success!

Dog tired

The good news is that Samson is the cutest puppy ever. He’s smart and affectionate and hilarious. Our family loves him and I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a great dog.

The bad news is that I’m sleep-deprived and cranky. My work schedule is shattered and my productivity has tanked.

I’ve been through worse, of course; I have twins! I know this is temporary. It’ll get better once Samson is housetrained and sleeping through the night. At the moment, though, I’m mired in frustration. All my carefully-established routines are out the window.

I’m trying to stay positive. I am getting some writing done everyday, so the novel is moving forward. I’ve been revising a short story for an upcoming contest. I also got an incredibly positive rejection letter for one of my older stories; the editor gave me specific feedback on the piece, signing off: “Best of luck with your writing, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble publishing your work elsewhere.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that I need to be more flexible. I need to accept that all my writing schedules and outlines and goals represent an idealized version of my time, an attempt to structure my inherently unpredictable, messy life.

For years, I kept this quote above my desk, and maybe it’s time to print it out again:

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”

E.B. White

Exercise routines

When I was teaching, I got a lot more exercise. I used to walk to work nearly everyday, as well as to and from my kids’ school. Now I work from home and wave goodbye to my children from my front door. I sit at my desk typing for hours, occasionally going downstairs to make tea or coffee. According to my phone, my daily step count dropped to an average of 3000 from 10 000.

After a few months of this new sedentary lifestyle, and a whole lot of complaining about my aches and pains from hunching over my laptop everyday, I realized I had to make some changes.

I started with my desk: I ordered a stand for my laptop and an external keyboard so my posture would be a little less terrible.

Next, I rejoined the local Y, which is only two blocks from my house. I learned how to use the elliptical machine and took advantage of the free training session to set up a strength-training routine. At first, I resented losing an hour from my day to go to the gym, but sweat-induced endorphins have helped to turn me around.

A few weeks ago, I attended a QWF workshop about the reciprocal relationship between walking and writing; you can read Alice Zorn’s description of the workshop on her blog. This was a good reminder that writing doesn’t just happen at the desk; walking allows you to process thoughts and ideas in new and wonderful ways.

Then, a few days ago, I made the biggest lifestyle change so far: we adopted a puppy! Samson (pictured above) is a 9-week-old black labrador retriever. My husband has been wanting a dog for years, but I’d been resistant. Now, I’m embracing the opportunity to spend more time outside and counteract my desk-bound writer lifestyle.

Bottleneck

Remember all the great progress I made last week?

This week, I started a new scene and ran into difficulties almost instantly. Not only did I fall short of my word count goal for the week; I never even managed to finish this one scene! I kept having to stop and restart, change and delete.

Obviously, this was frustrating. I was irritated with myself, at my loss of momentum and my lack of progress.

Then I took a step back and asked myself why this scene was so difficult to write. I reviewed the last few scenes for each of my main characters, and suddenly it all made sense: This isn’t just a move-the-plot-forward kind of scene. This needs to be a pivotal moment in both characters’ stories.

This particular scene represents a crossroads for my characters, both individually and for their friendship. Not only does this scene represent the culmination of one part of the narrative, it sets up major crises and plot points for the next part. In order to write this section, I need to keep a ton of information in mind for both characters, then tell the story from only one character’s point of view.

No wonder this has been difficult!

Once I realized what was happening, I stopped beating myself up. I made some notes, collected my thoughts and let myself slow down. I’m going to take my time to get this scene right.

Structural support

I’m a little stunned by my productivity this week.

I wrote more than 7500 words, propelling my total word count past 95 000. There are still a few chapters to go before this draft is finished, but I’m definitely on track to finish in June.

I’m sure it helps that I took that “break” to work on short stories last week, but the biggest factor of my success is the structure I’ve got in place for this book. My scene-by-scene outline lets me alternate smoothly between my two main characters, always moving their individual stories forward, juggling various narrative arcs and subplots.

This doesn’t mean writing the book feels like paint-by-numbers, since I still have to work out the setting and action when I sit down to write each scene: the how and the where and sometimes the when. But the outline is providing the who and the why and the what next; it’s functioning as a scaffold for the whole book, stabilizing the overall structure and giving me the confidence that my story actually holds together.

The other major structural element that’s holding me steady is time management. My daily word-count goal and writing routine might seem constrictive, but they are habits that compel me to productivity. Sitting down at my desk at the same time every single morning keeps the book moving forward, day after day.

 

Short Story Week

This week I went rogue: no novel writing! I didn’t even open up the file in Scrivener.

Increasingly, over the past few weeks I’ve been struggling with motivation (not enough) and procrastination (too much), so I thought I’d change my focus for a few days and work on something different.

Instead of adding another 5000 words to my novel, I declared this ‘Short Story Week’ and gave myself five working days to work on shorter pieces. I revised a story I’d written a few months ago, changing details that didn’t fit and creating a whole new ending. I also started writing a new story, building up scenes and working out timelines and relationships for these new characters.

It was all very loose, freewheeling creative work compared to the structured writing I’ve been doing this year. I didn’t finish a polished draft of either story, but I made good progress and it was definitely satisfying to take a break from the novel for a few days.

To cap off the week, I gave a reading at the Atwater Library. I got to stand up and read my short story “Foreign Bodies” to a room full of attentive listeners. Pretty dreamy, especially being in the company of award-winning writers Laura Legge, Lesley Trites and Anna Leventhal.

Next week, I’ll be back to my regular routine: just me, typing away at my laptop, following my outline until I finish this draft.

 

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.