The stubborn writer
There are so many skills you need to have as a writer but the longer I write, the more I realise that a rather large dose of stubbornness is a necessity. Twelve months ago I started an online course through the Australian Writer’s Marketplace and Queensland Writers Centre called Year of the Novel. I did Year of the Edit in person (see my posts here, here, here and here) while we were living in Queensland and I decided that Year of the Novel was just what I needed to get me back into the swing of writing something longer.
The course materials were great; lectures from awesome author, Kim Wilkins, each fortnight and feedback from the very talented Chris Bongers at regular intervals. The course was designed to be highly interactive with all participants sharing their work and critiquing throughout the year. It started out that way, with sixteen or seventeen of us proactively posting on the forum and sharing in the delight of writing, but over time, the attrition rate was very high. In the end, there were three of us still actively working on our novels at this time, with another two still clinging onto the course in the hope they would get time in the future to write. It sometimes felt like I was writing into a big black hole of nothingness.
And that’s where the stubbornness comes in, because no matter how collaborative the environment, writing is essentially a solo sport. And having committed to writing a novel in year I was determined I was going to do just that. I started off with a great story idea that I believed in, but not far into the course I hit the wall. I realised that the novel I was wanting to write was extremely emotionally and mentally demanding as it dealt with a child undergoing open-heart surgery, just like my son did two years ago. I hadn’t anticipated the emotional fallout from having to write about it and I backed away, not prepared to go there just yet.
Three months into the course I decided to change what I was working on. I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo, which I adore for all its passion and craziness, and decided to write a fun, MG novel, which I did. I wrote and finished that novel during November and I was delighted, but I knew my Year of the Novel novel was languishing, barely started, on my computer.
I did some thinking about whether I wanted to write – or could write – this book and I decided to be brave. I decided I was going to do it. But then Christmas holidays and family commitments and lots of little kids running around and parenting and guest speaking and running camps, and, and…meant that I didn’t really get started. Looking back over my saved drafts, I can see I worked on the novel three times in July, once in August, had a rush of four writing days in January and then didn’t touch it again until April. I obviously kept wanting to walk away, but I couldn’t.
And I’m so glad I didn’t.
With the end of the course looming at the end of May, I decided in early April that this thing was not going to beat me. I was not going to walk away from this course without having finished my first draft. I signed up to write a novel and I was going to write a darn novel!
But I wasn’t sure I could do it.
At the beginning of April, I had written a grand total of 4, 553 words. There were over 45,000 words to go and I just had two months to write them. My logical self was screaming, “It’s impossible. Give up now. You can’t write this book so don’t bother trying.” My creative, stubborn self was stronger.
I wrote five separate times in April, bringing my word count up to 16,589. Not bad, but not fantastic. That left May for me to sprint to the finish, which is very appropriate considering my book is about a young sprinter. I wrote on May 3 and May 23 and brought my total up to 22,765. With a week left to go in the course, I had over 28,000 words to write.
Then I remembered something liberating – although the course began on June 1 last year, I didn’t sign up until June 29 which meant officially, my year wasn’t up until June 29. Suddenly, this thing was doable. Mustering all my energy and strength and determination and commitment (and knowing I was going to have to sacrifice sleep to get this thing written), I decided I was once and for all going to finish this novel.
In eight frantic writing sessions across nine days, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote through the saggy middle, felt the stakes rise and the tension increase. I began to enjoy the process and look forward to spending time with my story and my characters. And yesterday, at about lunchtime, I wrote the final sentence of my novel. I added 28,825 words in nine days and fulfilled the commitment I made a year ago.
And it was a sweet victory, made even sweeter by the fact this victory was hard fought. I wanted to give up so many times, but I couldn’t. I knew I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t finish what I started. I’m now hugely proud of myself for having finished what I started.
I also realised I didn’t just write one novel during the Year of the Novel course – I wrote two! My NaNoWriMo novel is now just waiting to be edited and I plan to do that while I let my most recent one sit for a few months.
I can honestly say this has by far been the hardest project I’ve ever undertaken, mainly because it’s a first person, present tense novel from a male POV and being inside the head of a conflicted sixteen year old boy for a year was slightly draining. And also because my heart is in this novel, along with my son’s and everyone else who journeyed with us through open-heart surgery two and half years ago. I chose a difficult subject to write about but I don’t regret it for a second.
This process also caused me to challenge my writing beliefs and behaviours:
- I’ve always said I couldn’t write while the kids were awake. That’s not true. I can’t write thousands of words, but I can write five hundred.
- I’ve always thought I had to have a huge word count goal for each day. Again, five hundred words was enough to keep me in touch with my story but not overwhelm me as I juggled the busyness that is my day-to-day life.
- I have discovered I can write at night, when the kids are asleep, and still have a good sleep myself. In the past my brain has been too hyped up to sleep, but I think having planned and plotted this novel let me get to the end of a scene and then forget about it until the next day because I knew where the story was going.
In the end, it took only twenty-four writing sessions for me to write the entire 51, 580 words novel. It’s quite amazing when I think of it like that. I had allocated 366 days to write this novel and in the end, it only took twenty-four. It sounds like so little, but it took such a lot to make it happen.
I was so excited yesterday when I finished the final sentence I almost cried. I couldn’t believe I had actually done it and broadcast far and wide on Twitter and on Facebook that I’d finished. I wanted to get dressed up and go out for dinner with some writer friends who understood my jubilation, but that’s just not a possibility right now, so I had some celebratory chocolate instead. It tasted sweet, but wasn’t as sweet as the buzz I got from having finished.
I’m come down from my high a bit now and am feeling that post-novel writing exhaustion. I’m also realising how much housework I have neglected over the past nine days! It’s an exhilarating experience though, and one that I plan to repeat again and again and again. This was my fourth first draft of a novel that I’ve finished, but I feel like it’s a turning point for me. I’ve learned so much during the writing of this one and I felt like I was able to use some techniques and skills along the way to make this a solid first draft. It needs a lot of work but that’s in the future. Right now, I’m just letting the results of my stubbornness fill me with joy.
Happy writing – and stick to it!
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