Writing Thoughts: Writing Secrecy and Improving Confidence

When I first started to take my writing ‘seriously’ in 2010 I’d never tell a soul what I was working on. I’d keep it to myself until it was done (the project I started then, my first-ever Nanowrimo novel The Last of the Steamers, sits unfinished awaiting a substantial rewrite even now) – even telling people that I was simply working on a ‘secret project’.

In retrospect I came across to the unaware as aloof and utterly irritating, and I’m a bit embarrassed vicariously for past me. Why was that? I suppose, back then, I simply lacked confidence to discuss my project – either through a lack of confidence in my abilities or a lack of confidence in my prospective story – a story that I know probably does have legs but needs major development. I didn’t want to discuss it in its embryonic stages out of a perception of embarrassment.

Anyway, I am pleased to say that these days I am the opposite – and I think this is an important development in my writing psyche. These days I am always chomping at the bit to talk about plot and ideas with fellow writers – a great deal of the best ideas are borne out of these discussions. I’ve had some of my best a-ha! plot moments from having chats about ideas with other writing friends and it’s genuinely, in some cases, reshaped how a prospective plotline goes.

For instance, I’m throwing around an idea I had in 2018 for a climate-apocalypse adventure called Heatwave. The premise would be that due to reasons unknown for now, the Earth’s climate has heated up, and this has rendered much of Southern England uninhabitable. Instead of writing a complex political-based thriller (Scotland not being happy at being essentially annexed by England for its water and living space is the baseline for that strand of the idea) I had a chat with a friend about my thoughts on this and eventually instead of an ‘escape to the North’ plot, the story would be a journey into the uninhabitable zone for the protagonist in search of some unknown, taboo truth.

In effect, the entire thread I’d planned for the narrative got flipped and I’m extremely grateful for that friend for taking the time to chat about it as it would’ve been a lot of work to do this later down the line when I had thousands of words down already.

Even writing the above paragraphs show how my mindset has changed in that time. For Steamers you’d have been lucky to get ‘I’m writing a book…’ out of me. Early writer me wouldn’t have even dreamed of divulging plot details or ideas like that – maybe out of some fear of them being ‘stolen’? I considered plot ideas like the Crown Jewels, the most valuable parts of my writer’s armoury that I had, so they had to be kept totally secret and secure. Or, worse than the possibility of idea theft, having one’s ideas rebuked as rubbish or juvenile or unworthy. Those wounds would’ve cut deep.

But largely I’ve found the writing community, and the writers I know, are not amoral jackals waiting to pounce like vultures on the scrawniest morsel of plot-related meat; they’re more supportive and helpful-minded. I’m fortunate that I have a decent – and slowly expanding – network of writers to throw plot ideas off of, and I’m always more than happy to provide the service in return.

Plus, I feel I’ve grown in confidence of my ideas because I have faith in their virtue and value. I know that they are good ideas, but more importantly, I can defend them with the knowledge of why they’re good ideas. That’s not to say a debate or discussion isn’t welcome – indeed it’s often useful to honing or refining those ideas.

Reflecting on this, some of my most valued and treasured times studying Creative Writing at University came from my writing workshops where a group of like-minded writers would workshop a piece and offer constructive feedback, criticism or thoughts. Those discussions would often result in excellent plot additions or alterations that simply the writer may be oblivious to, or otherwise would never arrive at. Sometimes it takes that external input to accomplish that lightbulb moment. I think that being able to workshop a piece – especially an unfinished piece – is the most valuable opportunity and would highly recommend doing so for fiction pieces.

I also feel that my writing confidence has grown because I’m happy with my choices of genre. Perhaps, in those early days, I was embarrassed by my idea for The Last of the Steamers because it’s a bit of a pulpy adventure novel, it doesn’t break the mould of what those kinds of stories they are. But now I find myself comfortable being a writer of genre fiction as it’s what I truly enjoy, though my thoughts on genre vs literary fiction are for another time.

The point regarding genre confidence also means that, while I am at home in my current genre – I’m also confident to know where I’d perhaps like to break the myths. I was set a challenge a good while ago by a university friend to try my hand at a romance story. This would be very much a new thing for me as it’s both a genre I’m deeply unfamiliar with for a variety of reasons, but also because to my knowledge there’s not a lot of male romance writers. Why? A good story is a good story regardless of those labels and if it’s derived from a burning desire to tell that story then I say go for it.

Overall though the development of a writer’s confidence an important journey to go on but very rewarding as it can reap benefits. And especially let yourself be open to workshopping your pieces, even if it’s only to a couple of trusted writer friends as growing that confidence in presenting unfinished ideas is important – those workshopping your piece will never (if they’re decent and good) ‘tear it to pieces’, so open up and realise that they want the piece to do as well as you do and they’re offering their own advice on how to get there. You’re always free to accept or ignore this advice but it’s worth taking on board, especially if it’s well-reasoned, constructively-critical advice. Don’t be afraid!

Writing Thoughts: Developing Healthy Writing Habits

Recently I’ve been exploring a bit more of the writing community – it’s great fun getting to know an interacting with more like-minded souls who are embarking on the writing journey.

I’ve recently subscribed to UK-based writer Benjamin T. Milnes as part of these efforts and I’ve been watching his various videos on his YouTube Channel – there’s some very good writing advice there and some great insight into his own processes. Recently he published a video about building writing habits:

This was a very good video and I’d strongly suggest you watch it in full. Certainly it got me thinking about my own writing habits and how important that is to constantly evolve but also to be aware of one’s own habits, so I think it’d be helpful to reflect on my own writing habits and some of the pertinent points from Benjamin’s excellent video.

Benjamin makes an excellent point that writing needs to be habitual, or a book will never get written. Occasional writing is almost worse than no writing at all as the speed at which one produces a work is glacial. Benjamin talks in his video about his initial draft that he was working on occasionally being one that would’ve taken years to complete. This is routinely unsatisfying as a writer for a few reasons:

  • The book takes forever to write – I feel that if you want to take writing in any way seriously you need to be somewhat productive and able to sustain writing large amounts of words in a fairly short time. Writing occasionally does very little to foster a professional attitude to writing that is necessary to be in any way a professional writer or author.

    I know this myself from my past projects: The Thaw is a book I wrote in my second year of University – so, 2016 time – and it’s only now approaching a stage where I’m ready to get it professionally edited and then start querying it. There’s been periods of months between edits – some of those times are unintentional, due to real-life stuff taking priority – but I look back in some shame at the time it’s taken me to get The Thaw done, because it has taken a long time and also, when reading the later drafts, I realise it’s a great book and I’m immensely proud of it; I just want to get it done and out there!
  • It’s easy to lose track of ideas – as one’s memory of writing a specific section wanes as time passes it becomes increasingly difficult to remember those points and having to look those up again for the details only serves to further slow the writing process down.
  • You’re unable to work on other ideas – if you’re spending so long writing one book, what good is having an idea for another if you don’t have the creative endurance to work on it? I am, myself, quite single-minded in that I don’t tend to spin more than one creative plate at a time, lest they all suffer.

So where can occasional writing come from? One aspect I’ve acutely had to deal with in the 10 years I’ve been writing “properly” is a sense of imposter syndrome. I think about writing a lot, but actually putting pen to paper, or hand to keyboard can be a terrifying prospect as I don’t feel worthy. But I know that I am – firstly, I hold a degree in Creative Writing. But more importantly once I gain that initial momentum of getting going even on a short session the flow quickly follows.

But I do have a great sense of what I type needs to be perfect first time I type it or don’t bother and that is a killer fear that results in procrastination – doing anything but writing.

What, therefore forms a “healthy writing habit”?

In the video, Benjamin starts by stating his initial writing habit was to write 500 words before doing anything else. That’s not a bad starting point for establishing writing as a routine that you do, not something you’re almost too scared of doing. However I don’t necessarily agree in totality with daily writing goals:

  • Daily writing goals leave no room for off-days – sometimes when you’re writing constantly, you can suffer from burnout.  I think writing every day results in added stress and pressure to create, which can be one of the biggest motivation-killers
  • You write anything to reach that goal – Stephen King famously, in On Writing, said that he wrote “ten pages a day”. I’m sure he also referenced getting those done before anything else in his day. While that does result in the word-count quickly accumulating, as Benjamin qualifies later in his video, it’s better to write 500-1,000 decent words a day than 4,000 absolutely terrible ones that you’ll only have to fix in editing.
  • Unattainable goals can hurt motivation – sometimes you just can’t write as much per day as you’d like, and I think that having unrealistically-high wordcount goals – Benjamin mentions in the video upwards of 7,000 words a day – not only results in churn but you set yourself up for failure if you simply can’t write that much on any given day; this sense of failure takes the enjoyment I think is key when writing to stay focussed and motivated.

I agree – forcing yourself to get in the chair and put pen to paper can be the key to setting up a healthy routine. And yes, finding a time of day that you’re most productive at helps massively too. I recall writing quite large sections of my stories at ungodly hours in the morning – that was what worked for me at the time and sometimes when the muse hits you, you have to grasp it then and there.

So what are my own personal thoughts on developing a healthy writing habit? Let’s examine the mindset I’ve thought up over time:

  • Set weekly or monthly goals to accomplish – this strikes a fine balance, I feel, between writing every day – which while good when it’s sustainable can be a drag when not – and writing occasionally, which is very unproductive. Setting a weekly goal also allows, I feel, for the intricacies of real life – it allows for “off-days” that you simply can relax on, either to cool off or let ideas percolate.
  • Work on diverse projects you can switch to as you feel able to  – While I’m a poor proponent of multitasking when writing, sometimes you get stuck on a project and if you’re being too rigid with yourself with your writing habit, that can, like so many of the other pitfalls, just crater your motivation. I like to have a few projects or goals for any specific period of time – say, editing one longer piece, working on another shorter piece or throwing together a post for my website – that I can jump to on a specific day.
  • Be mindful of letting those days-off turn into months-off – distance from a project is healthy – King once again stated in On Writing that once a draft is finished to throw it in a drawer, to take some distance from it before returning. But too often I’ve let that becomes a several-months gap, for which I’m kicking myself. But it’s about allowing yourself that period of relaxation, recharging the batteries, even being able to watch TV without feeling guilty you’re not constantly writing that helps but maintaining that momentum. It’s a fine balance of maintaining a good distance from the project to remain objective to losing sight of what it was you wanted to achieve.

With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen— if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us

Stephen King, On Writing

My personal writing habits are to set those weekly or monthly goals. For instance, I’ll aim to “do something creative” most days of the week – whether that be writing new words, editing projects, or working on a blogpost. Attempting to do a mix of writing and editing keeps both skills supple and gives a project to “switch to”, should the motivation on a given day peter out. I prefer to work during the day these days, with the window open and the sun shining – though creating a productive workspace is a topic for a future post.

Benjamin states in his video that a motivated writer achieving 7,000 words a day can have a novel done in a couple of weeks – but should they? As before, such high volumes so quickly increases dramatically the chances of “churn”.

Setting a more healthy and attainable long-term goal of 500-1,200 words I feel is ideal, especially for those new to writing longform prose. I recall cutting my teeth on that in November 2010 as part of NaNoWriMo when I wrote a book entitled The Last of the Steamers – it was a fantastic achievement to have done, and the average writing goal of 1,700 words a day to achieve 50,000 words in November is just at the upper sweet spot of what Ben – and I – consider a decent goal.

Nowadays however my timeframes are more relaxed – I recall more of King’s advice from On Writing:

The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.

Stephen King, On Writing

I agree, that is the sweet spot – my first draft of The Thaw that I’m currently working on took around 4-5 months. This missed the goal set by King (and that I’d set myself) but I was still happy to have taken my time, and I’m sure that the next book I hit the ground on (I’ve plenty of ideas!) will further get me to that goal.

The most important takeaway for authors approaching this? Train yourself to be productive, and don’t fear it. But also find a healthy compromise that maintains your productivity but doesn’t result in stress. After all, each word that you write each time you can is a word you didn’t have written before!

I’d also highly recommend Benjamin T. Milnes’ YouTube channel as he’s posting some great videos on craft and his own work. He’s also on Twitter and Facebook.