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.

Website Update

It’s definitely time for another update! Today I’m going to talk about a couple of projects that are resurgent on the boil once again and that I am really looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into!

This also serves as a good way of checking my own progress in a way so I aim to make these Website Update posts a lot more regularly – though I’d suspect I’ve said this before!

Without any further ado let’s get into what I’m working on currently:

20180706_140550186_iOSThe Thaw – Next Edit

I’m really pleased that this past week I’ve finally bitten the bullet and started on the next edit of my post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw. I last updated the blog regarding this project over a year ago and, by my own admission, it’s sat on my shelf for that time, though some very lovely friends have offered me some great feedback.

I recently, in fact, had a writer-y online call with my good friend and fellow Kingston creative writing alumni Rosie and it really helped me get into my head not only the overall changes I needed to make – she’d sent me some great answers to a feedback questionnaire I’d designed – but also, crucially in my view, how to make a start on the first few chapters. I’d honestly procrastinated because I didn’t know in a way where to even begin but I’ve made a great start on the next edit!

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I do have a variety of exciting plans – I don’t actually intend on doing another self-edit because I feel over-editing it myself is only going to expend time and result in tweaks. I need to bite the big bullet and send this work off to a professional editor, which I intend to do over the autumn for a potential submission to agents – yes, actual agents for publishers – in the new year.

I’ve been building a new writing space at home but while that’s been under construction I’ve tried sincerely to use my local library as a good writing space. It’s really helped me focus, which is very good. It’s definitely a topic I want to dive into more in-depth very soon – I also perused the non-fiction literature section and am working through a couple of books that I borrowed to see if they help me out and already some of the tips I’ve picked up are really paying dividends!

Doctor Who fan-film

IMG_27312_800pxSince 2017 I’ve been working with my friends Mark and Gary on a 25-minute Doctor Who fan-film titled Reverence of the Daleks, with myself acting as Producer and Writer. It’s been a great experience and after a couple of “soft” screenings we’re preparing the film, based on some feedback, for a general online release.

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I’m quite heavily involved at the moment in preparing what we’re calling the Producer’s Cut of the film – working on picture grade, music and tweaking some of the VFX based on the feedback we’ve had so far to form the “final”, ultimate edition of the film.

My friend Mark works as a Media Technician at Esher College in Surrey and every year he puts on a Film Evening of films he and his friends, colleagues and even students have contributed to, and Reverence is going to be the headline event of this year’s Evening, hopefully coming to a venue near you (if you live in South West London!) toward the end of September or October.

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It’s refreshing to be nearly done with this project as it’s taken up a lot of my creative energy, especially when preparing for the first showing – editing the film up until 12:30AM the night before! I’ve tons of other gestating ideas so it’ll be great in a way to have this piece as a bit of an advert for my skills film-wise moving forward.

Other projects at the stage of “worth mentioning”:

  • I’m working on at least one more post in my BookThoughts series from a while ago, so stay tuned on that!
  • I want to start working on some new short stories, including one I’d actually hoped to have done for the festive season last year! I’ve three or four skeletal ideas that I feel merit development!
  • I may be delving into the archives to update (and tidy) my Short Stories section with work from university!

Notes on NaNoWriMo

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November beckons! For a lot of writers this means one thing – not the onset of festivities for Christmas but NaNoWriMo– the month-long celebration of stress and angst that’s been going for quite a while now, the challenge being to write a 50,000 word novel (well, more realistically, the very rough first draft) in the space of thirty days in the depths of winter. I haven’t taked about NaNoWriMo for a long time but feel it’s about time to address it once more!

My good friend and university classmate Rosie is embarking on her second NaNoWriMo this year – it’ll be really exciting to see how her accumulated knowledge through university improves her effort from her previous attempt in 2015!

I’ve completed NaNoWriMo three times, most recently in 2012. The three novels I wrote – 2010’s The Last of the Steamers, a steampunk adventure story; 2011’s Colonisation, a pulpy sci-fi adventure set on Mars that I’ve toyed with rewriting and 2012’s The World Eaters, an attempt at a grand space opera – will very likely never see the light of day. But that’s OK – each were valuable learning experiences in my writing journey that I’m definitely proud of doing and still reflect upon now. Yes these works, looking at them now, are flawed and imperfect but they remain important to me – so much so I keep the manuscripts even now.

20181105_131218380_iOS_editedLooking back, I’d reflect upon the following nuggets of information:

  • Plan, plan, plan! Spend at least the month of October prior to NaNoWriMo outlining the work and getting the sequence of events, at the very least, set down in your mind. Writing as you go, or “pantsing” (ie: writing by the seat of your pants) is the number one reason why your novel will run out of steam within the first few pages. It’s too easy, especially for inexperienced writers who may have never handled a project as big as a 50,000 word novel (which, by the way, is nothing; my draft of The Thaw is sitting at just over double that, at 102,000 words) to just blurt out the entirety of their plotlines very early on without any structure. I’m currently working on some new plot outlines as I mentioned previously and I’m using KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel workbook and it’s really, really good.
  • Chapterise your work. For my initial, first-ever effort, The Last of the Steamers, I wrote the entire novel as one solid block of text without chapter breaks. I attempted to revise this work the following January and it became such an arduous slog it quickly became completely unmanageable. Planning your chapters is a great way to spread out points of view and plot to manage the pace of the story. Contrast this to my approach for planning The Thaw, where I split the outline into three acts, and then further subdivided those acts themselves into three (beginning, middle and end at it’s most basic) and spread out the plot and series of events that way. For that work, too, I took on a really effective lesson from the books in The Expanse series in using different points of view for each chapter.
  • Don’t worry about the wordcount goal per day. To succeed at NaNoWriMo you have to write an average of 1,666 words per day, every day. That can sound incredibly daunting – this is especially difficult if you haven’t planned beforehand (therein leaving your time in November for pure writing). But it’s easy to become totally intimidated by writing almost 2,000 words a day. Some writers can do it but a lot, especially inexperienced novelists that take the NaNoWriMo gauntlet, balk at this. So my advice here would be to split up your time – write in, say, three 500 word sessions and then add a bit on here and there. 500 words is about a page, and quite manageable in 20 minutes if you get time.
  • Find times to write everywhere in your day. Building on the previous point, finding time to sit in a darkened study, hunched over a laptop, for the daily writing session can (and in my case has) put a ton of pressure on. It’s so, so easy to psyche yourself out of a writing session if you build it up so much. So my advice would be to split this up. My personal experience is that 500 words is quite manageable in a single session, but you could write a paragraph just before breakfast, a few paragraphs over lunch or before class or at work… it’s a cumulative effort toward that goal that really counts. Or meet up in the library with friends and write together, it’s fun!Nano_2011_chart
  • Don’t freak out over falling behind. In 2011 I fell quite far behind, but it’s important to remain committed and realise that it’s possible to claw back the progress. I found the spreadsheet I used (slightly customised from the one designed by Erik Benson in 2004 which I found you can get from Book In A Week here) back then and looked at the chart. Ultimately for the first week or so I feel fairly behind but ended up that year finishing a day early, which I’d say is proof that it’s possible to claw it back. As an aside, the spreadsheet I used included notes for each day that I input and it was fairly prescient on how I was thinking and feeling during November 2011! I’d wholeheartedly suggest using a spreadsheet like this – sync it with Google Docs or OneDrive or Dropbox (along with your draft, obviously!) so it’s always there when you need it. Naturally the inverse is true with this tip: by all means build up some headroom on good days if you can but don’t allow yourself to become complacent!

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What prompted me to write this post was a question I was asked regarding one of the new ideas I wrote about previously – would I be doing any of them for NaNoWriMo this year? God no! was the answer –  honestly, I don’t think I’d do NaNoWriMo again. My experience writing The Thaw was that a month would’ve been too rushed to do that justice – you’re only making yourself more work in the first, usually-brutal edit. But also with The Thaw I feel I took too long. Ideally for my new ideas I’d follow Stephen King’s advice:

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

That’s not to say I discourage NaNoWriMo – indeed, the opposite! I saw it as an important step in my writing career as I proved to myself (and others, but most importantly myself) that I could write a work long enough to consider a novel. And while the three drafts I churned out remain locked away for only my eyes to cringe at, they’re important milestones on the road of writing. So get going and get novelling!

Autumn Writing Update

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I realise it’s high time I take stock of where I am with various writing projects I’ve been working on – and some new ones! I also want to expand on a lot of what I want to start thinking about progressing with next year – it seems customary with the nights drawing in as October grows to a close to reflect not on what can be done with the dregs of this year but to plan for the new year.

Overall, I’m both pleased and a little disappointed with progress with my writing projects but I feel a touch of realism is sometimes what’s needed!

  • Landlady_Cover_MockUpI’m thoroughly thrilled with how my short story The Landlady has gone down since I put it out last month. I’m really grateful to everyone who both read it and bought the little paperback editions that I made available for purchase; it was a really touching and humbling thing to have signed so many of them for good friends and colleagues. Thank you once again for all your support and comments! And to those asking “when’s the next one coming?”… well keep reading!
  • I sent my post-apoc thriller novel The Thaw off to beta-readers in second draft form at the end of July, hoping for a relatively quick turnaround to gain some feedback on it for the next edit – it’s the third draft that I want to start approaching professional editors and agents with. However, it’s been a bit disappointing, as I mentioned in a thread on Twitter, and with Christmas closing in I can’t see my beta-readers having much time. I understand that; however, I’m excited to have received word from my good friend and university classmate Rosie that her notes and annotations are incoming! So I hope to be able to start the next pass of editing on The Thaw over Christmas; it shouldn’t be anywhere near as intense as the first pass was! Overall though I reflect on the project with a great deal of pride and I really believe the project has “legs” and I’ll be pursuing it toward publication in a traditional sense throughout the coming year!
    • Incidentally, I was very pleased to be able to complete two beta-reads of my own recently; one for Rosie’s young-adult fantasy novel Under Oath and recently for Alex Clifford’s comedy novella The Very Foreign Desk. I was more than happy to give the feedback and I look forward to seeing the improved forms of both works!

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While I might not have been actively writing or editing much for the last couple of months, that hasn’t meant I’ve not been generating ideas – in fact I’ve two ideas I feel are closest in gestation that I feel comfortable talking about them, with a couple more still only in rough concept form in my notebook.

  • As mentioned, the reaction to my short horror story The Landlady has been more than I could’ve possibly imagined, and to answer those that are asking me if I’ve more in the works… I’m happy to say yes! I’ve been concepting out an idea for a horror story that might make it to full novel proportions and that I’m going to be spending the festive season planning intensely. I do want to write more horror based on this experience but I’ve a lot of research to do on the genre, but more importantly I needed an idea. By some happy accident I had the idea last week and I think I could do well with it. I’d love to say more but it’s very rough at the moment but I’ll hope to tell more about it in the new year once I’ve nailed down the plot and plan – but work is going really well as I keep thinking about it!
  • I’ve also been concepting out a climate-based post-apocalyptic novel that I had the idea for in the recent hot weather that the UK experienced – what if the UK experienced a heatwave that never ended? This one was what I thought I’d be working on next but I found myself a little stumped in the early planning but I’ve re-evaluated my ideas and, after chatting to some writer friends, have a better idea where I can take it. I originally envisaged a pseudo-political/techno thriller but I can’t say I was massively enthused by the knots I’d have to tie in my plot to make that work effectively; instead it’s going to be a bit more of an adventure into a decimated, desertified Southern England.
  • I also want to post more short stories from my university studies and re-organise the range of short stories on my site for those dear readers who are interested in reading more of my fiction. I’m really proud of the work I produced through university (even if I wasn’t a particularly happy student) and going by how people enjoyed The Landlady then I’m more than happy to show off some of my more recent, and in my opinion, refined work.

I’m excited I’ve got lots of ideas but I’m starting to prioritise them a little – I’d initially wanted to work on the climate fiction idea first but it needs some more plotting and, honestly, it’s the horror that’s screaming out to me to write first over the next while. But regardless I’ll keep everyone updated on how these projects start to shape up, as well as how The Thaw progresses, through my site but I’d also wholeheartedly recommend liking my Facebook page and following me on Twitter and Instagram for all my writing and reading goodness!