How To Write a Novel (When You Think You’ve Forgotten How)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a pathological procrastinator. I don’t know why, but I do know that I have never been able to delay gratification. So instead of rewarding myself with 7 hours of OJ: Made in America when the first draft of Book 2 is done and dusted and I can relax and enjoy it guilt-free, I watch it now and tell myself I will write after. I mean, I’d just be distracted by my wanting to watch it otherwise, right?

(Side note: OJ: Made in America is truly incredible TV.)

I joke that I’d call my would be productivity guide Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late – and that’s pretty much what I do. I can only work under pressure, while panicking. I read somewhere that the procrastinator’s sweet spot is the exact moment when the fear of creating something crap is overtaken by the fear of not having enough time to create anything at all. That’s almost always when I start work – and not a moment before.

This past year or so, my procrastination problem has got worse. This is the first time I’ve ever had to write a book under contract, and I’ve had to do it in a period of time that’s, at most, half as long as the time I spent writing the first one. So for starters, you’ve got pressure. I believe procrastination is something like 30% laziness and 70% fear. Distress Signals has been incredibly well received by critics, book bloggers and readers. It’s wonderful but it’s also terrifying. Can I do this again? How did I do it the first time? So, we’ve got plenty of fear in the mix too. I’m a binger, in that I do my best work when I can clear my schedule, lock myself away and write from dawn to dusk – or maybe through the night – without stopping, hopped up on caffeine and sugar. A slow and steady 1,000 words every day just doesn’t work for me.

But now, I’m much busier than I was when I was writing most of Distress Signals that way. Being in university full-time means essay deadlines and exams and more reading than any person who sleeps could possibly do (I maintain). Then there’s everything Distress Signals demands as a book that’s out in there in the world. Online promotion, U.S. edits, a one-day 10-stop bookshop road trip, a signing, an interview for a newspaper and preparation for a literary festival in a couple of weeks are just some of the things I’ve had to do in the last two weeks. So most days I just can’t binge-write any more. The schedule is too busy to clear.

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Last Friday I visited ten bookstores in Limerick, Shannon, Ennis, Newcastle West and Tralee. The Eason’s on O’Connell Street in Limerick had a side entrance onto Cruises Street – perfect! (Distress Signals is about a murder on a cruise ship.) 

So we’ve got more fear, more pressure and then more things to do/less time in the mix too. It’s the perfect storm. It’s the reason why the first draft of Book 2 still isn’t finished, even though my original goal – back in the rose-tinted days of last summer when the world was all rainbows, puppies and unrealistic plans – was to have a vomit draft by last Christmas and a first draft by the end of April, just before Distress Signals came out.

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(I really want to go back to Summer 2015 Catherine and slap her in the face. Hard.)

The good news is we’re almost there. I’m almost there. This is the last week I’ll work on this draft of the book. But I’ve had to sort of trick myself into writing it.I’ve had to hunt down procrastination, sedate it, bound and gag it and lock it in a basement room. (Hey, I’m a crime writer, okay?) In the process, I’ve been reminded of things – tips and tricks and truths – that I’d forgotten. In case you’re struggling with your project, here they are.

Build Write It and They Will Come

I’m a big plotter, so the first thing I have to do in order to write a book is sort mine out. I don’t plan everything out in advance, but I like to have some signposts along the way. I open a Word document and create a simple outline using numbering. It’ll be a longer version of this (the notes in square brackets pertain to my specific plot):

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Then what I’ll do is I’ll take my ideas for scenes, plot developments, etc. and fill as much of this in as I can. The problem was that when I sat down to do this for Book 2, I ended up with mostly blank space. Erm… Hang on a second. Do I even have a plot for this book?! I started to panic. Yep, totally screwed. I’m just an impostor. I knew I’d be found out. But because I was contracted to write this book, I had to sit down and write it anyway, which is when I realised/remembered:

The ideas come while you’re writing.

I’ve put that in bold and italics because it’s the most important point of this whole blog post. You can sit in all the cafes you want with your notebook, chewing on a pen, dreaming up plot lines and characters and killer twists. But – at least in my writing life – I will never come up with stuff that way that’s half as good as what I come up with while I’m actually in the midst of writing the book.

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This is what the plot of Distress Signals looked like by the third and final draft (the one with my editor at Corvus). But this is the end game. It’s okay to start with mostly blank space on your plot charts. You probably should. 

So don’t panic. You may have no idea what goes in Part 3 right now, or you may not even be sure you have an ending. Your plot plan may be mostly blank space. But don’t wait until you have a plot to start writing. A few signposts will do. The ideas will come. Until then, just concentrate on writing this chapter.

Early, First, Focused

There’s a difference between saying ‘I’m going to spend all tomorrow writing’ and ‘I will write for no fewer than six hours tomorrow’. I turned 34 yesterday, you’d think I’d have discovered this before now. But that’s one lesson that has really been driven home to me recently, because so many hours and days seem to disappear into time-sucking, pointless tasks, and I end up with nothing to show for them. It’s not enough to intend to write tomorrow or this week. When you’re a procrastinator, you need to plan exactly how, when and where you’re going to.

I get the most out of my writing days when I:

  • Start early. This is allowing for the fact that even though you may have eight hours free in which to write, you’ll be lucky if you spend half of them actually typing words into your manuscript. The other thing is that you don’t know what’s going to happen during the day. You could get an exciting e-mail or an unexpected invitation or a toothache. Best to start now, as early as you can, before real life wakes up and starts distracting you.
  • Do the writing first. It’s the only way. Otherwise you end up watching OJ: Made in America before noon. (Trust me on this.) Also, the best thing about doing the writing first is that it’s done, it’s out of the way, and you can spend the rest of your time not feeling guilty or anxious, but smug and overly pleased with yourself that you got it done.
  • Focus. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But as I said at the top, these were things I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten that the internet is like a fibre optic cable plugged directly into my brain – I can’t work with it. Blocking apps don’t work for me; I can’t bring myself to turn them on and whenever I do, I pick up my phone before they’ve timed out. The best thing for me to do is go to a cafe or a library, not connect to the wifi and leave my phone in my bag at my feet. I can get as much done in an hour without the internet as I can in a whole day with it, and I write much better when I’m deep in my fictional world as opposed to being yanked out of it every five minutes, distracted by shiny things.

Change of Scenery

When writers moan about how lonely a profession this is, I roll my eyes. To me, that’s like saying ‘I love being hairdresser but – ew! – touching people’s hair. Yuck.’ I love the solitude. I need it. But I work from home, and my home is very small (I’m a writer and I live in Dublin city centre, so I’m essentially in a telephone box), and lately I’ve been experiencing cabin fever. So now I get out.

I’m surrounded by coffee shops and live only 15 minutes walk or so from my university, where there’s a whole library I can work in during office hours that’s comfortable, quiet and even has plug sockets. I’ve been making the most of this. The best things about writing somewhere else are that (a) you have almost none of the distractions you have at home and (b) when you do come home, you can enjoy it. There’s a separation between work and play.

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Think outside the box. One day last week I was really, really fed up. The weather was terrible, I was struggling to write and I honestly could not look at these four walls for a moment longer. So I did something drastic: I went on Booking.com and looked for cheap hotel rooms available for that evening within walking distance of my home. If a hotel has availability and it uses a third-party site like that, it might drop its rates during the day to try and fill empty rooms that night. I got a bargain, threw my toothbrush and my laptop in a bag and walked 30 minutes down the road to the hotel. I refused the receptionist’s offer of the wifi password and brought enough milk and coffee with me to see me through the night. Then I wrote 6,000 words, falling asleep as the sun came up. It was ridiculous, but it was just what I needed.

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So there you go. I also recommend (i) whingeing and moaning to your writer friends over gin-based cocktails, (ii) re-reading Rachel Aaron’s From 2K to 10K on a regular basis and (iii) investing in a Nespresso machine. And reminding yourself that, hey, this is your dream job. Jobs are hard and sometimes they suck and you’re not going to love every single day, and some days will be more productive than others. But don’t forget about the “dream” part. These are all good problems to have. I mean, I used to have a job where I spent my days stapling things together for Satan himself, and my nights crying about my blackening soul in the shower.

This writing gig? It’s not all that bad…

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Distress Signals has a new cover! And it’s still only 99p! More exclamation marks! 

How’s your writing going? Do you suffer from procrastination? What do you do to help overcome it? Let us know in the comments below…