Five scary truths about writing a novel – Maddie Dawson

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By Maddie Dawson

I have just finished my sixth novel and am at work on my seventh, which is due in slightly less than three months. (Ack! I started to shake, just writing the last half of that sentence.) Given the cumulative number of hours I have spent sitting in front of my computer writing books, you might think I’d be something of an expert on novel-writing by now.

But you’d be wrong. I’m not. I feel as though I get to be an expert on writing the LAST novel just as the time comes to hand it in … and then I find myself starting all over, just as perplexed about writing as I ever was, when it comes to writing the next one.

Maybe writing is simply one of those enterprises that can’t ever be truly mastered. And maybe that’s why we are drawn to it; it never gets old, because it never gets solved. We approach our work each day with as much fear and loathing and self-doubt and self-aggrandizement as we felt the very first time we sat down at the computer with an idea thumping inside our heads.

Beginner’s mind is what they call this in yoga. Great.

Still, through the twelve years I’ve been doing this, I have picked up a few little ways to keep myself going. These are not my favorite things about writing novels, mind you. They are simply, for me, the things that work to get it done, and maybe they will help you too.

1. You have to write badly, first. I know — this is the worst news ever. Why can’t we sit down and snap out a final draft? We know what we want to say! It’s all right there, in our heads, so why when we read it over, does it seem bloated and clogged with mud or worse, so trite it might as well have been written on pink stationery with bubbles dotting the I’s?

The answer: who cares why? The truth is that you will have to write your novel over and over again — and each time you get a draft of it finished, you will discover that another draft would be a great idea. I’m sorry about this, but it seems to be universally true. Maybe you will find comfort in knowing that even the best writers — world-famous people, authors you adore — also go through this. They give themselves permission to write badly, and then they figure out how to fix it. It’s practically a law. Like gravity or something.

2. You also have to do it every day. I used to think that writing would work best for me if I was, you know, inspired to write something — the next scene, for instance. And I would wait for that inspiration. Believe me, it could take weeks. Months even. But I showed such monumental patience that it would take me years to finish a book. And then I discovered that if I wrote every single day, whether I wanted to or not, inspiration was much more likely to hang out with me. In fact, I could start writing without knowing quite what was going to happen in the scene … and … something would happen! And not only that, but by writing every day, scenes started to take shape even during my non-writing hours. It was as though the act of daily writing kept my brain engaged with the book. It didn’t get lazy and forget what I was doing.

3. There is nothing like a word count. Give yourself a goal — a daily word count or page count, and make sure you meet it. Mine is five pages. Every single day. I sit down and say to myself, “Five pages. They don’t have to be good, there just have to be five of them.” You don’t have to do it at any one time in the day; spread it out however you want to. But do it: day in, day out, with a cold, when you’re stressed, when you’re too busy, when you’re happy with life. And here’s the amazing part: when you go back and reread your entire book, I promise you that you won’t be able to tell which pages you wrote when you were in the mood and the ones you had to drag yourself toward.

4. The internet is not your friend. I know. Research! Social media profiles! The latest polls! These are HIGHLY IMPORTANT factors in today’s writing world. But: your novel is sad and misses you while you’re down the rabbit hole of research, and your social media connections will wait while you finish your work. Take it from me: you must turn off the internet to get anything done. All the best writers know this. If you must, get one of those apps (Freedom is a good one) that allows you to set a timer during which you cannot check your email or Kim Kardashian’s latest tweet, and your work will thank you!

5. There will come a moment near the end when you realize your novel does not work and CANNOT WORK. But guess what: This is a lie. When I was writing my first novel, a dear novelist friend told me this news, and I thought she must be insane. Why, at that moment I loved my novel! It was fine! But her words came back to me and saved me months later when I was like somebody coming off a bender, so locked in despair with what felt like the absolute wreckage of my novel that I was ready to press the Delete button on the whole mess. But I remembered what she had said, I stepped away from the manuscript, and gave it to someone else to read — and voila! I came to fall back in love with it again. Since then I’ve seen it come up with almost everybody I know. It must be something about the creative process that makes us doubt ourselves the most just as we get close to the finish line. We could probably look this up and figure it out once and for all —research it! But no. We’re not going near the internet today.

We are going to set the timer and write our novels, my friends.

Maddie Dawson is the author of six novels, three of which were written under the name Sandi Kahn Shelton. Her latest, The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness, is out now, published by Lake Union. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut, with her patient husband who does not truly understand why he has to pay for an internet-canceling service when he is also paying for the internet.

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