Writing is hard. Many people who write themselves know this, and yet you'll often hear stories of how someone bashed a book or a script out in 13 minutes. There are some exceptions that prove the rule, but how often can those people do it on a consistent basis? Not many. In fact, if I were a betting man, I'd say none. Once in a while, you can get lucky and find your flow state and before you know it you've had a pretty good streak; words fell onto the page at the speed of thought. Everything clicked. If you find yourself getting into flow states regularly, I envy you.
For me, writing anything (including this blog post) is always very difficult and almost completely debilitating, were it not for the little moments of light that shine through once in a while, teasing you to carry on. If I can use a golf analogy here, it's like playing a lousy round for 17 holes, but then on the 18th you hit a wonder shot 150 yards and it lands 2ft from the pin. All that crap you had to put up with for 4 hours, hacking away at the rough and bunkers? It was worth it to see that ball soar into the sky and drop like a cotton ball exactly where you wanted it. It makes you want more.
That's what gets me through writing, those flashes of something good. The things that work, that you intended. And then it's just a process of trying to do it again and again.
Routine is Key
When I started writing A Single Source of Truth as a novel, I already had the screenplay that I could use as my outline. You'd think that meant I had a headstart, wouldn't you? Unfortunately, what I was to discover was that, for me, compared to plays or film scripts, writing a book is an even longer, slower, more laborious process. For example, If I can throw in another analogy (this time construction), I see writing a play like building a room with four walls. Writing a screenplay is like building a house. And writing a novel is like building an entire city. That's not to undermine any medium, saying that one is easier than the other, it's just my personal perspective on it. A novel is a long game, but that's where routine helped.
Prior to the book, I wrote whenever I felt like it. Sometimes I'd dip in on the weekend, or for a few hours one idle weekday evening. Other times, I'd be swept up in a frenzy of inspiration and would forgo friends, family and fun to knuckle down and get whatever I had in my head on the page. This seemed to work well for the most part when I was writing scripts that had no deadline, and plays that had no stage. But because writing a book can take such a long time, the concept of writing occasionally just wouldn't cut it.
For writing A Single Source of Truth, I decided to take it seriously and treat it like a job. I already had a real job, but that didn't mean I couldn't put in an extra hour each day in my own time. So I got up at 5 am each morning, giving me enough time to write before work. And if I treated it like a job, I'd do it 5 days a week, just like a job – giving myself the weekend off.
The good thing about routine is that it's a process, and as long as you stick to the process, you will make progress. You also won't feel guilty about periods of inactivity, because there won't be any! The bad thing about routine is that it doesn't account for quality, but that's okay. I realised over time that the finished product is an average of all the days I put in, not just a reflection of one or two. I had good days when I'd write 1000 words of decent stuff and other days when I would barely break 100 words of crap; maybe because my brain wasn't in gear, or I got obsessed reviewing and editing the prior day's section. Or maybe I wasn't well, and that's fine… I'd be unwell and not write.
If anything, I found that on the days that words weren't coming to me, I'd think instead. And thinking is just writing without a keyboard or pen!
I like to track my progress towards goals because it enhances the chances of achieving them. The studies behind this are comprehensive, and over the years I've used all sorts of spreadsheets and apps to track stuff. Out of all the benefits, I find the positive reinforcement of tracking to benefit me the most. Being able to look back at all my days of writing and cumulatively see how I much I wrote actually makes me feel, dare I say it, proud of myself.
Tracking the progress of writing is easy. You can find hundreds of word trackers online, but all you need really is a spreadsheet with three columns, A, B, and C – Date, Total Words and Daily Words. Each day, after my writing session, I would load up the spreadsheet and on a new row enter the Date and how many Total Words my novel was. Using a simple formula in the third column, Daily Words, I would subtract yesterday's Total Words from today's and it would give me Daily Words I wrote on that day.
Below is a chart from a spreadsheet I used in 2014, tracking my daily word count for A Single Source of Truth from 30/10/2014 to 17/03/2015. In that 5 month period, I wrote 64042 words; about half the original length of the first draft.
Importance of Focus
There's a great quote by Josh Billings: “Be a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there”. I know it by heart now, but I had to learn it the hard way. You see, despite my routine ways of getting up early and dedicating an hour or two to my craft, I didn't write this novel from start to finish in one big chunk. Nope. My attention span was much too erratic for that because after a few months bashing away at A Single Source of Truth, I'd typically set it aside and go off to do something else like put on a play or make a short film.
While variety is the spice of life, doing as Josh Billings said and sticking to something until it's complete is very important. It's now my preferred course of action. In fact, jumping from project to project is probably the main reason why I took so long getting A Single Source of Truth into a state I was happy for others to read. There are other reasons, but I'll cover them in next week's article. Suffice to say, the first draft was the hardest and longest stretch of the lot.
The Many Drafts
It took me from when I started in May 2012 until 25th February 2014 to write a complete first draft of A Single Source of Truth. Back then, it was still titled DATABASE, the original screenplay title.
In my opinion, getting to the finish line of any first draft, regardless of the quality, is one of the most important milestones. Because like I said in a previous post, it gives you something to work on; a big lump of clay that can start to be shaped and finessed. As I typically write plot-driven stories, I focus most of my first drafts on story structure. It has to have a cohesive beginning, middle and end, and all the dots connect, or I won't continue with it. Everything after that – characters, world-building, attention to detail – can be worked on in future drafts.
Somewhere in 2015, I came up with the new title, A Single Source of Truth, which was introduced in my 3rd draft. By the time the novel was completed in May of 2019 – with rewrites, development notes and copy/proof edits – it was up to the 9th draft. That's a lot of drafts! But it's also the result of me doing things the messy way.
I'm currently writing my next novel and am keeping the whole process a lot more streamlined. Iterative rewrites will be a given, but hopefully, I can get my drafts in under 9.
Stay tuned next week when I'll be discussing the nagging doubts that almost kept the book from ever seeing the light of day.
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