Tricks and Techniques for Getting Those Words Down on the Page
Writing a novel can sometimes feel like climbing Everest in only a T-shirt and tennis shoes. Mind you, not being a mountain climber, I’m using that simile without any personal experience whatsoever! But I well know the terror of an ocean of blank pages waiting to be filled, and the even worse terror of starting with high hopes and then hitting the 100-page mark and thinking, “I just can’t do this.”
All you can do is plug on regardless. I’ve learnt that some simple psychological games can make a difference – at least to me! So here in no particular order are a dozen techniques for getting those words down on the page:
- Set realistic goals. Obviously there’s the big goal of finishing the book, but that can be daunting when all you’ve got down in black and white is ‘chapter one’. If you’re a list maniac, as I seem to have become over recent years, you can write daily, weekly or monthly goal lists. It’s encouraging to cross off every step along the way. Even if you don’t have an outside deadline, setting yourself a deadline can be a great motivator. There’s something galvanizing about committing to a task within a time frame.
- Be kind to yourself. I’ve learnt from my own mistakes on this one. On a truly fabulous day, maybe you can write 10, 20, even 50 pages. But on your daily list, set a modest page total. I tend to work on five pages a day. Even on a bad day, I can usually manage that. On a reasonable day, I do more and then I have a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. If I don’t do more, well, I’m still five pages closer to the end of my book, which can’t be a bad thing. In the days when I set myself a challenging target, I spent my time beating myself up for not always reaching the impressive total. Much nicer to get to five, cross it out on the list, and then toddle on to do more. You need confidence to write a whole novel. Anything that helps build your confidence is a good thing.
- Every word counts! Give yourself permission to make baby steps. It’s surprising how far small page counts every day can take you. There’s a book called BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott (Bantam Doubleday Dell 2007) that has some wonderful advice for people writing a novel. It boils down to the truism that every story is written word by word.
- Avoid the terror of the great white. Try not to close the day’s work at the end of a scene, a chapter, or a page. Even if you only write a line of the next bit, you won’t be starting from a blank page, which some days can be scary. By the end of the day’s writing, you’re usually in the groove, so that next little bit should come reasonably smoothly. I know some writers who are so afraid of starting without knowing the next few words that they finish halfway through a sentence every day!
- The delight of the half. At the end of each day, however you went with hitting your target, write another half page. What’s half a page? A couple of paragraphs? And you’re already into the world of your story then, so doing a few extra words shouldn’t be a major imposition. You’ll be surprised how half a page every day adds up – to be obvious, 365 half pages make up 182 new pages every year. Not to be sniffed at.
- Dream on. Write for half an hour/an hour when you wake up (before you turn the internet on!). I haven’t managed this one yet because of the lure of email, but it makes sense. You’re still close to your dream state then and it focuses your mind on writing before the outside world intrudes.
- The early bird catches the word. If you’re having trouble finding time to write, get up half an hour earlier. In half an hour, you should be able to do at least a page and a page a day gives you 365 pages in a year. This is something I used to do faithfully when I had a day job to support my writing ambitions. It also has the psychological advantage of reminding you that you’re pursuing your writing goals even when ‘real’ life places its demands upon you.
- Short and sweet. Another time management technique is to buy a kitchen timer and set it for 20 minute writing sprints. This is great for those days when you can’t settle down. You’ll be surprised what you can achieve in that time, and often you’ll find that you keep going after the 20 minutes. You’ve broken the hoodoo and got back into your story by writing solidly for even such a short period.
- Reward your success. Tell yourself that if you write a page, you can watch half an hour of TV or go for a walk or spend 15 minutes on the internet. At one stage, I hated the book I was writing so much, the promise that I could stop and clean the toilet actually worked as a reward. Sad but true.
- Physical activity = mental activity. Writing is awful for your body. The longer you spend in your chair producing immortal prose, the worse it is for your health. Make sure you get up and shift around regularly. If you’re the sort of writer who gets lost in a fictional world and only emerges hours later (sadly, I’m not!), maybe use the trusty kitchen timer to remind you to stand up, walk around, and get the blood flowing. I find that physical movement helps my thoughts to flow too. It definitely freshens up a stale mind.
- Prop up that sagging middle. No, I’m not talking about middle-aged spread, I’m talking about those hundreds of pages where you’re just waiting for the climax and the denouement to come along. Of course, this middle forms the majority of the book and the bit where you can really hook a reader on your writing. In a romance, for example, it’s when the couple fall in love after the initial attraction and the happy ever after – pretty important! Often I find that if I’ve gone astray after the initial excitement has waned, it’s because I’ve lost sight of the plot’s major conflict. Ask yourself what is stopping your protagonist/s from getting what they want. Ask yourself what you can put in at this stage both to place that goal further out of reach and also to make it more difficult for them to walk away. Keep raising the stakes and that middle won’t have a chance to sag! Something else that I do at this stage is read through what I’ve got so far to see if anything sparks a turning point. For example, in my award-winning manuscript, The Magnificent Marriage, the put-upon hero makes an early, off-the-cuff remark about wishing he lived during the Middle Ages, when stealing a bride was a popular method of courtship. Guess what I had my hero do when things started to get rather dull around the 200 page mark!
- Sometimes it’s OK to read instead of write. I think most of us became writers through being fanatical readers, and occasionally the best thing I can do for my writing is to read a book by someone else. My (completely unscientific) theory is that while my conscious mind is focused on another story, my subconscious mind can stew in peace over problems in my work and hopefully come up with answers.
These techniques will help to gear you up for climbing the mountain – and the view from the summit is great!
This article first appeared in WQ, the newsletter of the Queensland Writers Centre, in February 2014