Why patience is particularly important for writers

I waited 10 years to get back to Scotland and it was totally worth it!
I waited 10 years to get back to Scotland and it was totally worth it!

To write a great book, one that leaves emotional impact, you need a great many tools, but one of the most important tools is patience. In fact, patience is as important as passion.

Why is patience so important? Well, I think this quote explains it nicely:

“A good book isn’t written, it’s rewritten.” ~Phyllis A. Whitney

Rewriting is a natural part of the process, and every book needs a different number of rewrites to be transformed from a first draft into a great novel. Even the best writers sometimes go through seven or eight rewrites. And these rewrites often take varying amounts of time. Your first rewrite might take six months and your third rewrite might only take one–it all depends on how extensive the rewrite is and how much time you devote to it.

I like to joke that I’m often impatient with people because I’ve used up all my patience writing books, and to some extent it’s true. I don’t want to publish anything less than a great novel. So the only fiction I’ve ever submitted are a couple short stories and a novella. I have three novels in different stages of editing, and I refuse to let them go until they meet my personal standards.

A great novel requires you to feel with your characters. How else are you going to make your readers feel with them? When you’re crying during a death scene, it’s probably a sign that you’re on to something. If you can’t feel the anguish or joy of your characters, you’ll have a much harder time portraying those emotions successfully in your work.

This means taking the time to learn about your characters, how they feel about themselves, each other, the world. And to do it for all your important characters, not just the main character but the antagonist and the secondary characters as well, even a few of the tertiary characters.

And that’s just the work you need to do outside the novel. You have to do self editing and at least one edit with multiple beta readers. You might even want to hire a professional editor, whether you choose to self publish or seek out a traditional publisher.

Once you’ve finished rewriting, it’s time to write a query letter and a synopsis. These pieces might only each be a page long, but they can still take you a few weeks to perfect. And if they’re your first query letter and synopsis, you might want to get feedback on these too before submission.

When you send out your submission package, you’ll find yourself playing the waiting game. This can be frustrating when your novel is with a critique writer, and it’s a lot more unpleasant when you’re waiting to hear from a publisher. Traditional publishers can take one to six months to respond, and if they want exclusive submissions–meaning you can’t submit elsewhere until they respond–this can be six months of hope crushed in a two sentence form rejection.

I’m experiencing this first hand right now: I submitted a YA fantasy novella to an ebook publisher in March and every time I think about it I start to feel restless. This is the first time I’ve waited more than two months for a response on fiction, and it’s definitely a learning experience.

So how can you cultivate patience?

Unfortunately there is no easy one-size-fits-all cure for impatience, and it’s often a struggle spanning years or even entire lifetimes. In the fast paced world we’ve built it’s easy to want everything to be efficient, to obsess over how long everything takes.

But there are strategies we can use to build patience–or at least to stop obsessing over things we can’t control:

Submit often. The thing about submitting often is that you end up waiting often. In the age of email you can get a response within as little as a few minutes, but usually you’re going to wait at least a month. If you’re submitting to a big publisher, you’ll be lucky to hear back within three months.

You’re going to spend a lot of your career waiting even after your first publication. Working on another book? That means another submission process. Even submitting short stories and poetry can involve a long wait time, depending on the publication. And once you have a contract you’ll also have to wait for edits, galleys, ARCs and finally publication.

Remember that many great novelists take years. One of my favourite writers, Hope C. Clark of FundsForWriters, took 20 years to publish her first novel. A writer I worked with at Musa took almost 40 years to find a publisher. Many authors have devoted entire lifetimes to a single series.

If you’re trying to write great books, you have to be in this for the long haul, just like these authors.

Waiting should be a passive activity. It shouldn’t take up much of your mind at any given point. You should be concentrating on moving forward. Writing the next book. Working on your next short story. Getting a few freelance clients to supplement your income and keep you writing. Taking a writing class.

If you’re always working on the next thing, it’s easy to forget about the things you’re waiting for. Stay focused on the next project, the next goal, and by the time your response comes in you’ll be a better writer and maybe even have crossed some other things off your goal list.

Are you patient enough to rewrite a novel as many times as it takes? What about waiting to hear from a publisher? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Before you finish that draft

After an excruciating process taking anywhere between a few weeks and several years, your first–or second, or third–draft is almost finished. Your adrenaline’s pumping and you’re ready to power through to the finish line.

As antsy as you might be to finish it, I suggest instead you pause and take a deep breath. It’s time to create a plan for after you’ve crossed the finish line.

Start by scheduling a couple says off. You can write, of course, but jumping straight from one book to the next isn’t a great idea. Give your brain some time to relax and refill the creative well by enjoying somebody else’s book or doing something fun. You might want to focus on stories very different from your current WIP so you can get out of that mode and prepare for the next project.

Speaking of which, make sure you choose the next project to work on before finishing your current WIP. Without a plan, it’s easy to stop writing completely once you finish your novel. Writers can be extremely indecisive. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap.

A good plan will include a start date, a deadline for completion and a list of things that need to get done before you start the actual draft. If you need to flesh out your world, do some research or develop your characters before working on your next project, write the steps you’ll take to do so out on paper. You’ll probably spend quite a bit of time figuring out exactly what preparations you’ll need to make. Don’t worry about it. Every moment spent planning is made up for with time saved during writing.

If there are some shorter pieces you’ve been ignoring to work on your novel, schedule time to finish these before starting your next book. You don’t want those unfinished tasks nagging at the back of your brain while you’re trying to write a novel.

Every writer plans differently. What matters is you create a plan that keeps you constantly writing. You don’t want to lose the momentum you’ve created writing the last draft.

3 Solutions to hating your Nanowrimo novel

It’s more than halfway through the month and your novel’s middle is sagging, your characters are refusing to co-operate, and you wish you’d never started it to begin with. Or maybe your characters are doing exactly as they’re told, and you’ve simply realized that you can’t stand them–or your story idea.

Don’t panic. As anyone who’s done Nanowrimo a few times will know, it’s bound to happen eventually. It’s perfectly natural to get frustrated with your novel. Writing a book in a month is hard, writing daily is hard, and sometimes an idea turns out to be less interesting than you originally thought. Characters can be impossible to work with and if the wrong one decides to die it can ruin everything.

All of that is perfectly natural, and it’s part of the insane, masochistic fun called being a writer. Be thankful that you currently have all the support of Nanowrimo behind you, and make some quick decisions so you can stay on track with your goals.

No matter why you hate your novel, there are a few things you can do:

1. Finish the damn thing anyway. Most writers go through a period of time when they hate their novels, even outside of Nanowrimo, and if the story still means something important to you, you have to grit your teeth and bear it. You never know, the changes might lead to something wonderful in the end. Besides, great novels are not written, they’re rewritten.

You might want to make some small changes of your own, perhaps killing the most annoying character if you can get away with it. Either way, writing a crappy novel is still an accomplishment, because most people never write a book at all. Truth be told, most don’t even get started. So you are a champion already, and if you reach that finish line, you’ll be truly different from most people. You’ll actually be able to say “I wrote a book.” And that’s the first step towards writing a great book.

All that said, you also never need to look at it once November’s over, and if you really hate it you can print it up and feed it to a bonfire.

2. Kill all–or most–of your main characters, and start over from a side character’s perspective. If your story’s dragging, it might be that your characters are the problem. Maybe you realized the main characters aren’t that interesting and somebody else is, or maybe you just hate them. Either way, it’s perfectly acceptable to kill them all–in as many words as possible, because death is great for word count.

Once your main characters are dead, start part two of your novel from a side character’s PoV. This way you can keep all your words from before and legitimately say it’s part of the same novel–even if you end up deciding later that it’s really two books, or even that your original main characters aren’t worth ten pages. Sometimes killing off characters is the best thing you can do for a novel.

3. Scrap it and start a new book. This may seem like utter madness so late in the month, but it’ll make the rest of Nano easier and depending on your point of view, you can even keep the words from your last attempt. Or you can find some bizarre way to tie your old book into the new book you’ve realized you’d like to write. You’ll want this to be a pretty superficial connection, so you can painlessly edit away the first part if you decide to later.

Of course, this all requires you to have a totally new novel idea, so if you don’t, I wouldn’t suggest going this route.

Remember, if you hate your novel, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve always ended up using one of these three strategies when I came to hate my Nanowrimo novel, and if they don’t work for you, I’m sure there are more out there. Don’t forget to ask the friendly folks on the Nanowrimo forums for help–they’re one of the most helpful communities in the writing world.

3 Ways to make yourself write

Everybody has their own tricks for winning Nanowrimo, and today I’ve gathered a few of these to help you get through the first full week of Nanowrimo:

1. Reward system– I usually reward myself with stickers for daily goals and sugary treats for weekly goals, and I save the nicest sticker I have for the end of the month. Other people reward themselves with new pencils or pens, fun excursions or plain and simple relaxation time. Everybody likes different things, so pick rewards that are meaningful to you–something small for your daily goal, something a little bigger for your weekly goal, and something truly rewarding for reaching your final goal.

Of course, having written a novel is its own reward, and you need to keep that in mind too. Just think about how happy you’ll be once it’s finished–even if it’s just because you can print it up and burn it.

2. Internet restriction– this can become a punishment if you fail to meet your goal, but it’s really about eliminating distractions. Some people completely turn off their internet until they’ve written. Others close the browser, and some just minimize it. Most people in this camp refuse to look at the internet at all until they’ve met their daily goal. A fair number of people write on specifically internet free devices.

Personally, I get myself to write by refusing to enter my local Nanowrimo chat room until I’ve gotten at least a thousand words down. Usually just getting started before I go into chat will make me more likely to participate in word wars, and often I end up not wanting to stop at all when I reach 1K. You can do something similar by refusing to look at your favourite time wasting websites until you’ve written at least half of your daily goal.

3. Make it easy– writing is hard, but there are ways you can make it easy for yourself. Most writers find having some kind of routine useful. Even people who can’t write at the same time every day can have routines for writing. Some people always wear a certain sweater or hat while writing. Others read a chapter of a book to get into the writing mood. Some find writing a basic list of what they did that day kicks them into the writing routine. Everybody creates their own routine, but there are some things that can make life easier for every writer.

Make your writing space somewhere you can’t avoid for long and make sure your story notes and sources of inspiration are close at hand. If there’s a drink you particularly enjoy while writing, have one as soon as you get home to kick yourself into the writing mindset. Keep a water bottle in your writing space too, so that you don’t have to get up right away when you finish your drink–after all, you might still be in the groove.

Writing a book will always be hard, and that’s what makes Nanowrimo worth it–the accomplishment. It will never be easy, but you can make it a little simpler by keeping everything you need on hand and building a writing routine.

Finding a novel idea where none exists

“It’s all well and good that Nanowrimo is next month,” you say, “but how does that help me if I have no idea what to write?”

In spite of what you might think about arduous novel planning, many people start Nanowrimo each year with literally no idea what they’re going to write, and others start with only the most basic concept. While this isn’t the approach I’d recommend, it works for some and even the most basic—or non-existent—concept can be the foundation of a winning 50, 000 word novel.

What I’d recommend is to devote every spare moment of this month figuring out exactly what you’re going to write in November. If you can choose a genre you’d like to write in, that makes your life a whole lot easier and you can easily use one of these methods to get your novel idea:

1. Combine tropes from your genre. Are you writing a fantasy novel? Well, what can you do when you put dragons, elves and an evil sorcerer together? If you’re writing science fiction, perhaps it’s more interesting to find out what happens when you put robots on Mars. Some genres come with a bare bones story already built in, such as romance novels, where at the very least you’re going to have two people who start out disliking each other fall in love.

Take as many typical genre tropes as you need to find inspiration for a great story, and try experimenting with the different ways you can mash them together to create a workable plot for your novel.

2. Use an idea generator. There are tons of idea generators all over the internet. Some are genre specific, such as this fantasy plot generator and others can easily be applied to any genre. There are also tons of random name generators online, so if you ever get stuck for a name, this is a good solution.

3. Steal a story. Of course, nothing is truly original anymore and everything’s been done before, so no matter what you do your story will resemble others. But sometimes an even better idea is to steal a story whole. You can appropriate an old folktale or steal the plot of your favourite novel, or you can go to the Nanowrimo forums and check out the adoption society, where you can adopt plots, characters and anything else you could ever need to complete your novel.

If you’ve already tried all of the suggestions made in my post about filling the creative well, it’s time to see what you can create by building upon what other writers have already done.

How do you get your novel ideas? Do you have an idea for this November’s Nanowrimo novel yet?

What’s Next?

Usually in the first week of December I write a post discussing what to do when you’ve finished your novel. In the interest of organization and planning ahead, this year I’ve decided to write the post before November ends.

So what should you do after you finish your novel? You can do just about anything, but I have two main suggestions which I hope you’ll take seriously. The first is that you should keep your momentum from November. The second is that whatever you do, you shouldn’t start editing your novel.

Now, before you get all righteous and tell me how your family needs some love and your novel is horrible and needs editing like some people need heart surgery, let me explain what I mean. I don’t mean for you to ignore your family completely for another month. What I mean is that now, when your family’s already used to you taking some writing time out of every day, you should explain to your family that you need to write and create a writing schedule. Of course you can spend less time writing than you did last month, but the important thing is that you write regularly. It’s easy to fall out of the habit of writing regularly and to let your family distract you, but if you maintain a regular writing schedule, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you finish projects–and at how much better you feel.

Now, about editing your novel. The reason I tell you to wait is because to properly assess any piece of writing–or art, or just about anything else–you first need some distance from the work. Since you’ve just spent a month living and breathing your novel, you really won’t have that distance on December first. Instead, put your draft aside for the month and work on something else, preferably something quite different from your novel.

So if you’re not working on editing this novel, what should you be doing this December? Well the first thing is to pick up any other writing projects where you left off. This December I plan to finish my edit of Moonshadow’s Guardian; while there are several other projects waiting for me to get to them, this one is most important to me. Once you’ve finished those projects–or if you’re someone who really needs to have multiple things going so you can switch when you get stuck on one–start the project on your list of possibilities that is most different from the novel you just finished writing. For example, once I finish editing Moonshadow’s Guardian, I will be putting all of my energy into producing a non-fiction ebook with information and exercises for writers. This will distract me from my fiction, ensuring that when I get back into it I’ll have the distance I need.

Long story short, this December you should make a point of working on something new or finishing an old project totally unrelated to your novel, and you should make sure to work on this project every day. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish when you keep even a small amount of that November momentum and work at it every day.

The Final Stretch

Today is November 26th. If you’re like me, you planned to write a ridiculous amount of words this weekend, not only catching yourself up but putting yourself ahead, but life got in the way and your plans were totally ruined. Which means, if you’re like me and you’ve got a lot on your plate this week, you’re wishing there was another week in November. Of course, there isn’t, so you’re left with a choice: to give up, or to scramble frantically towards your desired word count, using every spare moment to write(which you should have been doing anyway, but I’m not judging).

No matter what your word count is or how busy you are, I’m here to tell you to go for it. While we all have our limits, you can’t know what’s possible until it’s done. I personally have written 50, 000 words in three days before. Of course, I didn’t have anything else to do on those days, but even on days when I’ve had other commitments I’ve managed to write over 10, 000 words–sometimes even over 20, 000 words. And certainly not everyone can replicate my writing speed, but you never know until you try.

So no matter what your word count is, this week I would ask you to try. Grab every spare moment you can and race to the finish line. In the words of Nike, “just do it”. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in a few short days, and remember: even if you don’t make it, you’re still a winner for trying.

Week Three Pep Talk

Today’s guest is a long time Nanoer and a dear friend, known lovingly by the ToNano community as Tabs. Though she hasn’t actually lived in Toronto for the last many years, she is just as much a part of my Nano family as all the people who do. Please give her a warm welcome.

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It’s ironic that this year has been the hardest year for me with NaNoWriMo and yet here I am, writing a pep talk. But the thing with NaNo is that not every year is going to be your golden year. We’re rounding into the last week, which I always find is my toughest. I get frantic, I get upset, and as I look at my word count goal, I find myself feeling like I’m just not going to make it.

The last week is always tough. That’s why there are two things that you should focus on to get you through.

1) No matter what you finish at, even if it’s not the goal you set, you’ve likely been more productive on one novel in a single month than 90% of writers will be in a full year. That’s a lot to be proud of.

2) If you fall short of your NaNo word count goal, it’s not over. Sure, you’re not going to be pounding out 1667 words a day for the rest of the year, but the project doesn’t have to end on Nov. 30.

This is the point in the month where you need to look back at what you have accomplished and remind yourself of the great work you’ve done. To look at it and realize that you have done fantastic this far, and that, as much as reaching that 50k, 100k or whatever your goal is would be awesome, you’ve already done awesome. The last week isn’t the time to panic. It’s the time to focus your energy on finishing up the story as much as you can. It’s the time to breathe and cheer yourself on, because you have done something awesome. This is the week to make sure that, if you haven’t done so already, you have fun with it. Because really, when it comes down to it, that’s a major part of what NaNoWriMo is about — having fun.

So don’t give up, and certainly don’t give in. Keep on going, and focus on doing what you want to do with that story this week. It might just surprise you how much more you end up writing.

What to do When You Can’t Stand Your Novel Anymore

Whether it be due to your characters rebelling, your story shifting, your muse abandoning you or a dull ache in your wrists, at some point this month you will hate your novel. In fact, you’ve probably already had a moment like that. At some points during the drafting process–both inside and outside of Nanowrimo–you will be unable to look at your novel anymore. The key is to remember that these moments pass, prepare yourself to play catch up and then go off in search of something better to do than look at your novel, because staring at your novel at these times will probably give you the intense urge to delete the whole thing.

Today I’m going to suggest an activity to distract you entirely from the awful draft you’ve been working on all month, one that’s in keeping with my practice of productive procrastination, an activity that will keep you moving towards success as a writer while also distracting you from the less pleasant task at hand.

So what should you do when you can’t stand your novel anymore? Start planning future projects! Do you have any idea what your plans are for December? If not, now’s a good time to start making them. It’s also a great time to start setting your 2013 goals. By starting now you’re actually getting ahead, giving yourself more time to plan the next year than many people do. You’re also staying productive, even though you’re refusing to face your novel.

Of course, depending on whether or not you’ve already given this some thought, you might not want to start making to-do lists for next year right away. Instead, you might want to brainstorm future projects. One way to do this would be by creating a mindmap of potential project ideas. Another would be to create categories that sort ideas in terms of topic, genre or length.

When you’re choosing what projects you’re actually going to put on that list, first consider what you’re actually able to accomplish in a given period of time. Consider the obligations you already know you’ll have–school, work, childcare, that sort of thing–and how much time you’ll have after those. Then consider how much time each kind of project takes you. Once you’ve figured out an average time for each kind of project and you have an idea of the time you’ll have available, create a list of the projects you plan on completing in the time period you’ve chosen.

My advice when you’re creating a plan, whether it be for a month, a year or a day, is to plan for two thirds of the projects you want to complete. Humans are over confident and that over confidence leads to over commitment and a cycle of procrastination and guilt. Life is also impossible to predict or understand completely, so leaving some room for error is always a good idea–this way if a family catastrophe occurs or you come into a new project you never expected, you have some leeway.

In December I’ll be talking a lot more about creating your plans for the next year, but right now, if you can’t stand your novel, the best thing to do is get ahead by planning out your 2013 now. When December comes around you’ll be happy to find yourself already prepared with the beginnings of a plan–or a detailed plan, depending on how much you hate that novel right now.

10K in 4 Hours?

At my best, when I took this challenge, I reached the 10K easily. The first two or three times I did it, I wrote a little over 12K in the four hours I had been assigned.

This Saturday, I devoted four hours as fully to writing as I was able–and I wrote 8.9K. I’d already been feeling slow this year, but this challenge really brought it home for me. I just can’t keep the pace I used to.

So what changed? It’s not that I became a slower writer. I still type just as quickly as I did then. My story is falling from my fingertips as easily as any novel ever has–maybe even more easily at times.

What changed is not my typing speed or my level of inspiration. It was the condition of my wrists. I’ve struggled with tendonitis in my wrists for several years, but this year the amount of pain peaked after March break, when I spent a week in so much pain that I could barely lift a small bottle of Dr. Pepper. In June I could barely write a page by hand without tears forming in my eyes from the pain.

I spent August with my left wrist–where the pain is worst–in a splint all the time, and I have been splinting when I sleep ever since. While the pain is certainly not as severe as it was in June, some nights it takes all my energy just to write a thousand words, and I find myself having to take more breaks. Once upon a time I could easily write for four hours straight, my only breaks being when I got up to refill my glass. Now I find myself having to take several breaks in those four hours, even after taking painkillers.

What does this mean? It means that I’ll probably never be able to write 300, 000 words in a month again. It means that until my wrists recover–and I don’t think they’ll ever fully heal–I’ll be extremely limited in how much I can write on any given day, and some days I will not be able to write at all. It means that when I’ve worked myself too hard, I’ll know because of the blinding pain in my wrists. It means that some days I’ll have to be careful how I open doors, because if I do it wrong I’ll hurt myself.

And why am I telling you all of this? There are a few reasons. One is to show you why it’s important to take care of yourself. If you start doing regular wrist stretches and invest in a heating pad and a cold compress for when you overwork your wrist muscles before you have tendonitis or carpal tunnel, you’ll stop yourself from developing these issues. And if you do have tendonitis or carpal tunnel, remember to care for yourself so it doesn’t get worse.

The other important reason why I’m telling you this–other than that it’s good fodder for blog posts–is because my failure to hit 10K in four hours means I will be trying this challenge again this Saturday. This Saturday from 2-6PM, I will be trying again to write 10K in four hours. I’m determined to stay focused this time and more determined to prove that I have not been completely conquered by tendonitis.

Of course, since I’m doing the challenge again this weekend, you’re all welcome to try with me. Pick your own hours or write with me in spirit, it’s up to you. If you participate, just leave your username and word count achieved in the comments on this post and you’ll be recognized on my blog.

On account of this being more difficult than I remember, I am changing up the list a little bit. It will now be two lists: one list of those who succeeded, and another list for all those who tried. Just like when you attempt Nanowrimo, failing to meet the official goal doesn’t make you a loser–in fact, you’re a winner just for being brave enough to try. So I’ve decided that everyone brave enough to attempt writing 10K in four hours will get a place of honour on my blog. I’m also hoping this will encourage more people to try, because it’s always more fun with a bigger group.

So, do you think you can write 10K in four hours?