I was recently invited to a Words Away Zalon about motivation and inspiration for writers. If you haven’t heard about Words Away, its a small organisation that hosts events for writers on all kinds of interesting subjects. Sometimes these take the form of writers being interviewed about their process, or other times they run day-long writing workshops in London. At the moment everything is online, which means that anyone can join in.
What the audience were most interested in during my interview, not surprisingly, were the little tricks I use for my own motivation. I’m not a very motivated person when it comes to writing, and I have to use every technique I can think of to keep going. I don’t really like writing, what I enjoy is having written. I didn’t get to mention all my tricks during my Zalon, so I thought I’d put them down here.
Let me know if you start using any and find them helpful, and please do let me know in the comments what tips and tricks you use to keep writing. Perhaps I’ll do a list about inspiration next; but do let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to cover.
- Pretend to write something that isn’t your work in progress (WIP). Open a new document and write in a stream of consciousness style, or morning pages. Let yourself go, fool yourself, and you never know you might just start to write your WIP.
- Try the ‘This is Shit’ Technique. When those little voices in your head which tell you what you’re writing is rubbish get too loud, wherever you are in your WIP type [ and let the little voice have its say. Write [this is shit[, or [no one is ever going to read this] or [if I get run over by a bus please don’t publish this], and then when the voice has run out of steam type ], and carry on with your WIP.
- Interview a character or yourself about a plot point you’re having a problem with. For me this works best if I write it, but I know that for some writers they have an actual conversation and record it. Open a new Word document and type a heading. (I use, ‘We need to talk about xxx’.) Then type a question and let your subconscious brain answer it. I find it works best if I type the ‘interview’ very quickly without time for thought.
- Keep a writing diary for each novel. This is a long term project, but worth starting. Every time you have a writing session write in your diary the date, the current word count, and one line about how that writing session has gone and any major thoughts. For a start, it’s helpful to see the word count increasing – motivation in itself, and secondly when you go through a really difficult patch you can open a diary for a previous novel and see whether you’re feeling the same level of despondency at the same word count as then. (I always am.)
- Give yourself deadlines. If you haven’t been given deadlines by anyone else (publisher or if you’re on a course, for example), then give yourself some. Or ask a fellow writer to give you a deadline and make sure they follow up to see that you’ve achieved it.
- Read someone else’s (excellent) novel. Reading a bad book doesn’t make me think I can do better, but reading an excellent novel makes me try harder with my own WIP.
- Work on several projects at once.
- Find the music that’s right for your WIP (tone / style / period) and put it on every time you write. Eventually, putting it on will mean it’s writing time.
- Have a ‘word race’ with another writer. Agree a time you’re going to start and the length. Maybe 11am for an hour. Check in with each other just before you start and at 12 to see how it went. It isn’t meant to be competitive, but it helps to know that someone else is writing at the same time as you.
- Visit the work every day. Write some of your WIP if you can, but if you can’t, then think about it – when you’re driving, washing up, cooking, whatever. If you have a good thought, email it to yourself or record it (if you don’t, you won’t remember it, or at least I never do). If you do this every day when you do get back to writing the WIP you will have something to write and you will be able to jump into it much faster.
My fourth novel, Unsettled Ground will be published in the US on May 18, when I’ll be doing lots of online bookshop events, including reading from the book, chatting about my writing process, the inspiration behind the novel and lots more. All tickets are free, but you need to register. See the list of dates here.
Unsettled Ground is already published in the UK, and is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Buy a copy here.
Over on Instagram (@writerclairefuller) I recently asked if anyone had any questions about writing, editing or getting published. And there were lots! I’ve answered them all in brief in an Instagram post, but it’s hard to be concise with so many questions. So here are my longer answers. Do let me know if you have any other questions in the comments below and I’ll save them up for a future post.
My writing day
How I organise my writing time (@raluca1503 @tftmotherland)
I worked for so many years in a marketing company following normal office hours that now I write full time, I can’t rid myself of the old 9 – 5. Well, actually 9 – 6pm. But I’m doing much more than working on my novel in progress in that time, and it does depend on where I am in the publishing cycle. I have been known to be promoting one book, Continue reading
This picture of my cat, Alan, has no relevance to this post, but if you’re feeling a bit down, it might cheer you up.
Last November I was an official NaNoWriMo coach – answering questions on Twitter and generally encouraging participants along. (For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an event where participants undertake to write a 50,000 word novel in November.) As part of my duties I also wrote a blog post for the NaNoWriMo website. We’re now nearly approaching the middle of November, so for those participating this year, I thought some advice on saggy middles might be appropriate. And if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, but taking your time about writing a novel hopefully these suggestions could be helpful to you too.
For many writers the middle of your novel is often where your story starts to sag. You might have an idea of the ending, or even have it all planned out, but how you’re going to get there is unclear. Here, then, are six ideas to work those saggy middles to keep them strong, toned and looking good:
Make things even more difficult for your main characters.
Gone Girl, How to be Both, Instructions for a Heatwave: everyone’s at it – using dual or multiple narratives to interweave two or more stories often from different time periods. Less common are books that use a dual narrative from the point of view of the same character.
In my novel Our Endless Numbered Days, the narrator, Peggy Hillcoat, starts telling her story in her present day – 1985 – and then goes back to 1976 to when she was eight. The chapters mostly alternate between one November day in 1985 and the time period from 1976 onwards, until the end of the novel when the two strands collide.
When I started writing I wasn’t looking for a clever structure, I didn’t even realise that the one I used wasn’t that common, I simply wanted to tell the story in the best way possible and like many first-time novelists I muddled my way through. I wrote each chapter consecutively, flipping back and forth between the years, but when I had finished the first draft, I wasn’t sure the 1985, single-day narrative hung together, so I lifted all of those chapters out and rewrote them. Then I put them back in, and revised them in-situ ensuring that they gave hints about what might be about to happen in the other time period, whilst not giving anything away. It was a challenge!
If you’re writing a dual or multiple narrative novel, here are some things you might want to think about:
- Make each strand as interesting as the other(s). You don’t want readers to be skimming through one narrative because they enjoy the others more. Make sure they have emotional investment in all stories.
- Break the action of each narrative at a critical point. The dual narrative structure is a perfect way to create cliff-hangers that will keep your readers turning pages. A cliff-hanger doesn’t always have to be something astounding; just make sure you leave a question in the readers’ minds.
- Use each narrative to shine a light on the other. Have fun with your dual narratives – use them to bring out themes, to foreshadow events, to give hints and clues and as I said above, to set up questions. For example in my first chapter, in 1985, Peggy looks at a photograph of her father sitting at her mother’s piano: ‘I was surprised to see him sitting there. I have no recollection of him ever sitting at the piano or playing it, although of course, it was my father who taught me to play.’ How her father could have taught her to play without her recalling him doing it, hopefully sets up a question which is answered in the second narrative strand.
- Find the way of writing that works for you. Some writers create the strands separately and then bring them together, some, as I did, write them at the same time. It doesn’t matter which way you do it, but when you do bring them together you have to work hard on the interweaving.
- Make clear jumps between narratives. In Our Endless Numbered Days the jumps between the two strands are by chapter. This is probably the clearest way to sign-post to the reader that they are moving from one narrative to another, but even so, I decided to put a date and location at the heading of each 1985 chapter, so the reader was never lost. It can be done more subtly than this, and should be if the jumps are within chapters. You can use character, location, dialogue, or anything that will help the reader know which narrative they are moving into. This is especially important for the first jump you write.
- Make a connection between the two narratives. The connection could be very subtle – a theme, an emotion, an object – or as in my case, very obvious – the narrator. But you do need to reveal a connection at some point, otherwise you might as well write two novels.
- Don’t be too tricksy. Don’t decide on a dual narrative structure because you want your novel to be interesting or challenging; it has to be right for the story. Bear in mind that in a dual narrative you will probably have to withhold information at some point and you don’t want this to appear forced.
- Remember to deal with aging. If your dual narratives use some of the same characters, you will have to make them age believably. My two strands are both about Peggy. She needed to have the same fundamental characteristics, but in one strand she is seventeen, whilst in the other we first meet her age eight. Similarly, you need to consider your characters’ physical characteristics and how those will change over time.
- Remember the character arc. Writing theory often talks about the character arc – how will characters change over the course of the story; what will they learn? With a dual narrative from a single character’s point of view, this can be harder to manage. In the case of Our Endless Numbered Days, Peggy’s main arc happens in the 1976 and onwards chapters. But she also needs to change during the single day in 1985 in a way which matches the other character arc.
It’s a lot to think about, but the most important thing is, if you enjoy writing both narratives then most likely your readers will enjoy them too.
(This article was originally published on Writers & Artists.)
Our Endless Numbered Days has recently been shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. The Reading Agency is holding an unofficial vote for which book readers think should win. Click here to vote for your favourite.