Getting over the self-doubt hurdle

My novel for NaNoWriMo is at 11, 719 words. So far, I’ve struggled to write as much as I would have liked. I’ve put a lot more pressure on myself as this is my second time writing a novel. This novel also involves a lot more research than the last. So far, I’ve needed to know about life on the international space station, the IVF process, NASA, NICU and Australia’s plans to break into the space industry. In the previous novel, I was able to just write. I made things up and fixed them later. I can’t do that this time. I’d have nothing to write about.

As a result, every time I begin a new chapter, I feel like I’m writing from nothing. A novel is such a big task to undertake, I’ve found it’s easy to doubt how the novel will come together as a whole. It’s hard to hold together the plot. I resonated a lot with a quote Griffith Review shared today for #novellanovember. They quote Nick Earls who says “if you’re like me…you reach a point in the first draft [of a novel] where the beginning has drifted from view but the end is still a long way over the horizon” (GriffithReview, 2018). While Earls’s quote is in support of the shorter Novella format, it still very much resonates with how I’m feeling now. I’m a messy writer. I go in with a rough sketch of the overall plot and that’s it. The first 20,000 words are my chance to get to know the story and learn who the characters are (and learn about their hobbies and work, which are usually new fields to me). I find that process equal parts exciting and scary.

My problem is that I set my expectations too high for what is, really, my first chance to explore a new world and meet new people. I find that, in order to stop doubting myself, I need to give myself permission to be terrible. I need to give myself permission for the first draft to suck.

This is how I manage self-doubt in my work:

Manage your expectations

I break my goal down into smaller pieces. An  80,000 word novel is a scary target. Breaking it down into 500 word writing sessions make it seem less intimidating. If I’m having a bad day, I do 200 word writing sessions. I still get 1600 words a day done (most of the time), but the smaller target stops me from feeling too overwhelmed with it.

Don’t overwhelm your senses

Write somewhere quiet. It’s tempting to write in a nice cafe but, if you’re like me, you might find it distracting. I’m an observer. I walk into people (staff and students!) at work all the time, because I’m too busy trying to take in everything around me. When I’m out, I listen in on conversations, I trace the patterns and textures around me. I try to commit everything to memory. You won’t find it surprising then, that I write best when I’m at home and it’s quiet. I’m lucky I live in a wonderful house and my study has views of the city. You don’t have to write at home, but I suggest finding somewhere quiet so you don’t end up feeling too overwhelmed.

Practise self-compassion

When I feel myself doubting my abilities, I find it’s important to recognise how I’m feeling. I need to name what the feeling is so that I can create some distance from it. It’s easy to take criticism personally. It’s easy to believe the negative things you’re telling yourself. It’s much harder to practise self-compassion. Plenty of other people out there will judge your work. There’s no need for you to be one of them.

So what is self-compassion? According to Dr. Neff, it’s “to treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter” (2011, para. 10). When you find yourself being critical, try to bring to mind what it feels like to be with someone who cares about you. Extend that same compassion towards yourself and keep writing.

Take a break

If you’re still having trouble writing, it’s okay to walk away. You’re allowed to take a day off. You’re allowed to take a week off. Don’t get so caught up in your imposed deadline that you work yourself to death, especially if you’re doing #NaNoWriMo. I got no writing done yesterday because I was feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Instead I caught up my mother, had a bath, and binge-watched shows on Netflix. Writing is hard work.  It makes you cognitively tired. Sometimes your brain just needs a break.

 

Have any tips of your own? Comment or tweet me @kazzalo

 

 

 

 

References

GriffithReview. (2018, November 7). Brisbane-based writer @nickearls makes another appearance for #NovellaNovember with today’s note on why he chooses the #novella. Find the entire note here: https://www.facebook.com/59242722420/posts/10156847626462421/ [image file]. [tweet]. Retrieved on Wednesday 7 November from https://twitter.com/GriffithReview/status/1060005053732278272

Neff, K. (2011). Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem. Greater Good Magazine. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 7 November 2018, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/try_selfcompassion

Your first draft sucks. Get over it.

I finished editing my first draft over the weekend, but it didn’t feel like much of an achievement. I wrote this novel, and started this blog, because I wanted to take writing much more seriously. This first edit is one step on a very long journey.

With that being said, as I move onto the structural edit, here’s what editing the first draft has taught me:

#1 The first draft always sucks

Even good first drafts suck. I love the characters I created, and I got caught up in some of the prose. There were moments where the plot made my heart stop, but there were also moments where I cringed. I needed to rewrite the first and last three chapters. I needed to add a chapter in the middle. I deleted thousands of words and added words back in. I used far too many metaphors and had to cut them back. I love my story, but that first draft still sucked.

To put it another way: “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.” (Smiley, n.d.) [1]. A good novel is made in the editing, and you’ll be hard pushed to find any published author who will tell you otherwise. 

#2 Set a deadline and get it done

Participating in NaNoWriMo helped me establish a writing routine. I wrote every day because I had a deadline. I got it done. Writing a first draft is about getting something down on the page that you can refine later. Writing the first draft is all about conquering that voice in your head that says you can’t write a novel or your work just isn’t good enough:

“Awful first drafts are fine. If you don’t finish something, you’ll never get in the game. Just quell the voice in your head that says ‘Are you kidding? No one is going to want to read this drivel’ and keep on going. You’re going to revise and revise and then revise again anyway.” (Freveletti, 2011, para. 10)

Author Hannah Mary McKinnon explains it’s this fear that holds many writers back, suggesting they’ve set their expectations too high for what the first draft should look like (2018, para. 2). Don’t worry – feeling like this is actually pretty normal. As Judy Blume explains: “I dread first drafts! I worry each day that it won’t come, that nothing will happen” (.n.d., para. 3).

All you have to do right now, is have something to work with later. You should also remember that not everyone works well with tidy plot outlines and chapter synopses. It’s okay to be messy. Take Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, as an example: “the bottom line is that I like my first drafts to be blind, unconscious messy efforts; that’s what gets me the best material” (as quoted in Lee, 2011, para. 10). So just write the damn thing. Worry about tidying it up later. As Steven King says, “The scariest moment is always just before you start” (p.269).

#3 Don’t edit while you write

I always edited my work while I was writing it, and I never got anything done! I never finished anything. The critic in my head destroyed all my self-confidence. When I wrote this novel, I did it in a month, so I had no time to edit. I came back to the novel three months later and I not only enjoyed reading it, but I wasn’t as emotionally invested in it. I no longer felt like cutting scenes was cutting out pieces of my soul.

Your first draft is about getting something down on paper that you can build on later. All you are doing is laying the foundations. Editing while you’re writing, for me, is a form of procrastination. I know I’m coming up to a tough scene when I feel the urge to stop writing and go back and edit instead.

There’s no point in editing while you’re writing the first draft, because you’re just going change it later. You’ll move scenes around. You’ll delete and rewrite scenes. That’s the fun part of editing; shaping your rough work into a polished story. As Neil Gaiman explains:

“The second draft is where the fun is. In a first draft, you get to explode. The objective (at least for me) is to get it down on paper, somehow. Battle through the laziness and the not-enough-time and the this-is-rubbish and everything else, and just get it written. Whatever it takes. The second draft is where you go and gather together the fragments of the explosion and figure out what it is you did, and make it look like that was what you always meant to do” (2008, para. 19)

You’re going to change what you’ve written, so don’t edit while you write. It’s a waste of time.

 

Have any tips of your own? Add them in the comments.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] This is often attributed to author Jane Smiley, however, I have not been able to find an accurate source for it.

 

 

References

Blume, J. (n.d.). Writing: Questions for Judy. Judy Blume on the Web. Retrieved from http://www.judyblume.com/about/questions/writing.php

Freveletti, J. (2011). Ten Tips I Received…and Sometimes Ignored. Book Country. Retrieved on 30th of October from http://blog.bookcountry.com/ten-tips-i-receivedand-sometimes-ignored-2/

Gaiman, N. YOU PUT YOUR (RIGHT-HAND REAR) LEG IN…Journal. Retrieved from http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/05/you-put-your-right-hand-rear-leg-in.html

King, S. (2010). On Writing. New York: Scribner.

Lee, S. (2011). Jennifer Egan on ‘Goon Squad’, ‘Los Angeles Times’ brouhaha, and her next novel. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from https://ew.com/article/2011/04/02/jennifer-egan-interview-goon-squa/

McKinnon, H. M. How to get through the First Draft of your Novel. Curtis Brown Creative. Retrieved from https://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/how-to-get-through-your-first-draft/

Smiley, J. (n.d.) Jane Smiley Quotes. Goodreads. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/812901-every-first-draft-is-perfect-because-all-the-first-draft

How to find time to write

A lot of people tend to be surprised at how much I do. Many people have commented on how busy I seem so I thought, given we’re coming up to NaNoWriMo again, I’d talk about how I actually find the time to to write 1700 words a day.

To set the scene, these are some of the things I regularly make time for:

Working full time as a lecturer. I teach 3 different courses, am the national coordinator for 2 courses and have been doing work in curriculum development.

Editing my novel. I wrote a novel and have been busy editing it (I finished editing the first draft just today!).

Research. I’ve been reading and researching my novel. That includes everything from reading other novels, to reading about plot structure and editing techniques. I’ve also been doing research into writing about mental illness and trauma (which I talked about at NYWF) and uses of artificial intelligence in the classroom (which I presented a research paper on for TEMC in September).

Me presenting at TEMC in September 2018

Creating digital work. I created a work called “this is what depression feels like” for NYWF and will be showcasing it at the Digital Writers’ Festival in November. It’s coded in HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

This blog.  Writing posts takes time. Planning and working with guest authors also takes time.

Volunteering. I’m volunteering for Perth Web Girls to help run coding workshops for women. The next one is Saturday the 3rd of November. I also volunteer on the WA Poets Inc committee.

So how do I find time to write? Well, I just do. When I was younger, I was meticulous about when and where I’d write. I needed a clean desk with new stationary, a nice notebook. I needed to go the beach and look out over the ocean, but it also couldn’t be too windy. It couldn’t be too hot. I couldn’t be tired, and it couldn’t be too loud. I started many novels, but never finished any of them, and I didn’t write very much at all. I was a student, and I wasn’t working, so I had the time to be fussy. Now I don’t.

That’s really all there is to it. I write whenever I get the chance to. If I have 15 minutes left on my lunch break, I’ll spend it writing. If I wake up early, I’ll spend an extra 20 minutes writing before getting ready. I might only have 5 minutes before my stop on the train. I’ll still write something, even if it’s just a few sentences. Time is precious and I have so little of it now. If I wait for the right time to write, I’ll never finish the novel. I just have to get something down on the page, so that a future version of me has something to cross out with red pen and curse over.

There’s really no secret to finding time to write. It’s all about busting the myth that a writing session has to be hours of you sitting alone with headphones in. 15 minute bursts can be just as productive.

 

Participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Track your progress and keep yourself motivated with David Seah’s word tracker.

NaNoWriMo 2018

Next month is NaNoWriMo and I have an idea for a novel.  I’ve had this idea since NaNoWriMo 2017 and have been running through different storylines in my head for almost a year. I’m keen to do NaNoWriMo again this year, despite the lack of time I have available and how overworked I am. I set myself one deadline in order to be able to participate; I want to finish editing the first draft of last year’s novel before I start the next one. I have 30,000 words left to edit, and about 3 weeks to do so.

My goal this year is 2000 words a day (I averaged 1700 words a day last year). My novel, which I’ve optimistically already registered, is called …but Anna Sparks is dead? Here’s a rough synopsis:

Anna Sparks is no ordinary human. She was the first human to encounter life in space, and it terrified her. After seeing how this alien technology has destroyed and corrupted other civilisations, Anna vows to stop people on earth from ever getting their hands on it. But Anna cannot be trusted. Anna embodies the very technology she’s protecting everyone from. Some people call them superpowers, but her ability to control the things around her is a technological enhancement she gained during the last great intergalactic war, a war she tried to stop and couldn’t. Now she battles to keep the fighting away from her home. But Anna Sparks dies, and everyone sees it. So when earth is invaded, how is she the one who tries to save it?

This novel obviously has a lot more science fiction elements than The Black Swan Experiments, which is the novel that inspired me to start this blog. My original plan for this novel was to have Anna as the sidekick to a male who was the first human to encounter life in space. If I’m honest, it was watching Doctor Who that make me question why Anna had to be the love interest. I realised I had no good reason for keeping her as the love interest to a male character, especially when all of the action revolves around her choices.

Another big inspiration for this novel was Captain Cook. I was in Newcastle recently for the National Young Writers’ Festival, and, at the foot of the public library, were stairs commemorating the bicentenary of his exploration, charting and claiming of the east coast of Australia. It made me think a lot about colonisation (how is there a statue that commemorates the slaughter and takeover of a whole race of people?!), and I really want this to be a big part of my novel. My intention is for the alien race to act as the coloniser, with them having technology that we, the colonised, cannot possibly compete against. I’ve been very careful in planning how this is narrated, as I don’t want to talk outside of my experience or create something that could be insensitive. I can’t explain that in more detail right now though, because I’d giving away a huge twist in the book.

While there are a lot of science fiction novels which explore colonisation already (with War of the Worlds being one of the more notable examples), I want to explore it in a slightly different way. In every war there’s a side who doesn’t win. What would a novel be like if you followed the same characters the whole way through, thinking you were on the winning side, only to reach the end and realise you were wrong? I want the final chapters of this book to be written from the antagonist’s perspective, and I want the antagonist to be the winner of the war. It’s someone else’s voice, someone else’s story. Maybe it’s told through newspaper clippings and found documents. Maybe it’s first person narration. What matters is that the narrative everyone in the story world comes to remember, the way history gets written in the world of the book, is completely different to everything you’ve just been told by the previous narrator. That isn’t to say that the previous narrator was unreliable; what they told you was their experience of the war. They just aren’t in a position of power to have that experience acknowledged. History is written by the side that wins, and it’s the winner’s story that concludes the book.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll be exploring colonisation in fiction in more detail (with references!) in later blog posts. In the mean time, watch this space for updates on my NaNoWriMo preparation and progress. I also have an author Q and A with the Laundry Man (AKA Jakob Boyd) coming your way soon. I’ll be interviewing some fantastic guests over the next few months, so make sure to visit often.

Fictionalising trauma

For me, writing about trauma is confusing. Having experienced some similar traumas to the main character (and narrator) in my book, I feel I’m able to give her voice a lot of authenticity. As a result, a lot of the experiences in the book also trigger some of my own, and I end up feeling a lot of similar anxieties. While this makes the process difficult, there are many benefits to fictionalising personal trauma. Maree Giles touches on one of them when she explains that “Shakespeare understood what the Greeks knew and demonstrated: that tragedy can be cathartic” (2016, para. 19). Likewise, Sulari Gentill shares similar sentiments as one of ten authors working with veterans at the ACT writer’s Centre as part of the Purple Ink Program. The director, Sarah Mason explains that the program is a way to heal trauma through writing (2018, para. 17). However, I find the opposite tends to be true. In order to write about trauma, I have to engage with the worst parts of it. Reliving trauma from my own life, regardless of how far I’ve come since it occured, doesn’t get easier or less burdensome. Giles acknowledges this, saying that “the dichotomy of writing about trauma is that it is disturbing and cathartic.” (2016, para. 35).

While I find writing about trauma to be mostly disturbing and difficult, I do acknowledge that being able to fictionalise and remove oneself from the situation can still be a cathartic process for others. It is this act of fictionalising the experience that interests me the most. For example, Giles, whose first book Girl 43 was informed, in part, by her own traumatic experiences, talks about how she developed the idea for Girl 43 in her peice ‘Writing Trauma” for Overland.  Giles talks about how she fictionalised aspects of her own trauma in order to better explore it:

“By chance, when I began to write the book, I spotted a small item in The Times about forced adoption in Australia. I knew immediately that I could combine the two stories.  A girl I knew at Parramatta had her baby stolen by the authorities and put up for adoption. The trauma led her to heroin addiction and later to suicide. I heard about her death when working at TV Times magazine in Sydney, in a Department of Corrective Services publication that happened to land on my desk. It used her suicide as an example of what can go wrong when addicted prisoners are not given proper medical and psychological support. I later found out that her suicide happened just feet away from officers, and that her fellow inmates – her friends – had shouted at them to intervene and save her. ” (2016, para. 25)

Giles used her own trauma as research for her book and, in doing so, she was able to fictionalise the experience and explore it with less ownership and tangibility. This idea of fictionalising trauma is also touched on by Gentill, who explains that “everybody has that capacity and that almost inherent need to tell their story, whether it be through their own experiences or the medium of other protagonists and fictional worlds” (as cited in Travers, 2018, para. 21).
What makes writing about trauma difficult is the very thing that makes it appealing – being able to explore the experience while being removed from it. As Saïd Sayrafiezade explains, trauma doesn’t inherently make a engaging story; “not every troubling or difficult thing you have experienced will be interesting to someone who doesn’t know you” (2016, para. 8). While King says that he thinks the best stories tend to be character driven and not plot driven (2010, p. 164 – 173), by giving my character some of my own trauma, I’ve had to hand over ownership of that experience. To have a story,  the character also needs to change or transform in some way. While a traumatic event can be the catalyst for this, the character still needs to make decisions that will advance the plot and lead to this transformation. A traumatised person isn’t always present, and doesn’t always participate. Balancing these two things has been of the biggest challenges (so far) in writing (and editing) my first book.

 

References

Giles, M. (2016). Writing trauma. Overland literary journal. Retrieved 26 May 2018, from https://overland.org.au/2016/12/writing-trauma/

King, S. (2010). On Writing. New York: Scribner.

Sayrafiezadeh, S. (2016). How to Write About Trauma. The New York Times. Retrieved 26 May 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/opinion/sunday/how-to-write-about-trauma.html

Travers, P. (2018). Creative writing helps veterans express themselves and cope with trauma. ABC News. Retrieved 26 May 2018, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-07/soldier-on-creative-writing-helping-veterans-express-themselves/9517650