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The Right Time To Write – a guest post by Linda Gillard

06 Dec

Friend of Libro (and of Liz), Linda Gillard has been an actress, journalist and teacher and is the author of five novels, including STAR GAZING, short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award (for writing that promotes the Scottish landscape). Her most recent novels, HOUSE OF SILENCE and UNTYING THE KNOT are Kindle bestsellers. To find out more about Linda and her work, do visit www.lindagillard.co.uk

Linda is passionate about helping other people to write; she has regularly offered masterclasses at BookCrossing Unconventions and is Writer in Residence for Durham University’s “Celebrating Science” initiative.

November saw NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a  hugely popular highlight in the writing year – and a lot of people will have “won” by getting the requisite number of words down. And that’s great – well done! But what if you didn’t – does that mean you should give up. Let’s hear what Linda has to say, in a special guest blog post she’s written for Libro.

The Right Time To Write

Do you have writer’s cramp? Or typist’s tremor? Did you enter the annual November writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo? (National Novel Writing Month). And if you did, did you finish, or did you give up exhausted half-way through the month?

I’m a professional writer with five published novels on my CV and I’m about to finish a sixth. I write full-time, so I’m not your typical WriMo-er but, encouraged by the buzz and some enthusiastic writing friends, I attempted NaNoWriMo for the first (and probably last) time in 2010.

It was an illuminating experience and taught me a lot about how I write. I gave up half-way through the month with a word count of 26,000. I didn’t abandon my novel, I simply stopped beating myself up about speed and resumed my normal writing pace and methods. I’d discovered that NaNoWriMo was not for me. I’m about to finish that novel which means, like most of my books, it’s taken me a bit more than a year to write.

I made a good start even though I’d not done lot of planning. (I don’t plan my novels very much anyway, so this wasn’t raising the bar for me.) Producing quantities of words isn’t difficult for me, but writing at NaNo speed confirmed for me what I’ve always thought about novel-writing: finding time to write a novel isn’t nearly as difficult as finding time to think a novel.

And that’s what was missing from my NaNo experience. Time to think. I wasn’t day-dreaming, hypothesizing, re-thinking or revising – all those processes that, for me, are what novel-writing is about. I was just producing an impressive daily word count.

My set-up was promising. The writing was competent. Then at 18,000 words things started to get tough. Artistic decisions had to be made and I wanted to slow down and reflect on what I’d produced so far. I knew I needed to get to know my characters better. In short, I wanted my novel-in-progress to develop and mature. But that’s not what NaNoWriMo is about. It’s about “getting all your ideas down”, that and the big confidence boost of actually finishing a draft.

It’s my view that anyone with a love of writing, a vivid imagination, some spare time and some determination can produce a quarter of a novel. Many novels – even those begun by seasoned professionals – are abandoned around the 25,000-word mark. Writers hit a wall. I think it’s because by then, we’ve finished setting up, we’ve created the characters and their environment. What comes next is the hard part: the development and careful structuring of the story so it moves towards the necessary climaxes and resolution. I believe writers only move beyond this point if they really, really want to tell their story (or if they’re contracted to tell it and have a deadline.)

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies said, “There is no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.” I don’t think I’d go so far as to say there’s no point, but I will say, if you aren’t being paid to write, you’re unlikely to finish your novel unless you feel this way.

NaNoWriMo is brilliant as an inspiring, sociable and creative exercise. It’s great for producing a very rough draft of the novel you’ve been brewing up for months or years. But it worries me the way NaNo has “failure” built in for so many participants – and not just failure to achieve the 50,000 word count. Last year during NaNo month I read many complaints on Facebook from writers suffering RSI-related pain, yet their well-meaning fellow participants encouraged them to push on through the pain, thereby risking the possibility of serious damage to the delicate tendons of the hand. This isn’t writing, it’s masochism! Producing a novel is a test of stamina. It shouldn’t be a test of endurance.

I question the wisdom of producing fiction in a state of caffeine-fuelled exhaustion and pain. It might be possible to write like this, but it’s unlikely to produce your best work.(It certainly didn’t produce mine and despite a great deal of editing, I still have reservations about the early chapters of my NaNo novel.)

I’m not trying to knock NaNoWriMo, I’m just making a plea for balance. I’d like to challenge the idea that churning out verbiage for an entire month has to be good. I’d like to extol the virtues of a more thoughtful approach, especially to those who withdrew defeated from the NaNo marathon and to them I’d like to say, there’s a reason why professional novelists don’t produce a book in a month.

Last year when I was struggling to stay in the NaNo game, I wearied of people claiming on FB that “everything can be fixed once you have a draft”. I don’t believe it can. The prolific Nora Roberts said, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.” It is important to get your ideas down on paper and drafts are there to be edited into something better. What worries me about NaNoWriMo is not the fast writing it requires, but the fast thinking, the decision-making that story-telling requires. Quick thinking can lead to the quick-fix and the quick-fix can lead to predictability, stereotype and cliché.

When my children were young and asked to watch films and TV programmes that I thought might frighten them, I refused and warned them that once you’ve seen something, you can never un-see it (which they discovered to their cost when they had months of nightmares inspired by RETURN TO OZ.) I believe it can be the same with writing. You can of course un-write stuff, but you can’t un-think it or un-hear it. Writing is decision-making, word by painstaking word. If you’re concerned about the quality of your fiction and not just the quantity, I think there’s a lot to be said for remaining alert, receptive and poised for that moment of inspiration, the right time to write. If you ask me, that’s the really hard part about novel-writing: the waiting. Waiting until you’re ready to write. Knowing when you’re ready.

If you didn’t finish NaNo this year, don’t be too despondent and please don’t think you “failed”. Maybe you weren’t ready to write. Writing is the end product of a process of thinking and feeling. Maybe you had more thinking to do. Maybe you just aren’t a fast writer. I’m a professional and I failed to produce 50,000 words in thirty days – or rather, I decided that to do so would be counter-creative, because for me it’s not about the word count, it’s about how much my words count.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on December 6, 2011 in Guest posts, Writing

 

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7 responses to “The Right Time To Write – a guest post by Linda Gillard

  1. emmyleigh

    December 7, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Thank you. I managed nanowrimo a couple of times, but the second time was only by diverting into something totally irrelevant partway through before regaining the plot. I’ve felt guilty about not doing it, feeling it’s a valuable way of getting the words flowing, but at the same time felt that having proven I could do it, there was no point in doing it again, the point is now to take my time and write something that really means something to me. My best writing has been when I’ve been in love with my characters and the stories have written themselves. I just can’t do that on 2k words a day.
    Now it’s finding the discipline and time from somewhere to write something, anything, in order to get the words flowing. The only way to improve writing is by writing, but that will only work if that writing is born out of reflection and planning as well.

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    • Liz at Libro

      December 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Emmyleigh – and I’m glad the post has resonated with you. Good luck with your writing endeavours!

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  2. Linda Gillard

    December 7, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Emmyleigh. I’m glad I’m not the only one. The enthusiasm of NaNo-ers is so infectious, it’s easy to feel guilty for not finishing, or not even attempting it. I think perhaps NaNo suits genre fiction writers where a lot of the format and style is known already. I’m thinking category romance or police procedurals.

    When I was trying to get my first novel written my kids were teenagers, I was quite ill and there were a couple of house moves, so there were lots of distractions. To keep up momentum I also wrote a writing journal. When I wasn’t writing the novel itself I was writing in the journal. I would moan in the journal about how stuck I was, how badly the book was going and I’d discuss with myself how I could solve plot problems.

    This worked brilliantly. It meant I never came back to writing the novel “stone cold”. I worked out a lot of stuff on paper and did a lot of the “daydreaming” that I think is necessary to write a good novel. I also found that what seemed like an intractable problem on paper, sometimes solved itself overnight. I’d wake up knowing what just needed to be done. Magic!

    I don’t think it’s easy to write fiction every day – real life intervenes! – but with a writing journal you can write about your novel, your characters or the setting whenever you aren’t up to producing the fiction. I also logged my word count and my mood (usually gloomy and lacking in self-confidence!). I’ve since found the journal an interesting resource to return to, long after the novel was published.

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  3. gillyfraser

    December 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    This makes me feel a wee bit guilty – or perhaps uncomfortable would be a better word – because I did NaNo for the first time ever this year and I succeeded and I loved it. It was a personal triumph for me to get the 50k words written – and I’ve set them aside now till January when I will look at them again and start the hard work of turning them into a proper novel.

    I actually found the process strangely liberating – I enjoyed being pushed by the need to hit the word count, and although I’m not naturally competitive, I did feel a very strong determination to make the 50k even though all sorts of things kept getting in the way to stop me.

    I’m not a literary writer – some years ago I was lucky enough to have nine books published by Mills and Boon under the pen-name Rachel Elliot – and I’ve been a Journalist all my working life. My stories will never win awards, and I doubt they’ll ever challenge readers in the way Linda’s do so brilliantly. However with my NaNo story I have taken a completely new direction and I gave myself permission to just write and write and see what would happen.

    The book’s a long way from finished, but I’m genuinely looking forward to getting back to it in January.

    I’ve also put a shortened version of this comment on your Facebook page – so if you read it twice you’re not suffering deja vu – just my recycling!

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    • Liz at Libro

      December 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm

      Please don’t feel guilty – publishing this piece was aimed at making people who didn’t “win” a little more reassured that it’s not the only way to write. If you did it and enjoyed it and got something out of it, then that’s brilliant. It’s people forcing themselves through it and hurting themselves / not getting good writing out of it who are the ones we’re concerned about.

      Not trying to speak for Linda here and I’m sure she’ll be along to comment, but just wanted to hopefully make you feel less uncomfy!

      And thank you for taking the time to comment on here and FB!

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      • Linda Gillard

        December 12, 2011 at 12:38 pm

        Hi, Gilly. It was with some trepidation that I approached Liz about this guest blog because I knew it was a tricky subject. NaNo works BRILLIANTLY for a lot of people and I’m not knocking it. I was really only addressing those who feel (as I did last year) a NaNo failure. I wanted to reassure the quitters that sometimes quitting is the right thing to do! NaNo doesn’t suit everyone.

        Feeling guilty about failing/quitting was the problem I was trying to tackle, so I’m sorry if my post had that effect on you. Congratulations on being a NaNo winner! It’s no mean achievement and you have every right to feel proud, especially as you were brave enough to branch out in a new writing direction. How exciting!

        I suspect my post will have reassured & irritated people in equal measure (which is exactly!what I expected.)

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  4. gillyfraser

    December 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Hi Liz and Linda – Hey, don’t apologise! Getting a discussion going is always a good thing and I don’t want you to think I was upset by your blog in ANY way whatsoever. I just wanted to put the other side really – and to be fair to NaNo, I think they do include quite a lot of reassurance for those who don’t finish the 50k – with guest posts and forum threads devoted to that very subject.

    It worked for me specifically in the sense that it made me sit down and write a story which has been bugging the life out of me for the past few years – it was literally like opening a door in my mind and saying ‘well come on then – you’ve been set free – get on with it!’

    I know that when I read back my 50k in January I’ll find a lot of trite twaddle, loose ends, irrelevant gubbins – it’ll all be there by the barrowload. However I’m hoping there will also be the kernel of something I can work on – and maybe a few chunks I can be proud of!

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