Fans of the Great British Bake-Off will know that participants are often rushing around trying to get things finished at the last minute, before the time runs out.
Sometimes they will be seen squatting in front of their ovens, looking through the glass and willing their cakes or loaves to bake faster. Even though they always seem to be having fun on the show, there's usually a bit of a frenetic atmosphere in that GBBO tent.
But sometimes they just have to accept that there is nothing for them to do but wait. Their dough is in the proving cupboard, and it just has to stay there to rise before anything else can be done with it.
This week, I'm celebrating reaching the end of the first draft of my new novel. Notice I say "reaching the end of", not finished. Experience tells me that I will have seriously rushed my ending, and that I will also have to add more scenes and move others around. I've written previously about the raw material of a first draft - you can read that post here.
Experience also tells me that the days or weeks when I've just finished writing is not the time for me to be able to see all these things clearly. So, The Self-Help Angel is in the proving cupboard, and I won't take it out again for several weeks. With Christmas rapidly approaching, it might even be a month before I look at it again. Then, when I do take it out, I'll be able to see it properly.
One thing that really helps me to maintain momentum when I'm writing, and to get that 'dough' into the proving cupboard is not to number my chapters.
At the start of a new chapter, I just type the word Chapter, then start writing. It might seem like a small thing, but it gives me mental permission to change things around at a later date, and, perhaps more importantly, it removes the pressure of feeling I've got to get it completely right first time. It also seems to make me feel I can write whatever scene happens to be demanding my attention at that particular moment, instead of thinking 'I can't write that because it doesn't come next.'
Anything that helps you to keep your momentum going when you're writing is valuable, because momentum is your best friend. Momentum creates - and maintains - a writing habit. A writing habit means a word count that steadily grows. It also means results, and when you can see the results of your labours, you start to feel you are achieving something. Because you are! And that's more than half the battle.
So, what am I going to be doing while The Self-Help Angel is in the proving cupboard? I'm going to be working on some exciting new courses. Watch this space!
Sometimes my writing flows smoothly, like a stream along well-worn channels, curving around obstacles, intent on its course.
At other times, my ideas are like ants in a disturbed ants' nest, scattering in a hundred different directions.
Sometimes my images come out almost as a list on the page:
a glint of a gold tooth
the rhythmic rocking of the boat
red and gold fabrics, gleaming in the midday sunshine
I take what I get, and use it any way I can, pushing aside thoughts of
the right way
the wrong way
There is only what there is, and it helps me to remember that:
Streams flow to the sea.
Every ant has a designated role in the colony.
Lists help you to remember.
This past week has been a disrupted one for me. It can be difficult enough to deal with self-inflicted disruptions to our writing - a tendency to get distracted by social media, or to put our own dreams and priorities last.
But sometimes Life just happens. A two-day headache that divorces you from your imagination. A phone call from the school asking you to collect your poorly son.
That's why I've learnt to take writing - especially the writing I do for a first draft - as it comes, whether it's in the form of streams, scattered ants or lists. However it comes, it accumulates and gets stuffed together. After a while it coagulates and becomes part of something bigger.
I hope you've had a great week. Last time, I told you I was going to be plunging into my new novel this week. Well, I put my diving gear on, and I jumped over the side of the boat. I can hear voices inside my head as my characters speak to each other. I am in the writing zone.
But I'm just emerging for a while to share my thoughts about first drafts with you. Hint - they're the gloop in this message title!
When I first started to write, I didn't know about first drafts. I thought you just sat down to write - and write - until you typed those magical words THE END, and then that was that. You sent your book off to a publisher and you then you waited with baited breath to hear from them.
After receiving the inevitable rejection, I learnt that typically, writers write several drafts of their novel before they submit in anywhere. I was dismayed. What? Do that, all over again? Surely not!
But gradually, I came to realise the freedom of working in this way. Once you accept that your first draft is your raw material - your modelling clay, if you like - it takes the pressure off writing. If your first draft is your raw material that you will lovingly model and carve into something, it doesn't have to be perfect straight away. It just has to be out there.
I'm writing quickly at the moment, because I want to get my ideas out there as they come to me. I have a loose plan, but past experience tells me that when I read back over what I've written, my characters are likely to be speaking to each other in a kind of a vacuum, and the reader won't be able to fully imagine where things are happening, or what characters are doing. But that's fine, because I can go back and add action, description and details that show character and set the mood of my scenes. I can engage my readers' emotions more fully. I can restructure my book, chop it about, add clues and create suspense. What's more, I will enjoy doing these things.
So, if you're writing a first draft at the moment, take the pressure off yourself. Decide not to worry about it being perfect, and enjoy the process of writing and the sheer pleasure of getting your story out there.
Go for it!
Until the next time, and wishing you joy in your creativity,
This week I'm delighted to welcome Crooked Cat author Vanessa Couchman to my Write Despite Feature. Like many of us, Vanessa struggles with procrastination. I'll let her tell us how she deals with it. Welcome, Vanessa!
What challenges have you had to overcome or deal with in order to write?
I’m an odd mixture of contradictions. A perfectionist by nature, I am also a serial procrastinator. Add in a lack of self-confidence and you have a recipe for complete stasis. I call it the rabbit in the headlights syndrome. It’s amazing that I get anything done at all – but, paradoxically, I have a tendency to take on too many commitments. I’m just a gal who can’t say no.
So my main challenge is carving out time to write and forcing myself to use that time effectively, rather than just frittering it away. We live in the wilds of Southwest France and so I don’t know what I would do without the internet. But sometimes I really wish it had never been invented. It’s the procrastinator’s paradise. I don’t have the willpower to turn it off. Also, there’s a lot of pressure on authors to have an extensive social media presence, which takes up plenty of time.
How do you think this challenge has impacted on your writing?
As a freelance writer by profession, I can’t afford to miss deadlines, but when it comes to writing fiction I just assume that I have infinite time to get it done. Then I reach the end of the day and realise I haven’t achieved what I set out to do. Despite this, I do actually love writing and it gives me a buzz to see my characters take on a life of their own.
For me, National Novel Writing Month has been a boon. (Nanowrimo.org) I wrote my first novel, The House at Zaronza, during November 2012 and most of a second novel in November last year. Having to achieve 50,000 words in a month is just the goal I need. The problems are, first, that you end up with something that isn’t quite novel-length and have to finish it and, second, that the focus is on quantity rather than quality, so a lot of editing is needed.
What was your greatest fear when you first started to write?
I first started to write when I was very young. Then I had no fear at all. I just wrote to tell stories. At that age, you don’t have dreams of publication or the hang-ups that accumulate as an adult.
I started writing fiction again about six years ago after a very long gap that was filled with a career and then running my own business. My fear then was that my writing wouldn’t be good enough. I began with short stories and I cringe when I look at some of the early ones. With the help of colleagues from a small online writing community, Writers Abroad, I improved and got some successes in competitions under my belt. But I have always felt that novels, rather than short stories, are where my heart lies, even if their length makes them more daunting!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write, but who is feeling held back by circumstances and/or challenges?
It obviously depends on the circumstances. And, given what I’ve said above, I’m probably not the best person to offer advice! However, if you also have the procrastination gene, I suggest trying to set goals for what you want to achieve each day or week: not huge, overarching goals, but broken down into bite-sized pieces, so that you can achieve them, tick them off and feel a sense of satisfaction.
Tell us a bit about something you've written that you're really proud of, or something you're writing now.
If you had told me a few years ago that I would be a published author, I would have fallen over. I’m sorry my mother didn’t live long enough to know it: she loved books and reading and would have been so proud.
The House at Zaronza, published by Crooked Cat, was inspired by a true story we came across when holidaying on Corsica – an island we love and keep revisiting.
The B&B where we stayed had framed love letters on the walls, which the owners discovered walled up in the attic when they restored the house. They were written in the 1890s by the local schoolmaster to the daughter of the house, but they were destined never to marry. I just had to write the story, which stretches into World War I and beyond.
If I’m allowed two things, I’m also rather proud of my French life blog, Life on La Lune. We’ve lived in France since 1997 and I started a blog six years ago about French life, history and culture. People often take the trouble to write to tell me they enjoy it, which means a lot to me. Here's the link: France blog: http://vanessafrance.wordpress.com
Thanks so much for appearing on Write Despite, Vanessa! I'm sure many readers will related to your procrastination, and thanks for such beautiful, inspiring pictures. They really make us want to read your book! Vanessa's links and the blurb to A House in Zaronza are below.
Until next time!
Blurb from The House at Zaronza
The past uncovered. Rachel Swift travels to Corsica to discover more about her forebears. She comes across a series of passionate love letters and delves into their history. The story unfolds of a secret romance at the start of the 20th century between a village schoolteacher and Maria, the daughter of a bourgeois family. Maria’s parents have other plans for her future, though, and she sees her dreams crumble. Her life is played out against the backdrop of Corsica, the ‘island of beauty’, and the turmoil of World War I. This is a story about love, loss and reconciliation in a strict patriarchal society, whose values are challenged as the world changes.
Vanessa Couchman has lived in France since 1997 and is passionate about French and Corsican history and culture. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and placed in competitions. She is working on a sequel to The House at Zaronza, set in World War II and another novel set in 18th-century Corsica. Vanessa works as a freelance writer and is a member of the Historical Novel Society.