How do I get myself to prioritize my novel writing over that of other writing, like articles and blog posts? I love the shorter writing pieces because they’re done more quickly, and then I get comments and feedback, and that feels great! But with my novel, it feels like such a long road until I get any positive reinforcement for doing the writing. (I’m still on draft one, so there’s no way I’m letting anyone see it yet. I need to get through this draft, then have a chance to fix the obvious problems that I already see. Then I might seek out feedback!) The result of this, of course, is that my novel is progressing QUITE slowly. I try to stick to a regular writing schedule, but the ratio of “time on book” to “time on other writing projects” is a bit out of balance. Help!—Gretchen
Ah, the dreaded timesuck. . .other writing.
When I was in college we used to say, “The way to get a student to clean the house is to tell them to do their homework. And the way to get them to do their homework is to tell them it’s their turn to clean the house.”
You’ve identified the magic food pellet of short pieces: quick feedback. Someone’s reading you! Hurrah! Let’s all go out for margaritas!
However, you’ve also noticed something extremely significant about novels: THEY TAKE A LONG TIME.
Here’s my most honest, barebones, heartfelt advice—don’t pressure yourself. Write your novel because you want to write it. Write it because it’s fun and fascinating and intriguing and you love those characters. Write it because you feel good while you’re doing it and you love reading what you’ve done. Write just to write.
If you have a regular writing time every day (well, first off, congrat-the-heck-ulations), go ahead and start it with something short if you feel like it. But don’t write it for publication. (I talk about this in more depth in “Committing Random Acts of Literature” in The Art & Craft of Fiction.) Write it as if no one will ever see it. Just a blurb going out into the ectoplasm of cosmic invisible literature.
Then read yesterday’s work on your novel. Try not to read the whole thing. Just yesterday’s work. Hey, you know what you did yesterday to facilitate this? You ended that work in mid-paragraph.
Now you can write the next sentence, which you already know what it was going to be. Of course. And tack another one onto that. And another. And another. . .until your time is up, and you’re in the middle of a paragraph that you’ll remember you’re working on when you sit down again tomorrow.
Or, conversely, you don’t write a single word. You daydream and take notes and sort out plot entanglements carefully and patiently, like combing very long, tangled hair. You interview your characters. You draw maps of significant rooms and cities and countrysides. You doodle your characters’ profiles. You take your notebook someplace you want to set a scene and write down everything you observe. You think about where your plot is going, why, under what circumstances, and why you want it to get there.
And if you run out of things to say before your time is up, you can always write a blog post. A short one.
But, whatever you do, don’t turn your novel into homework.
You know why?
Because then you’ll have to CLEAN THE HOUSE.
Just as it always does, the work started without warning. It is always this way. I must sit a certain length of time before it happens.
—John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel