Just in time for the new year, the fabulous C. M. Mayo shares her strategies for writing – and finishing – your book:
Last spring my latest novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, was published. This was not a go-to-the-cabin-by-the-lake-and-churn-it-out kind of experience. No, my novel is a nearly 500-page historical epic based on extensive original research, every line of prose polished to shine like the lighthouse in Alexandria, with more characters than you could pack into a Starbuck’s. Is it any good? You be the judge. What I know for sure is that over the more than seven years it took me to write it, I hung in there. And eventually I finished. And then I sold it. How did I do it?
Herewith one dozen tips:
# 1. Before you begin, state your intentions
It’s important to write them down, stating them specifically, and in present tense. For example, I write a novel that… you fill in the blanks. I don’t mean, write down what your novel is about; you might have to fiddle around for a few hundred pages before you figure that out. But ask yourself, do you want to write a novel that places you among the immortal literary stars? Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching job? Or do you just watch to check “publish book” off your “to-do” list? And how much time and effort are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher? It might be easy to find one, or it might take a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork. Not to mention heartbreak. Whatever your path may be, it will be more difficult if you have not clearly identified and acknowledged your intentions.
# 2. Be here now
If you are regretting the past (“I should have started sooner …”) or worrying about the future (“Will they laugh at me?”), you are not writing. And if you are waxing nostalgic about the past (“How wonderful that they liked my short story!”) or daydreaming about the future (“My agent will sell it to the movies for a million dollars!”), you are not writing. To get the book done, you have to be writing.
# 3. Treat yourself kindly
If you do, your artist self will show up more frequently, and play more freely. If you bully and criticize yourself, you can sure you’ll end up blocked.
# 4. Keep a pen and something to write on with you at all times
When you’re out and about – driving, at the dentist’s, walking the dog – you just might capture the perfect fragment of dialogue, or hear the opening line of the next chapter in your head. I don’t recommend those lovely bound “writer’s” journals because they are too big to carry around easily. I use Moleskines, index cards and sometimes even a small pack of Post-Its.
# 5. When you are writing, always keep your pen resting lightly on the page (if at the computer, keep your fingers on the keyboard)
If you sit back in your chair and lift your hand to your chin, as so many people do, your body is signalizing to your writing self, no, I am not ready. This can contribute to a bad case of block. It’s such a simple thing to always keep your pen on the page, yet very effective.
# 6. Music helps
I find that drifty, New-Agey music in a minor key works best for bringing on the Muses. There is a large literature about music and creativity. I offer a couple of blog posts (with links for more information) on this subject here and here.
# 7. Mise-en-place
This is a French term chefs use that means, more or less, everything in its place. Briefly: start clean, then assemble utensils and equipment; then assemble all ingredients; then wash, cut, chop; then cook. Doing things out of order makes the whole process take longer; the product often come out mediocre (or ruined), and can cause needless stress for the cook and the diners.
This explains why many of the most productive writers write in coffee shops and the rest of them do a lot of housecleaning, n’est-ce pas? It’s not the easiest thing to write a novel when your desk is cluttered with phone bills and stacks of unanswered letters, the dog needs to be walked in five minutes, and, by the way, you’ve left the phone on and your Facebook page tab open. There are people who can work amongst piles and general chaos, but I am not one of them, and I cannot recommend it.
# 8. Learn from other novels
The novels you have already read and love can be your best teachers. But don’t read them passively, for entertainment; neither should you read as an English major might, ferreting out “interpretations.” Read them as a craftsperson. How does Chekhov handle endings? How does Austen handle transitions? How does Hemingway describe food and clothing? Any question you have about your writing conundrums is probably answered, right there, in the books you already have on your shelf. And continue to read, and read actively, with a notebook and pen.
# 9. Learn from books on creativity
Why reinvent the wheel? Whatever your problem (block, confusion, utter despair), you can be sure another writer (or artist) has wrestled with it and has something helpful to say about it in a book. The cost of a book is lentils compared to that of needlessly painful experiences. You’ll find my list of recommended books here.
# 10. Get feedback on your writing
From a writers group, a writing teacher, a freelance editor, workshop participants. You’ll find my 10 tips to get the most out of your writing workshop here.
(For some years I was in a writing group with novelist Leslie Pietrzyk; read what she has to say about it here.)
Go forth with a spirit of generosity. You never know who will help you, and you might be more helpful to someone else than you realize. So go to readings (they are almost all free!); take workshops, attend conferences, and stay in touch.
# 12. Consistent Resilient Action
Again, why reinvent the wheel? Writers are not the only ones who grapple with their emotions in the face of rejection, failure, criticism, and indifference. There is a large literature on sports psychology. The book I recommend most highly is The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum. Consistent Resilient Action (CRA) is what sports champions do: Dropped the ball? Well, pick it up. So your first draft is crap? Write a new one. An agent rejected you? Send your manuscript to the next one. Take a workshop, get feedback, re-read Proust, go write a poem— and so on. In response to anything negative, instead of wasting your energy in anger, it is crucial to take a positive step, however small, and immediately.
P.S. Many more resources for you here.
And good wishes.