5 Things I Learned About Writing This Year

I’m only in the first year of my Creative Writing PhD, but here are some of the things that have helped me write my YA novel so far.

1.    Focus on process

 I’ve stopped obsessing over word count and started logging what I do each day. I found that walking helps when I hit a wall. And that early mornings and late afternoons are my best times for writing.

 This means that even if I get stuck, it’s still interesting and might even appear in my thesis one day! This has had the surprise benefit of taking away pressure and helping me focus.

Notebook by Sarah Mason Photography, used with permission

Notebook by Sarah Mason Photography, used with permission

 I’m keeping a creative journal about how I write – what works and what doesn’t – trying to see the process as an experiment. It’s tough to accept, but I probably learn the most from the stuff that doesn’t work.

 2.    Regular deadlines help

I deliver a batch of pages to my supervisor every month or two. Having a regular deadline in the near future helps me keep going each week.

 I believe that one distant deadline – ‘deliver the whole novel in six months’ – would not work as well as these smaller deadlines like ‘deliver the next three chapters before Easter’.

 The writers’ website Write-Track.co.uk lets you set your own goals or join in with popular challenges like NaNoWriMo.

 3.    Reading isn’t slacking off

I’ve got kids, so I use the last day of term as an extra deadline and then switch to a different focus while they’re off school. I focus on reading – around child wrangling - and put my novel on the back burner.  

 When I get back to my desk with the new term, things have shifted and the work flows better after reading everyone else’s wonderful words. Apart from that first squirmy Monday of term, which is always hell. If anyone knows how to deal with that one, email me please!

 4.    Outwit your inner critic and make a mess

I write scenes longhand, in a scrawly mess no one else could read, with lots of crossing out. It doesn’t feel daunting because I’m only mucking about with a pen. It takes away the fear of the blank page because I can kid myself it’s something less than writing, just a plan or notes or a doodle.

 Then when I type it up, I’ve already got something to work with, and that’s not so scary either – though it changes a lot between notebook and screen and that’s my very first edit right there. It might seem like a lot of effort just to sidestep the inner critic, but I’ve realised this is the method that works for me.

 Here’s the doodle that became my first children’s book, Starlight Grey. I love showing this page when I do workshops in schools and seeing the children’s surprise at my mess.

 5.     Take the feedback, but time it right.

A critique can be painful, however constructively meant. And if it lands at the wrong time – while you’re still at an early stage – it can stop you in your tracks.

 My first attempt at this novel was a bit of a disaster. My main character was dead. A little voice was suggesting that, y’know, living people say more, do more, change more, all the essentials of character development, but I stubbornly wanted to see if I could pull off a YA-Sixth Sense kind of mashup. After that first experimental draft, I got feedback that gently suggested I couldn’t.

 But if I’d had the critique too soon, I’d have fallen flat and never got back on the bike.

 I’ve fixed that element. Now I feel like I’m pedalling away on this story but sometimes I still steer off in crazy directions. The feedback I get nudges me back onto the right path – it’s still my effort, but much better directed. I’m hugely grateful for that.

 So, now I’ve got a draft that I’m excited about. I know there are huge amounts of work ahead, but I’m going to stick this post above my desk and try to take my own advice in the months ahead.

 Good luck with your writing and let me know your tips too!