2019 Novel-Writing Challenge, Week 1

As 2018 slowly marched towards its end, people around me made resolutions to travel, get fit, learn a new skill, and more. The morning of New Year’s Day, I didn’t have any resolutions. Rather than mark the new year by taking a first step towards achieving my goals — though that meant, for some of you, that triumphant first visit to a gym to stroll on a treadmill for five minutes — I spent most of the day binge-watching “Outlander” in my pajamas.

Somehow, I wound up Googling Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander book series that inspired the show. I discovered something that intrigued me: She’d never intended to publish the books.

“I began writing Outlander for practice,” she said in a recent interview, “I knew I was supposed to be a novelist, but I didn’t know how; and I decided the way to learn was to actually write a novel. So, Outlander was my practice book. I was never going to show it to anyone, so it didn’t matter what I did with it.”

I hold a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing, specifically creative-non-fiction. But fiction is my first love. Sadly, I have so many fiction works from over the years that I’ve started and never finished. After asking myself why, I noticed a common denominator: My lack of discipline.

Growing up, math and science had intimidated me — Algebra seemed like a foreign language to me, and I had no patience for memorizing the periodic table — so I set myself apart by writing stories, getting A’s in my English classes, becoming editor of the school’s literary magazine, writing for the newspaper, and, finally, enrolling at a liberal arts college known for its creative writing program and for the well-renowned Kenyon Review. My first year there, I became an associate reader for the Kenyon Review, combing through slush-pile submissions in fiction, poetry, and more each week for the magazine. I found amazing mentors among my professors. And, as a junior, I went abroad for a full year to the college’s long-established program for English majors at the University of Exeter, England. (In the meantime, I nearly failed my one math-related course, a statistics class called Political Analysis.)

So: Writing was the thing I thought I should be talented at. I had a pretty big ego, and whenever the craft of writing — particularly fiction-writing — started to feel less like fun and more like work, I told myself I just wasn’t “inspired.” The result? I didn’t actually finish anything I started.

In a way, I consider my transition into tech a model for what I’ve set out to do with my project. I’ve had to work hard to learn how to code, to become good at what I do. Back in early 2015, I started off with HTML and CSS. Throwing myself into advancing my skills and eventually enrolling in a bootcamp, I spent my days and nights working through a rigorous curriculum, pushing myself to do and understand more. Over these past few years, learning and working in the industry, I’ve asked questions, participated in code reviews, built project after project, written blog posts, given talks, and taught skills to others. I’ve never considered myself just naturally good; I work hard — thanks, in large part, to imposter syndrome — at staying up to date and learning all I can.

Up until now, I didn’t apply the same humility and rigor to my writing craft. Today, I recognize the immense value of a growth mindset.

That’s why I loved Diana Gabaldon’s idea: Writing a novel just for practice. So I set my one New Year’s resolution: In 2019, I want to complete a novel-length writing project and document my learnings along the way.

And I’m writing this post to celebrate: I’ve successfully finished one week of working on my project every single day. To hold myself accountable, I have a chart on my closet door with bubbles to fill in, each day, for my minimum word count goal, and it thrills me to see circles colored in across the board. In total, so far, I’ve written 7,005 words. After looking at a calculator, I realize that amounts to about 1,000 words, on average, per day. I’m surprised and pleased, as my daily goal is actually half that: 555 words.

I decided to set a minimum goal of 555 words after finding myself at a coffee shop one afternoon, giddy about all the fun I was having that weekend but, being an introvert, mentally exhausted. I’d gone out to brunch with some delightful folks and then had coffee with an old friend to discuss exciting strategies for how she could learn how to code. In about an hour, I’d head back out for the evening for dinner and a movie. (I know, poor me, I just have too much fun!).

The only time I had to squeeze in some writing? Now.

I stared at my empty laptop screen. I had a basic outline in a separate Google Doc, but no words on the actual page that mattered. I wanted to close my eyes, right there in the coffeeshop, and just postpone my practice for another day.

But then I did it. I did my 555 words, sandwiched in between those engagements. And those 555 words kicked off the story I wanted to write.

Over the course of this project, I’ll aim to accomplish my minimum every day. If I do, I’ll be on track to have 50,000 words of my “novel” (if that’s what you want to call it) in three months. While I’m stealing their prescribed total word count, I’m not positive the model created by the popular National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which takes place every November, is for me. 1,667 words each day — to finish a novel in one month — doesn’t feel realistic for me yet. I may get there. But, for the moment, I’m in no hurry.

My primary goals:

  1. Finish a work of fiction that has 50,000 words or more (The NaNoWriMo total word count).
  2. The work needs to have a beginning, middle, and end.
  3. I need to work to establish a routine for myself that involves writing every day, whether or not I feel “inspired.”

I believe that, during my ongoing project, nothing I write should be required to flow out of my brain fully formed, clean, or pretty. I should always iterate, receive feedback, re-examine my approach, and revamp later on. I should read books for examples of how to describe an environment, how to introduce a character’s physical appearance, and more. I should do research to help enhance the types of worlds I want to build. I should treat the craft like the hard work it sometimes is.

Above all, regardless of how tired or busy I may feel I am, I should strive to write my 555 words a day.

I’ve learned that the following things really increase my productivity:

  • Getting other errands out of the way before I sit down to write. That’s why I think I’m drawn to the end of the day for writing time.
  • Working at a coffee shop. The one I’ve recently fallen in love with has plenty of seating, fun winter cocktails, and plenty of outlets. After 5 PM, it’s more chill, with fewer people than earlier in the day.
  • Listening to music.
  • Going on a long walk (i.e., the freezing cold thirty-five minute jaunt each way to and from work!) and thinking about my characters, their motivations, and their relationships.

I’ve also realized I’m the type of writer who needs to outline, outline, outline.

On that note: When I shared a request for outlining advice on Facebook, I received so many encouraging and helpful responses from friends of mine who’ve dedicated themselves to similar projects. One particularly generous friend shared his story draft and outline — pointing out to me the ways it evolved over time — which has proved a fantastic model and source of lessons. In addition to that, he’s been great at answering questions over email and offering words of encouragement as I dive in. I’m so grateful and want to give you all a shout out!

And I want to share my appreciation for the individuals who’ve pushed me, for a while, to sit down and crank open my writing toolbox – My parents, my partner Jake, my Aunt Hayley Barrett (a children’s book author who has several forthcoming books that you should check out).

I’m excited for what’s ahead. If you have any advice to offer me — on outlining, routine-setting, developing characters, etc. — please send it my way! And stay tuned.

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