How To Write A Novel: Step 3, Getting Words on the Page
Believe it or not, getting words on the page can be daunting for anyone, even seasoned writers and best sellers. Having a firm idea for your story is only the start. Sitting down every day and knowing what you want to write is both a habit and a skill, and some days it will seem easier than others.
The first thing to realise is that you have to commit to forming a writing habit. There are different ways to approach this.
Some writers have a word count that they strive to achieve on a daily basis. On a good day I can get between 2,500 and 4,000 words on the page – not necessarily brilliant words, you understand, but words that can be perfected later if needs be.
But that is a good day. As I work for a living as a teacher, I know that there is no way that I can make that sort of count every day. I reckon 400-500 is realistic, and anything beyond that is just a bonus. Sometimes, I don’t even get that far, but so long as I’ve had my behind firmly planted on my seat and had a good go at it, it works for me.
My weak point in the ‘words per day’ approach is that I tend to edit as I go. There are arguments for and against this, but I’ll deal with that later. What you need to know right now is that stopping to reread and rewrite means that there will be fewer words in total than if you had just gone for it.
A different approach is to decide on a particular time. For me, I’m at my most creative in the morning, so setting aside half an hour to an hour before everyone else in the house gets up and I have to leave for my day job works nicely. I know other writers who wait until everyone has gone to bed (this wouldn’t work for me, my son never goes to bed before me!). Or, I read about one successful author who started off using his lunch breaks to scribble down his stories. He now writes full time and has a six figure income, but it does go to show that everyone starts off somewhere.
It is a very personal choice – only you know when you work best. And only you can choose to use that time as your writing time. It may mean sacrificing something else, like an hour’s lie-in in the morning, or TV in the evening.
Don’t think you have to write every day, either, although many writers will tell you that is best. If the only time you can spare to write is on the weekend, then do it. It has to work for you. But you have to work for it, too.
There is, however, more to it than that.
You’ve put aside the time, you have a great idea for your story, but then you sit down to write and... nothing.
Do not despair. You are not alone.
You’ve heard of writer’s block, right? It happens. Even to people who don’t believe in it. It’s how you respond that makes the difference.
First, know that, yes, it is okay to get up and walk away. Just use that time productively. Go for a walk, have a bath or a shower, do some gardening, catch up with the washing up, whatever, just let your mind wander, play with possibilities.
I find walking brilliant. I’ve always been one for making up stories in my head, letting dialogues run through, describing scenes. It helps to have a dog to walk with you, because, then, if people see your lips moving they think you are talking to the dog, not yourself. Or them. I speak from experience.
Also from experience, I know to be carrying a small notebook (old or new technology, your choice) or have a voice recording device of some sort, or, at the very least, not get too far away from my keyboard. More than once, I’ve found myself sprinting homewards with a great idea, and it’s not a pretty sight.
However, if you are determined not to leave your seat until the words have filled up the blank page (and there are writers who swear by this option), that can work, too.
There are several tricks to get the words flowing:
One: Free Writing
Grab a timer and set it for 2, 5, 10 (or more if you wish) minutes and start writing whatever comes to mind. You are not allowed to stop until the timer goes off. Set yourself a theme, if you like, or a question to answer. I once wrote a whole short story based on the colour red this way.
On the other hand, one of my students once wrote, ‘I can’t think of anything to write about’ over and over again. I’m not sure how productive this really is, but I wouldn’t let her stop on that occasion (we were both laughing, I’m not really that mean) and she never had that problem again.
At the very least, you can describe the room you are in, or the view out the window.
Just the act of typing (or handwriting – I type because my handwriting is atrocious) will often get your brain in gear and you will be able to get started on your work in progress once you’ve completed this task.
A modification of the first task is journalling – often a good starting point if you are an end of the day writer. Again, set yourself a time and write about your day – the highs and the lows, weird or mundane things that have demanded your attention, or what Mr X said in the meeting you had to go to, whatever. Again, you’ve primed your brain for action and you’re ready to go.
If you are an early riser, like me, it could be hopes and plans for the day, or your musings on the day before, after you have had a night to sleep on whatever has been happening. Or your dreams. If they are not too scary. Unless you write horror. In which case, go for it.
Have several different projects to work on, and if your novel just isn’t coming together, switch to that blog post you need to write, or the short story for the competition, or even the letter to your Mum that you know is way overdue, even if you did just call her last night. Any writing will hone your skills, and, once again, getting anything down on paper helps your brain to register that it’s time to get to work.
Four: Read and Review
Read back over yesterday’s words... up to you whether you do this with the intention of doing some editing or whether it’s just to get you back in the zone. Another writer I know of always starts this way, taking it to a level of formality that means that she sits down with a print out and a pen, goes back to her computer to make the changes, and then moves on to her new writing.
One well known writer – can’t think who it was right now, but I suspect it might have been Roald Dahl – used to leave an unfinished sentence ready to start on the next day. I always try to make sure that I have the first sentence of the next chapter if that’s where I’m breaking, although I’ll often change it, but it gives me a starting point.
Six: One More Point
Similar to the unfinished sentence is the idea of leaving yourself some dot points to shape your next day’s writing. A little bit of detail is often enough to encourage the creative juices.
Last, but not least,
Seven: Refer to your plan.
Oh, you haven’t got that far?
Never mind, we’ll talk about that vexed question next time.
Until then, feel free to leave a comment about what you do to get the words on the page. It might get them flowing for you.