With Nanowrimo rapidly approaching, writers around the world are preparing to sit at their desks, open up their laptops, and stare at the horror of a blank, white page.
For many of us, the prospect of starting a new writing project is daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. As with anything, there are plenty of life-hacks and habits that can help you stay on track. So, from the meticulous to the superstitious, I’ve pulled together five helpful hints to keep your novel from going off the rails.
1. Create a Calendar
Though it may seem obvious, creating a calendar or timeline for your writing project is an excellent starting point, especially if you have a deadline. If you’re a planner, and already have a general outline of your story prepared, try dividing up the plot by day. Then, from your start date to your finish date, pencil in the chapter and scene that you plan on completing for each day of writing.
If you’re a plantser and aren’t quite ready to divvy up your story by chapter or scene, just fill in the key plot points. And if you’re a total pantser, and aren’t even sure what the main character’s name is yet, identify how far into the novel you’d like to get. For example, on day 15, you’ll probably want to be somewhere near the midpoint (or mid-season finale, as I like to think of it) of your story. And on day 30, you’ll almost certainly be working on the denouement (if you write in chronological order, of course).
Personally, I like to use a simple calendar that I developed in grad school while I was student teaching. Originally, I invented the calendar to make sure that my class was reading enough each day to finish the unit on time; however, once I graduated and decided that teaching was definitely not my cup of chai, I hung onto my unit calendars and began using the template for writing instead.
The best part is, it can easily be made in Word or GoogleDocs, and if you mess it up, printing off a new page is much cheaper than purchasing a new planner.
2. Create a Ritual
Don’t worry. I’m not talking about sacrificing goats to the muses, or anything like that. I’m just talking about creating a ritual (think Pavlov’s Dogs) to help your subconscious settle in when it’s time to write.
Sometimes, if I’m really struggling, I pull out my writing candle. It’s a big, pillar candle, which I’ve specifically designated for writing, only. When I light it, I have to start writing, and I don’t allow myself to stop until I blow out the flame. And of course, because I can’t stand it when candles burn unevenly, I always leave it lit for at least an hour.
For other writers, putting on a specific article of clothing can help them formulate a writing ritual. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women famously had a “glory cloak” that she wore when writing.
Mother made me a green silk cap with a red bow, to match the old green and red party wrap, which I wore as a “glory cloak.” Thus arrayed I sat in groves of manuscripts, “living for immortality,” as May said.Louisa May Alcott
3. Start Writing on the Second Page
So, this little piece of advice may seem sort of strange, but for some people, first-page jitters are real. Personally, I never even realized the first page of a brand new notebook could be so threatening, until my creative writing seminar devolved into a debate on the merits of starting on the second page.
At the time, I was very much in the camp of: “If it’s paper, write on it.” But I’ve honestly found myself starting to gravitate toward the second page. Why? Because it totally eliminates the block that accompanies that desire to make every word perfect.
When you open a fresh notebook to that first, beautiful page, sometimes, your brain does this crazy trick where it thinks that absolutely everything you write has to be as perfect and pristine as that blank, white page. Of course, we all know this is ridiculous — writing is nothing if not rewriting — but skipping over to that second page disrupts the perfection. Without order and rigidity, there’s no longer anything to fear, and you can fill your notebook with whatever the hell you want!
4. Build a Writing Space
Whether it’s a whole room, a corner of a room, or even just a corner of the couch, find a way to reserve a space that’s just for writing. If space is extremely limited, you can pull in the idea of a writing ritual by doing something as small as covering your kitchen table with your writing table cloth, or throwing your writing pillow on the couch. Whatever it is, make sure it’s only there when you write.
For example, when I was an undergrad at Hamilton College, I lived on the side of campus that we affectionately called the “Dark Side.” Now, the Dark Side is home to concrete dorms from the 60s (new, compared to the rest of the dorms on campus) with floor to ceiling windows and walk-in closets. Pretty badass, right?
So, when I was a senior, and I wanted to write something that wasn’t for class, instead of using my desk or bed — let’s be real, I did most of my homework in bed — I would curl up in the closet with a body pillow and a blanket, because sometimes, just knowing that you’re in your writing nook is enough to get the words flowing.
5. Ask a Friend to Hold You Accountable
I know this one sounds ridiculous, because let’s be real, no one is going to hold you accountable but yourself. So, when I say, “Ask a fried to hold you accountable,” what I really mean is, “Share your goals with a trusted friend.”
Basically, the goal here is for you to find a friend who’s willing to read your work. They don’t have to be a full-blown Beta reader, just someone to share your progress with. And of course, for some people, this is obviously easier said than done. Having two degrees in English-related fields, almost all of my friends are book nerds, so it’s easy for me to say, “Hey, I’m writing a new project. Want to take a look?” And most of the time, they’re happy to.
Depending on the stage of my writing process, sometimes I want them to edit and other times, I just need them to say, “Cool. When’s the next chapter coming?” Because it’s not really them holding me accountable, it’s me.
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
– Every movie breakup, ever.
But seriously, once you get a friend involved, a part of you will want to keep writing — to keep pumping out pages — so that you don’t have to go through the soul-crushing shame of explaining that you gave up on your novel, when your friend is like, “Hey, what happened to that story you were going to send me?”
But ultimately, the key to keeping your novel on track is to work on it every day. Some days, working on your novel might be something as small as imagining a scene between two characters while you’re brushing your teeth. Other days, working on your novel might mean writing two chapters without even taking a coffee break. So whatever you do to keep your novel train chugging along, if it’s working, keep doing it; and it it’s not, try something new!