The fourth post in my #52WritingTips project, because there’s 52 weeks in a year and I really need to get better at updating this blog. Across the year, I’ll be pulling together 52 writing tips to help you get your dream on paper, edit that manuscript or summon the courage to submit your work. I’ll then be chatting it through on my podcast, 52 Writing Tips.
Last week we looked at how to structure your story, what that looks like and how to get familiar with it if you’re new (or new-ish) to writing books.
This week we’re going to talk about how to find your writing stride, how to figure out what kind of a writer you are and how to capitalise on it.
Writers, it seems, live in boxes. Either you’re a planner or you’re not. Either you write for the same time every day or you don’t. Morning writer or evening writer? Weekend or weekday?
There seems to be an implicit seperation: it must be one or the other, it cannot be both. You shouldn’t be both a morning and evening writer, you shouldn’t be both a planner and a pantser.
I had no idea what kind of a writer I was, whether I was a planner or a pantser, whether I was the kind of person who found ideas lying under the couch like old pennies or the person that had to bleed them out of a rock. I had no idea whether I was any good, whether I would ever be better and most important of all, I had no idea whether this was the greatest idea I’d ever had or some new breed of lunacy.
I don’t think I’m alone, either. I think every writer has that day, that moment, that brief realisation over a cup of cooling coffee that hey, I’m taking this seriously. I want to make this work – and if you haven’t had it, then it’s coming. It’s born from self reflection but also from the confidence to stand up (or sit down) and go: this is a bit crazy. But I’m going to do it anyway.
And once you’ve had that realisation the second question comes: what kind of a writer am I?
What kind of a writer am I?
There is only one way to answer this question – and that’s to find out for yourself.
When I wrote my first full manuscript – after getting the idea in a more-mundane-than-I’d-hoped way I wasn’t a planner. Heck, I wasn’t even a writer. I was just someone that liked to blog and dabbled occasionally in day dreams of writing something more than 1,250 words.
I had an idea, a “what if” question – and I ran with it. Or rather, initially, I sat with it. On the way to work I started coming up with more ideas (what if it’s set in a tiny village in England, à la Hot Fuzz? What if the protagonist is a down-and-out detective, desperate to win back his estranged wife’s affections? What if the woman from Mars can read minds?)
And then I took my own advice, and I let it sit. I let it sit for about 3 months, until I came to Sweden in 2017, got introduced to what a real winter looked like and discovered the joy of sitting inside and writing when it’s blizzarding up a storm outside.
Now I had no plan. I had nothing but a handful of ideas, a handful of questions I’d asked myself on the train – and I wrote. I wrote 100k words in fact.
And by and large… it was awful. It was unstructured, because I didn’t even consider a three act structure when I wrote. It meandered in the middle and sagged at the end – at the point it really needed to fly.
But it taught me something.
It taught me that I didn’t know how to make second act tick, how to make the third act explode. It taught me that I needed to go away and study that.
It taught me that Google Docs really isn’t set up for 100k’s worth of writing (back in 2017 – it may well have improved now).
It taught me that when you finish your manuscript it feels like more… fizzle than pop.
But most important of all: it taught me what kind of a writer I was. It taught me that I wasn’t a pantser, that I couldn’t just write and subconsciously attach a skeleton to my work as I went. It taught me that I write better in the mornings, when my brain is still half asleep than I do in the evenings after a stressful day at work. It taught me that I absolutely can put 100k words down on paper.
Now obviously this example isn’t a masterpiece in written form however what it’s showing is that having a barrier between your characters in the guise of small talk can actually tell the reader a whole lot about them, their relationship and what might’ve happened to it.
Think about dialogue as being something you can fill with juicy tidbits for your readers: even when your characters are talking, it should be pulling double time in characterisation as well as moving the plot forwards. If your characters need to have a straightforward conversation, think about ways you can make it interesting. If Sally is approaching Kim about her wanting to have kids, how does it impact the tension if the conversation is about what to have for dinner instead? Symbolism is a powerful, powerful tool in our dialogue, and we should use it.
Discovering what you write
Now you might already know that you only ever want to write romantic fiction and that’s it, thank you very much, and good day.
There’s also the possibility that you felt drawn – as I did in the beginning – to lots of different genres and you’re not entirely sure where to start. Perhaps you’re worried that you’ll start writing one novel and then decide you don’t like it. Or that you’ll write in one genre and then decide that you hate it.
Perhaps you’re not sure if you want to write 100,000 words. Maybe you’d like a genre with a small word count (find that below) or you’d like to focus on short stories or poems and not write books at all.
And not being sure, at the beginning, is both totally normal and 100% OK.
The trick, in the beginning, is to remember: you’re exploring. And it’s ok to get it wrong, because it teaches you something. If you want to try your hand at sci-fi, try it. If you want to write a whodunnit, or perhaps a Stephen King-worthy thriller then do it! My first manuscript was about Mars and now I’m writing about Tudor England. There are no rules to what you can and can’t write other than the rules you set for yourself.
So have a look at this list at genre types and wordcounts, and see where you might want to put your exporer’s cap on and go and investigate!
Wordcounts per genre for writing:
- Flash Fiction: 100–1,500 words
- Short Stories: 1,500–30,000 words
- Novellas: 30,000–50,000 words
- Novels: 50,000–110,000 words
- Picture Books: 300–800 words
- Early Readers: 200–3500 words
- Chapter Books: 4000–10,000 words
- Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words
- Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
- Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
- Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000 (and sometimes 150,000) words
- Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
- Young Adult: 50,000–80,000
- Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
- Standard Nonfiction (Business, Political Science, Psychology, History, etc.): 70,000–80,000 words
- Memoir: 80,000–100,000 words
- Biography: 80,000–200,000 words
- How-to / Self-Help: 40,000–50,000 words
Discovering how you write best
So now perhaps you have an idea of what you’d like to try, what you want to look into. Perhaps now you’re feeling pumped, you’re going to start writing more often as you out there and discover some things about yourself! Woop!
So on Monday you sit down after work (because who starts a new habit on a Wednesday?) and you write / work on your project for 2 hours.
Now, because you’ve spent two hours on it on Monday, come Tuesday you don’t need to do anything. You take it easy.
Wednesday – stuff gets in the way. Chores. A FaceTime with your mate. Cooking dinner. You’re knackered, you’ve got a headache. You’re not in the creative mindset to write.
The same thing happens on Thursday. Friday you make space for it, you make it happen, but then you look back at the week and go: wow, how long will it take to write a whole novel if I can only squeeze in 4 hours of work a week?
Well. A while. And while you’re in the initial “discovery” phase of your writing (which is the most freeing phase because you don’t need to show it to anyone nor try to sell it) you want to chalk up those hours consistently.
So my advice to you is this. Find an hour in the day you can always commit to. Perhaps it’s the hour before work. Perhaps it’s the hour after the kids have gone to bed. Perhaps it’s your lunch break. Find an hour and set it aside: that’s your time for writing.
Now comes the hard part. Stick to it. When your alarm goes off an hour early, teach yourself to actually get up and not hit snooze. When you’re knackered at the end of the day, make a habit of getting your laptop and sitting at your desk/sofa and focussing on writing.
Half of the battle with writing is the habit of it. It’s about finding the time to write, finding the space to write. The answer is easy: prioritise it. You don’t often forget to eat, do you? Or forget to drink your morning coffee? No, because they’re habits. Writing needs to be a habit, too. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up, between 5 and 7, I write. I get in 2 hours a day, 5-6 days a week, for a total of 10-12 hours of writing.
Given I write an average of 1,000 words an hour, that means I can do 10,000 words in a week. Writing a 100,000 novel takes me 10 weeks, or about 3 months (without any set-backs or writers block, we’ll cover that next time) because I prioritise it.
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Tips to find your writing flow
When I went to my first lecture (or one of the early lectures at the very least) of my Creative Writing programme we talked about the art (better word: pain) of being a writer. We discussed how we got into writing, which of us jumped and which of us fell, what we write, where we write it and how we drag ourselves to the desks in order to do it.
That last bit is key. How do you find the time? How do you convince yourself to sit down and just write?
Here is some of the advice we gave one another, and some of the advice we took from the greats (Dorothea Brand ‘On Becoming a Writer’ is very good if you want to read more into this topic). Try any of them that jump out at you. Try as many as you like.
But when you find one that works: stick to it:
6 things to try to find your writing flow:
- When you get the urge to write: write! But teach yourself not to wait for the urge
- Start small and work up. Begin with 5 minutes of writing on the first day, 10 minutes on the second day, and so on until you find a period of time where you’ll stay focussed
- Get up an hour early and write something (anything!)
- Stay awake an hour later and write something (anything!)
- Light a candle every time you want to write, create a cosy writing space and entice yourself into writing
- Make yourself a cup of tea / cup of coffee every time you sit down to write to signal ‘it’s time to write’
And remember: you’re not creating a habit, so much as a writing ritual. If you want some inspiration from other writers, this article is really good.
In short: how to find your way of writing
Not sure if you’re a plotter or a pantser? Whether you should join the 5am writing club or the late night writing owls? The trick is to explore, to test and see what works for you! You need to prioritise your writing, make time for yourself to write and experiment with methods and techniques until you find something that works for you – and don’t be afraid to delve into different genres when you start out in order to discover what you love.
If you’ve found something that really works for you, share it in the comments! You never know, it might help someone else.
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