“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.”
— Kurtz, APOCALYPSE NOW
There comes a point during the writing of a novel when, in the thick of it, some 30 or 40,000 words deep, you look down and wonder, how did you get naked, exactly? Where are your clothes? Why are you covered in grass-stains, your flesh marked by thorn-scratches? Why in your hair do you smell boar’s blood and the mating fluids of forest nymphs? Time is lost in clips and stretches. You feel disconnected from your body. You see a fly on the window batting its wings and you’re like, “I could eat you. I could sustain myself forever on you. Or I could shrink myself teeny-tiny-itty-bitty and ride you into battle against my foes.”
It’s time then to realize you have, as they say, bugged the fuck out.
I just finished a novel, and I had moments where I rubbed elbows with a crazier version of myself, a version of myself with blood in his beard and the flesh of the imaginary pterodactyl ‘neath my fingertips. But somehow, I kept it together. I dared not lose my shit because, Sweet Molly McGibbons, I was on deadline. You fuck with a deadline, you get fucked by the deadline. That’s freelancer law.
I figured that it might be worth it to try to figure out exactly how I stopped myself from going off the reservation to live in the mud and the leaves, and here’s what I came up with.
Together, we shall stave off this indefatigable novel-born madness.
Lay Down Breadcrumbs
Writing a novel is just freaking weird, man. Feels like you’re wandering through a dark forest with a lantern whose meager light is cast by a flock of disgruntled and unpredictable fireflies. It’s like a Miyazaki film up in this bitch. It’s hazy and dizzy and dreary and giddy and did I mention weird? Weird. Weird, weird, weird. It is exodus, epiphany, and egress all rolled into one.
So, it helps to have a plan. Further, it helps to track your plan as you go. Now, that doesn’t mean having an outline if you don’t want it — though, an outline is certainly one way to do this. But even if you just figure out how much you need to write per day to get the novel done by so-and-so deadline, you’re already a little bit ahead. Word count matters. Your schedule matters. Track that shit on a spreadsheet — no, no, I hear you, a spreadsheet will burn the tender fingertips of the creative writer the way an angel’s lusty secretions will blind a demon by cooking his eyeballs in his fool demon head. Still, I’ve learned to love the spreadsheet, just so I know where I’m at on my word journey.
You have all manner of plan at your disposal: spreadsheets, mind-maps, outlines, treatments, beat sheets, notebooks filled with your lunatic scrawls and inked in your own tears and urine, etc.
Use them. It’ll help put a boot on the neck of your sanity as it squirms and screams and tries to escape your house through the cat door. Anything to keep yourself on target and not ape-bat insane.
Sprint Now, And Thank Me Later
What I’m trying to say is, “Get a little bit ahead.” It’s like investment banking: save up some extra word count early in the process and that shit will pay in dividends later on. Because inevitably you’re going to have a day where it’s like, “Oh, the dishwasher exploded? And it took out the stove? And now the kitchen is filled with both soapy floodwater and jetting fire? What’s that, you say? Goblins have colonized the attic? I’m not going to get any writing done today, am I?” And then, voila, you whip out that banked word count and you’re like, “Magic! I did my writing for today, I just happened to bank it last Tuesday.”
You’ll feel like a mad genius, you will. You might even go back in time to thank yourself.
* As Soon As Fucking Possible, Motherfucker.
Don’t wait. Write as early in the day as you can. Get it out. Exorcise the word demons. On an average day, even the best of us build up bad energy the way boat hulls collect barnacles, and with that scummy aggregation you start to lose intellectual energy. Mornings tend to be when your brain is at its lemon-scented freshest, so hop on pop and get moving. This also means you’re giving fate a reduced opportunity to saddlebag you later in the day — 4pm rolls around and suddenly it’s all, “I forgot that I left my children at the reptile house at the Zoo. Or was it the primate house? Ooooh. Uh-oh.” There goes your daily word count as you battle howler monkeys and hooded cobras in a battle for your children’s allegiance.
Stop Shoveling Garbage Into Your Lumpy Writer’s Body
That diet of caffeinated Fritos and nougat-filled pork rinds is not the breakfast of champions. It is, in fact, the brunch of the insane. What you put in your body during the time of novel-writing genuinely matters. What you eat affects your mental state, and if you’re too sluggardly or cracked-out, your writing for that day is going to be a) not completed or b) as incomprehensible as the chitterings of a distempered raccoon.
Here’s what I did. I drank a cup of coffee first thing in the morning and then, mid-morning, a cup of green tea. Green tea is nice because it keeps you awake and alert but dulls the edge of that morning’s coffee. Then, I ate protein. Eggs first thing (eggs are brain food, or so I’m told). Then until lunch, some light snacking: almonds, cottage cheese, some dried fruit or veggies. No carbs, and especially no sugar. Carbs are for when you need to burn energy. Sitting your pudding-laden bottom in a chair and writing is not the way you expend energy. Finally, Scotch or Bourbon at night. To clear the head.
I actually lost weight during the writing of the novel, which surprised me.
Maybe I have a tapeworm?
The Only Thing Left To Do Is Dance
Oh, also, a little exercise goes a long way. I mean, you don’t have to actually dance. Unless the spirit moves you. In which case, move that booty, rump-shaker. Move it like they just made rump-shaking illegal.
Pre-Program Your Brain Like A VCR, Before VCRs Went Extinct Like The Dodo
Seriously, you ever try to find a VCR for sale anymore? You’d have better luck finding an undisturbed Yeti print in your backyard. What was I talking about? Ah. Right. Your brain.
On a day where I have serious word count to attack, I sometimes awaken that morning with deep and freakish anxiety as if I am — well, I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s equal parts, “I’m not worthy of the task that has been placed in my hand” and “OH MY GOD MY BOWELS ARE FULL OF SCORPIONS.” Oh! Oh. You know what it’s like? Waking up the day of a test at school, a test about which you forgot, a test for which you are woefully under-prepared. A test you will be forced to take in the nude. With a dunce cap on your head. A dunce cap full of stinky bowel-scorpions.
Thing is, I find that if I preset my brain like some kind of storytelling slow-cooker, I can wake up without that fear threatening to suck my heart outta my nether-holes. It’s like this: before bed, I take a handful of moments to think about the next day’s work — where are the characters, what do they need to do, where do I need the story to be — then I can go to sleep and let my unconscious thoughtmachine chew on it.
Zero real effort on my part, and it helps to provide focus come morning.
Shit Happens, But Shit Comes Out In The Wash
I said it the other day on Twitter, but it perhaps bears repeating:
Writing is when you make the words.
Editing is when you make the words not shitty.
Writing the novel is the long slog through a deep mire, but it’s not a one-and-done deal. This is just the first voyage West — provided your wagons don’t break down and you don’t murder all your characters and consume their flesh like the icy Wendigo, you’re going to do fine. Once you’ve got the route planned, it’s time for editing. And editing is refinement. It’s all hatchet-and-scalpel.
Writing is art. Editing is science. All of it together is craft.
Calm down about the first draft.
Your story is truly formed during the editing process.
Calm Down, You’re Not Curing Cancer
I don’t know why, but it feels like writing a novel is some weighty responsibility, some cross made of aurum borne upon your sagging penmonkey shoulders.
Yeah, listen. Storytelling is genuinely some epic, mythic, fucked-up magical business. It’s important. It really is. The world is build on the bones of stories. Stories have the power to change lives.
But even still, you’re not curing cancer. You’re not powering up the Large Hadron Collider. A house is not burning down with a basket of kittens inside that only you can save.
Vent a little of the pressure off yourself. Not enough to go slack and stop writing (if you do that, I will hunt you down and beat you with your own swollen indolence), but enough to not feel like you’re carrying the world on your shoulders. Writing is a little bit like sex: there’s a very real “mental game” component going on upstairs. You get too choked up under pressure, you’re not going to finish. Not the sex, not the novel.
How else you gonna reach the mighty endjaculation? After all, “climax” is apropos to both fiction writing and sweet-sweet love-monkeying.
How about you, word-herders and ink-thinkers? How do you get through the writing process from start to finish, be it a novel, a screenplay, a memoir, an endless manifesto of rage-fueled anarchy?
“In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him — all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination — you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”
— Joseph Conrad, HEART OF DARKNESS