How to Finish Your Novel (While Life Goes On)

by Ali on July 30, 2013

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Maybe you’ve been working on your novel for months, or even years.

(Or maybe you’ve not started yet, because you’re waiting for a chunk of free time to come along.)

Life is busy. You’d love to have all day, every day, to write, but of course you don’t.

You have a day job or your own business or young kids or elderly parents or volunteering commitments or other hobbies or health issues … or quite probably a combination of several of those.

The good news is that you can do it. You CAN produce a finished novel – without your fairy godmother waving a magic wand and granting you six months away from your regular life.

And here’s how I know …

A Brief History of Ali’s Novel-Writing

I’m currently working on my fifth novel. I started my first one fifteen years ago, when I was thirteen. As you can imagine, my novel-writing has fitted around a bunch of different circumstances.

Here’s a rough timeline:

1999 – 2001: Novel #1, near-future sci-fi. Wrote this while in school. Got as far as a full second draft.

2001 – 2004: Discovered online roleplaying. No novel writing. Oops.

2004 – 2006: Novel #2, fantasy, written when I was at uni (between 2004-6). Sent this one out to agents, got nowhere.

2007: Novel #3, Chick-lit (ish), written while I was working full time. I did this for NaNoWriMo in November 2007 and abandoned shortly afterwards. Got as far as a very scrappy first draft.

2008 – 2011: Novel #4, Lycopolis, contemporary fantasy, written alongside running Aliventures. Went through six drafts (and a professional editor).

2012 onward: Novel #5, a sequel to Lycopolis. Wrote the first draft while working on Publishing E-Books for Dummies and while pregnant. Redrafting now with a 4-month-old baby: currently 30,000 words in.

Here’s what I’ve learned from writing those novels:

Your Home May Not Be the Best Place to Write

Today, most of my novelling happens at home, but in the past – when I was a slower, more easily distractible writer – I did a lot of writing in other places.

When I was in school, this meant handwriting my novel on sheets of lined paper in the school library, and working on it when I was babysitting.

In my third year at uni, once I’d got a laptop, I did a fair bit of my novel-writing in the English faculty library and in coffee shops. When I had a summer job, I spent my lunch hours on the novel.

If you find it hard to focus at home, write somewhere else.

You might not have access to a student library, but how about a public one? Or a coffee shop, or a picnic bench in your local park?

If you’ve got a job that requires you to be present but not to necessarily do much – like being a babysitter or a receptionist – then can you squeeze in some time on your novel? (I find it easier to edit rather than write if I’m going to get a lot of interruptions.)

You Can Write Little and Often – and Finish Your Novel in a Year

I have a tendency to make very optimistic plans, like:

I’ll write a thousand words a day and finish my novel in three months!

This never happens. Much more realistic is finishing a first draft in a year.

The problem is, when I make a big goal, I get frustrated if I can’t meet it. I might just about be able to make time to write a thousand words a day – but I often won’t have the energy. And then I end up writing nothing for weeks, instead of doing the sensible thing and setting a small, manageable goal.

I’ve been reading Holly Lisle’s Mugging the Muse this month – it’s Writers’ Huddle’s Book Group read – and I think this is great advice about writing goals:

You’re on the right track if, when you break down your big goal into smaller goals, you actually accomplish the smaller goals. If you’re setting 3000 words a day as one of your goals, and you’re writing 500 words a day, rethink. There’s nothing like the forced failure of impossible goals to make you want to roll over and die. Or at least flush your dreams down the toilet and walk away forever.

(Holly Lisle, Mugging the Muse: Writing Fiction for Love AND Money, Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

Let’s say you’re aiming to write an 80,000 word novel. You can carve out 20 minutes a day for your novel, and you can write 200 words in those 20 minutes.

Those 200 words might seem like a tiny drop in the bucket, and you might be tempted to skip them – but if you write them day after day:

  • You’ll have 1,400 words after a week.
  • You’ll have 6,000 words after a month.
  • You’ll have 73,000 words after a year.
  • You’ll have 80,000 words after slightly over a year and a month.

You Can Even Write Just Once a Month

Let’s say the only time you can carve out for your novel is one Saturday afternoon, once a month. You can manage 3,000 words in the afternoon, if you really focus.

3,000 words a month might seem like almost nothing in the context of an 80,000 word novel. It might seem like so little that you’re tempted to not even bother. But if you keep it up, month after month:

  • You’ll have 36,000 words after a year.
  • You’ll have 72,000 words after two years.
  • You’ll finish your first draft after two years and two months.

Now, two years and two months might be longer than you want to spend. But that time will pass, whether or not you write a single word. Wouldn’t you rather have a finished first draft at the end of it?

You Need to Find Out How YOU Work Best

Lots of tips apply to pretty much every writer. “Don’t check Facebook and Twitter and emails while you write” and “Don’t spend ten minutes editing every sentence as you’re drafting” are pretty obviously good advice.

In many cases, though, there’s no one true path to novelling success – you need to figure out what’s best for you.

For me, that means preferring long writing sessions over shorter ones. I could structure my week so that I work on my novel for an hour on three separate days, but I prefer having three hours on one day.

For me, that means writing in the afternoons. I used to prefer mornings, but now I find it easiest to settle into my novel on Friday afternoons, when I know I can get lost in the story and not worry about stopping and switching to other types of work.

For me, that means listening to Metallica while I write. (With a bit of Turisas and Disturbed thrown in.) When I’m in the flow of writing, I don’t notice the music, but it blocks out background distractions, and it keeps me in the zone.

You might well be totally different.

Maybe you want to write every day, even if that means only writing for a few minutes, so you can stay in touch with your story.

Maybe you write best at 6am, before the demands of the day have crowded in. Or perhaps you prefer writing long into the night.

Maybe you need silence to write, or classical music. You might burn incense, drink your favourite tea, or turn off the lights and write by the glow of the computer monitor. Some writers even have a special hat / mug / pencil that they use.

If you’re not sure what works for you, then experiment. Try out different ways of organising your writing sessions – different lengths, different times, different backgrounds – and see what helps you be there with your writing, undistracted.

You Have to Love Your Novel

Don’t ever choose your genre or your characters or your plot because you think it will be popular.

Writing a novel needs your heart, not just your head. Yes, it might be sorely tempting to churn out a few romance novels for a popular series – after all, how hard can it be?

Even if you finish (and you’ll probably lose the will to write somewhere along the way), you’ll struggle to sell a novel that you don’t genuinely love.

Write the story that calls to you.

Write the novel that you would love to read.

My NaNoWriMo novel of 2007 was unpublishable and probably unreadable. I had no interest in pursuing it once I’d “won” NaNo.

In writing it, I discovered that I’m just not cut out to be a mainstream writer. Every other novel I’ve written has involved some sort of magical element (#1 had telepathy and mind-control, #2 had magicians and spirits, Lycopolis had an evil demon). For me to stay interested, I need that.

You Write a Novel Word by Word

Sometimes, life is hectic and chaotic and just plain hard.

There’ll be times when you don’t write, and that’s okay. Maybe you’ve not worked on your novel for months, or for a year.

You can pick it up again. And you can finish.

Your novel is written word by word. It’s written around other commitments – your day job, your kids, your friends, your other hobbies. But so long as you make a regular writing appointment with yourself, and sit down and put those words on the page, you will finish.

I know it’s not easy. I know it’s probably taking longer than you hoped.

But you can get there.

And if this is your first novel – trust me, it’s worth the journey.

 

I’d love your tips on writing a novel around other commitments – whether you’re a writer with a day job, with children, with your own business, with volunteering commitments, or anything else. The comments are open below!

{ 4 trackbacks }

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Allison July 30, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Oh jeesh, I needed this so badly. Thank you so much! Definitely resonating with this post.
It’s actually a lot easier to edit at home rather than at school, and one should never send off “sneak peaks” of a novel before it’s done (my experience…)
Tip: Talking with someone about the novel is lots of fun and sometimes leading to some other ideas, but limit it to the amount of people you can count on your hand.
And I’ve got nothing else…^^ But thank you so much for writing this!

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Ali July 30, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Glad it helped! At lunchtimes our school library consisted of me and another loner geek or two, so it was a good place to get on with writing/editing — I hope your school life is a little more sociable… :-)

Thanks for the tip! I agree talking about your novel can be a two-edged sword… too much, and it can be counter-productive.

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Jessica Flory July 30, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Awesome tips, Ali! I love that you put up your history of novel writing. Very true to real life. When people imagine authors, I think they think of people hunched over their computers day in and day out, furiously typing away. That’s just not true. There will be times when you’re totally unproductive and times when you’re on a roll, especially with a huge project like a novel. The trick is to keep going no matter what!
Jessica Flory’s last blog post ..Why Life-or-Death isn’t the Best Character Conflict – and What Is

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Ali July 31, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Thanks, Jessica! And I know my perception of authors was way skewed when I started out, which didn’t help. The reality is that most authors are writing around day jobs / families / other commitments — and that they’re not necessarily writing every day or even every week.

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Joel D Canfield July 30, 2013 at 8:54 pm

This is going in my newsletter on August 1st. Your real-life examples (and perspective) are exactly what so many aspiring (read “wishing instead of doing”) authors need.

I use music to block out distractions. I have to be physically comfortable when I write, which means I really need a new chair. I’m seriously affected by smells, so I use potpourri or do something else to be sure nothing smells odd (like a smoking neighbor.)

And I write first thing in the morning. Creative work first, analytical work later. High willpower tasks early, or you’ll never get them done.

“I started my first one fifteen years ago, when I was thirteen.”

Great googlymooglies. I have three children older than you. By the time you’re my age you’ll be working on your 147th 3D video novel.
Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Practical Advice from ‘Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath (An Actionable Books summary)

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Ali July 31, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Joel, thansk for the newsletter inclusion. :-) I all-too-vividly remember my own “aspiring” days … eventually I figured out that real authors don’t have some magically different life from mine, they just sit down and write a bit more often!

I’m not very sensitive to smells (though I did notice them more in the early stage of pregnancy!) but I can imagine that intrusive smells must be even more annoying than intrusive sounds.

I agree with you on high willpower tasks first — I came across the idea of that while in college and it’s served me well ever since!

I’m not convinced the novel form is changing all that fast (unless you’re WAY older than I think ;-)) One of my clients has two children around my age; I always think it must be a weird experience for him being advised on writing by me!

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Joel D Canfield July 31, 2013 at 6:35 pm

I keep hoping that I’ll always have my printed books, but I love the idea of having a virtual system around them so that as I read my Longmire mysteries, I smell the pine trees and hear the wind blow; or hear the jukebox when I’m in the Red Pony and smell the sawdust and old beer.

That’s it: I’m inventing the smellable book.
Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Practical Advice from ‘Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath (An Actionable Books summary)

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Jacqui July 30, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Thank you Ali, very timely

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Ali July 31, 2013 at 4:49 pm

You’re welcome! :-)

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Dave Higgins July 31, 2013 at 10:55 am

As I have just restarted work on the novel I put aside last November, having external validation that they can be written a little bit at a time is timely.

However, as one of the main obstacles to working on my novel is a number of short stories for collections that have suggested I might try a submission, I have the additional complexity that I not only need to find my writing rhythm but split it between projects. So far I am using a loose “two sessions a week on this, four sessions a week on that” schedule, which does produce progress but might have to be replaced with a more fixed schedule if the short stories start approaching deadlines.
Dave Higgins’s last blog post ..High Days and Holidays

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Ali July 31, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Dave, it’s great you’re making progress on the novel again, even if it might not be quite as fast as you’d like.

Some authors work on short stories in between novels (that’s what I did during Jan 2007 – Oct 2008 ish) — I don’t think I’ve heard advice on combining the two, but your schedule and approach sounds eminently sensible!

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Dave Higgins August 1, 2013 at 11:37 am

I tried working in series, but every time I found an interesting competition/submission opportunity, I would either have to really rush a novel draft to have time to complete a short story, not submit, or put the novel down (which is how I ended up not working on my current one for nearly six months).
Dave Higgins’s last blog post ..Fantasy Magic I – Coming Out of the Cloister

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Minerva Pacle July 31, 2013 at 4:15 pm

thank you Ali. You know when I saw this post in my newsfeed, I was like “whoa! Good timing!” You’re really a blessing!! I’ve got a big problem redrafting my novel now. It was tossed in a corner from my short stories and articles. Thank you so much!!! :)))) mwah mwah!

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Ali July 31, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Yay, glad this was good timing, Minerva! It sounds like you’re in a similar situation to Dave above, with multiple short projects on the go as well as the novel. Would his approach of dedicating regular sessions to the different projects work for you? :-)

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Daniel Rocha August 1, 2013 at 5:07 am

Hi, Ali!

Here’s your brazilian friend talking (I didn’t write for a while, but what matters is that I keep reading your posts..:) Well, I’ve always had trouble to share my time, and focus (e-mails are poison!), but I believe that we must perceive discipline and write in a regular basis (not that I could, but I believe that is a goal to look for…).

In fact, I finished the second version of my novel these last days (1st and 2st version both took me 6 years), but now I’m feeling a little empty, I mean: about what will I write from now? I felt this emptiness when I finished my last novel, 7 years ago. I’d love read a post yours talking about what we do when we are waiting for a new novel… The good news is that I sent this novel to a contest yesterday, and to a publisher with another novel and a book with short tales. The fight continues…:)

Hope you’re fine.

All best,

Daniel Rocha
Daniel Rocha’s last blog post ..O fim da História de Carol

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Ali August 1, 2013 at 1:50 pm

It’s great to hear from you again, Daniel — and of course I’m glad you’ve continued to read the posts.

Congratulations on getting the second version of your novel done; that’s fantastic! As for what to write now … why not take some time to try different forms of writing, perhaps poetry, short stories, a journal, anything you like! I think the gap in between novels is a really good opportunity to play around. :-)

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Joel D Canfield August 1, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Daniel, Rosanne Bane writes extensively about the phases of writing. Hibernation is one of them.

Two of her blog posts about the time when we’re not actually writing:
http://baneofyourresistance.com/2013/07/23/are-you-blocked-or-hibernating/

http://baneofyourresistance.com/2013/07/18/how-to-create-while-doing-nothing-or-what-to-do-in-product-time-when-youre-incubating/

Her book “Around the Writer’s Block” talks about the science behind the psychology and physiology of writing. A must-read for any writer.
Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Practical Advice from ‘Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath (An Actionable Books summary)

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Daniel Rocha August 1, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Thanks a lot for the answers. I guess that “wasting time” and “rest my mind” are very good strategies while a new story it’s about to come, in the next corner, in the next talk, in the next movie. You know, I was watching a movie from the 80′s, Secret Admirer, in youtube, and – I couldn’t realize – that there’s a scene in the novel that I just finished that was pretty much the same (not the scene, in fact, but the conflict between the main caracter and the girl that (he thinks) he loves, and almost in the end he perceives that she’s an idiot and she has boyfriend (that is, too, his enemy and he didn’t know), and his real love is his female friend, that is his female friend for years, but he had fear of “spin the wheel and play the cards”).

I thought that it stayed in my unconscious for more than 20 years, and I didn’t remember. I just remembered now, some minutes ago… But it all showed to me that the next story will appear when it comes its time, isn’t it? :)
Daniel Rocha’s last blog post ..O fim da História de Carol

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Daniel Rocha August 1, 2013 at 6:13 pm

By the way: I loved the Rosanne Bane’s texts..:)
Daniel Rocha’s last blog post ..O fim da História de Carol

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Ian Anderson August 1, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Hi Ali,
Especially relevant to me right now, 6 weeks into the 8 week summer hols with a 7 and 9 year old to ‘entertain’!

I’m like you Ali, I need longer blocks to work on my ‘how to’ book (maybe I’d be different on my ‘one day’ novel?) I need to be able to ‘see’ the whole book in my mind, to kind of mentally walk through it. I just can’t do that in an hour. It’d take me that long to sort out where I was and what I was doing :-) I totally get why writers rent cottages in remote locations! My wife and kids are going to Spain for the autumn hols so I’ll get 10 whole days to myself and I can’t wait!

At least you’ve had a lovely first summer with Kitty and good luck with the solids!
Regards
Ian
Ian Anderson’s last blog post ..Raised vegetable beds made from pallet wood

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Ali August 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Yikes, good luck, Ian! Sounds like you have your hands full… and that’s great you have a 10 day break coming up in the autumn to get on with the writing. I get a bit frustrated with well-meaning writers saying “Oh, just write for 10 minutes…” because it really doesn’t work well for every writer, or every book.

The solids are going pretty well so far — she loves baby rice, baby porridge, banana and nectarine, though screwed up her face when she tried some stewed apple earlier!

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Ian Anderson August 5, 2013 at 6:42 pm

This was our first try with solids……
http://polishingpeanuts.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/First-spoon.jpg
Thankfully this was 9 years ago :-)

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Ali August 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Aww, how cute! Thanks for sharing. :-D 9 years seems a long time right now, but I’m sure it’ll pass much faster than we think…

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Maria August 4, 2013 at 10:36 am

Hi Ali, I can identify with everything in your post, the truth is time waits for no man, or woman!
Love the way you have shown the breakdown in time, I’ve recently done this exercise, And it feels much more manageable when you see it written on the page.

Thank you for sharing.

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Ali August 5, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Thanks, Maria! Breaking things down (whether it’s a to-do list or a novel plan) always helps me — it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed when looking just at the big picture.

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Beverley | Pack Your Passport September 1, 2013 at 6:58 pm

I SO needed this!! I’ve been trying to come up angles from which I can start the story I want to write but the advice you’ve given about writing a book you’d want to read yourself (or be interested in yourself) has confirmed that I’m kind of over-thinking it and just need to write what comes out and edit it into something a bit better later on. I’ve always struggled with not editing as I go along and this is something I really need to stop doing as it just doesn’t get me very far! Word by word, just like you said :)
Beverley | Pack Your Passport’s last blog post ..Where to Live in Auckland

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Ali September 3, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Glad this helped, Beverley! I’m all for planning … but for most of us writers, it’s very easy to end up over-thinking things so much that we get paralysed before we even begin. Best of luck with the book. :-)

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@MarsEzechukwu September 7, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Thank you so much for this. It really helped me. Now I can stop making excuses and finally finish a book I started in 2007 but haven’t found time to finish.

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Ali September 10, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Hurrah! Good luck with the finishing — there’s never going to be as much time as you’d like, but hopefully the figures in the post show how it really is possible. :-)

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Laura W. September 8, 2013 at 6:25 am

This might just be the best article of writing advice I’ve read. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS NO LIKE SERIOUSLY THANKS A BUNCH. Most other advice-type posts say you have to do x, y, or z and follow said formula and if you don’t, you’re screwed. This was a much more realistic approach to someone whose schedule doesn’t necessarily allow for a lot of writing time. Seeing your writing timeline was a big encouragement, as someone who’s been working on the same project for so long. I have a fifth draft, so yay! but way more to go. :)

Seriously, I can’t thank you enough for this.
Laura W.’s last blog post ..I’m a Mess: College, Recipes, Insanity

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Ali September 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Woo-hoo, so glad you liked this, Laura! I’m not a big fan of “you must do this” formulas — there are so many different ways to write successfully. Huge congrats on reaching the fifth draft, that’s fantastic. Hope draft six goes well!

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Laura W. September 10, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Thanks!
Laura W.’s last blog post ..I’m a Mess: College, Recipes, Insanity

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Selina February 5, 2014 at 6:11 pm

This is a great post! For years I just dreamed and wrote when inspiration struck me. Which wasn’t often. And I never finished anything that way. Literally. I have an absurd number of dead, half-finished stories that I just got bored of and tossed away. But I actually found that having a difficult day job (in my case attending grad school as a PhD student for neuroscience) is what pushed me over the edge to being serious and carving out time for writing on a regular basis. Honestly, the easiest thing I found (besides having serious motivation to create my own space in the fictional world I created to ease the stress of school) was to set myself an easy goal that I could accomplish around studying and reading for class or lab. It was simply to write something, anything, every day. Even if it was only a sentence. It has kept me going, and I finished one draft in the three months over the summer that way. And now I’m approaching the end of the sequel to that draft less than a year later. Small, underwhelming, low stress goals keep me going.

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Ali February 11, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Thanks Selina! I like that goal — and a draft in three months is fantastic. Well done you! And it’s great that you’re keeping on with it. :-) And I agree that writing fiction can be a great escape from the stresses of daily life.

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DJ February 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm

“You’d love to have all day, every day, to write, but of course you don’t.”———- Actually, I do have all day, every day, and it’s the pits.

Unless I beat myself up about it, I don’t get much writing done at all. Though this isn’t because I’m glued to daytime TV — I just have too many interests. A Jill of all trades but mistress of none — that’s me. I’m driving myself barmy!

I do have a novella on the go though. Sitting at 17 000 words at the mo. Perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up quite so much.

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Ali February 11, 2014 at 1:10 pm

17,000 words is great … and I know (from university holidays as a student!) that too much time can really make motivation difficult.

Just a suggestion, but can you treat writing a bit like a job, and give yourself set hours to work at it? E.g. 9am – 11am every day, or 8am – 12 noon on Wednesdays and Fridays, or whatever works for you. Or another option might be to get away on a writing vacation — there are a lot of different ones around.

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John C Vetterlein April 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Very interesting, Ali.

I have been writing since I was a lad – inherited it from my father who was a fine writer of short sorties (I have published around 110 myself and have another 100 waiting in the queue).

Still in the area of fiction, I have completed 18 novels (ten published) but have a mountain of uncompleted work. As you, say a delay in completion should not be taken too seriously. Some of the finest work failed to discover “finis”.

Colleagues often talk of writer’s block (blighter’s rock), something I have yet to experience, and maybe would welcome as providing something of a respite from a condition (writing) that I can only describe as a compulsion.

Before the advent of computers and the word processor, folk found it hard to believe that one could work through a half-dozen typewriters in a lifetime of a few decades.

Keep up the good work

JCV

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Ali April 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Wow, John, that’s a seriously impressive number of short stories and novels!

On my last keyboard, quite a few of the letters wore off the keys… this one seems to be standing up a bit better. :-)

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