Writing advice is great – when it works for you. When it doesn’t, find another way of doing things.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” —W. Somerset Maugham:
“Follow no rule off a cliff”—CJ Cherryh
Accepted Wisdom says: Write every day.
I say: Except when you can’t. It’s all about balance. Come on, guys, life sometimes gets in the way. Some days just have your name on the shit-list from the get-go. You have a dentist’s appointment and come home feeling like you’ve been kicked in the chops by a donkey. Your kid is sick and clingy, so you have to do the mum/dad thing because that’s what being a mum/dad is all about. The washing machine repair man is due at 9.00 a.m., the central heating’s on the fritz and you have a dinner party for fourteen people to prepare. Your boss at work needs everyone to work late because the sky just fell in. It’s your birthday and your partner wants to take you out for dinner and a show, or a game of bingo. Your sister-in-law got bad news and she needs coffee and consolation more than you need to write chapter three. There are always reasons not to write, just try to make sure you don’t find a fresh one each day. I would moderate ‘Write every day’ to ‘Write every day that you can.’ If you’re one of those organised types who can get up at five a.m. and write for two hours before breakfast, then do it, but if, like me, you’re chaotic, write whenever you can. I’m much more likely to be able to write two hours after supper than before breakfast. I’m also a binge writer. I might go four days without writing a word, then spend three days hammering out five thousand words a day. It works for me. Whatever works for you is good – as long as you progress your writing at a speed that works for you. (If you’ve got a publisher’s deadline, you’d better be on target to meet it.)
Accepted Wisdom says: Start at the beginning. Don’t stop. Don’t go back to rewrite. If you need to make changes, just make a note and go back after you’ve finished.
I say: Fix mistakes as and when you spot them, otherwise they accumulate. There may be a limit to how many times you can rewrite Chapter One, but I haven’t found it yet. I appreciate that if you just keep rehashing the same work over and over again, you’re never going to be in a position to write ‘The End,’ however, and it’s a big however, I can’t jump forwards unless I’m jumping from firm ground, so if I don’t have the beginning sorted, I feel as though I’m standing on shifting sands. To continue mixing metaphors shamelessly, you can’t build a skyscraper on weak foundations. What works for me is to get the opening sorted out (even if I do have to take a few goes at it before it feels right). Once I get the opening sorted out, I keep moving forward – however – each day when I sit down to work I read over what I’ve written the previous day, making a few small tweaks if I have to, or even abandoning yesterday’s work altogether if I feel I’ve made a complete misstep. These rolling edits (a) get me in the right frame of mind to continue forward and (b) ensure there are no complete bloopers left in the manuscript to catch me out later.
This advice comes with one huge caveat. If you’re still writing yet another version of Chapter One after several years, consider that writing a novel may not be your path in life. (Just sayin’…)
PS, at this time of year I like to do a Books for Christmas post, but there’s a good one over on the Milford Writers’ Blog. Please go and take a look.