Writer’s Diary #6: How to finish your novel: ditch the to-do list

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 10.17.44 AMWe’re constantly thinking up new things we want or need to do, adding them to the never-ending list, then moaning about never having time to do them. If you are a writer, you probably complain that so many things get in the way to thwart you that you will never finish your novel.

The answer? Don’t have a list! Obviously, it’s good to have goals, but when you have so many that you’ll never have any hope of achieving them, it’s counter-productive. Often you have so much to do, you don’t know where to start.

So, the idea is, only put on your list what you can reasonably achieve.

In one weekend, no matter how enthusiastic you are at the start, you will not be able to clean out the cupboards, start your novel, read a whole book and go to the movies. Pick one and do it. Then you’ll be happy you achieved your goal, and you won’t be disappointed in yourself for not finishing four other things on the list.

Sometimes one day at a time is better than making five-year plans.

I’ve got a long-term to-do list that has been the same for about five years. I never cross anything off it, because I never get to it. So it’s always lurking there on my virtual computer sticky notes, reminding me what a disappointment I am to myself and others. I’m going to get rid of this list soon.

I gave away superfluous clothes from my wardrobe recently. Two big bags full, so now I can find the clothes I wear. The clothes that went to charity were all things I thought I’d wear again. But I haven’t, so out they went, except for a few classics.

So now I want to take the same philosophy to my to-do list. I have to realise that I am not going to be able to write 10 more novels in the foreseeable future—and probably not ever. But I think I might be able to write one, and possibly two or three. So I should just pick my top three ideas and forget about the others. I’ve started all three of them anyway. Yes, I know. I should choose one and go for it. Actually, I’ve got a new idea that I think would be great and for which I could happily put all others aside for a year.

I’m making a new plan to finish my third book and to have it published. To do that, I will have to put all other things aside, particularly to-do lists, though unless I am successful in attaining a government grant, I won’t be able to give up paid employment. Still, eligible applicants have about a one in 10 chance of getting a grant in my category, so it’s better odds than buying a Lotto ticket.

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Writer’s Diary #4: Build a bridge and find your inner engineer

An engineer taught me to write. I tell this story to anyone who asks me for advice about writing.

Years ago, when I was struggling to start writing my novel, The Occidentals, a structural engineer of close acquaintance told me that, in his mind, writing was fundamentally the same thing as building a segmental bridge.

At the time, this accomplished young engineer was working on a big elevated expressway that required thousands of prefabricated concrete segments to be precast off-site and then trucked in piece by piece. We would see the trucks, trundling along and not elegant at all, taking up space on the road and disturbing the traffic.

In its entirety, the engineer said, the project seemed vast and overwhelming. But once the design, construction plan and calculations were done, it was better to manage the project day by day than to think of it as a whole. So, he had goals for how many segments needed to be completed daily and weekly, in order to finish the project on time. As he explained, eventually, if you meet your target most days (and use others to make up ground), you have your finished bridge, ready for the public.

So, he said, he reckoned that if you attacked the writing of a novel the same way, you’d soon have your completed manuscript. Think about how many chapters (segments) you want and about how many pages will be in each. Set a deadline and work out how many chapters you want to finish a month. Perhaps you have 20 chapters and you will do two a month of about 20 pages each. Thus, you must write 10 pages a week. You have Saturday and two evenings a week to devote to writing. So, say, each Saturday you will commit to writing four pages, and each available evening to three pages.

After 10 months, you will have your completed 400-page manuscript, ready for the next stage, editing.

I’ve been thinking about this advice again, lately. I think there are more similarities between bridges and books than just a work ethic. Both bridges and books are more than the sum of their parts. When you look at a beautiful bridge like this…

The completed Pierre Pflimlin Bridge, which was opened in 2002.

The Pierre Pflimlin Bridge, opened in 2002, over the Rhine.

…you probably don’t think about the concrete, water, labour, segments and so on that made it, unless you’re an engineer. In other words, you don’t think of it under construction, like this:

Construction of the segmental Pierre Pflimlin Bridge over the Rhine in 2001. The bridge was opened in 2002.

Construction of the segmental Pierre Pflimlin Bridge in 2001.

Similarly, when a book is published, readers don’t think much about the blood, sweat and tears the author went through, first to write it at all, and second to get it published. Nor do they consider the work of the publisher in taking the novel from manuscript to book. A good book is, rather, a thing of beauty, a work of art, and like a bridge, a symbol of humankind’s infinite creative capabilities.

A monologue in Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind here:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!  how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

[The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene II. Text presented following the First Folio, 1623; published by Rex Library, 1973.]


A Writer’s Diary #1: Finding time to write

Books by Caron Eastgate Dann (previously James)This year, I have determined that I will find time to work on my creative writing, instead of just thinking about it. This will mean writing every day, even if I am tired and overworked from my day job.

I know I can find the time because of this: nearly two years ago, I took up painting as a hobby. Since then, I have produced more than 40 finished paintings, variously  in oils, watercolours, acrylics and pastel. I paint four or five evenings a week, sometimes only for 30 minutes, sometimes intermittently over five hours.

Writing after hours is more difficult to do because in my job as an academic, I am on a computer screen much of the day, working on scholarly articles, lectures, and so on, or I am standing in front of a class of up to 60 university students. I don’t feel like writing at the end of the day. I feel like watching TV, eating pasta and painting pictures.

So, my best option is probably to get up an hour earlier and write before the rest of the day starts. Or, just make myself write at the end of the day for an hour. Sometimes I don’t feel like painting at first, but if I just set out my equipment and start, I am soon engaged by it. Maybe it will be the same with writing.

My other problem is that I have made significant (but slow) progress on two novels, and I think it is better to choose just one to work on. They are both historical novels, and one is a sequel to my first book, The Occidentals, initially published as long ago as 1999, then in German editions in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Where has the time gone?

While I’ve done much of the research for these two new books, there is always more to do. Some time, however, I have to stop researching and get writing. I constantly toy with the possibility of writing a contemporary novel, too, and my head spins with ideas.

Ideas, however, do not a novel make; constant hard work every day does. Writing a novel is like climbing a mountain: then having to revisit the mountain and climb it all over again when the editing starts.

My new writing program starts on Thursday, January 10, because it’s the day after my birthday. Also, my day job doesn’t start until February, so I should have the time I need to get a good start on my projects. I’m looking forward to a fruitful writing year.