A couple of people have asked me recently how I maintain momentum when writing a novel.
How to keep going? Especially if it’s not going so well.
Disclaimer: All that follows is what I do. I’m sure there are lots of other good ways. But, you never know, I might give you the tip that helps you finish!
Part One of this post focuses on the things I do before I start writing. These help me with momentum later:
- Pick a publisher
For me, knowing exactly what I’ll do with the book when it’s finished is essential for maintaining momentum.
If my goal is “ooh, I dunno, I suppose I’ll look for a publisher when I finish the book”, that’s not good enough. It’s too vague. It’s like looking into an abyss. Writing a book is hard enough without having an abyss waiting at the end of it.
I need an email address with the word ‘submissions’ in it. That’s my goal, to submit to that. It’s 100% tangible.
(NB – If you’re planning a taut political thriller and the characters keep kissing and gazing into each other’s eyes, don’t worry. Just find a different email address with the word ‘submissions’ in it and carry on writing your tender romance)
- Do research
I want my writing to sound confident. So I don’t busk it. If I’m going to write a story set in the Victorian period I read twenty books about it. At least. If I’m going to write about a photographer I’ll read books about photography and watch interviews with photographers.
I won’t use all the research, but it gives me a feeling for the world my characters inhabit. This will give my story depth. The scenes I write will be more convincing, so I’ll be happier with them. If I’m happy, I’ll be able to maintain momentum.
Don’t skimp on the research. Give it two – three months. If you’re writing fantasy and need to create a world or a magic system, it could take longer. I don’t stop researching either. I keep reading relevant books once I start writing.
I take notes ALL THE TIME when I’m researching. I used to think I’d remember stuff. I couldn’t remember enough. Take notes.
The research will probably spark ideas for plot and character too, which leads me to my next important motivation-enhancing activity:
- Lie on the sofa
This is where you think hard about character and plot. For me, character is plot, in a way, and vice versa. The two must align or neither will work.
Think about your characters’ motivations. What do they want? Do they want it desperately? They’d better, because if not it’ll be hard to maintain your own motivation.
I used to be scared of the ‘lying on the sofa’ bit because it looks like you’re not achieving anything. You can’t boast about word counts. You can’t show anyone anything. Everyone’s saying “Just write, just do it, go, go, go!”; you’re lying on the sofa, staring into space. To the untrained eye, you’ve done zip. But this bit helps with momentum later because you’ll have fewer terrible plot-holes and fewer awful scenes where you’re trying to make a character do something she’d never actually do.
This is when you realise that if your heroine has to kill someone in cold blood in Chapter Nine, she’d better be the kind of person who could kill someone from Chapter One, or you’d better show her becoming that person. It’s when you realise that if your magician is merrily casting seeking spells in Chapter One, there’s NO WAY he can lose his hat all helplessly in Chapter Seven, even if it is vital for the plot.
But I don’t worry too much about the plot either. I think it’s fine to put ‘and then they escape’ in my notes, but I have no idea how they escape. That’ll come to me as I write. I don’t sweat that kind of thing.
- Lie on the sofa some more
I’ve got a rough feel for character and plot. But what’s it saying at a deeper level?
Am I inadvertently supporting an idea I don’t agree with, such as ‘ignore tradition at your peril’, ‘true love is possessive’ or ‘might is right’?
Yes? Then my plot has to change.
I want to make sure my book has a premise I believe in. This will be important later, because it helps me keep going during the ‘my entire book is bullshit’ phase.
(Which will come. Sorry. But at least you know to expect it).
- Don’t get up yet
This is also the part where I think about what I really like or am interested in.
I find this bit surprisingly difficult, because we’re so used to seeing a certain kind of story, or a certain kind of hero/heroine. For example, when I started writing, I forgot my characters could like books or art. That’s because I’ve seen so many action heroes who never talk about books or art. But I hate action heroes. They bore me to death. I’m interested in people who talk about books or art. So I’m going to put that in. What’s my character reading? Who’s his favorite artist? These things are important because they make the character real for me.
Plus, if I include something I really like or am interested in, it makes it so much easier to keep going later.
Say you LOVE looking through recipe books: make one of your characters a chef. Say you adore the sea: let your characters live by it. Say you’ve always dreamed of murdering your boss: you see what I’m getting at? It’ll make it fun for you. Just make sure it isn’t contrived. If one of your characters is a chef, then she pretty much has to work weekends because that’s what chefs do. She can’t have every Saturday night off to conveniently go out with her girlfriend (unless there’s a really convincing reason why).
- Think about beta readers
If you haven’t already, now’s a good time to join a writers’ group or find an on-line community of writers or readers. At the very least, start talking about writing with people in your life who will take you seriously. You’ll need these generous folk to beta-read your completed first draft.
If I do all the above, I have a really bouncy springboard off which to leap. This makes it easier to maintain momentum when I start the actual writing.
Which happens in Part Two.
How do you maintain momentum? Planning? Vodka? Grim determination? Let me know in the comments below.