START HERE: Which one of these sentences describes you best?
I have a specific writing project in mind, but I haven’t started it.
Well, January is going to be the month you start. Sound good? Here’s how to apply some structure to the situation.
Ask yourself: What’s stopping me from writing this? Fear? Is it not knowing where to start? Not knowing how to start?
If it’s fear: Look for ways to take pressure off of the situation. Try calling your draft-in-progress “Untitled Document 1.” Remind yourself that you’re new at this project – it’s OK to be a little concerned about how you’ll fare. But just like trying anything new, eventually it’s time to put that fear aside and dive in. If you’re afraid of publication, gently remind yourself that you have many steps to take and drafts to revise before you get even close to that step – and that you might never need to publish it at all, if what’s important to you is just getting your story on paper and perhaps sharing it with a close circle. Remember, the more time you spend with your story, the more comfortable you may feel putting it out into the world if and when the time is right.
If it’s not knowing where or how to start: First, know that none of us know the best or easiest way to begin a draft when we’re first starting out. You’ll need to try a few different processes in order to find the ones that work best for you. Here are some strategies to try and see which strikes your fancy:
Do some prewriting: If you need to ease yourself into the creative process, perhaps doing some prewriting exercises would make you feel more comfortable with your project. Consider spending the month of January organizing your ideas, sketching out timelines or outlines, organizing research, completing character questionnaires, etc. before diving into draft-writing in February. Having done some parallel work on your project might make you feel more confident when it’s time to face the first page.
Seek out structure: Did you know organizations offer book-writing programs to keep writers on track? Gotham Writers offers a 10-week Novel First Draft online workshop, designed to help would-be novelists stay focused as they complete their first draft, for example. NaNoWriMo not only encourages writers to complete a 50,000-word novel draft in November but also runs Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July for less-structured (but still organized and community-supported) writing goals.
Dive right in: Give yourself a small, achievable goal, like writing one page per session or 1,000 words a day. Then take a deep breath, fire up the computer (or flip to a new page), and dive in. It’s a first draft, so there’s no pressure to write something profound, or publishable, or even logical; the goal is to just start writing and laying down the slightest of foundation that you’ll build on later. Embrace the mess and chaos as part of the process, and always remember that a writer can fix anything but a blank page.
I’m partway through a project, and I want to finish it.
Congratulations! You won’t need to worry about breaking ground after the new year; all you need to do is build some momentum to take you through the finish line. Would any of these strategies give you a clear map for how to move forward?
Give yourself a goal. If you’ve attempted daily goals and found it difficult to fit in sessions each day, try a more flexible weekly word count. If you’re making headway but consistently missing your word counts or mileposts, stop beating yourself up and simply reframe your goals to something you can achieve. The idea is to help you find a structure that will promote putting words on the page at your own pace, not to compare yourself to others or berate yourself for failing – two things that will certainly harm your creative process instead of helping. There’s zero shame in reframing a deadline that’s not working for you partway through the year.
Make a progress chart. If daily, weekly, or monthly goals feel too difficult to realistically achieve, a progress chart is a terrific way to maintain momentum without dictating when or how much you write. Combining a chart with rewards – small treats to motivate you for every 5,000 words, perhaps, or a larger prize when you finish each draft – can provide positive reinforcement to put those words on paper.
Get an accountability buddy (or five). They support you, you support them, your books get written, you get more human contact in a global pandemic – everyone wins.
Sign up for a professional event later in the year. Have you ever signed up for a fitness event like a 5K to encourage yourself to get in shape beforehand? This is the same idea: Having a concrete event, such as a virtual conference, manuscript consultation, or remote writing retreat (that you paid for!) can help provide a “ticking clock” on the horizon to provide external motivation.
I have a finished draft, but I need to take it to the next steps.
So you have a full finished manuscript under your belt, and you’re now ready to begin the revision process. Wonderful news! Take a moment to be thoroughly, supremely proud of yourself for the work you’ve put in before diving into the next step. (But don’t take too long of a break or you’ll lose your momentum.)
Revision can be maddening at times, but it’s also where the magic happens. You’re already one step of the game because you managed to power through a first draft and learn some things about your writing process along the way. Before you begin revision, sit down for a bit of reflection to both acknowledge how far you’ve come and see how you can use the lessons you’ve already gleaned from the first draft. When did the writing feel easiest? What time of day, week, year did you produce the most work? What motivators worked best in creating that draft? What were some of the biggest hindrances while you were working on it, and how can you strive to avoid them, if possible, as you revise?
There are many ways to set revision goals for the new year: You could aim to tackle one new element (plot, dialogue, setting, etc.) each month. You could take it chapter by chapter or page by page. You could make a progress chart (see above!) and reward yourself for each completed draft phase. Look for ways to make this messy process manageable: How can you break it up into bite-size pieces that you can feasibly achieve each month?