For the past few weeks, I’ve taken a hiatus from Millennial Writer Life. I attended two residencies in the summer (one of which ended in flames and tears), struggled to finish my book, started looking for a new literary agent, came back to Ohio, and eventually… after a few weeks of writing, I finished the novel that I started in March 2020.
Although I’m grateful to have crossed this milestone, it means something different than I ever thought it would. More than ever I’m tired of the literary rat race, of all the calls for diversity amidst all the mechanisms of gatekeeping, the nice rejections, the long waiting, the being told “Oh, you’re so prolific,” while I wonder if I’ll ever get paid my worth.
Getting back into fiction has taught me a lot about myself as a writer, the kinds of dreams that I have, and the work that I’m willing to put into my craft. Sometimes it feels like no one is watching, and other times, it feels like I have to wear a strong face for the world to show that I’m an “artist who can make it.” But there is always the sneaking thought - What if this becomes too hard? What is the literary world is too used to white writers? What if I pivoted to something else?
But still, over the past weeks, I found a way to sit my ass down, open up my laptop, and make it to the end of my book (which by the way is 130,000 words). I still found a way to love my characters enough to allow this first draft not to be perfect. I found a way to cry with them, be angry with them, and come back to that very special feeling as a fiction writer when I am nearing the last pages and think, “I don’t want to let go of this world quite yet.”
So to bring this all home, I’ll be sharing some unexpected lessons from the last 15 months of finishing the 8th book of my life at the age of 27.
LESSON 1: Go when the inspiration strikes you.
Over the past two weeks of finishing the book, there were many nights when I woke up at four or five am, unable to go back to sleep and with my mind racing. I’d toss and turn and sometimes turn on a light, grab my phone, and take notes. Other nights, I’d sit upright, open my laptop, and start writing. Even if it was just a few hundred words and a few scenes away, a lot of those late-night words helped me find some of the deeper emotional truths necessary to propel my character forward at the end of the book.
For me, nighttime writing isn’t always ideal (since you can legit be tired), but it does have a strong sense of romance and isolation that the more serious or heavy parts of the book might need.
Jeff Goins recommends that if you’re going to write at night, you should: (1) have a plan, (2) take breaks, and (3) just write.
LESSON 2: Keep writing, even if it doesn’t feel BEAUTIFUL.
Although I think writing when you feel the inspiration is important, it’s not the most important thing to me in the process. While writing this novel, there were more than a few times that I’d leave town, visit family, or go on a small trip. Travel and life would disrupt my goal to write every day. Some days I’d be hungover or too focused on enjoying the summer.
But when I did come back to the page, it was always difficult and some part of me thought, “How long will it take until I feel comfortable writing this character again?”
Sometimes getting the words down matters more than getting them down perfectly, especially if you want to improve your work past the first few drafts.
LESSON 3: Don’t get too focused on setting progress goals
In the beginning of writing this book, it helped me to have a minimum word count that I wanted to reach every day. Making this 500 words or more in the beginning was an easy way to get me going because writing the beginnings of stories tend to be way easier for me.
In December 2020, I kept up with my daily word goal while at the Studios of Key West Residency. Having ample time alone and no one to distract me made hitting that daily word count even easier. Fast forward to April -July 2021, I found it hard to reach my daily word count most days. Why? You might ask.
I think it’s because the pressure of finishing the book made writing my daily word goal harder. Once you know your characters more, there’s also a possibility that they can become mysteries to you at any time. Spending a day or two from the draft can make coming back to write 500 to 1,000 words even harder.
Eventually, I reached a point in the draft where I realized - writing without stopping was better than trying to hit a daily word count.
LESSON 4: The writing can save you, but it can’t really save you in the way you want it to.
This is the most honest lesson of all. More than anything, I consider this 8th book a “pandemic novel” since I wrote and finished it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Having this book to write while I was editing my memoir with my former agent, preparing it for submissions, and beyond was a really healthy way to juggle my creative and existential energy.
The more that submissions for my memoir went wrong or took longer than expected, the more I found myself turning to this book to have a world to live in, escape to, control, and reckon with. Writing this book and learning from the main character, Matthew, helped give me the strength to keep writing, even when it wasn’t easy on or off the page.
And although I finished the book and I’m proud of myself, some part of me wishes I could go back, write again, and have that resting place.
One last note….
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