I finished the first draft of Entrapment this week. There’s still a long way to go – one thing I’ve discovered about myself in the last year is that I tend to write quite short first drafts. They have the main story, all the main characters, all the key beats, but they’re a bit thin. There’s no backstory that might make sense of the characters actions (that’s all in my head, or I made it up halfway through and never went back to fill it in), some bits are entirely dialogue, some sections aren’t really set anywhere, some characters change their name, or gender halfway through… You get the picture, there’s still a lot of work to do.
For comparison, Echoes, which I’m currently querying (no real success yet, but still got irons in the fire) was about 35,000 words long at this point, and ended up at 83,000. Entrapment has come in at 41,000 so far, which means it could be 90-100,000 when it’s done. Or less. Or more. Literally any number at this point. I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet.
Anyway, it’s a milestone, so I thought I’d pause and reflect. And on reflection… fuck me, I’ve written a book and a half in a year! If I keep going like this then in another year’s time I’ll have finished three books. That’s the same number of books I’ve finished writing in my entire life up to last year. What? That can’t be right. I’ve spent most of my adult life being a writer-who-never-writes-anything. A writer in my dreams, only. Between 1997 and 2017 I didn’t finish a single novel I started. And I started plenty… What’s changed?
200 words a day.
I’ve written about it before, but I still can’t quite believe how it’s changed the way I write (by which I mean the fact that I write). So to help me (and you) believe it, here are the top reasons why I think it’s made literally all the difference (pun entirely intended). If you are also a write-who-never-writes-anything I would highly recommend you try it. You too could have a book and a half that you can’t convince anyone to represent!
(note to visiting agents: this is self deprecating humour. I do, genuinely, believe that I have written a smash-hit bestseller that you do NOT want to pass on…)
Reason #1: I am a writer now
I write fiction, nearly every day. That is the behaviour of someone who is a writer. Sometimes it’s as little as 200 words, but I have a job and a family and other commitments, all of which could conspire to stop me writing. But 200 words doesn’t take that long and often it’s more than that. As long as I’ve done the 200 words then they’ll all add up and soon I’ll have thousands. It’s simple and it’s obvious but it’s true and it works.
I’ve discovered that the best time for me to write is usually in the evening, after dinner. I’m too sleepy first thing, cannot manage to get out of bed any earlier than I do already, so #5amWritersClub is not for me. Then I have to work. Then there’s housework to do, and I usually cook dinner, plus I’m getting hungry at this point so I’m not in the best place to be creative. After dinner we usually watch TV and that’s my time. I’ve discovered that if I’m not bothered about what’s on then I can tune it out and get my words done. I’ve got a little lap desk to balance my laptop on so I don’t get a cricked neck and off I go. Some days it’s easier than others. Sometimes whatever is on seeps through (there’s a character in Echoes called Miguel who is named after one of the characters in Cobra Kai because it was on at the moment I needed a new name) but it seems to work. And I get my words done without having to hide from my family for the evening. I’m certainly no less present than if I was scrolling through my phone. I realise that writing in front of the TV probably isn’t for everyone but if you’re a writer-who-never-writes-anything then maybe give it a go. You’ve nothing to lose, and at least 200 words to gain!
Reason #2: I feel like a writer now
I’ve always wandered around with bits of story in my head, but the thing I’ve realised is that part of my brain has a very finite capacity. It fills up with story and then there’s no room for any more. I have, in the past, spent months wandering around, pondering the same opening to a story, but never got any further. It was, partly, for that reason that I never got around to writing it down. What I now realise is that if I write it down then it empties out my brain, which can now go about pondering what’s next, or what’s missing, or how things could or should tie together. I write some things down, then go about my life and my brain fills up with more story. Then I write that down. Novels are really long stories, I don’t know why I thought I had to figure out a whole one in my head before I was ready to write it.
(You may notice at this point that I am definitely a pantser rather than a planner. I have tried planning out the story as a way to get it done, but it felt restrictive and I got bored. And didn’t finish. Again.)
The capacity of my brain is probably more than 200 words, but sometimes that’s all I’ve got. That’s OK. Very rarely I sit down and there’s not even 200 words there. That’s OK too. That’s when I have to knuckle down and force it, spend 200 words writing about what the ceiling looks like, or what a character sees on a very long and aimless walk somewhere. But it’s only 200 words of nonsense, and it’s not too painful to (later) cut that bit. But maybe 50 of those words are good. And maybe the last 10 serve as a jumping off point for my brain to conjure up more story. So tomorrow will be easier, and writing will be fun again.
When I’m changing the beds, or emptying the bins, and I suddenly have a moment where I realise how the story ends, or how two apparently random things can tie together in a really clever way – especially if I only wrote one of those bits to force out yesterday’s 200 words – those are my favourite moments of being a writer.
Reason #3: I tell people I am a writer now
My Twitter bio starts with the word “Writer”. I tweet about what I’m writing. I have a blog about my writing (obvs). I even, sometimes, tell people in the real world what I’m up to. Small steps, but they all count. And when you do this, people react like you’re a writer, too. Other writers like your tweet, and retweet your successes, and follow you. It’s very validating.
(Shout out to the #200WordsADay gang – find them on that hashtag. Love you guys…)
Last year, after I found out on a quiet Wednesday that I’d come second in the Dulwich Festival Flash Fiction competition, I was so shocked to read the email that I couldn’t help mentioning it to someone at work. She said “I didn’t know you were a writer”. At first I wanted to say “oh no, I’m not really…” but I didn’t. I left it. And it felt great. So I’m being less shy about telling people. Ultimately I was to be a successful writer, and that’s not going to happen if no-one knows I’ve written anything.
(Expanding out from #200WordsADay a little bit, the guys behind it, the two Marks from The Bestseller Experiment are big on this. It might sound a bit like creative visualisation self-actualisation woo woo, and at least one of the Marks might agree and say there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s true. If you write then you are a writer and should describe yourself as such. If you are a writer-who-never-writes-anything then do yourself a massive favour and subscribe their podcast. Even if you’re not, subscribe to their podcast. It’s brilliant.)
Reason #4: I will be a better writer tomorrow
As I said above, I hope to be a successful writer. Just now I’m only a writer. Maybe I’m not yet good enough to be successful (again, note to agents: this is just self-deprecating inner-saboteur stuff. Ignore it, my books are great). But how do you get better at things? Practice. And I’m practicing nearly every day. At least #200WordsADay.
My name is Phil, and I am a writer.