#5onFri: Five Things That Saved My Novel From Oblivion

by Angyne Smith
published in Community

I was finally on my way!  I had started my Young Adult (YA) Fantasy novel over 20 years earlier, building the world, the characters, and the story in fits and starts on vacations or in between life’s daily demands, mostly surrendering to my reality.  Then in July of 2019, I retired and I promised myself that I would finish it!  Yes!! 

I had attended a local YA Fest in August, met a best-selling author in my genre, Cinda Williams Chima, and vowed to take her advice about focusing on the first draft of my novel.  By end of the year, I knew what I had and what I had left to do.  In January 2020, I joined the local writers’ group that had hosted the YA Fest. 

I started writing new content for a few months, but struggled.  I got discouraged and promptly ignored the advice that I had vowed to take earlier, about just getting that first draft done.  Instead, I researched how to find agents and write queries, which clouded my mind and loomed as such a daunting task!

I signed up for a local conference, starting March 12, excited about making new connections and finding ways to dispel my growing fears.  March 11, the conference was cancelled due to the pandemic.  I was so deflated, but tried to soldier on.  This pandemic thing could be the perfect storm for a struggling author, right?  Wrong!  It worked exactly the opposite for me, because of various factors.  By April, I had flat-lined on writing either one of my works in progress.  Still struggling, I finally decided to take the summer off. 

Come September, I started to attend the local writers’ group monthly meetings via Zoom!  I got a tip about a free event on writing skills, a DIY MFA webinar delivered by Gabriela Pereira.  Inspired, I signed up for and then completed DIY MFA 101 in November.  Now, I am on track to finish the first draft of my novel by end of April 2021.

My hope is that my experience will inspire others, like you, to keep the wolves at bay – those doubts and fears that get in the way of writing.  Ideally, you can apply these ideas in your own way and in your own time, at any point in your process, to realize your dreams.

Setting the Right Context

First, setting the right context involves setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound) goals and scheduling regular time to write.  SMART goals were an early lesson in DIY MFA 101.  I had already used them in managing business projects, but I had not tried to apply it to my writing.  Apparently, I thought that the more left-brained practice of setting goals would be a barrier to the more right-brained creative process of writing a novel.  Wrong again!! 

The act of setting a word count goal and reducing that to weekly and daily targets was a huge asset in getting my project – yes, writing a book is indeed a project! – jump started.  Plus, having regular times when I committed to be writing – not researching, not editing, not plotting, not developing characters, but putting new words to the page – was game changing!  I am retired, so I assigned weekdays as my writing space.  Mondays, I do auxiliary activities, like those noted above.  Tuesday through Friday, I schedule two hours in the morning and two more in the afternoon for writing new content, with specific word count goals per day.

Priming the Pump

Second, priming the pump is a phrase that I first “heard” from Sarah Ban Breathnach in her book, Simple Abundance.  She defined it as pursuing “a carefully crafted ritual of comfort” that eases you into the process of creating.  Gabriela calls it “setting the mood.”  For me it means preparing myself for the act of writing, so I can convert the ideas in my mind into scenes for my novel.  My ritual involves first making sure I stay hydrated – having a cup of tea in the morning or a glass of sparkling water with lime in the afternoon.  Next step is entering a creative physical space (my office has Monet prints on the wall and a standing desk in front of a window with a pastoral view) and practicing the mental exercises that open my mind to inspiration.   The mental exercises include some combination of a daily reflection from Sarah’s book, a purge of negativity in my “angst journal,” (my version of Gabriela’s Angst Jar), entries in my “gratitude journal,” a poetry reading, and finally, my beach music playlist, just as I start to write.

Following a Disciplined Writing Process

The third thing that saved my novel from oblivion is following a disciplined writing process.  For me, that starts with the advice that I had ignored early.  The author Chima’s exact words were, “Give yourself permission to write badly.  You can always fix it later.”  That mantra gives me the courage to start the process.  Next, I use a technique that I learned from Gabriela, the Domino Method.  Wherever I am in the novel, I look back to the previous scene, describe what should happen in this one, and look ahead to know what should (probably) happen next.  Finally, I use the Pomodoro Method, a technique I know from both business practices and DIY MFA events, for when the words start to flow.  The cadence of twenty-five intensive minutes, then five minutes to regroup, creates a productive rhythm that makes the planned two-hour sessions just fly by.  

Tracking Progress

Fourth on my list, tracking progress is another trick that I learned from Gabriela.  On a daily basis, I write down the word count achieved and/or the hours spent.   I note whether I was following my process – no fuss, no judgement.  If I’m behind, I make an effort to put more words on the page the next day.  At the end of each week, I tally the week and either celebrate or dole out forgiveness, then adjust the next week’s goals upward, if necessary, but never downward.  Finally, in tracking progress, I plan a monthly review.  At the end of January and February, I reviewed my process to see how well it was working.  So far so good, so I have made no changes to date.  However, I will stay vigilant and continue to iterate monthly.

Building a Writers’ Circle

Last on the list, yet more important than anything else, is building a writers’ circle.  Ours is both a support and a critique group.  We act as each other’s trusted advisors in our writing practices, cheerleaders in our triumphs, gentle but constructive reviewers of our works in progress, and general inspiration when the well goes dry.   We have documented practices, a structured communication platform, a commitment to each other’s success, diverse perspectives, and a deep connection beyond writing.

I have so much more to say about this last element.  If all goes well, I will write another #5onFriday article that shares the story of how and why our writers’ circle works so well.  Until then, find your way and let me know how it works.

Angyne Smith is a second generation American, wife, mother, grandmother, retired business professional, and most recently, a young adult fantasy author.  She is a native Pennsylvanian, who has been living in the Garden State, (that’s New Jersey), for just over 40 years.  Angyne (pronounced like the two names Ann and Jean stuck together) is inspired by Monet paintings and music of all kinds, from classical to classic rock.  She is energized by gentle exercises like Tai Chi and leisurely morning walks, preferable along a warm, sandy beach.  Reading was her passion even before writing, mostly in fantasy, science fiction, and historical adventures. Follow Angyne on Facebook.

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