Discipline & Doubt In Writing a Novel

Back in the heady days of NaNoWriMo, I highlighted Semi-Charmed Life by Nora Zelevansky as one of the NaNo projects turned real, live novels. Nora was generous enough to share with us some thoughts on the challenges of writing and turning an idea into a full-fledged novel. You can find more from her on her site,  -Slay

Cover of Semi-Charmed Life by Nora Zelevansky

As a writer, odds are that–at some point along the way–a well-intentioned relative or acquaintance has regaled you with tales of famous authors and their strict routines: Hemingway awoke with the sun (yes, the sun also rises), wrote until he had nothing left and then brined himself in alcohol. Franz Kafka worked at an insurance company, took afternoon downtime and then wrote from 11 p.m. into the wee hours. Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4 a.m., writes for six hours and then runs ten miles and swims laps.

In theory, these stories are meant to inspire us. And, for the most evolved among us, perhaps they do. Mostly, I suspect, they make us feel inadequate. That’s a lot of discipline to expect.

I wish I could say I maintain such a schedule as a novelist, but here’s the reality: I don’t climb out of bed before the rooster crows unless I have a flight to catch (and even then I bemoan it). I don’t live in a beautiful farm house by a shimmering lake, where I can allow nature to endow me with voice. I have never in my life run ten consecutive miles.

My writing routine changes in phases: In recent weeks, I awoke and heated almond milk to drink in place of coffee, until that started to gross me out. Sporadically, I starve myself until 3 p.m., so consumed with writing–and afraid to break the spell–that I can’t bring myself to pause and grab lunch. (That’s not to be confused with “forgetting to eat,” which is either a fallacy or a trait that inspires misplaced envy among women–neither seems positive.)

I do rise, brush my teeth and start writing immediately. Like many, I am a morning or late night writer, so I try not do anything before I dedicate at least 90 minutes to writing. “Try” is the operative word.

Procrastination is one issue: Facebook is just too tantalizing. It’s amazing how much time you can waste looking at pictures of homemade tacos and other peoples’ children dressed like adults. Nothing is as depressing to me as a status update about how happy someone feels and yet I read on. The whole thing bores, mystifies and mortifies me and yet I continue to peruse.

News sucks me in too, of course. Then, my day job is another distraction: I’m a freelance journalist and I get nervous about leaving my emails until later (which is why I should probably wake like Murakami at 4 a.m., when returning messages is not yet expected). Next comes the family and friend distractions: my husband’s chatter (he works at home too), my sister’s phone calls, friends wanting to discuss last night’s Downton Abbey or Bachelor episode.

Yeah. I watch both. I’m trying to tell the truth here.

I suspect that I am not alone: I am not the only author sitting in front of my computer, playing some mindless game called Slotomania or taking care of logistics instead of penning the Great American Novel. And I am here to say that it’s not always easy to make the time to write, especially when you’ve reached a frustrating point in a given manuscript.

Last year, in July 2012, my first novel Semi-Charmed Life was published by St. Martin’s Press. The book is a comedic satire and coming-of-age story about a directionless twentysomething woman named Beatrice Bernstein. The story both pokes fun at and celebrates the worlds of art and fashion and today’s rampant cult of celebrity. It also examines a close knit, but also suffocating, family dynamic.

Having the book released was whirlwind and strange, at times exhausting, often leaving me mumbling that this was “too good to be true.” In fact, when I got the call from my agent that St. Martin’s would be publishing Semi-Charmed Life and felt a swell of adrenaline consume my body, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d never felt real pride before.

I learned some challenging truths too: that it’s tough to be a new novelist today because there are so few bookstores and people rarely find your book accidentally, while browsing. They have to know to look for it and you. And letting people know you exist is a surprisingly difficult task. Throughout this process, I have had the pleasure of meeting many new fellow authors and, as a result of what I’ve learned about the struggle, I now always return home and order their books immediately. It just feels like the right thing to do, good karma and all. Plus, sometimes I discover a great new author.

But it wasn’t until I sat down in recent months to write a second manuscript that I realized that the task hadn’t grown any less Herculean. I suppose I thought it would be easier the second time around. I wrote my first book during National Novel Writing Month in 2009, which means that I scribbled about 1,700 words a day, every day for the month of November, until I had a first draft. That structure really helped me.

This time around, the timing was off, so I wasn’t able to use NaNo’s system completely. I still followed the tenets as best I could, keeping loosely to that daily word count and rarely taking a day off. (Though my routine may shift from time to time, I do think that creating some kind of schedule for a specific project is essential.) I’m not sure what I expected, but, if anything, the process felt more daunting, knowing that there were honest-to-goodness expectations for this one.

I love writing in its best form, when things are clicking. I really do. But that doesn’t mean it always feels good. Perhaps there are writers who have more confidence in every turn of phrase, but I find my own mistakes or poorly written passages–the kind you have to force yourself through and go back to later or risk getting sucked down into the quicksand–shameful and embarrassing, even when I’m the only one reading.

Usually, for me, editing the first draft incites fear. But, this time around, after a day of poor writing on that first pass, I already felt downright discouraged. I had expectations even for that first draft, which is just unrealistic.

I am now awaiting notes on that tidied up first draft and we’ll see what I hear. In anticipation, I am nervous and anxious and also happy for a few days to take a break from writing every morning as I wait.

Perhaps if I were Kurt Vonnegut, I’d still write for three hours before breakfast, never missing a day. If I were Toni Morrison, I’d watch the sun come up before I began. If I were Stephen King, I’d be seated at my desk by 8:30 a.m. each day with my papers arranged just so. If I were Joan Didion, I’d never miss that hour before dinner to pause and consider my work from the day.

But the reality of writing is messy. And I suspect that in between those scheduled hours–even for the most famed and talented among us–sometimes there were days where the piles on the desk were askew, the alarm clock didn’t go off, cocktail hour started early and no one felt up for that run. Those writerly routines are almost like superstitions that help us feel on track, more a sign of knowing ourselves–and our needs–intimately as writers than anything else. They’re important, but, in reality, maybe not as romantic as they seem.

At least, as I stare at the blank page or rough draft and fight the urge to stop, give up in the face of contrived prose and watch Law & Order re-runs instead, that’s what I tell myself.

[If readers have any questions, please feel free to reach out via Twitter or FB and ask! Also, I am happy to join discussions with book clubs about Semi-Charmed Life.]

Twitter handle: @missnoraz
Facebook author page: Nora Zelevansky – Semi-Charmed Life: a novel
Website: Nora Zelevansky

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10 replies on “Discipline & Doubt In Writing a Novel”

It’s so cheeky. When I have the discipline, a routine going on ..I write. I edit, I even think of ways to put the story out there (which is a bit early).

But when I don’t work on it for a week (just think about it), boom; there’s a gap you suddenly need to cross to get back into book-world. And it never gets easier.

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us! I’m trying to find a way to build up good writing habits for myself because I tend to write in fits and spurts or during November. By the end of November, I feel burned out, so I want to try to make writing more of a daily approach with a little less pressure and see where it leads.

I think that this is kind of along the lines of learning styles, too. For me, I just cannot force myself into a set schedule, but I have more of a pattern. I’ll have a burst of creativity for a certain amount of time, usually a week or so, and then my brain’s like, “Okay, crazy person, I need a break.” So I do menial tasks and watch stupid TV shows. And then I get back into a creative headspace. But I have writer friends that have to have structure or else they cannot do anything creatively because they’re worried about not having structure, if that makes any sense.

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