Thursday, 24 January 2013


Hello, Dear Readers! Today I'm answering a question from blog commentor Cherie, who says:
" biggest issue is THE NOTEBOOK. I quite like the chapter [I've written]. I had fun writing it and I was excited to write the next one. But there are a couple of mistakes I know I've made and My Brain was not letting me write any more in case I made more mistakes, because it feels like I'm doing a disservice to the notebook. Like, the notebook doesn't deserve to have mistakes in it. The notebook's worth is detracted because of the mistakes. The notebook has been rendered not good enough and now I feel I can't write in it.

Naturally, I turned to the ever-useful Microsoft Word. I wrote another couple of chapters and then realised that typing the stories instead of writing them took all of the fun out of it and made me not want to write any more. And I'm also notorious for deleting files on a whim - anything I had written went straight to the recycle bin after I glanced it over and saw a sentence that didn't quite go well, along with an all-consuming dread that I failed as a writer etc. I've tried writing on scraps of paper, on the back of receipts, with pens running out of ink or in pencil so it already looked messy, but it hasn't worked. I then tried writing but not looking it over afterwards, but that was doomed to work just as much as giving an incredibly inquisitive 5-year-old a box and then telling them not to open it."
Cherie, you've really twisted yourself up into a Gordian Knot over this, haven't you? There you were, just writing away - no big deal - having fun, liking what you were doing... and the next thing you know you literally can't write a word anywhere - not even on the back of a receipt - because fear and doubt and insecurity have got you wrapped up so tightly that they've strangled all your creativity.

First of all, I'm going to recommend that you read a post I made for someone else, which is called Take A Deep Breath. All the advice therein applies to you too.

Now for some specific recommendations based on the specific details you've given me. Just to make it clear for all the people out there to whom this advice would be like arsenic candy covered in broken glass - I'm not saying the following advice is going to be helpful for everyone. No. I know some writers hate longhand, or need to self-edit as they go, or both. Or other variations! That's fine. There is no One True Way. This advice is for Cherie and the writers like her. Move along there.

I understand your notebook problem, my duckie. Sometimes I have treated my notebooks with a bit too much reverence too. I had some really beautiful notebooks - expensive notebooks - which had been sitting on my shelves gathering dust for years because I didn't want to mess them up with my scribblings and crossings out and crumpled Post-Its. I felt as if those notebooks deserved better. They deserved something special. Some magical story that would be WORTHY of them.

You know what I worked out? All notebooks deserve one thing and that is TO BE USED. The point of your notebook's existence is for someone to write in it, whether the writing is grocery lists or the next great novel. That's all your notebook wants or deserves. Your notebook might as well have been put through a rinse cycle in the washing machine, or set on fire, or never made at all, if the only thing it ever does its whole life is to sit on a shelf or in a drawer somewhere being ignored. 

However, if this is a bit too much for you to accept right now, then switch strategies. I'm going to recommend that you stop trying to write in a notebook - or on the back of old scraps of paper - and get one of these.

Narrow or wide ruled, doesn't matter. As cheap as you like. Your supermarket probably makes them for less than a pound. It's not a notebook or even a notepad. It's just a block of lined paper, and the paper pulls loose very easily. Each time you finish filling up one side of a page you pull it loose from the block and put it aside, face down, so that you can't see what you've just written.

I'm going to advise that you switch from pens to pencils. Everything looks less formal and finished written in pencil. Get some cheap mechanical pencils if you can. They're good because they weigh nothing, don't need sharpening, and come with an eraser on the end.

And you know how you said that expecting yourself not to go back and re-read what you've written was like giving a present to a five year old and asking them not to open it? Well, Cherie, you're not a five year old. You need to develop the ability not to look at what you have written if doing so is going to paralyse you. There's nothing wrong with writers self-editing if that's natural and helpful to them; but clearly it is anything but for you. Clearly catching a glimpse at unedited pages like that is hurting you. So stop it.

Put those pages aside and leave them alone, and get on with writing a *new* page and moving your story forward. I know you can do it, and if you want to ever finish this story you're writing that is what you will have to do. 

Why am I recommending these specific things? Because I've been just where you are, Cherie. When I was writing Shadows on the Moon I got stuck after about three chapters and I stayed stuck for over SIX MONTHS. This happened because one day, on a whim, I went back and started re-reading at the beginning of the Word Doc. where I had been typing up my notes. Doing so sent me into a death spiral because those first three chapters? They were AWFUL. Terrible. No good. Sucktastic to the max.

I'm not exaggerating here.

Like you, after being confronted with my own mistakes I was paralysed with the feeling that I was unworthy of my story, that everything I wrote was flawed, that it was pointless even to try to go on because this book would never be finished and even if it was it would be utter dreck, an unfixable black hole that would never resemble anything worthwhile. But guess what?

I was wrong. Eventually I snapped out of it and I finished that book. I edited it. I revised it. I edited it a bunch more times with my editor and then a copy-editor and then my U.S. editor and copy-editor, and the book went out there into the world and became something I am incredibly proud of. Some people have loved it. Others have hated it. I don't care, because I know it's the best work I could do.

The way I broke free was to put aside my fancy expensive notebook and my special writing pens and to scribble all over loose sheets of paper which I set in a messy pile and occassionally shuffled into place and shoved into a cardboard folder, WITHOUT LOOKING.

Maybe once or twice a week, I'd open the folder and get out the pages I'd written that week and type them up. As I did I'd find hundreds of mistakes and be plagued by insecurity and hopelessness all over again, just like you are. But here's the thing: Typing these mistake-riddled notes up gave me the chance to CHANGE them. To improve and make them better. I caught dozens of mistakes and ripped those little suckers out of there and knew that what ended up in my Word Doc. was so much better than it had been before.

This method didn't magically cure my fear, just as it won't magically cure yours. But it freed me up enough to get me putting words down on the page again, and that is the number one most important thing for a writer to do. That's all. That's it.

It doesn't matter if those words suck like a force ten hurricane. In fact, they OUGHT to suck. For every perfect phrase or line or paragraph you come up with, most likely you will need to write five or ten that are utter, utter cr*p. That is OK. It's OK! You can fix it. I promise. You can fix anything! Writing IS re-writing. It's part of the process and everyone, every genuis writer that you've ever looked up to, had to go through it. Because you can fix anything - really anything - except a blank page.

Let's review. 

STEP ONE: Put Down The Notebook Of Doom. Replace it with a cheap refill pad and some pencils. Know that when you scribble using these, you are simply aiming to write notes for your first draft - notes which will be re-written and revised many times in the future - not some mythical, flawless, perfect novel.

STEP TWO: Stop Tormenting Yourself. Put the pages aside when you've scribbled on them and don't look. No excuses. Just pull up those big girl panties, turn the page face down and keep writing.

STEP THREE: Reconcile Yourself To Revision. Once a week or whenever is convenient, type your scribbles from the loose pages into a Word Doc. and edit them, knowing all the while that this is merely one of the first steps in a long process of drafting and that you will re-write and revise this manuscript many more times before it is ready to be shared with the world.

STEP FOUR: Keep Going. Repeat Steps One to Three until the book is finished.

If I can manage this, honey, I know that you can. Good luck!


Jenni said...

This is such a brilliantly useful post! Definitely bookmarking this.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: I'm glad you think so! Thanks :)

Aimen said...

This is brilliant advice, Zoe.
I'm almost done with outlining my novel (which was unexpectedly enjoyable) and will soon be moving on to the research stage because naturally, I picked a topic that I know so little about it's not even funny.
Either way, I really think I'll be using this advice come summer vacation when I get down to writing. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Aimen: It doesn't sound like you need my advice at all, but good luck with researching anyway!

Unknown said...

Thank you SO MUCH for writing this. Seriously. I cannot articulate how grateful I am.
Weirdly enough, I went out and bought one of those refill pads at the week end because my friend recommended it for history revision - before then, I had never even thought about buying one. I never considered using it for this, either, but I have a feeling this will work.
I was a bit surprised when you said you had such problems with Shadows of the Moon, because I literally just finished reading it yesterday and it now has a place on my shelf of favourite novels.
So, like your blog post Take A Deep Breath advised, I'll have a couple of days off writing.
Especially since I have a 300 word French GCSE essay that I need to know by heart for tomorrow which I may not have written yet :\
Thank you again.

Krispy said...

Thanks for this, Zoe! It's helpful and encouraging! I'm totally one of those people who can't bear to use pretty new notebooks, but then their purpose is never fulfilled!

Rhia said...

Helpful advice as always, Zoe!

I can only ever use notbooks for impressions, ideas, and sometimes lines of dialogue: I write best going straight to screen.

Horses for course, as they say - but as you rightly point out, the key to effective writing is revision, revision, revision!

Rhia said...

Oh good grief, that should read 'notebooks' and 'courses'! My apologies - dodgy fingers not hitting keys properly! They've never been the same since I ruptured the tendons...

Zoë Marriott said...

Cherie: You are very welcome - and I hope you get some comfort/motivation/reassurance out of this post. But yes, write your essay first. Good luck!

Krispy: I find the best way to get over it is to start at the back, actually. Sounds odd. Probably is. But I can usually bring myself to make a mess in the back pages (like I used to in the back of my school exercise books) even if the front ones are pristine and lovely.

Rhia: I know several wonderful writers who literally find no use for a notebook AT ALL. You might as well give them a slate to write on. So it's all highly individual. I experimented with writing direct to screen when I first became a full-time writer and it was a disaster. Never again for me!

Zoë Marriott said...

Rhia: P.S. It's OK, your meaning was still clear :) Look after your tendons!

Rhia said...

One thing I find interesting is that when I write in my notebook, dialogue in particular is stilted and unconvincing. When I write direct to screen, however, entire passages of dialogue appear which I can only think must come directly from my fingers, because they surely don't register in my brain. And the dialogue has a much better flow to it.

Perhaps, like the brontosaurus, I have in fact two brains, one of which resides in my fingertips.

Zoë Marriott said...

Rhia: LOL! It's possible! Entirely possible! If so, my second brain must really like the feel of a pencil, as scribbled notes in the back of a notebook are where *I* create my best dialogue.

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