Earlier this summer, I started writing a novel. I haven’t finished it yet, but I did start it. And I’ve written a lot of words. I get up every morning and vomit them all on the page. It’s awful. I mean, awesome! It’s awesome. It is Very Very Impressive, this writing schedule of mine. When I become Very Very Famous, this Very Rigid Very Productive Early Morning Novel-Writing Routine will certainly be shared Far and Wide. Want in on this secret to success? It’s easy! Just follow these simple steps:
Do it with a groan, not a smile. Hit Snooze three times and don’t let yourself think back to when summers meant sleeping in. Take inventory of your pains, your forever-aching neck and back. Definitely don’t imagine what it’s going to be like waking up thirty years from now, after another ten thousand days of sitting upright and pounding at a keyboard every morning. Your routine is healthy, damn it! So shuffle over to the bathroom to take your pain pills. And smile! It’s summer, and you’re doing what you love.
Take the time to do this every morning even though your coffeemaker has an automatic timer you could just as easily set the night before. This makes no sense, but it’s how you started doing things a long time ago, and logic is always trumped by routine. On some mornings, you’ll need to kill a few bugs while you wait. They skitter around your countertop, taunting you. They are really not afraid of you at all. They should be, though, because you’re an efficient killer. You feel neither pleasure nor remorse when you swipe the coffee canister away and bring your fist down on the roach hiding beneath, all in one clean motion. You crumple the bug’s corpse in a napkin and toss it in the trash. It is Monday. You’re a well-oiled machine.
Check Twitter and Facebook
There’s no better way to start your day than reading things by and about people who are much more successful than you. Or looking at pictures of friends and family who are spending their summers at the beach, traveling the world. Poor souls. So undisciplined, so weak! Don’t pity them—it’s not their fault. They just don’t know what it’s like to be all up in a masterpiece like yours.
Check Your Gmail
Be careful: Depending on what’s waiting for you here, your confidence or concentration for the morning could be shattered. An acceptance will give you justification to slack, while a rejection could send you spiraling. If you had a stronger will, you would skip this part entirely. Really, it’s not a good idea at all. But you just have to know, so fine. Do this at your own risk. You better hope no one has anything to say to you this morning.
Check Twitter and Facebook Again
Just this last time. Really.
Check your Gmail Again
It’s only been a minute or two, but at this point you’re looking for excuses.
Check Twitter and Facebook Again
Log Out of Everything
Even put your phone on silent. Hide it under the covers of your bed, or somewhere far enough from your desk that you’ll have time to come to your senses if you find yourself walking across the room to check it. Don’t download an Internet blocker—you’re stronger than that. Just log out of all your social media accounts. To be distracted by Facebook, you would first have to go through the process of logging back into Facebook. You would have to experience the shameful realization that you can’t last more than an hour without scrolling through your news feed, slack-jawed, clicking “Like” on inane listicles and cat GIFs you’ve seen before. Remember this shame. Let this shame be your Internet blocker.
Pick Your Pandora Radio Station
Are you generating new material or working through a revision of a previous chapter? You should have a station for both. This is Very Important.
When you’re revising, you just need something to keep you moving, something smart and catchy, mostly acoustic. Vocals are fine, but only if they’re soft and pretty. Revision is about making things pretty, so pretty.
When you’re generating new material, though, you need instrumental music. It needs to be slow, but with lots of movement—build-ups and breakdowns, bursts and lulls that accommodate the creative process.
On some days, when you are at a loss for what to write, you will find yourself catching the beat of a song. You will pound a rhythm on your desk with your knuckles and palms, and you will think of nothing in particular, and it will be beautiful. Don’t sleep on this. Really, this is some important shit. This is Work.
Sometimes you’ll do this for a second or a minute, and sometimes for an entire song, and sometimes you will pound on your desk until your palms bruise, until your knuckles are sore to the touch. You might feel a little stupid. But when you’re finished, your fingers will fly back to the keyboard and you will write without thinking. It will be easy: You will have found the words you were searching for.
Just do this. I mean, just hit keys with your fingers until you have something on the page. That’s all.
Do this for an hour, or two hours, or, on your best days, three hours. Take short breaks. Stand up, stretch, look out the window. Refill your coffee cup. Write until you can no longer drink coffee.
On some days, the writing will come easy. You’ll find you know exactly how to make a bad paragraph better. The plot will progress exactly as you planned it. You’ll write an odd but effective characterization, a fun little turn-of-phrase. It will surprise you, and you’ll be pleased, reenergized with belief in your project. You will have fun! This does happen sometimes.
More often, though, it’ll be tough sledding. You’ll work through line after line knowing the work is shoddy but having no idea how to improve it. Your characters will seem vacant and dull, your plot nonexistent. What is a novel, anyway? And why did you think you could write one? You’ve wasted your summer on seventy thousand-plus words that will never see the light of day.
This doubt starts with a word or a line and soon expands to the entire project, to all your previous projects, to all the ideas for projects you’ve ever had. When this happens, don’t get up and walk away. Don’t panic. Stay seated and take a breath. Look around your room to your bookshelves, all the books you love. Remind yourself that you, too, have a story to tell, a story only you can tell. A Story Only You Can Tell. This is your mantra—this has always been your mantra. Take another breath. Repeat it, like a prayer, until you believe it. Continue slogging through the work of putting one word after another until you have sentences, until you have paragraphs and chapters.
Remind yourself: This is how novels are written.
Save Your Work & Record Your Word Count
Take some pride in having reached your goal, even though you know it’ll be a Herculean task to revise what you’ve written, to take this raw material and shape it into something Truly Great. Write the number in your notebook. Close your laptop. Find your phone. Try to make it the rest of the day without rushing back to the document to tinker and whine. If people ask you how your novel is going, tell them as little as possible. Nod and smile, thank them for asking. Let your characters move freely in your mind, feeling each other out, finding their places. The novelist is always working—but for now, try not to think about what you’ve done. Try not to think about all that’s left to do.
Featured image: “Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos” by Francisco Goya courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via public domain.
Justin Brouckaert’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus and Passages North, and he has reviewed books and journals for Yemassee, Sundog Lit, The Review Review and Newpages.com. He is a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina.
Latest posts by Justin Brouckaert (see all)
- HOW TO KEEP A VERY RIGID VERY SERIOUS VERY PRODUCTIVE EARLY MORNING NOVEL-WRITING ROUTINE - July 21, 2014
- Review of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State - July 9, 2014