Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Novel Writing for Chronic Procrastinators: A Guide

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Novel Writing for Chronic Procrastinators: A Guide

Toronto novelist Derek Winkler's two-week blog tour draws to a close today with his visit to Open Book. His novel, Pitouie, is published by The Workhorsery. Enter the Pitouie contest to win a Pitouie Prize Pack. The contest closes tonight.

By Derek Winkler

So you want to write a novel, but not right now. What you want to do right now is idly click around the web for a few more hours, then maybe stare at the wall until it's time to go back to sleep. It's okay. I understand, believe me. For instance, I knew I was going to have to write this blog post a month ago. When did I write it? Yesterday. I live by the motto, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next July." But I managed to write a novel and so can you. This is how it's done.

  1. Have an idea. You'll like this part. You can spend years coming up with an idea for a novel, and that still qualifies as "working on my novel." You don't even have to do anything. All that time you spend staring into space? Now it's "evaluating thematic content." Doesn't that make you feel better?

    You'll need a pen and a small pad of paper. Carry them around. They'll remind you that you're working on a novel and not just goofing off. Sooner or later you're going to have an idea. Write that sucker down. Savor the feeling of accomplishment. You might think with a chill that at this point you have to start actually working. Not so. Read on.

  2. Have a few more ideas. If you're like me, you'll find that your idea just isn't beefy enough to provide the protein for a whole novel. It's a good start, but you're going to need more. Of course, you could take your idea and write a short story right now. Go on. I dare you. Still here? That's what I thought.

    When I was working on what would eventually become Pitouie, I spent years rolling ideas around in my head, looking for a few that would click together into something novelistic. The first one that came to me was the idea of a guy going bonkers with boredom at a DEW Line station in the 1970s. Later I had a notion for a tale about strange events on a remote island. I eventually added the concept of a hack reporter investigating the island. When I finally came up with a way to connect the DEW Line story to the island story, I knew I was finally in novel territory.

  3. Research. Bust out your library card my friend, we're going to kill a lot of time here. Possibly you've come up with a sweet set of interlocking ideas, all of which concern subjects in which you are already a past-master. I submit to you that you are DOING THIS WRONG! Follow my example and pick stuff about which you know squat. The months I spent flipping through books and clicking though Wikipedia boning-up on the Arctic and the South Pacific were vital to putting off the day on which I would have to start writing.

  4. Outlining. Some writers can sit right down with a blank document, write "Chapter One" at the top and just let the words flow forth. Those bastards. You and I scorn their facile talent. We have our own methods. They may seem at first blush like work, but think of it more as "fiddling around" and you'll find it causes no stress at all.

    Take that notepad full of ideas and research and flip back and forth through it until you begin to see the entire story take shape in your head. You may even experience a moment of satori in which the glittering whole rotates before your mind's eye like a divine message. If this happens, your first instinct will be to rush home and write "Chapter One" like a punk. Don't. This moment won't last. Grab that pad and make the roughest charcoal sketch you can. Go for the broad strokes. Make a list of the major scenes. Describe each of your characters, their backgrounds and their goals. Strive for something that would be called a synopsis if it were better written.

    Frenzy passed? Both feet back on the ground? Good. Now you get to spend days and days filling in all the little details you left out during your delirium. Learn to love making notes. Make notes on your notes. Throw in every little thing that occurs to you. Ignore nothing. Erase nothing. You may need a new notepad. Think of it as an investment in your literary career.

    Oh, and if you didn't get the moment of satori, don't worry. Just keep flipping through your notes, adding a setting here and a character trait there, and eventually you'll arrive at the same place: enough raw material to begin the actual process of writing. You may now shudder.

  5. Writing. One last little trip to the office supply store, and then we really must begin. I'm now going to reveal to you the single technique that allowed me to overcome my DNA-level procrastination situation and get Pitouie written. I stole this idea from a blog that stole it from some other blog that claims to have swiped it from Jerry Seinfeld. Pay attention here.

    Go out and get yourself a big wall calendar; the kind that's the size of a poster and shows every day of the year all at once. Get a marker too, any colour you like. Hang the calendar somewhere prominent in your home, where you'll have to look at it every damn day. You are now going to begin to write, and you are going to write every damn day. Every damn day you write, you get to fill-in a square on the calendar. After a week or so, you'll have a nice little chain of filled-in squares going. Your task in life now is to nurture this chain of blocks as though it were a living thing. You must make it grow. You must do this by writing every damn day, so you don't break the chain. After a few weeks, you'll be amazed how much hateful obligation you will feel toward this stupid chain of squares, but you'll be piling up pages at the same time. Trust me on this. Or trust Jerry Seinfeld. Get a big honking calendar if you want to get writing done every damn day.

    I shall now reveal the second most important technique that allowed me to get Pitouie written: give no thought to the quality of your prose whatsoever. Do you hear me? Write shit and write it quickly. Do not ponder your choice of words. Do not go back and revise. Do not even stop to think if you can possibly avoid it. Just write whatever is most vividly in your mind at the time. Whatever you do, do not sit around waiting for "inspiration." Inspiration may show up eventually, but in the meantime, write anyway. Quantity over quality is what we're looking for here. Your goal at this point is a Shitty First Draft. No crap left behind. Throw it all in. We'll sort it out later.

    Now a word about your writing setup and schedule. This will be personal to you. Use a computer if you want. I cannot recommend it. The temptation to go back and do just a little quick polishing is much too strong, and procrastinators such as ourselves will find days slipping by as we endlessly rearrange the words in one paragraph. I wrote the first draft of Pitouie in longhand, usually when I first woke up (as in, literally still lying in bed) or when I'd been up so long I could barely keep my eyes open. Writing while semi-conscious is a wonderful way of lowering your standards enough to get the job done, while the poor helpless calendar chain in the corner will make sure you don't just give in and fall asleep without writing something. Also helpful: At the end of a writing session, leave yourself a little note at the bottom of the page suggesting something to write about tomorrow. That way, when tomorrow comes, you can dive right in without having to do any unpleasant thinking.

    Some authorities insist that you must set yourself a daily target, in either hours or words, and not allow yourself to stop until you hit it. Some authorities insist you must always write at the same time of day each day and in the same place, to reinforce the idea that what you are doing is work, not art. I suggest that these authorities are too much into discipline. Writing is work, but you don't have to punch a friggin' time clock. As long as I wrote something every day, even if it was just a couple of paragraphs, I gave myself a square. After about three months, my Shitty First Draft of Pitouie was done.

  6. Revision. Congratulations! Go out and get drunk or something. You, chronic procrastinator that you are, have gotten farther than most wannabe novelists will ever get. You now have a manuscript. Wait. Let's give that a little more reverence. You have A Manuscript. Savor that. Feels good, yes? Too bad we're not done yet.

    By design, if you have been following along, your Manuscript is Shitty. Now the excrement must be expurgated. If you wrote your first draft in longhand, as I did, now's the time to get it into a computer. This is tedious, but it's also your first chance to hammer out the worst of the dents and rearrange the pieces so they're in the proper order. Now, back that file up in at least three places and forget about it for a few months. Go back to staring at the wall. You've earned it.

    Back from vacation? Now comes both the hardest and easiest part of the whole operation: revision. Read through your novel with the benefit of a little time away. Look for the places where it's still crap and fix them. We're back to "fiddling around" here, so you can drag this out as long as you want. I re-drafted Pitouie four times before I tried pitching it to a publisher. What finally got released was, if I recall, Draft #6.

    If you're having trouble seeing the remaining fecal specks, work up the nerve to show your manuscript to someone else. Don't pick your mother or your significant other or best friend, because they're just going to tell you it's awesome regardless. Pick an acquaintance whom you know to be well-read and to have a low tolerance for bullshit. Pick someone who's enough of an asshole that the thought of maybe hurting your feelings won't keep them up at night. Get them to read it. If they tell you something about it sucks, take them seriously. Fix it.

    Like I said, revision can go on forever if you let it. Eventually you gotta call it done. Go though the manuscript one last time. Then print it out, stack up the pages, place your hand upon the pile, raise your eyes to the heavens and say with all due ceremony, "It is finished."

    Then go get drunk again. Next day, start a new book. It's not like you don't know how.

  7. Derek Winkler is the editor of an obscure trade publication that you have almost certainly never heard of. He also performs any number of dark and arcane tasks for Broken Pencil magazine. He has done just enough freelance journalism to be able to make the claim with a straight face.

    His high school English teacher told him in 1987 that he could be a writer of fiction someday, but he has not put this theory to the test until now.

    A life-long geek, he is currently sharing his apartment with ten computers (seven functional and three otherwise) and a robotic simulacrum of cultural critic and novelist Hal Niedzviecki. The relationship is strictly platonic.

    In April 2010 he got the words "Nihil Sine Labore" tattooed on his left forearm as a reminder to himself to try harder to get things done. So far the effect has been minimal.

    His two most-prized possessions are a broken motorcycle and his grandfather's 1926 edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

    He owes $20 to jazz singer Holly Cole for reasons he would like to explain to her, should she be reading this. He swears he's good for the money.

    For more information about Pitouie please visit The Workhorsery website.

    Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

1 comment

This is hilarious. I can't wait to get started...tomorrow.

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