Writing Emotion: is less more, and how do you make it real?
"Everything About My Writing Is Awful And No, I'm Not OK."

No time to write your novel? Think about coral reefs...

I can't say that my revered great-great-grandpapa often occurs to me when I'm thinking about how writing works, but one of his important pieces of research was into the formation of coral reefs. It had been known for a while that coral was formed by microscopic organisms building on rocks in shallow water: cell by cell, miniature birth by miniature death. But how did they become whole islands and atolls out in the deep ocean? His observations on the Beagle voyage became his first published monograph.

My daytime writing time is taken up with Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, with teaching, mentoring, blogging, and that distraction known as ordinary-life-maintenance all fitted into the cracks. But this novel won't wait - can't wait - so when do I write it? In fact, the novel itself told me : six weeks into my New Year's daily habit of twenty-minute stories, it muscled in. One of my stories was a 300-word try at the beginning I'd thought of nine months ago; a few days later I wrote a little more, which turned out to be a bit earlier in the story; a third showed me where a crucial character could first appear, and I decided to go with it. It may not be quite the just-for-fun stuff I'd planned to be doing, but it's my own creative work, and here we are at Easter, and I have a sixth of a novel, written. And a very zero-drafty sixth it is too, of course, but I long ago made peace with the shitty first draft, as  I've blogged about before, as a way of bypassing procrastinatory perfectionism.

I'm not telling you this as an exercise in life-writing, but because it connects so perfectly to a fantastic book which Susannah Rickards mentioned in that post on twenty-minute stories: The Seven Secrets of the Prolific, by Hillary Rettig. The naff title doesn't do the book justice (and nor, I fear, does the fact that in the UK it's only easily available as an e-book) so bear with me: it's full of wisdom.

Rettig's explores how the procrastinating part of a brain is also "grandiose". The Anti-Writing Demon (or Instant Gratification Monkey) seizes on the fact that you're serious about your work, and distorts that to a grandiose sense of what your writing therefore "deserves":  nothing less, of course, than serious chunks of time, and a peaceful study, perfect chair, state-of-the-art Mac and already-learnt Scrivener program, while we're at it. (Or are you the opposite, and it's the starving-in-a-garret, crust-of-bread, forehead-bleeding, suffering-artist thing which is your proof of seriousness?) If you don't have all those, then it's "not worth" starting to write.

And then if you do manage to find a serious chunk of time and then spend most of it cleaning the dustbins or arguing on FaceBook, and so only produce 500 words - or whatever your measure is of "not enough" - then obviously, because you're worth it, you will write even more words tomorrow: setting another impossible goal of "trying harder", which is actually setting yourself up to fail. At which point Monkey runs away giggling, and Demon says, "Told you so. You need to be more serious. Twice as much tomorrow, or you're a failure."

My 300 word tries are the opposite of this. They're not serious at all. If I miss one I won't have failed the novel, I'll only have missed one. If a phrase on the page feels wrong, I'll probably just write NQR (= "not quite right"). If half of what I wrote today seems likely to belong instead far ahead in the unwritten novel, then I'll write "probably belongs later" in the margin, and keep going. The edges of the page are full of notes-to-self about what will need changing, researching, thinking about more. I've developed new tricks to show what I need without without blocking or diverting the stream (or maybe dribble) of words. The three older sisters have a bit of personality each, but are still only called S1, S2 and S3. The pages are full of asterisks and lines and numbers where I've realised some sentences need to be in a different order, or some event should happen elsewhere. Square brackets indicate placeholders, so I don't stop to look up names, places, garments, history or anything else, but I can tell what it is which I'll need. If I weren't supersitious about making creative work visible to others at such an early stage, I'd scan a page to show you what I mean, not least because it proves how valuable writing longhand is. You have to be one hell of a good typist to do the equivalent on a screen as quickly as I can circle a chunk and draw a line to where it ought to be, and without erasing the train of thought as I go. Essentially, I have faith that most of the NQRs can be made right later, that it will work as well to find names and places later, and that any opportunities lost along the way will be more than offset by others that I've gained.

And so I was honestly astonished when I finally got round to counting the pages I'd written, at 200 words a page, in 20-30 minutes of almost every morning. My maths teacher would have been shocked that I had to multiply 200 x 70 three times before I could believe I had 14,000 words. At 15,000 words (only a three mornings later!) I spent a Sunday morning in bed, going back to all the dreaming-on-paper I did last summer and reminding myself of where the story is (probably, conditionally) going, and sundry other issues. I still have no idea what those sisters are called, and that's fine: they won't reappear till nearly the end.

And when I've got the Historical Fiction book off to John Murray, it will be the equivalent of the moment that The Ancestor understood: coral starts to grow in the shallows, but when tectonic movements mean that the rocks begin to sink, the coral continues to grow on a solid base of its earlier self, and over the centuries become a freestanding structure in its own right. Little by little, word by word, day by day...


P.S. There are still a couple of places left on the Workshop Retreat, 15-17th May, so if you fancy a weekend's immersion in the unique Itch of Writing mix of practical inspiration, technical know-how and writerly support - all in the beautiful village of Sheepwash, North Devon - then click through and find out more.


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Thank you for this encouraging post! I read the HR book on my phone - a strange and new experience - and found it very helpful, particularly the opening chapters. It also sounds like the advice often quoted from Bird by Bird - I haven't yet acquired the book but hope to read it one day. Thanks also for your advice on Scrivener. I'm currently working my way through the tutorial a second time, having uploaded the novel (WIP) on to it, and also written a short story (which bizarrely appeared as a chapter of the WIP, prompting the revision). My partner, an IT wizard, pointed out that half of the features on software programmes are not used by most people anyway!

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Nicki. (Yes, reading books on phone - not ideal!). It is interesting, isn't it, and overlaps with Ann Lamott, who's one of my favourite of such books.

Good luck with Scrivener. As you say, one doesn't use all the features - but with a program which has been useful so far, you can have faith that it's worth going on digging in and trying to find out how to do more of the things you want to...

Deborah Makarios

Thank you! This is very encouraging. I'm still trying to make peace with a) the seeming slowness of progress and b) the quality of said progress (or lack thereof).

Sally Zigmond

A very timely post for me as I'm dawdling and faffing around and feeling a failure because I-Am-Not-Getting-On-With-It. I can see myself in every scenario you paint. Will take a loo at that book you mention - or is that merely procrastination. PS. I would love to book a place on your retreat and would be there like a shot if it wasn't at the opposite end of the country with a cross-country marathon train journey in between!

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Deborah. It can be like pulling teeth, can't it - or if not that painful, then at least that slow...

Emma Darwin

Ah, yes, the not-getting-on-with-it phase... Good luck, and sorry not to see you in Devon!


Am now reading the HR book. I would have read more of it by now, but it is too inspiring. I keep putting it down to write. As a by-product, am now a convert to Kindle (for non-fiction at the moment!)

Emma Darwin

It's a cracker, isn't it - so grateful to Susannah Rickards for telling me about it.

Although I must say I only read it on my e-reader as the only way to get hold of it! I have come to hate e-books, which I'd never have expected till I had one!

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