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Back to School For Writers, Too

novel writing process Aug 28, 2022
 

Without wishing away the last days of summer, the autumn – or fall – is almost here. Ah, September. Fresh mornings, even fresher evenings, a cardigan over the shoulders and the first crunch of leaves underfoot. Not to mention a sudden blessed hush about the house. Is there a better time of year to get back to your desk?

It’s not only the kids who go back to school in September! If you’re starting to write a brand new novel this autumn or picking up your work-in-progress after a summer break, The Novelry team of authors and editors share their best advice for whatever stage you’ve reached with your writing.

In need of motivation? You’ve got it. Happy writing!

Advice for wherever you are in your writing journey:

  1. The writer’s own season
  2. Getting started
  3. Getting back to that novel
  4. Editing that novel
  5. Fireside reading for writers

 

The Writer’s Own Season

Tasha Suri 

Autumn is a season for magic. September is the month when the air begins to bite with frosty teeth. Go into the shops and you’ll see autumnal magic and superstition start to rear in the shape of candles shaped like pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, dancing skeletons to hang on your keychain. You’ll see a candy-coloured array of protractors and gel pens and pencil cases, too.

Here is a secret: magical seasons like this aren’t just for children. As the leaves begin to fall, think about the magic left dormant through the summer. There’s a story in you, waiting to get out. 

As the world heaves into new shapes, these are the magical talismans children stuff into rucksacks as they armour themselves in too-big blazers and shiny new shoes to begin their next adventure. The moment when a child crosses the threshold of the school gates and enters a new year is a moment of change – dangerous and joyful, and a step into the unknown.

Here is a secret: magical seasons like this aren’t just for children. As the leaves begin to fall, think about the magic left dormant through the summer. There’s a story in you, waiting to get out. It’s time to start your own big adventure and find your magical talismans: a pristine notebook; the click of a laptop’s keys; and lessons, laid out like a path, to set you on your way.

 

Amanda Reynolds

It’s been a while now since term-time dominated my schedule, and that means I have no one but myself to get in the way of my writing. And yet… I do.

But there’s something so ingrained about the fresh start to come in September, I often feel a pull that’s utterly alluring. Why resist the test of a new routine? The cosiness of a shorter day and longer evenings.

Or is there something more primal than even the learned scheduling of term-time? A willingness, once a requirement, to squirrel away the treasure of summer in jars and bottles. To make hay for those colder months ahead. To escape once more onto the page. The ultimate project, and I’ve always loved one of those.

 

Getting started

Jack Jordan

September, for me, is the perfect time to start a novel. For those in the northern hemisphere, the summer is wrapping up for the year and the darker evenings are creeping in – the perfect atmosphere for hiding away with a new story, recharged and refreshed from the summer months.

This time also has a great, built-in schedule to follow. September to December is a great window for writing a first draft. Regardless of whether you celebrate this holiday, the Christmas break in December serves as a fantastic time to take a breath and recharge after writing your first draft, which not only gives you time to bounce back, but also serves your novel too, giving you a fresh perspective when you return in the New Year.

September, for me, is the perfect time to start a novel – the perfect atmosphere for hiding away with a new story, recharged and refreshed from the summer months.

The dawn of a new year, of course, is the best motivation to jump into that second draft of your novel and to refocus on your goals and ambitions (if New Year’s resolutions are your thing, seize them!).

Once completed, the spring has sprung, and the summer break has arrived again, giving us writers the perfect time to celebrate our achievement of completing a new book, with time to enjoy a sun-soaked break before the next book beckons...

 

Anna Mazzola

For me, it’s all about confidence – about feeling I can do it and making myself do it. That usually means six things:

  1. Feeling clear about what I want to write, what my premise is, and what my hook is.
  2. Having enough research to create a convincing world for my readers. If it’s historical fiction, that means reading around the era and the society in which my characters will play out their parts. If it’s contemporary fiction, it’s understanding the setting and having a broad understanding of the story world (in my current WIP that means Westminster and Tokyo). Specific research will come later.
  3. A plan. Every writer does it differently, but increasingly I find that I need to have quite a detailed outline of the plot. Again, this is about confidence. I might well diverge from the plan once I start drafting, but it gives me the illusion I know what I’m doing and not just walking into the dark.
  4. I also find pictures or photos of the setting and sometimes of people who look like I envision my characters. I pin these to my desktop and sometimes put them on Pinterest (though the latter is largely a procrastination exercise) so that I can look at them before I start writing every day. It helps me get into the ‘zone’.
  5. A deadline. If I don’t have a deadline set by my publisher or my agent, I will set one myself. I will also set up a daily word target in Scrivener. There are so many other things that can absorb my writing time that it’s important I hold myself to my targets.
  6. Lastly, and most importantly, there is the GO AWAY I’M WRITING cup containing strong coffee.

Once all of the above are in place, there are no excuses. It’s time to start on the first draft!

Polly Ho-Yen

I have an abiding memory of a primary school assembly at which my rather imposing head teacher welcomed us back to school after the summer holidays. ‘You all look so fresh,’ she beamed at us. ‘Fresh?’ I remember thinking. ‘I’m far from fresh, lady. I’m ruined from getting up and having to be out the house on time. And I feel tired already from just one lesson and this assembly. Fresh – who are you kidding?’

More than thirty years on and I still feel the same way about ‘back to school’. Though summer’s been a blast, come September, I’m not feeling so fresh. I’m feeling a bit tired and ready for a nap.

So it’s more important than ever that I kick back to some tried and tested self-writing-care strategies, so I can keep myself going and kid myself that I am indeed ‘fresh’ to write.

  1. The all-important to-do list. Write down what writing project or projects I want to achieve and stick it on the wall. I’ll keep referring to if other offers come my way, or if I’m feeling lacklustre, to maintain my focus.
  2. Have a scheduling meeting with myself. I will plan writing time and log it in my diary for the week ahead, at a time I know will work.
  3. Write sustainably for a ‘golden hour’ each day, no more, no less.
  4. Do some mind-work. Reframe any time I’ve had away from my manuscript as invaluable distance-space-giving time that enables me to read my words as a reader.
  5. Also schedule rejuvenating rest time away from writing: this might mean going for a run or walking in the woods or meditation.
  6. Check in with myself. Keep a writing journal to ensure I can identify if I need more support along the way.
  7. A little retail therapy. Buy a new pencil and or notebook  in the hope that some fresh kit will rub off on me a little and because it is September, after all.

 

Craig Leyenaar

What’s better than starting? Finishing!

Imagine that – finishing the year with an entire book complete.

Writing a novel always sounds like a gargantuan task, especially in a few months at the end of the year.

But put it another way... There are four months left of the year. Those four months have 17 weeks. Writing Monday to Friday, that’s 85 days. The average novel is 80,000 words. Most people probably write more than that each day in texts and emails. At 1,000 words a day each week, with weekends off, the novel is finished.

You could start and finish an entire novel in this time with our Ninety Day Novel Course! Imagine that – finishing the year with an entire book complete.

 

Getting back to that novel

Louise Dean

Love a deadline? You’ve got one! Christmas is a natural deadline for many of us. We head towards that day as if the world’s going to stop.

But what I love about a writing deadline is that you set it. No one else. I love the feeling of control.

When the nights get longer and the mornings are darker, there’s something especially romantic about being closeted, curtains drawn to the world, with a desk lamp, the white page and the pen moving, conjuring up things that don’t exist.

I refer to my writing plan, the chaptered outline, as a writer’s clock, because you put days and dates against the chapters. I’ll have an ideal word count, divide the plot, and assign weeks, then days. Just ticking them off feels very satisfying.

Damn the quality, feel the weight of the word count. I know when I’m writing a first draft, it’s all about chasing the story down, and sometimes you need to get a move on, before the doubt of the late winter chill sets in.

When the nights get longer and the mornings are darker, there’s something especially romantic about being closeted, curtains drawn to the world, with a desk lamp, the white page and the pen moving, conjuring up things that don’t exist. It feels private and eerie.

September is my favourite month of the year. The month where cobwebs glisten with dew in the hedgerows and darker, smaller fruits show. And of course, the kids are back at school, and whether you have them at home or not, it’s quieter about the streets. Grown-up time.

So I’ll set a deadline, aiming to surface again for social intercourse in the festive period, with a smug grin on my face as I head to the bar, knowing I’ve got a first draft in the tin at home.

 

Mahsuda Snaith

For me, the summer months swayed between fun and play and short, intense bursts of work and writing.

I switched on my holiday mindset (even when I wasn’t not on holiday) and was strict with myself by scheduling childcare and waking up early for my ‘golden hour’ of writing.

There was guilt when writing didn’t happen, but then there was also a realisation that more time will come.

So when it comes to September, not only is it back to school for my kid, it’s back to school for me. Desk tidied, timetable organised, new stationery and notebooks selected (oh, how I love stationery shopping!) and longer stints of writing. I’m no longer piecing bits together from my short, intense bursts; I’m able to see the bigger picture and work in a more fluid manner.

Whatever your schedule, use September to review where you are with your novel and where you’d like to be by the end of the year. Have a goal, but don’t be too harsh if it doesn’t all get done. More time will come.

 

Emylia Hall

Last summer I took up skateboarding, and it’s become something of an obsession which has undoubtedly impacted on the hours available for novel writing. If I’ve a clear stretch of time, and the ground outside is dry, the only thing I really want to do is go and surf the concrete. Throw in bright sunshine and a clear blue sky and it’s pretty much irresistible.

Days like these, I think of a poem by Raymond Carver called ‘Rain’:

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.
 

How beautiful is that?

Through the summer, I definitely put myself in the keep of the sunlit dry days. I honoured each and every one of them, safe in the knowledge that the time could always be made up. But now that autumn is nearly upon us, that time is... Here.

Before winter, I’ve one novel to copy-edit, another to take to a second draft, and the third in the series to plan out.

So bring on the persistent drizzle, the glowering skies and wet pavements. Give me darkening evenings and sharp winds. With the flip of the seasons, I’ll take the change in rhythm and tempo and heed my instincts once again. I’ll close my metaphorical curtains to the outside world and cosy up with my laptop, happily writing my way onwards.

But all this said, should we be blessed with one of those perfectly bright, crisp, dry days that come along so rarely, then rest assured I’ll be clicking Save As, Shut Down and skating out into it, won’t I? Given half a chance. Yes.

 

Editing that novel

Kate Riordan

There’s a sense of relief in knowing summer’s long, aimless days are over for another year and it’s time to knuckle down.

In the past, I’d have been off to town to buy some pretty gift paper to cover my exercise books. I’d treat myself to new highlighters and spend a lot of time colour-coding my timetable for the school term. 

These practical tasks, while not terribly creative, made me feel organised and in control. Their equivalent for me these days is editing. If I can time it so I’m beginning the second draft in September, I’m a happy bunny. It just feels right. The second draft is always a big one. You’ve got a story down, of sorts, which is always a relief; now’s the time when a bit more rigour and discipline is called for.

If I can time it so I’m beginning the second draft in September, I’m a happy bunny. It just feels right.

I chop a large edit into manageable chunks which are less likely to overwhelm and intimidate, and I also break down these ‘sweeps’, as I call them (as in, a sweep through the story, attending to different things), into ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ tasks.

‘Right brain’ is the prose and the deepening of characters, the imagery and dialogue that suddenly sparks into life. ‘Left brain’ is the lateral, logical stuff: making sure the premise of the plot works in the first place (why doesn’t she just leave the scary house and phone the bloody police?) and attending to structure. So, I’ll look at the running order – I rarely tell a story entirely chronologically – chapter length, the treatment, the perspective(s) it’s told from. Macro stuff like that.

I think of it like a camera which has panned right out so I can take in the whole: seeing the wood again, when I’ve spent all summer playing in the trees.

 

Katie Khan

I always think I’m a fan of warm weather when the truth is I’m not cut out for it. Autumn is my vibe. After eighteen years of British schooling, where we down pens for eight weeks and are made to feel guilty if we’re not outside for every second of each sunny day, autumn comes with a sense of relief. We can stay indoors, should we wish.

And somehow, I know editing will be easier come September. It’s a temperament thing. Less light, less guilt, more time inside dressed in nice thick jumpers. The writer’s face illuminated by a laptop screen.

For me, publishing my novels has always been a juggle around a day job – paid employment is a necessity for many authors, and I have to make both of my careers work together, as hard as that may sometimes be.

So if you’re writing and working, and worrying about balancing the two, I can tell you that it’s possible. Difficult and tiring, yes! But life-enriching to the highest degree.

I know editing will be easier come September. It’s a temperament thing. Less light, less guilt, more time inside dressed in nice thick jumpers.

In the summer, I worked on my second draft in the early evenings after work with the window open, a glass of something cold at my side. Perhaps in the autumn I’ll carve out an hour for the third draft in the early mornings with a warm cup of tea, using The Novelry’s ‘golden hour’ method of an hour’s writing per day. Many novels are written this way; not in vast empty swathes of writing time but in small slivers carved from everyday life, scrawled into notebooks and tapped into phones, the laptop opened at midnight.

Do your best, when it comes to writing time, and forgive yourself when you can’t. Each day you add one line to your novel, the story grows.

 

Tash Barsby

From an editorial perspective, I think one of the best things you can do when picking up your novel draft again – possibly after a summer reading break! – is to read back through it in a different format.

Step away from your desk; send it to your e-reader; read it on the sofa, in the bath, whilst you’re waiting to pick your kids up from school! Putting yourself into that ‘reader’ mindset can help give you a fresh perspective before you dive back into your revisions.

 

Krystle Appiah

As the long summer evenings draw to a close, there’s no better time to settle down and start editing a novel.

Spring and summer felt like wading through a hurricane as I plucked new characters, worlds and plot points from the chaos swirling around me. I’m left with draft zero: a barely cobbled-together narrative filled with characters that make irrational decisions until they finally figure out what they want two-thirds of the way through the story.

Typically, draft zero feels contrived and clunky. And it should. All it needs to do is exist. All it needs to do is calm the hurricane. 

The editing happens in the autumn. Something about the slow cosiness of darker mornings and golden-syrup light pushing through the clouds makes me want to jump back into a novel. I’ll refer back to my plan, reminding myself of the story I’d like to tell and whittling away the scenes and characters that aren’t helping.

I like to think of editing as sorting through the post-hurricane rubble to see what’s worth salvaging. I let myself slow down, enjoy the view and pull in details I missed.

Something about the slow cosiness of darker mornings and golden-syrup light pushing through the clouds makes me want to jump back into a novel. 

Start by choosing your space. Work out what ‘best practice’ looks like for you. (It could be writing by hand or playing the same song to kick off your writing time.) Find your ideal writing time when you have the time and energy to focus. Edit to see what’s worth salvaging. Then polish your story until it shines. Then do it all over again. This is where the magic happens.

 

Fireside reading for writers

Lily Lindon

September and Back to School validates my inner geek. I love reading theory about story structure, storytelling, and literary criticism. What’s better than writers writing about writing? Reading about reading. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better
  • Ursula K Le Guin’s Dreams Must Explain Themselves and Conversations on Writing
  • Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing
  • Terry Pratchett’s A Slip of the Keyboard
  • Virginia Woolf’s Letters and Diaries

I’d also highly recommend taking the opportunity to use your social media procrastination wisely, by following your favourite contemporary writers (or the fan accounts of anyone dead!). Many writers have newsletters or substacks, which bring a dose of inspiration into your inbox. Some of my favourites:


The Novelry offers creative writing courses with bestselling authors and publishing professionals to lend you support to stay on track to write and complete your novel. And when you’re done? The Novelry is the online writing school with the onward path to getting published, linked with the world’s leading literary agencies who can’t wait to find new talent – like you!

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