Novel Challenge Update: Holy Sh!t, I did it!

@peddhapati on flickr

OhmygodIdidit. I wrote a novel in one month. I haven’t written fiction since I was at school (not counting some of those legal memos…) and somehow I wrote a whole novel in 31 days, less actually. This must be what it feels like to have a superpower.

It’s not that I didn’t think I could do it. It’s that I didn’t think I would do it. It’s a weird forward-looking / backward-looking thing: I didn’t see myself as an old lady looking back on a life that included having written a novel at 30.

It has opened up a whole new world for me — one in which I really can do anything I set my mind to. Truth is, this world exists for all of us, it’s just that some people are out there doing stuff and the rest of us are too busy to join them. Sure, it helped that I didn’t have a full-time job to juggle while writing. But at an average rate of 1,000 words per hour for a total of, say, 60 hours solid writing, I could have written the sucker in just over a year spending only 1 hour a week. But I didn’t. I went 10 years with this idea in my head and I didn’t write a word.

Do you have an hour a week when you do something less awesome than whatever it is you dream of doing? I know I did. Even during those awful weeks when I was getting home from work at 3am I usually had one hour, on a Sunday maybe, where I could have done something that was just for me. Looking back on it I rationalise, I don’t blame myself, I tell myself that I used every hour that I wasn’t working to do elemental things like sleeping and maintaining a base level of personal hygiene. I didn’t have the mental energy to do anything apart from work during those weeks. The thing is, I wished I’d realised the true value of the sacrifices I was making sooner. If your job not only takes almost all of your waking time but doesn’t leave you with enough mental energy for even one hour per week to do something else, well, you better love that job.

On Wednesday I went to a great event hosted by Ladies Who Impress. The theme was Maybe I’m Crazy But.. and there were some fantastic speakers (all female) including an MP, a woman who is rowing solo around the British Isles in aid of education for some of the world’s most disadvantaged children, a hilarious stand-up comedienne, and a high-flying CEO. I was completely blown away by the last speaker – Helena Morrissey – who is clearly a woman who hasn’t let anything get in the way of her personal and professional goals. If people say “that’s not possible”, she doesn’t listen. She is the CEO of Newton Investment, the founder of the 30% Club (an organisation whose objective is to promote a minimum of 30% representation of women on corporate boards), and, as if that wasn’t enough, is the mother of 9 children. Yes, that’s right, 9.

She comes across as smart, charming and quietly confident, and if you ever get a chance to hear her speak I thoroughly recommend it. People probably ask her all the time how she does it, how she copes. But I got the impression that from her perspective she just gets on with it. She decided that this is the life she wants and she just makes it work. If she had tried to do it the other way round — if she had tried to analyse whether having 9 children and being in a high-powered job was a sensible idea at the outset — then she might not have done it. But then she wouldn’t have the life she wanted.

My achievements aren’t nearly in the same league but that’s how I felt about the novel. I didn’t know what I was doing, I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish it, but once I’d decided to do it I just figured out how to make it work. Now I’ve seen it in action I’ve realised that this makes much more sense as an approach for life in general. Figure out what you want and go after it instead of letting what you want be decided by the practical details of how you are going to go about getting it. Don’t not start just because you’re not sure how you’re going to finish.

Now I’m not forgetting that I didn’t get here, to the end of the novel, by myself. As requested, you diligently badgered me at every available opportunity, online and offline. For me this was a great motivation and I’m so glad that I made the decision to announce the challenge publicly. I really doubt I would have gotten as far as I have in such a short time if I had been working on it in secret with no one holding me accountable.

The public announcement also helped me in another way: it allowed me to prioritise. People often say they don’t have time for a project but what they really mean is that it’s not a priority for them. By setting the challenge I made writing the novel a public priority for me. When I wanted to go for a walk, or go into town, or otherwise take advantage of my wide-open days, I knew that I still had a writing target for that day and I would always try to get that done first. It also meant other people understood that it was a priority. When you’re not working in a traditional job people have a bit of a tendency to assume your time is a little less valuable, that you have nothing better to do than whatever they are proposing. Letting everyone know that I was writing and not sitting around watching Jeremy Kyle meant that people understood why I couldn’t meet them in the middle of the day.

So what’s next? I now have a fairly full but sketchy first draft. It requires a substantial amount of work to get it to readable. I had to put aside my inner critic in order to blast through the draft so quickly, but that critic is essential to creating something that reads well and is carefully crafted. She knows she’s needed and she has her red pen at the ready.

When I started at the beginning of January I was just thinking about writing, I wasn’t really thinking about what happens after. I thought I might print a couple of copies for myself and my family but that’s it. But now I’ve gotten the story out of me and into the world I’ve got to thinking it’s kind of a cool story and that it’s something others might like to read. It’s almost like I owe it to the story to share it more widely, and I know exactly how kooky that sounds but it’s true. So part of the next phase is also for me to explore ways of publishing the novel and getting it out there. There are some really cool ways to self-publish these days and that seems ideal since I doubt a publishing house is going to pick this up, but I guess, per my new life outlook, anything is possible.

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