A while ago I came across the idea of keystone habits. Basically, they’re habits that have a positive knock-on effect on other areas of your life, and instead of focussing on introducing ten small habits at once, you should focus hard on the keystone. Mostly it’s things like sleeping well, running daily, intermittent fasting etc. But I think I’ve cracked something recently; that for me, novelling is a keystone habit.
At the moment I have a pretty varied creative diet. I make material for my podcast and blog every day. Sometimes I write articles for a blog in Esperanto, and sometimes I create story-based materials for my teaching. But up until recently, I had been neglecting an area that was previously my main focus: working on my novel.
I dipped into novel-writing a few times over my teenage years, with the vague idea of maybe becoming a novelist as an adult, but I became serious about it in my last year of uni, when I decided I would make a living publishing mass-market gay romance on Amazon. While that project didn’t go spectacularly (I still make around £30 royalties from them a month, mind), I learned a lot, and discovered a passion for novel-writing that I had forgotten.
Just like anything else, the more novels you write, the easier it becomes. But unlike, say, learning to cook, or even writing short stories, novelling is a long, gruelling process, involving drafting, revising, suffering, redrafting, self-doubt, and eventually acceptance that there’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript. And the prospect of actually finishing a book is so far off in the future that for most people it remains a mirage goal, a conversation starter rather than anything tangible, and when you tell people you’re working on a book their eyes glass over and they nod and say, ‘Oh really?’, as they think about what they’re going to have for dinner tonight.
I’m in a considerably better position than most would-be novelists. I’ve written and published several romance novellas, even if it’s hard to count them given how god-awful they were. I have lots of experience with shorter genres and non-fiction, as well as acting, so it’s not as if I don’t have my foot in the door. I’ve also taken a very practical approach that demystifies the usual witchcraft surrounding the field: I’ve studied books like Story Genius, Story Grid (as well as its brilliant corresponding podcast), and The Anatomy of Story, and I’ve put my money where my mouth is – to the right is the manuscript for the third draft of my lesbian-vampire-murder-mystery novel, which I printed out and hand-annotated, alongside the story grid that I subsequently produced.
My main problem has been project hopping. After quitting the indie-romance grind, I worked on an esoteric romance novel about two AMAB knights who have to navigate a bewitched castle full of monsters, all while realising they’re in love with each other and trans. I got to a certain point and then got paralysed with indecision, and let it sit for a long, long time. I came back to it several times, but each time I left with the feeling of I’m not ready to write this book yet! To date, I’m not sure if that’s true, or if it was just an excuse, but I’ve hopped across several projects since then.
But Pact of Blood (that’s the working title for the aforementioned vampire book) feels different. For one thing, I’ve got as far as writing the fourth draft. I’ve never got that far before. And I printed out the manuscript like a Real Writer, and did a whole damn story grid to boot! I don’t know if this momentum is because my health is much better, that I’ve improved greatly as a writer, that I’ve simply stuck to it more, or a mix of all the three, but I feel like I have to complete this now.
Anyway, the gist of this all is: I’ve rediscovered the daily process of working on my novel, and I’ve found it’s done wonders for the rest of my life. I’m doing much more writing in general, I’m preparing all my classes for work in an orderly fashion, and I’m feeling very fulfilled. I was a fool to let it fall by the wayside.
This post is sponsored by me almost setting the house on fire trying to cook chicken. I put the pan on to warm up, left it for too long, and when I poured the oil in it burst into flames and I had to run outside and bang it on the ground. I’m OK! But I don’t think I’m going to try cooking again any time soon.