Writing a NEW novel: The struggle against perfectionism in a digital world

I didn’t think I had another book in me. My first novel, now being carefully formatted, edited and tentatively submitted to competitions and agents, was like a first love; all-consuming, intense and seemingly everything I could ever know. The One, if you will.

But 2020 had other ideas. With all the things that last year took away, the one thing it did give me was a small smidge of inspiration at the end of that first lockdown, when an idea I had penned in a short story a few years ago began to tidal wave through my head with a hundred racing “what ifs”.

There’s nothing like it; that new book feeling. When it hits, it is honestly like you’re in love (yes, we’re sticking with the romance analogy). You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, and you can’t think about anything else. Your senses are heightened, and you start people-watching or soaking up nature – staring out the windows of cafes (when they’re open) and daydreaming under trees with a notepad.

After the first long, dull, violently under-stimulating lockdown, this period of infatuation was very welcome. I fully gave myself to the ideas and characters, letting them take up space in my life and in my mind.

I’m now well over halfway into drafting the book now, thanks to Nanowrimo. For those not yet indoctrinated, Nanowrimo is a huge online platform for writers to encourage each other and share ideas while completing word goal challenges (typically writing 50,000 words in November but I never seem to quite manage that). I amazed myself in 2020 by writing near 20,000 words in July and 30,000 in November. I’m calling that a victory of momentum, which I very much hope to continue into 2021.

But I didn’t come here to brag about my word count. I’ve been thinking, like I do, about the difference between accomplishing a bulky goal like writing a novel, now – in the age of social media and Youtube – compared to when I was just a lovesick student with a blank page in front of me.

I’m sure that there was a bit of writing advice floating around online when I wrote my first novel, but there didn’t seem to be the same crushing volume of it. Nor did it feel like I had to trawl through this advice in order to make something good. But once the Youtube algorithm sussed me out last year, I was slapped in the face with a bewildering amount of information about character development, publishing trends, story structure and most excessively – creating the “perfect” writing routine.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of this advice is useful, especially those on writing craft. I can intentionally structure a plot now, rather than tearing my hair out meandering in several directions and timelines that I then have to edit out in revisions. I get inspiration from other authors having similar issues. And I can even attend virtual write-ins with people all over the world to give me a little motivation boost when I’m having a creative slump.

However, I have noticed a certain culture on “authortube” that I do question. This particularly surrounds the advice on writing routines. These videos are usually by beautiful young women living in cutesie cottages in remote woodlands. They have minimal stone and wood living spaces adorned with hygge teapots and pot plants. They type away next to roaring fires at their ergonomic floor desks, sat on a pile of woollen blankets with a steaming cup of matcha tea at their side. They produce calendars that detail their carefully cultivated days of yoga, writing, coffee catch-ups and quiet time – all built around preserving their creative energy. These diaries are occasionally affected with a few hours of fee-earning work, because of course we “all have to pay our bills”.

These videos are, for some reason, completely addictive. I could spend hours watching strangers write in snowy, cosy Vermont. And I could spend a fortune adorning my writing space with candles, plants and colourful mood boards. I could produce detailed colour-coded story outlines and use special software to draw my characters and worlds. I would have a hell of a lot of fun doing it, as well.

Unfortunately, none of these activities actually involve writing anything. And the way I write is unique, as it is for any writer. I can’t plan a whole novel in advance; I have to develop my characters and their world first, then immediately start writing and let things start to take form, then stop for a bit and draw some plotlines, then try going forward again, then realise my characters are not having a word of it and are following a whole other theme to what I intended…it’s messy and exciting and I love it. But it’s difficult to plan. I never know when inspiration will strike, when it will evaporate into thin air, how long a chapter will take me to write, and a million other variables in my writing process. I might write every day for a month, then not a single day for three months. This jittery approach is a stark contrast to the minutely planned daily routines of some authortubers.

At the moment, I also have other responsibilities and stressors that drain my creative energy faster than I can generate it. If I manage to pull some motivation out of twenty minutes of yoga snatched first thing in the day, it usually gets used up on work, family, or basic self-care. If I do miraculously sit down to write, it’s in a shared study filled with scary paperwork that does not belong to me; because I’m locked down in my family home in a not-especially-scenic town with January drizzling away outside (I really miss my London skyline…). And for now, that just needs to be ok. But when I watch these cosy authortubers, I can’t help but be consumed by envy and frustration that my writing routine tends to just look like me hunched over a laptop, with no plans or outlines to be seen.

I imagine that there are many writers who feel this way. People working, parenting, studying, whilst trying to find that little bit of energy to dedicate to their craft. The majority of authors can’t afford to write as their day job, after all. And there are authortubers who are frank about this (e.g. Alexa Donne’s channel is one of my favourites for hearing hard truths about writing and publishing). But for all that realism, it’s almost impossible to get perspective when you’re simultaneously being fed idyllic fantasies from other, much more snow-covered hyggelit videos. Plus, to actually get inspired to write, you kind of need a bit of fantasy and self-deception. You don’t want to hear about 80% of writers never getting published.

So, there’s a difficult balance to be struck here; between taking inspiration, motivation and good advice from the information age, whilst thinking critically about what information might be less useful. I think a huge part of the problem is that social media has made us so self-conscious that we care more about what our processes “look like”, than how we might actually experience them or whether they help us produce the work that we want to create. A novel is a novel, whether I wrote it in a matcha-fuelled, candlelit environment or on a sagging old sofa. But it doesn’t feel that way.

This issue of the “observed self” is certainly not exclusive to writing. The internet has many pockets and communities generating advice content about all types of work, hobbies and lifestyles (does anyone know what the obsession is with cold shower routines?). There is a preoccupation with perfection online, and the fact is that most of us are just barely keeping our heads above water. If we get some joy or meaning out of an occasional hobby, that should be enough. But it’s not.

There is nothing wrong with ambition, of course, but there is a difference between a healthy drive to get better at something and unrealistic expectations that will only hold us back. Just as an example: I hardly ever play my guitar anymore, even though it used to be a soothing, soulful, enjoyable activity for me, that helped me get to sleep. And the reason I stopped playing is that I knew I’d never be brilliant at it – I had started late in life for learning a musical instrument, I had struggled with the basics and I didn’t play enough to improve drastically or learn lots of songs.

But now I think: Who cares? Why do I have to be an amazing guitar player who can play loads of songs? Can’t I just enjoy doing something for its own sake? Just imagine if I had kept playing for ten minutes every evening, like I used to enjoy doing. I might be a little better at playing by now and have had many a relaxing bedtime.

If I sound frustrated with myself, it’s because I am.

My point is, don’t ruin things for yourself by trying to be perfect; or to look perfect while you’re doing them. If you have hobbies you enjoy, just do them. You might get good. You might not. Who cares? You’re having fun (does anybody remember fun?).

To help myself with this, I have started keeping a journal. A badly-written journal to log my positive writing achievements (e.g. “I wrote a blog today – go me!”) and keep an eye on authortube. If I watch a decent craft video that will actually inspire me or teach me a cool writing technique, I write about it. If I watch a dreamy “routine” video, I try to enjoy the aesthetics, note down how it made me feel and take it with a pinch of salt. The internet demands that we think more critically than ever – if we are not to lose our minds. And logging my thoughts does help prevent me from spiralling into envy and self-attack.

Of course, I could cut myself off entirely from the online world. I respect people that do that, but I want to remain part of the writing community, especially as we are in a lockdown. It’s just worth having self-protective measures in place so I can engage with writers online in the healthiest way possible.

So, what are your hobbies? Have you noticed perfectionism about writing, crafting, juggling, cooking – or anything else you might enjoy – taking over in the age of social media? I would love to hear your thoughts so please comment below. And remember; all that is required for you to be a writer is for you to write. A guitar player just has to play the guitar. A painter just has to paint. You get the picture.

Don’t get so hung up on the idea of doing the thing, that you don’t do the thing.

3 Replies to “Writing a NEW novel: The struggle against perfectionism in a digital world”

  1. Very wise words. There are just some things you can’t do the way other people do them and you have to look after yourself too. I usually write a sort of skeleton structure for my books with a direction of travel but admit that I didn’t for the last one for all sorts of reasons and I found it a terrible struggle getting everything under control at the end! I’m trying a new planning technique for the next one and have a brain storming board, but so many other things get in the way of writing and I find myself writing bits and bobs out of sequence and my characters banging on the inside of my brain to tell me to get on with things!

  2. Thank-you for this, wise words and helpful and encouraging. I used to play the piano, but stopped for various reasons: one being that one of my offspring had a boyfriend who was a concert-level musician and I couldn’t bear to have him hear me plinking away. A shame. But I used to enjoy it – imagining that I was playing something beautiful. Your blog reminds me that the joy and fun are equally important. The writing/imagining/creative process in itself is valuable, whatever it produces and however you do it. I’m glad you are finding NanoWrimo helpful, though – I did too. And I hope you’ll start enjoying playing the guitar again!

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