How do you exercise your writing muscles? And how do you know if they’re getting stronger?
This weekend, I watched my sister compete in her first ever open water swimming competition. She finished in the top third of men and women for her distance, and third in her age group of women (30-34 years old, in case you’re wondering).
Like me, Little Sis learned to swim at the age of four or five. She swam at school and sometimes went to the local pool on weekends. On family holidays, she mucked about diving over waves or trying to get onto lilos in the sea (have you tried this? Don’t bother in Britain’s choppy waters unless you have an hour to spare and no concern for your personal dignity). In recent years, our occasional visits to health spa pools involved looking up occasionally from a book or magazine to watch a lone swimmer thrash up and down a few lengths.
In other words, swimming wasn’t a serious pursuit – until the last year. Little Sis started going to the pool several times a week. She started timing her swims and telling me about stroke length and body rotation. She bought a proper swimming costume. Then she bought a wetsuit. Last weekend, I watched her swim 1500 metres down the river Thames in 34 minutes and come out at the other end fresh as a daisy. Being impressed doesn’t come easy to older siblings, but impressed I was.
Okay, it’s not news that practice improves performance – but it made me think: am I practising my writing with the same degree of discipline my sister showed in improving her swimming? What does that even mean for a writer? And how do you know if it’s paying off?
In the first month after I left my job, I was focussed on finishing the first draft of my novel. I made sure I wrote a minimum of 2,000 words a day. Some days it was easier than others. I don’t think what I wrote in the last week of the month was any better than what I wrote in the first. I’m not sure it was any better than what I wrote when I first started the manuscript, two years ago.
I’m now struggling through the editing process. One third of the way through, I’m no clearer than I was at the beginning on whether my edits are improvements or just changes.
Before I go and slit my wrists, I’m going to ferret out a few positives.
I have at least written regularly. My own stuff, that is, not the policy papers or letters or emails I wrote in my job. I think the creative process now comes a bit more readily. I’ve always been able to string a sentence together (feel free to take issue with that) but my imagination doesn’t need quite the prodding it once did to stir into life. Sometimes it used to refuse to get out of bed at all; these days, it only gets to hit the snooze button once or twice before grumbling into consciousness.
Thanks to my writing group, the excellent London Writers’ Café, I’m slowly reclaiming my critical faculties. I find I have things to say about other people’s work. At some point, this has got to (surely?) translate into being able to critique my own writing.
I know I have a lot more to do. I subscribe to some great writers’ prompts and fail to do anything with them. I read other blogger’s short stories and don’t get beyond telling myself I should give flash fiction a go. I faff about reading other people’s tweets when I should be editing the bloody manuscript.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? And if it does, have you found any techniques to help? And any ways to assess your progress?
One thing’s for sure: I might not be a stranger to the swimming pool, but I’m not ready for an open water swim just yet.