Sand, Rocks, and the Writing Process

I feel as though I have come a long way since my NaNoWriMo attempt 5 months ago, which is when I began formulating the idea that will become my novel. I still don’t have a completed first draft, but I have necessarily overcome some roadblocks and learned a whole lot about my preferred writing process, and I thought some of those experiences were worth sharing.


I’m sure you’ve heard the project priority analogy of putting stones in jars. If you fill the jar with sand and stones first, you will be unlikely to fit in the big rock. However if you put the big rock in first, you will also find space for the stones and plenty of sand. Well I decided that this year my ‘big rock’ would be getting my first novel finished.

No sooner had I decided to focus on that, than I began an episodic fiction on my blog. When it came to the shorts, I could write easily and quickly. So I actually gave in and decided to put more effort into that. It went against my whole ‘big rock’ plan, but at the time I was willing to follow whichever path was the most fruitful.

I later realized that the reason behind the blockage on my novel draft was there were structural issues with it I hadn’t ironed out, and as a result the pent up words were overflowing in other directions. I know this, because as soon as I identified and sorted them, the novel started flowing again, and the words for the episodes dried up even though I knew what I wanted to happen next and it had invested readership. For those who have been following The Old Woman, the Stag, and Me; I am still working on it, but it has to remain a stone or I will never finish anything longform.

I’m a Plotter!

I’m quite taken with the idea that a first draft is akin to collecting a pile of sand which I can make a castle with later. But it turns out my plot needed a lot of time to brew before I even knew what kind of sand to collect. When I first started there were some story elements I had only a loose idea of how to approach. This was stopping me from progressing with the draft, because I couldn’t see how it was going to come together. I didn’t trust my inner ‘pantser’, and it showed in the writing which was vague and without direction.

I have now written myself a full list of scenes, and have a clear vision of how I want things to unravel. If you had told me this 5 months ago, I would more than likely have been terrified of losing the creative edge by over-planning. But honestly, I feel like I have a solid structural foundation beneath me now and can forget all my worries about whether something fits or is too tangental. My ‘left brain’ is content for now to hand over to my ‘right brain’ without further interruption until the editing process.

The Angry Reader

Where one problem is solved, another raises itself. I now have what I call an ‘angry reader’ in my head. She is outraged by everything I do. Angry reader tells me I have a responsibility to write about sensitive subjects in a realistic way or not at all; that some things are guarded by an unspoken seriousness and I am simply not allowed to be creative with them. Angry reader also tells me my plot has been done a million times before by a million better writers than me; my version is boring, pointless and confusing. She is in a position of power, emotionally charged, and will not be happy until I stop writing my book. I’m trying desperately to ignore her, at least until I have a finished manuscript to throw such criticisms at.

Alpha Power 

To use yet another sand-based analogy, the passing of time adds pressure to the writing process. But I think it is misleading to work under the assumption that lack of available time is the thing stopping us from making progress. It’s not time we are short of, but effective energy usage and being in an optimum state of mind. We need to understand the conditions under which we as individuals produce our best work, and cultivate that.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that all my loveliest sentences come to me when I’m in the bath or shower, when I’m travelling, supposed to be doing something else, or when I’m just about to settle down for sleep. There’s a perfectly good reason for this, I think.

A while ago I wrote an article about brainwaves and how to optimize our personal energy. The gist of it is that during the day we have two main frequencies on which we operate, known as Alpha and Beta.

In Beta, we are alert, focused, and engaged in judgement or mental activity. It is the standard mode of functioning in our busy world, and we all use a range of methods to prolong beta activity to be more ‘productive’; increasing our caffeine intake being the most obvious example. When we need to sit down to write, we naturally try to cultivate this feeling of focus and concentration. But, while this state of mind comes in useful for editing, promoting or planning, I don’t think it aids the creative aspect of writing at all. It takes a lot of energy, creates anxiety, and actually prevents holistic integration of ideas.

When we operate on the slower alpha frequency however, we are still alert, but feel calmer, and experience better overall mental coordination. If we slow down, we beat the stress and anxiety that overshadow creative flow. Ways I have found to switch into this state include listening to soft music, practising some simple breathing exercises and clearing my mind before sitting down to write, and making sure I am physically comfortable without obvious distractions such as TV and Internet, but not in total isolation either. It doesn’t feel like ‘work’ to write in this environment, it doesn’t feel like it should be productive; but it has me writing more quickly and to a consistently higher standard and I won’t go back to working any other way.

What’s your novel about?

I think I’ve become that used to people in my life outside of the Internet not appearing to care what it is I’m working on, that it took me by surprise to be asked the other day – what’s your novel about? And what surprised me even more was realising how hard that question is to answer, at least in a succinct way that doesn’t sound dumb. It reminded me of something I read in Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn, that every writer thinks he is writing about everything.

We may know our characters, our genre, our plot, but I don’t think we always know what we are writing about. Sometimes the finished product surprises us with its overarching theme developed unconsciously, and all we can do is remain faithful to our intuition and personal style and (hopefully) marvel at the result.

Despite this possibly terrible excuse, I need to come up with a casual blurb to answer the question, that doesn’t involve the words ‘sort of’ or ‘a bit like’, and doesn’t discount what I’m doing as being unimportant or amateur. I’m working on it, I’ll let you know.


So, in short, I’m taking my writing process seriously but not concentrating too hard. I’m honing in on my point, but I’m not allowing it to exist without my personal style. I’m building my confidence, but I’m quietening my ego so that I can clearly hear the voice in the background that tells me what to write. And it’s serving me pretty well so far.

12 thoughts on “Sand, Rocks, and the Writing Process

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  1. All of your available methods, with the possible exception of the Angry Reader, have an important place in the process. Part of my difficulty in completing a novel is that I don’t ever start with anything like an outline…or even a cohesive story. It’s just a scene or a setting or a string of words that end up leading me, rather than vice versa. The endings of my stories are a surprise even to me. But that’s mostly short fiction. The novel eludes me. I wrote a novel-length memoir a couple of years ago just to be able to say that I completed something of that magnitude. But even that took me the better part of 3 years to complete.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Writing a novel is a lot harder than anyone who has never tried realises. There are so many skills to learn apart from being able to think of an idea and form a nice sentence. But I am determined that I will finish this!

      With shorter pieces I’m with you: happy just to see where they take me. It’s only with the novel I’ve started to plan so much in advance because it’s such a big undertaking.

      Angry reader has her place, I think. Maybe not so early on in the drafting phase, but it’s a good test to think about what kind of criticism I might get, how I would take it, and whether I want to make any changes before publishing as a result.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I think because people say ‘everyone’s got a book in them’ they assume you can just do it, ignoring the thousands of hours it takes to both do it and make it any good. You wouldn’t expect to just fly a plane off the bat, so why do people think it’s the same for writing?

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I really enjoyed this. As someone who focuses much on the process of writing, I always enjoy reading about the experiences of other writers. Enjoy the rest of the process!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Haha, mate I so recognise myself here. Someone asked me the other day what my book was about and you’d have thought they’ed asked me to explain quantum mechanics in style of late 19th century poetry. I have subsequently practiced my blurb until I know it by heart. Professional to the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Some fantastic analogies and great advice. Letting the story guide me is all I’ve ever done- I’m not sure I trust myself enough to take control! For the most part it works out alright, but I really would like to be able to practice more self-control and structured planning. It’s nice, in a way, to see that we all share the same challenges, thoughts and fears. Makes you feel a little less alone in the whole process.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s why I wrote the post really. It’s been pivotal for my self-confidence to learn that all writers (even well established ones) struggle with one aspect or another, and to hear them share their experiences. I wanted to continue that cycle. We all necessarily work alone at our craft, but it is encouraging to know there is support and comradery where we need it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent… I have the angry reader as well, but I always wish she was a little more outraged at my provocations, but she just wearily sighs and says that my attempts to shock just aren’t that shocking anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think angry reader will ever be happy with anything. My attempts to please her will drive me insane long before I manage to publish anything. I am learning to ignore her though, which of course she is outraged by.

      Liked by 1 person

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