You see the Toronto Transit Commission; I see the most productive writing space I’ve ever known. Image copyright E Monier-Williams.

How I Wrote 100,000 Words on the Subway in 13 Months

Resurrecting My Creative Dreams with Wattpad

A few years ago, I researched a post assessing the pros and cons of the Wattpad platform for aspiring writers on my blog, The Analytic Eye. I wrote 3,000 words but took a fence-sitting position on its value.

It was a critic’s response to a tool, intended to perform the act of analysis for my audience, not to really get inside the thing and assess its power.

Now, with 100,000 words of a novel draft in hand thanks in large part to Wattpad, I look at that post and am struck by how wrong I was.

What changed?

Discussions with an Angel

The first thing that helped open my eyes to Wattpad’s platform was a discussion with one of the company’s early angel investors.

I know him through my work in Toronto’s startup land; I expressed curiosity in his Wattpad involvement one afternoon and he told me about his decision to invest. During that discussion, I posed my analytical concerns about the platform, which essentially boiled down to this:

Why do the Wattpaders who generate content make nothing when the platform is valued in the millions? Doesn’t that devalue content, writing and writers?

“I didn’t really consider that,” he said [and I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t make detailed notes]. “Wattpad’s power is that they’ve built something extraordinary for the Internet: a respectful, friendly community that welcomes writers and lets them thrive. A lot of them are young women. They go on there and find an audience for their work. Maybe they get better. Maybe they just do it for fun. Maybe they make friends and connect with others like them all over the world. But that community is what I thought was exceptional.”

This conversation, which took place in late September 2014, coincided with five or six other events that I now realize were pivotal in reigniting my creative writing life.

“Hmm,” I remember thinking. “All I did when I was researching that blog post was upload some existing content to Wattpad that I had already written. I didn’t try composing on it.

“Maybe Wattpad could work for me, too.”

And so when inspiration coalesced in my brain barely 72 hours after that conversation, I decided to give writing on the platform a serious shot.

On Passions, Day Jobs and Parenting

Like most adults in North America, my day-to-day life is demanding. I’m married and we have two fantastic kids in grade school. I have an intense career, love my family and wish I saw my friends more. My chore list is a perpetual motion machine. I’m disciplined about my gym membership.

But I’ve written since I was a child. It’s how I make sense of the world and the activity that most consistently allows me to experience flow.

Yet after our kids were born, my writing life died.

During an interview I did with Guy Gavriel Kay while working at the University of Toronto in my late 20s, he surmised I was an aspiring writer and kindly asked me about my ambitions.

I’ve read Kay since my teens — if you like fantasy or history or both and you’ve never heard of him, I’m envious about what you’re about to discover.

He warned me that writing while parenting is tricky, particularly for women. And he suggested, wisely, that I get a manuscript done before I reproduced.

Didn’t happen.

After my first child arrived, my writing slowed to a trickle. I stopped submitting work to my writing group. I also gained some perspective and shelved my research-heavy, ambitious, alternate-history/fantasy novel that I’d been trying to complete for the better part of a decade.

As Elizabeth Gilbert aptly describes in her recent book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, I’d taken too long to develop that idea and its fiery core was stone dead.

I no longer had endless evening and weekend hours to reanimate that dream or catch a new one. So I thought I’d missed my shot.

And here’s the thing:

However rewarding it is to be a parent (and it is),
it’s devastating to feel your creative dream has died.

Thinking about writing during that time was like touching an empty tooth socket with my tongue. I knew what was supposed to be there, but was surprised and disappointed and sad when it wasn’t.

Enter Wattpad: 100,000 Words in 13 Months

Wattpad’s offices, which I visited this week during an open house for Toronto start-up week. Image copyright E Monier-Williams

Thirteen months after opening myself to the idea of using Wattpad as a mobile composition tool, I’ve written an entirely new novel.

I hit 100,000 words last week.

Edit: I finished the draft about six weeks after writing this post.

I haven’t published as I went like many Wattpaders do, though I was tempted. While writing and work-shopping that earlier novel draft, I learned that feedback while writing derails my ability to finish. I’m more productive in a vacuum.

If you’re a numbers person, my fictional output over the last six years averages between 3,000 and 5,000 words a year (my day job also involves writing). Using Wattpad has increased my productivity by a factor of 20.

By any measure, that’s a blistering shift. How’s it possible?

With Wattpad’s iOS app, I discovered I love writing on my phone while standing on the subway.

I sometimes edit with the desktop interface, but the bulk of my draft was composed by phone in the doors of TTC subway cars during my daily round-trip commute. I put my earphones on, find a spot and make out with my imagination for 25 minutes each way.

Before you ask, I remember reading articles like this 2010 Telegraph story about Peter Brett writing a novel on his phone and thinking, “Yeah, right.” I’m skeptical I could have written a book this way before contemporary smartphones. Bigger mobile screen sizes coupled with better digital keyboards and the solid Wattpad interface made it feasible.

Writing with Wattpad means I don’t have to worry about how crowded the car is or about getting a seat. I’m right handed, so when I was trying to write in a paper notebook I had to have a left-sided seat on the end of a row. Ask anyone from Toronto who takes transit and they’ll tell you that’s next to impossible during peak travel times.

I also didn’t have to shoehorn writing into the time I need to work or see my family, exercise, sleep or whatever, though I’ll sometimes take my phone out and keep writing after my kids have gone to bed.

Before this change, I thought of myself as someone with no time. Wattpad found me slack I didn’t know I had, provided I was willing to upend my old writing process, Lewis Carroll-styles.

Better still, I didn’t have to quit my job, ignore my family, move to Tibet, plow through my savings or disown my social commitments to gain this freedom.

While it’s early to say if the novel will resonate with others, my days of siting at a desk and staring blankly at the blinking cursor on the barren white space of an empty Word document are over.

Writing on my phone with Wattpad feels like play.

I don’t feel anxious about beginning a new chapter or finding the next word or scene. I just open the app and trust that flow is waiting for me.

And, like self-fulfilling magic, it usually is.

So believe me when I say Wattpad has completely changed the way I write fiction. I don’t have words for how much joy this change has brought back into my day-to-day life.

What about my earlier criticism? What if I never make a dime from the book?

It doesn’t really matter (though of course I’d be open to it).

Using Wattpad brought back my creative satisfaction. The joys of this past year have been just that: a string of pearl-like delights for me alone.

So thanks, Wattpad, for facilitating this experience (with bonus mad props to the Zen Desk tech support team).

Here’s to the last five chapters.

Edit: I finished the draft on December 18, 2015. The manuscript is currently 131,000 words.

Follow me on Wattpad if you’d like to read a couple of my short stories (of the two, I prefer Pyre, my vampire venture capital experiment, to Swarm) and be notified when I start posting the book. It’ll have illustrations and everything!
What’s my novel about? If you’ve seen my Tedx talk about “Having It All” and the stories we tell about women superheroes, let’s just say the themes overlap.