Thoughts on Writing: 14 Steps to Getting Started

Blog readers repeatedly tell me they want to know more about the creative process, the road to publishing … and through publishing … and life on the other side of publishing, especially in regard to working on a second book. They ask where I get my ideas, how I plan, how I execute, how I get over writer’s block.

And here’s the thing: I don’t feel like an expert, by any stretch of the imagination. So sometimes it feels pretentious to me to offer advice when I’m such a novice myself. With that caveat, I am always happy to talk about creativity, so let’s dive in.

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MINDSET

1. Do you have to write? Is it in your blood? Is writing a part of your identity and calling?

If it’s not, why start? Writing is deeply meaningful, yes– but it’s also hard and painful, it’s slow work that is very unlikely to make you rich, and true creativity requires you give so much of yourself to the task.

George Orwell said: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

2. The journey is probably going to be longer and slower than you think. 

You might never have your work published. If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter. (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Don’t quit your day job. Yet. 

If you are a talented communicator, you will be able to find work, work that puts food on the table, pays the rent, renews your prescription meds (you think I’m joking, but I’m not). Having your basic needs met will allow you to pour more of your energy into your creative pursuits. In that sense, you may not even want your day job to be especially creative– many of us have a limit to our daily creative energy; for us, it’s better to use a different part of our brains during the work day and save that creative energy for writing.

GETTING STARTED

4. Read extensively. 

I knew a man who wanted to be a novelist, but he claimed he didn’t have enough time to read. This is like someone saying they want to be an Olympic athlete but don’t have time to use the weight room.

Read like crazy: everything [good] you can get your hands on, but especially in your genre. Poetry too; it will improve your prose.

Stephen King makes it clear: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Annie Proulx says: “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”

5. Write extensively, even when you’re not inspired.

As many have noted before, amateurs wait for inspiration; everyone else just gets up and goes to work. Might as well. You need to put 10,000 hours of practice into something to become an expert. Better get started.

6. You don’t need anything fancy: just a word processor or a pen and paper. 

I know people who swear by Scrivener and others who use something like WriteRoom or DarkRoom to limit distractions, but ultimately, all you need is a way to record your story. Some people choose to write by hand first, then transfer it into an electronic document later, and there are studies that say writing by hand does slow a writer down, which can have many benefits. As for me, I use a computer for that exact reason– I don’t want to slow down while I’m writing. But later, when I need to solve issues, figure out plot holes, brainstorm new scenes, I sit down with a notebook and pen too.

7. Do your research, but don’t let it become procrastination. 

I have friends who are brilliant writers– but who will spend so much time plotting and planning and world-building and researching that they never really get around to writing their stories. I admit everyone is different here (some writers plot extensively a la J.K. Rowling, some writers write by the seat of their pants a la Ray Bradbury)– and research and details are important— but don’t let anything keep you from actually writing. The research should propel your project forward, not stall it out.

8. Learn the craft. 

I know that some of the greatest writers had no formal education in it, but as for me? Well, I needed a bachelor’s degree in writing to give me roots and wings. Set aside some money to take a course or attend a writer’s workshop. Read books about craft (my favorites: The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass and The Anatomy of Story by John Truby) and the writing life (my favorites: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield).

9. Solicit feedback and revise.

Join a writing group or find some beta writers. Better yet, do both. Make sure they actually know what good literature is. They should be good writers themselves or at least good readers. And do take their advice or at the very least try it out.  No one said you have to keep your revisions. Take their feedback, make revisions, and then decide whether to take it or leave it. It goes without saying (I hope) that all this should be done without putting up a fuss. You need feedback to make your writing sparkle. Well, at least most writers do.

Jeanette LeBlanc says: “Never get too attached to the first draft of anything – this includes writing, art, homes, love. You will revise and revise and revise. We are always in the midst of our own becoming.”

THINGS TO REMEMBER

10. Genres have word count guidelines. 

Debut authors should be especially aware of this. Many literary agents won’t even bother with a manuscript that falls outside the genre word count guidelines. (Not that it has never happened– but it’s the exception, not the rule). There’s an excellent, detailed post about this Writer’s Digest.

11. Screw trends.

Write what you’re passionate about, not whatever is trendy in your genre. By the time you finish your novel about [insert trendy, current topic here], the topic will probably no longer be trendy or current.

12. The only true practice for writing a novel-length book is to write a novel-length book. 

Short stories are their own separate beast, in my mind, so if you want to write a book, you have to DO IT. Does that mean your first book has a high chance of being not-so-great? Well, yes. I and most of the writers I’m friends with did not publish the very first novel that we wrote. I always say I had to write a book to learn I could do it before I could then write a good one.

13. You have all the permission in the world to write an awful first draft. 

In fact, in the writing community, we commonly refer to these as “shitty first drafts.”

Hemingway said: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Anne Lamott spends an entire chapter of Bird by Bird discussing “shitty first drafts”: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

If it helps you to look at the flip-side, consider Jane Smiley’s take: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”

Whatever way you look at it, remember that you have permission to write something that will not be the final something.

14. Perseverance and talent are both important in writing; if you want to publish, perseverance is more important than talent. 

Maybe that’s a bold thing to say, but I really believe it. The writer-friends of mine who are published who wrote a first terrible-to-semi-awful first book? After they did that, they set it aside and wrote a second book. A third. A fourth. They didn’t stop after being rejected once or twice, and– say what you will– to spend years on a manuscript that never sees the light of day, then turn around and do that all over again without any guarantees? That’s gutsy. That’s driven. That’s why I said what I said in the first point of this post.

Thanks for reading, folks! In my upcoming posts, I’ll talk more about querying literary agents, getting a book deal, and what comes after. Stay tuned.

And please do leave a comment! I would love to have a discussion here; I’m not interested in being the only voice.

 

Six Parts of Writing a Book that Aren’t Actually Writing

There is so much more to writing a book than just writing a book. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately and thought I’d write up a few thoughts about it. Note that this is my experience; every writer has his or her own methods!

writing3Research. 

When I was younger, I thought, “I’ll never write historical novels; that way, I won’t have to do research.” HA. I think any well-thought-out piece of writing requires so much research, and not always the kind you might imagine. I’ve spent countless hours researching things that my characters are interested in, just so that I can have my characters talk about them with convincing acuity. When those things are above my head (i.e. the quantum mechanics in Yes Novel), I have to still find a way to write just enough to convince the audience I know more. (Then I had to have my physics Ph.D friend read those scenes to make sure I didn’t say anything absolutely wrong.)

Speaking of bringing in friends, I do this all the time. My Facebook friends usually assume that any random question that comes from left field is usually book research. Sometimes I will spend hours just finding the name of a color or how to build a table or how to translate one sentence of Portuguese. I remember taking so long just to find the name for the “blanket” used during X-rays: a lead apron. That sentence wasn’t about X-rays either; it was about how depression presses weighs on a person. I spent all night researching boats for a paragraph in Salt Novel. And if I get the details right, the reader probably won’t notice– it will flow smoothly instead of tripping someone up!

Brainstorming.

For me, this usually looks like conversations, either prayer or otherwise. I get out either my prayer journal or my process journal and start asking questions, thinking, waiting for answers. Sometimes I tell my friends, “I have a problem to solve. I need this square peg to fit into a round hole,” and we go back and forth until we make it work. Sometimes this takes a long time and means headaches and tears. But I don’t do it alone.

Listening.

I’m not sure if that’s entirely the right word. But with the exception of when I’m sleeping (although not always– sometimes I think about my novel while I dream!), I am always on alert for ideas, solutions, objections. My co-worker said, “Can I still rent a vehicle if I’m not 25 yet?” and my first thought wasn’t how to help her but, “Oh crap, I have a 19-year-old renting a car in my manuscript. FIX.” Anything funny or beautiful or interesting– all my experiences, in fact– pass through the novel-sieve: is this something I can use for the story?

Timeline.

I spent the entire evening earlier this week nailing down the timeline of my story. For me, I find it easiest to use an actual calendar and to fill in the days with the names of scenes. Timeline matters especially if there is a “time bomb” in the novel or if there is some process (pregnancy, an academic year, etc.) that has to follow certain general guidelines. It also keeps me from bypassing important holidays. And the weather has to be right for that time of year (see above: research). And if there is a love story, I want to make sure that it’s reasonable. I don’t want my characters falling in love in just three days.

Strategy.

This is something I am learning. With my first novel (Lights All Around, unpublished), I had no strategy. I barely even considered the most basic constructs of a novel: action, climax, resolution, and the like, let alone thought strategically about how the characters were changing from beginning to end. I did that so much more with Truest, and now it’s becoming a built-in part of my writing life. I find myself thinking things like, “If I want M to relax and C to become more assertive, then I should have a scene where C takes control and M follows suit.” That probably seems like a no-brainer, but for this writer, it took about three decades to get there. Now I think, “If I want X to be especially impactful, then I need to set it up by making Y more extreme. How can I do that?” (See above: brainstorming.)

Reading. 

When I am writing, I like to stay deep in the waters of great fiction. I have re-read a handful of books that inspire Salt Novel over and over again. I enjoy the story, but I also examine it. Why did that work? How did the author make me feel that way? Why did I change my mind about that character? If I am trying to create a river, it helps to stand in one. 

There are other things too, like outlining, marketing (eventually), and finding connections between themes (my favorite!). It’s a lot of work, but soooo rewarding! How blessed am I to get to do this with my life?

Off to write now– actually write!

From Idea to Novel

Lighting a candleHow does an idea become a novel?

First, you throw away the match. Then you hold the idea in your hands like a flickering flame. You protect it and you breathe life into it: research, conversations, prayer.

You put flesh on it. That is, you create characters. You make them look like real people, broken and complicated, and you make them want things.

Then you look around and see where this idea is happening.  In space? In post-apocalyptic London? In a dollhouse? You open your fist and let your idea and your characters start to run around in this new terrarium. With any luck, they will make very bad decisions.

Then you write about it. Pen and paper, laptop, 1921 Woodstock typewriter, whatever you’ve got. Start putting the words down. They’ll be bad at first, but you’ll fix them later.

After 20 drafts or maybe 220, you take off your beret and put on your marketing hat and hammer out a query letter and find an agent. If the agent likes the 220th draft, he or she will probably ask you to write the 221st, and then they take it to some editors, where your manuscript bats its eyelashes and sucks in its tummy and tries to walk the runway without falling.

If an editor is sufficiently besotted by your story’s showing-off, then the editor will give you a contract, after which, you’ll write even more drafts. Those characters that seemed so fun and clever and charming, albeit broken and complicated and wanting, might start to get on your nerves, but there was no pre-nup, and you lose it all if you divorce them now, so you stay with them and learn to love them again.

Eventually, the story goes through copyedits and formatting, and it gets a cover and a release date, and by then, you’re all starry-eyed over your sweet little idea and characters and story terrarium that you start thinking about all the evil people who might not care about them the way that you do.

But it’s too late. You’ve written a novel, and it gets to go out into the world, and your job is to light another match, keep the flame safe, and make magic. Again.