Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How to Begin (Or, There Is No Write Way)

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a reader named Jess who wanted some advice about writing. An excerpt:
I desire to write creatively but am not sure of my voice. I have no real experience or background. Some people say that with creative writing, one must read books on grammar , etc. I've kind of lost my inspiration now, and I'm not sure if that would only hinder me more... Above all, I'd love your tips on a daily writing schedule.
Jess, the answers to your questions are both perfectly simple and hard as hell. I'll try my best to answer them, but be warned: the following is my experience only, and will not work for everyone. (To be honest, sometimes it doesn't even work for me! Following your own advice is not as easy as it sounds.)

Creating a Writing Schedule
The first, best, and most important advice I can give anyone who wants to be a writer is simply this: Write. There is no way to get around it. If you think you don't have any time, that a spare hour in your day doesn't exist, then look harder. I'm really busy - working full time, marathon training, cooking and cleaning and caring for my dogs. I've found the best method to get my writing in is to wake up an hour earlier. I don't particularly like waking up at 5am and writing, but it works.

Another trick is to set benchmarks or goals for your writing sessions. This can help keep you on track and give you a feeling of accomplishment when you're done. I've tried a few different methods, with varying degrees of success. Favorites include: scheduling writing sessions in my Google Calendar (much as I schedule my marathon training, happy hours and parties - seriously, if I can schedule workouts, I should be able to schedule a half hour for editing a story!); pledging to write a certain amount every day (500 words is a popular number for many people, including Hemingway); and forcing myself to sit down at my computer for 30 minutes, five days a week, no matter what. (Does writing always happen during those 30 minutes? No. But even if I'm just staring at a blank document, I'm still maintaining a habit.)

My best advice? Get a wall calendar and hang it over your desk. Each day you actually work on your writing - whether it's 500 words, 30 minutes, or sending a submission to a journal - you get to put a big check on that day. Check marks - or better yet, gold stars! - are very motivating, especially as you try to break your record each month.(I stole this method from Jerry Seinfeld. Seriously!) 

Actually Writing
Even though I said 30 minutes of staring a blank document was still helpful, it's certainly not ideal. Ideally, you will actually be putting words on the page. Beginning is the hardest part for most people, myself included. One of the best things I've ever read about beginning is the essay "Shitty First Drafts" from Anne Lamott's excellent book Bird by Bird. (You can read the essay by following the link, but I highly recommend the whole book.) Basically, Anne says your first draft is not the time to think or worry about whether what your writing is actually good. Accept that your first draft will be shitty and just worry about getting it down on the page. Once you have something tangible, you can begin the work of editing, molding and crafting it into something presentable, something you're proud of. But first: the shitty first draft. 

As for ideas, a lot of my stories got their start in the local paper - interesting stories make excellent jumping off points. I also shamelessly steal from the lives of my friends and loved ones (always changing the names, of course). Another good starting point is writing prompts - there are plenty of websites that offer them for free. Write about your parents. Write about your elementary school. Write about your dog, your dinner, your dreams. This is the fun part. Go crazy and write whatever comes into your head. Then, in two days, come back to it and figure out how to make it better.

Blogging Your Way to Better Writing
Will blogging make you a better writer? Yes and no. Blogging - if you do it regularly - can help you develop your voice and establish a regular routine. It can also suck up all your writing time - time that might be better spent on projects that take more work, thought and energy than dashing off a few hundred words and immediately hitting "publish." (Guilty as charged!) Personally, I think blogging is a good compliment to a writing regiment. The feedback from readers is motivating and writing in a public space is an easy way to hold yourself accountable, however! The satisfaction you get from seeing your writing on the web is ultimately short lived. Blog posts fade away and are forgotten by the following week. A story or novel that you crafted for weeks, months, years, sent to publishers, edited and revised, and finally got published? That lasts a whole lot longer, and it's worth a whole lot more.

My best advice? Start a blog and begin telling your stories. Connect with readers and other writers. Blog about your writing goals, your struggles, and your progress. And then turn off your Internet connection (literally - trust me on this one) and begin the real work, because that's where the magic happens. 

Do you consider yourself a writer? Do you agree or disagree with any of the above? And most of all, do you have any advice for Jess? Just leave it in the comments or email me at thenewchrissy (at) gmail(dot)com. Happy writing!