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!


  1. Inspiration from your local paper. I direct your attention to a letter to the editor in today's edition, specifically a man's memorial to his wife, specifically this line: "Evelyn always carried in a bag a pet box turtle named Bubba or TT. It really did help."

  2. YES. This is what I'm talking about. This is why some of the best writers come from small towns. God bless the Daily Sentinel!

  3. Thanks for this, it's a great post! Actually, I hope you don't mind I'm going to share an excerpt and link to it from my blog so that my little readership can come over and read it too.

    Oh, but on the subject of more advice for Jess, I did a post on goal-setting recently and I think some of the most salient points transfer well: set goals you can control, goals you can DO, prioritize, and make sure you're excited! If your goal-setting process just makes you feel despondent, that's not going to produce good writing. If you set overambitious goals because of what you think you should be doing rather than what's ACTUALLY a good challenge, you'll just end up killing your self-esteem and feeling like an epic fail. Anyway to avoid a silly long rambling comment, here's the link if you wanna read more:

  4. I am a writer, but I'm an academic writer. I very much approve of the advice to write daily and try to hit an established word or page count on a daily basis. I'm not currently doing this, and my writing goals are way off track.

  5. I just checked out a book from the library tonight called "pen on fire" by barbara demarco-barret, about finding time to write as a busy bee. I can't wait to read it... I'll report back my findings.

  6. Elliewoodscarlett4:30 PM, January 19, 2011

    I write stories and poems on an old laptop without internet connection. I wish I had a regular habit--5 days a week for an 1 hour day, etc--, but I tend to write in spurts, getting a lot done one week and then living through the dry season.

  7. I LOVE goal setting (as you've probably noticed) and this is great advice - especially the part about being excited! I've definitely been over ambitious about goal setting (write every day for two hours, ride my bicycle 100 miles, etc) and felt the burn of inevitable failure. You have to find that balance between ambition and achievability - it definitely takes practice!

    And thanks for reposting! I'm a little bit honored. :)

  8. I just started doing this again. I got distracted the last few months by working on my grad school applications, so my main goal for 2011 is to take my own advice and reestablish a writing routine. I'm getting there!

  9. That book sounds right up my alley! Let me know if you like it - if so, I'll definitely check it out!

  10. Writing on a laptop with no connection is a great suggestion! Kind of like using a typewriter, but much faster.

    I also write in spurts, but I long to be more regular. It helps if I'm in the middle of a project. I usually take a few days off in between stories or submissions. But if writing in spurts is productive for you, then I say keep doing it!

  11. Great post! Some of these things work for academic writing, too. I like to do all of my writing in an app that's "isolated" -- that hides the internet and email notifications from me. I don't necessarily have to disconnect, but I like full-screen apps because they simply hide the rest of your desktop.

    ommwriter and writeroom are both good.

  12. Hi Christine,
    I enjoy your blog. I think you are amazing and good tips. Actually doing them is the hard part :)
    I tend to sleep in...I work all night I'm lazy. I hope I get my act together. I'm very uninspired. But I just started a that is something I guess.
    Great blog.