One of the things that bothered me most about published author’s responses to the question “How do you get better at writing?” was that it never seemed to branch away from “Read, read, read” and “Write, write, write.”
As a struggling teenage writer, I wanted specific advice, a game plan to make me feel like I was making solid, notable progress.
If you’re struggling right now, I’m here for you. Here’s the kind of advice I would’ve found useful when I was seventeen and wondering whether I should even be a writer.
Going beyond “Read a lot”
When you’re reading, take a moment to ask yourself what works for you, then pick apart why it’s working. And then, what helped me the most was, what would you do differently?
I believe that identifying what works for you and why is essential to growing as a writer and storyteller. And then asking “What would I do differently here” engages your creative self. From critical thinking comes creativity.
If you can’t stand that book, good.
Books you can’t stand are just as valuable as the ones you love. Perhaps even more so because identifying why a book sucks is easier than pinning down why you love it. Also, the crucial question of “What would I do differently here?” suddenly explodes into a list a hundred bullets long when your emotions are running wild.
Many of my favorite projects have come from books I would have written differently. Reading “bad books” forces my muse out of the shadows and into the open. Let me tell you, my muse’s indignation of a horribly executed idea is a fearsome (if extremely fruitful) thing.
Read widely, in genre and form.
This was not something I took to easily as a teenager. I didn’t develop an appreciation for forms other than novels (and specifically YA novels) until I got to college, and I think my writing stagnated during my teenage years because of it.
While it’s important to read within the field you wish to write, exposure to other forms (and following the same process of “What works, why does it work, what would I do differently”) opens you up to entirely new realms of thinking.
So pick up non-fiction, like a biography. (May I recommend Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford?) Watch some spoken word poetry. (Here’s the lovely Sarah Kay if you haven’t seen her performance already.) Take a dip into crime fiction or high fantasy. Open yourself to other ways of writing and storytelling.
Going beyond “Write a Lot”
One of the things that bothered me most as a teenager was feeling like I didn’t have a process. Or, at least, my “process” didn’t look like anyone else’s process. And that made me insanely paranoid that I was doing something wrong.
I want to go into more detail about this in a future post, but for now, the rule of thumb is: take what works, abandon what doesn’t.
This is how you find your process. By trying everything. Try other writers’ processes. You may find that what works for them will also work for you.
If you read how one writer writes their entire first draft freehand, and you’ve never tried it, give it a go. If you find that it’s a chore and you aren’t getting any noticable results out of it, OR–most tellingly–if you completely forget about the notebook entirely, ditch it.
I saw on one of Alexandra Bracken’s InstaStories that she uses a candle for every project because she read in college that smell is your strongest sense and if you study with a certain smell and then smell it during a test, you’ll more accurately remember what you studied. So, in order to sink deeper into her world, she lights a candle while she writes.
I tried it. Doesn’t really work for me. But it was fun to try. I got some lovely candles out of it in time for the leaf-changing season.
A lot of authors use playlists. I tried it. I have a playlist for my WiP, but I don’t lean heavily on it. It was a fun activity, but ultimately, didn’t do much for me.
I made huge strides forward when I found a process that utilizes my love for lists. I plotted out several stories using a spreadsheet, one scene to each box, divided by chapters and acts.
Now I’m trying fast drafting to get the broad strokes of the story down before filling in finer details with actual prose.
Note: It took me ten years to find out that spreadsheets were something that worked for me. I’m not saying it’ll take you that long to find your process. Just keep in mind that process is an ever-evolving thing and while there are certain constants, a lot changes from project to project. This is normal.
Identify where you want to go and set goals accordingly.
Reflect on how serious you are about writing. If you’re a hobbyist, your goals will be different from a writer who wants to become a full-time published author.
If you want to be published by the time you’re 30, for example, and your 28th birthday just came around and you still haven’t started something, giving yourself a goal to write every day would be prudent. But if you’re a weekend novelist, maybe your goal is to write a chapter a week.
In the beginning, copy. Just don’t copy forever. Let yourself evolve. Always evolve.
I want to go more in depth with this in future, but the sum of it is: I believe that copying styles you admire is a valuable learning tool. It’s a tangible, hands-on way of employing what you’ve recognized as Good Stuff. You aren’t promising to marry this style, to use it faithfully and always. Have a fling with it! A good, old-fashioned, healthy one-night stand. And when you’re done, give it a coy wave over your shoulder and move onto the next one.
The value in this is that you will come away from it with something you hadn’t known before. You’ve practiced a different way to approach a scene, a certain snarky tone of voice, an approach to dialogue or chapter endings. In the same way you learn your process, when you practice another author’s style, you take what works, you abandon what doesn’t.
Get over yourself.
This took me years to get to, and I’m still dealing with how to create alongside my fear of creating crap. But. Everyone knows you have to produce a ton of crap to grow any daisies.
Everyone sucks in the beginning–everyone. Your “shitty writing” is not unique.
I spent years hearing this, but the best way I’ve heard so far is by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic. Consider this:
Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending. My fear was a song with only one note–only one word, actually–and that word was “STOP!” My fear never had anything more interesting or subtle to offer than that one emphatic word, repeated at full volume on an endless loop: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!”
Which means that my fear always made predictably boring decisions, like a choose-your-own-ending book that always had the same ending: nothingness.
I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. […] There’s nothing particularly compelling about that. Do you see what I mean? You don’t get any special credit, is what I’m saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown.
Your ego in this matter is not worth your time. Your ego is helpful in many ways, but when it comes to creating things, it can take a seat in the back and sulk while you have your fun.
And also consider this: If the risk is that you’ll get to the end of the day and have nothing, wouldn’t you rather just create something, even if you consider that something crappy?
I hope this helps! My wish for you is that you persevere in your writing practice, that you approach creativity with an open heart and open mind, and that you write something today.