My dad is writing a book right now. He’s lost over 35 pounds (~15 kilos) since February and he wants to write about how he’s doing it. Something about my dad: he’s never been the “writer type.” (Neither has my mom, which makes me wonder how I ended up being the sane one.) So we had a long conversation about how he’s doing so far and I found myself giving him advice that I wish I’d known when I was first starting out writing.
Like not to obsess over numbers. Numbers and word counts don’t matter unless you’re trying to do one thing: make a deadline. And the time before you get published, as I’ve been led to believe, is the most freedom you’re ever going to get when it comes to your writing schedule. Once you’re under the yoke of a deadline, suddenly “have to” enters your vocabulary alongside “write.” Gone are the days of “I’d like to write today” and it becomes “I have to write today.”
So take the time you have now to write for the joy of writing, when it isn’t an obligation or expectation but a pure, unadulterated creative fulfillment. And to this end, format doesn’t matter. Write like a madman; don’t stop to wonder if this mass of text should be divided into sections or chapters.
Nothing has to be coherent at this point. To paraphrase Jane Smiley, this is your first draft: all it has to do is exist. So don’t worry about whether or not it makes sense, or if it looks good. Just keep writing.
And if it helps you, go ahead and edit. But if it starts to drag you down or build up too high expectations, stop immediately, scroll to the last page, and keep writing. At this stage, editing should only be a help–to pump you up, give you momentum into that day’s writing. So pay attention to how the process of editing while you write affects you.
If you want to know how you write, you have to write. The only way to figure how what your “process” is to try different approaches. It’s okay if your process keeps changing because every project is different. Listing your scenes in a Word Doc may work for Project A but may stifle your energy for Project B, so transfer them to a index cards and lay them out on the floor. Keep experimenting until you find what clicks. Take note of what works, and abandon what doesn’t. And keep in mind that this may–most likely–take years. And that’s okay. Keep going.
And while you’re going, don’t compare yourself to others; it’s the surest way to find yourself in a funk. Self-doubt is paralyzing, useless, and inefficient. This includes wondering whether your work will be considered interesting or original enough. Never write to the trend. Write what you would like to read. You’re here for the story. Give yours the consideration it deserves. Like Maggie Stiefvater says, “Eyes up, writers.” Keep your eyes on the road ahead of you and don’t get distracted by what’s around you.
But if you want to improve, read. And don’t just read, because reading in and of itself isn’t enough. If you want to get better at writing, read with awareness. Know what you’re reading and why you like or dislike it and spend some time thinking about how it works.
Connect with other writers if that’s what inspires you, but don’t feel bad if you want to keep to yourself. The community is there to support you, not make you feel judged, like you aren’t fitting into a certain type because you don’t write 5,000 words a day and happen to like the manic pixie trope. Do what feels good. Interact when you want company and camaraderie, withdraw when it’s not helping.
I met Jennifer Neilsen at a book signing once, and I confessed that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer (I was eighteen and frustrated with how little tangible progress I’d made since I started writing six years previously). And she told me the best thing: she told me that was okay. If I liked stories, there was so much I could pursue instead. Editing, being an agent, scriptwriting, songwriting, even–just because one form wasn’t working didn’t mean I should abandon storytelling altogether if that’s what I liked to do. If you find that novel writing isn’t your thing, that’s okay. There are other forms of storytelling out there for you to try.
To that end, experiment with other forms. Just because you’re a novelist doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from Shakespeare or even the latest Transformers movie. Whether it’s a play or a movie or a podcast, story is story, and we are all storytellers regardless of our chosen medium.
Above all else, write. Whether it’s once a week or every day, if it works for you, do it. The world needs your story. And whatever it turns out to be, you are enough.
- Elizabeth Gilbert
- “If I should have a daughter” – Sarah Kay
- “The danger of a single story” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “Tales of passion” – Isabel Allende
- “The fringe benefits of failure” – J.K. Rowling
- “12 truths I learned from life and writing” – Anne Lamott
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Your First Novel by Laura Whitcomb
- Story by Robert McKee
- Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg