Friday, February 06, 2015

The writing advice you never knew you needed, and probably still don't need but are getting anyway

I’m not one for giving writing advice. There is so much out there already, what works for one person does not for another, and I'm not exactly Kurt Vonnegut. However, when an aspiring writer recently wrote to me for advice, I found I had some to give.

The little voice in her head that told her she was a bad writer was crippling her, she was stressing about how and where to write, she could not stop herself editing the few words she had put down on paper, and she was afraid to develop her ideas in case she couldn’t do them justice. Essentially, she had contracted every strain of the virulent disease known as writer's block.

That was exactly me six years ago.

When I wrote back, I realized that I have since developed very concrete methods for shaking off the writing doldrums. My way will not work for everyone, but I figured I may as well share it in the off-chance it helps break the writing deadlock for anybody who cares to read it. Please note that this is not about how to improve the quality of your writing. This is simply the method I have developed to make myself productive.

Here’s what I told her:

  • It's really very simple. You write. You don't stress about how good it is. You remember that you don't actually need to show it to anybody if you don't want to.
  • You remember that unless you have words on paper, you're not a writer. You remember that if you don't have words on paper, you don't have anything to edit. You remember that editing is often what makes a piece of work shine, not the writing in the first place.
  • You understand that you can never do an idea justice. You understand that an idea only becomes a story when you write it. You remember that your first idea is just a seed, and it will grow into bigger and better ideas - or at least ideas that take you in a direction so different you can't even remember why your original idea seemed so good in the first place.
  • You do not edit as you go along. You just get that story down from start to finish, no matter how bad you consider the prose or how ridiculous the scenes or characters seem. If you obsess about making each chapter or section perfect, you will find yourself, a year later, working on draft 32 of chapter one (as I did). Let the story and characters unfurl. Then you edit.
  • You remember that the voice in your head is what is stopping you writing, and you tell it to shut up while you're writing. Later, when you're done, you can let it talk again. But when you're at your computer, or notepad, or cave wall, or whatever you have convinced yourself is your ideal writing environment, all you do is write.
  • You don't judge the quality of your work until it is time to edit. You don't consider what others will think of your work on that distant day of publication. You just write.
  • You understand that your writing is not you. It is just something you have written. If it turns out to be awful (at least in your view), it does not make you awful. It makes that specific piece of writing at that moment in time awful. You throw it out, if you have to, and start again. Or you put it aside and come back later and realize it really wasn't all that bad.
  • You understand that the best writers often think their work is bad. You use that to drive yourself on, but you also understand that you will never reach your goal of perfection and learn to recognize the cut-off point.
  • You don't stress about time or location or atmosphere or warm-up before getting going. You write: wherever and whenever you can. Telling yourself you need to block off a whole day, a week, a month is an excuse you use when you're afraid to start. (This is defined as Resistance in the excellent War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Read it.) If you have 30 minutes in the morning, you write. If you have an hour at lunch, you write. If you wake up with an idea at 2am, you write. You scratch the itch whenever you feel it, instead of putting it off and losing your enthusiasm.
  • You don’t need to begin at the beginning. It can be all too easy to stare at a blank screen, wondering how to craft the perfect opening even though you have a stack of ideas for later scenes. Write what is in the forefront of your mind. It's like journalism: often you will write the meat of a story, and then at the very end go back and craft the opening now that you have the whole story fixed in your mind.
  • Basically - and I'm pretty sure you've got this theme - you write!

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