Friday, November 20, 2015
Getting Into the Groove
I just received a really nice note from a Goodreads friend named Alex who has the itch to write but doesn't know how to start.
We've all been there, haven't we? Think about all the skills you've learned over your lifetime--reading, riding a bike, cooking a pot of pasta, driving a car--and what it felt like at first. The word that comes to my mind is overwhelming. I remember, vividly, my first driving lesson: hands on the wheel trying to steer, foot on the gas (or brake, more often), eyes bouncing from the road to the mirrors to the dashboard, my brain on overload. It seemed impossible that I would ever be able to drive with ease. But eventually I did--and I never would have if I hadn't gotten behind the wheel in the first place.
And so it is with writing. You'll learn by doing. The trouble is that learning to write, or learning to create any kind of art, feels different than other skills because our thoughts and feelings are so exposed. Emotionally, there's more at stake. We're afraid of appearing idiotic or dull to others--or, even worse--to ourselves. Spoiler alert: No matter who you are, at one time or another both are going to happen. But you will also experience moments of joy when you turn out work that surpasses your expectations. If ups and downs are a given for all of us, why not stop fretting and just get to work?
Whether you're picking up a pen for the first time or returning after a long hiatus, here are a few baby steps to help you get into the groove.
Step 1. Buy yourself a beautiful notebook and a bunch of your favorite pens.
Even if you think you'd rather work on a computer, I urge you not to skip this step. For the first several months it's best to stick with paper and pen. Nothing is more discouraging than a blinking cursor, or more distracting than knowing the Internet is just a tab-click away. Lovely paper and a smooth-writing pen are a pleasure to use. By purchasing good writing materials, you are making a commitment to taking yourself seriously as a writer.
Step 2. Schedule your writing time.
No matter how busy you are, I guarantee you can find ten minutes a day to write. You can either block out the same time every day or you can choose to be flexible--as long as your ten minutes are done by bedtime. No excuses. For the first month, I recommend sticking to ten minutes only. Even if you're on a roll and could write for an hour, shut it down after ten minutes. It's always best to stop when you're hot--it makes it a lot easier to sit down and write the next day. In fact, it will make you look forward to writing the next day. Getting the motivation to sit down and write is half the battle.
After the first month or so, up your time to fifteen minutes. Then twenty. Settle into a block of time that is comfortable for you. Most writers I know only write for a maximum of about four hours a day. How long you write for is less important than keeping a consistent schedule. Some writers insist that you must write every day. Personally, I take weekends off. If your schedule allows you to only write on weekends, do that.
Step 3. Give yourself permission to be bad.
Oh, the hours I wasted, staring at a blank screen, afraid to write a single bad sentence! It would have been so much better to just give myself permission to write the worst possible sentence and then fix it later. You can't edit what isn't there. Every writer writes junky first drafts. The real art, the real skill is in the editing. You have to write garbage--a lot of it--to get to the good stuff. To learn how to write, you'll need to be a garbage-producing machine. In my college oeuvre of junk-writing I produced a schmaltzy story entitled "Pink Soap and Lilacs", that still makes me want to gag whenever I think about it. I will not be sharing the awful details of this particular story with you, which brings me to the next step:
Step 4. Don't share with anyone--yet.
As you begin to churn out your requisite pile of word-sludge you may suddenly strike gold. You might suddenly hit upon an idea for a nail-biting thriller or you may turn out an exquisite sentence that makes you proud. Your instinct will be to share it with someone, but I urge you to keep it to yourself. As I've said over and over again, you will rarely get the ecstatic reaction you are hoping for and early on your writer's ego will be too fragile to handle it. When you find a golden nugget in your junk pile, hoard it. Keep this treasure for yourself. Keep hoarding your literary gold until you have enough of it to feel confident in your ability. If it pleases you, that's all that matters.
Step 5. Read, read, read.
When I got my first ghost-writing job, I still wasn't quite sure how to intersperse dialogue with action. I wasn't even sure how to properly punctuate dialogue. To learn how, all I did was open a book and see how it was done. Every book is an instruction manual. Unsure how to open a story? Or create suspense at the end of a chapter? What about using page breaks? Everything you need to know is sitting on your bookshelf. Take down a few of your favorite books and see how it's done. I still do this all the time.
You should also be constantly reading for pleasure. Read what you like, not what you think you're supposed to read. Fill your head with words and they will be accessible to you when you need them.
Once you've practiced enough to produce a rough draft of a short story or several chapters of a novel, then you might want to consider finding a writers' group in your area. Don't rush this step, but when you're ready writers' groups can be an invaluable resource for every skill level. For more info on choosing (or starting) the right group for you, see my post about writing groups.
Do you have a question about writing or publishing? Leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer it in a future post.