Say you’ve got an idea for a novel or memoir that’s been percolating for weeks, months, even years. You know you need to get comfortable with the practice of writing before you can confidently embark on a big project. Or maybe you’d simply like to explore writing for its own sake, without any expectations of where it’ll take you. In either case, where do you begin?
You visit the writing section of your local bookstore-and you get that ball-of-lead feeling in your stomach, the kind you had when your high school teacher or college professor kicked off the semester with a speech about how hard you’d have to work just to pass her course. Some of the titles sound encouraging. Others practically scream at you: Novelist’s Boot Camp. 78 Reasons Why Your Book Will Never Be Published. Some Writers Deserve to Starve. Yikes. You didn’t exactly have “boot camp” in mind; and you’re not even close to thinking about publishing. Is this what the “writing life” is about? You think to yourself, “Why should I bother? I’m not any good. Who do I think I am, calling myself a writer?” Et cetera, et cetera.
Sound familiar? Then begin by putting those negative thoughts aside for a while, and keep away from external sources of discouragement. I’ve been writing for most of my life, and I can assure you that the “boot camp” attitude is disastrous for beginners or for those who want to begin again. In fact, I’ve never been a big fan of the military-style approach, regardless of experience. I’ve managed to produce writing I’m proud of, and I’ve helped my students do the same, all without yelling, punishment, or name-calling.
Let’s take a look at some simple ways in which you, as a unique and decidedly worthy individual, can enter the realm of writing.
1) Make a plan to write regularly…
Obvious? Sure. We all know that writing won’t happen unless you actually sit down to write on some kind of regular basis. But how do you get yourself to sit in that chair and start putting words on paper or screen? How often does this need to happen?
You can make a realistic, easy-to-follow plan now, today. We often set ourselves up for failure by trying to follow other writers’ rules. There are no rules that fit everyone. Think in terms of guidelines, not rules. Think about what appeals to you, what will make it easier for you to pick up the pen or start tapping the keyboard. Figure out a weekly goal you can actually meet. Your initial goal might have to do with the amount of time you devote to writing, or with the quantity of writing you produce.
Take a look at your schedule for the week. Are there certain times of day which might be better than others? Mornings, evenings, weekends? If your schedule varies, tweak your writing time accordingly. Writing for a minimum of 15 minutes twice per week is possible for just about anyone: people with children, full-time jobs, partners, etc. 15 minutes may not sound like much, but short blocks of time have a funny way of expanding: a 15-minute period becomes half an hour before you know it, half an hour turns into an hour, and so on.
Or maybe you’d prefer to measure your progress in terms of word count rather than time. An oft-repeated rule is: “real” writers crank out 1000 words a day. Again, you have to ask yourself: does this work for me? Forget what “real” writers supposedly do. If setting a word-count goal makes sense, try it. Maybe you can do 500 words a day, three days per week. Personally, I’m the slow-and-steady type, so giving myself set periods of time is what works best for me. If it takes me an hour to write a paragraph that I’m happy with, so be it.
Notice I said “giving” myself periods of time. I’ve had to learn to look at it this way: writing is something I give myself; it’s no longer something I force myself to do, and the work is better for it. Don’t be the tyrant in your own creative life. If you can’t meet your goal for a given week, adjust your goal for the following week. Don’t give up, and don’t beat yourself up. Your motivation, energy level, concentration, and confidence are going to fluctuate over time. Setting goals that allow for these fluctuations is good for your sanity and therefore good for your writing.
2)…then protect that plan.
Sometimes it seems as if the world is conspiring to distract us from following that nifty schedule we’ve worked out for ourselves. It’s up to you to guard your precious writing time. Explain to friends and family members that they can have your full attention after you’ve completed your writing session; tell them how important your creative life is to you. I highly recommend turning off the ringer on your phone and letting the voice mail pick up! If people are respecting your boundaries and you still can’t seem to settle down to your notebook or computer, remember: dirty dishes, unopened mail, unread magazines and the TV set will still be there when you finish writing for the day.
3) Make writing pleasurable.
Okay: so the kids won’t give you a moment’s peace, or your desk chair is too hard, or you thought mornings would be best but the ideas just don’t come that early. Don’t stick with situations that don’t work. Write in a coffee shop, your favorite armchair, in bed just before you go to sleep. Change locations when you get bored. Listen to music (no, it doesn’t have to be Mozart). Buy fun pens, an attractive journal, or a lightweight notebook you can carry easily. Have coffee/tea/dessert. Get comfortable. Find places that feel right.
4) Read. A lot.
As a writing teacher, I’d love to think that the “real” learning happens in classrooms or online sessions. Actually, I believe we learn most of what we need to know about writing through reading. Reading shows us the possibilities of language, the excitement of storytelling, the limitlessness of ideas. No theoretical explanations, no pearls of wisdom, and no amount of encouragement from a teacher can replace all that you’ll gain from reading.
If you think you’d like to try different genres of writing, read a little of everything. This is not about catching up on “the classics” you were supposed to read in high school and college. This is about pleasure, discovery, stimulation. If you don’t have a lot of time, read short pieces from magazines, literary journals, anthologies. Wander through bookstores and magazine racks without any set idea of what you’ll find. Try reading things you’ve never read before. When you find voices that speak to you, you’ll hear your own voice-your real self-answering. When you find ideas that challenge you, your own ideas will start to bubble up.
5) Use writing exercises (but only if they help).
You can find exercises on writing Web sites and in friendlier beginner-oriented books: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write are two great examples. Just try a few exercises and see what they do for you. You might like them, or you might not. An exercise is a tool, not a requirement.
Natalie Goldberg advises students to do “timed writing”: scribbling without stopping for a predetermined amount of time (a 10- or 15-minute limit is common). This can be a way to get past your “inner critic” and say what you really want to say. It’s a useful, empowering method for many people. But if it doesn’t work for you, try spending more time on a given exercise, pausing here and there to think, to go back and read what you’ve written so that you can dig deeper. And if that approach doesn’t work, read Goldberg and Cameron anyway, but ditch the exercises.
6) Find at least one “writing buddy.”
It’s hard to be out there alone! With a partner, you can arrange times to write together or just talk about writing. You can keep each other motivated, share ideas, and provide steady encouragement.
If you’re ready for substantive feedback, look for a workshop or writing group. These can be wonderful sources of help which may save you months or even years of struggle just by offering a few simple suggestions. Try to find people who are objective, compassionate, honest, and thorough. It’s tempting to rely solely on family and friends, but it’s very hard for them to separate the writing from the writer…especially if they see themselves in your fictional characters, or if you’re writing memoir! (Whatever the genre or subject matter, it’s probably best to share your work with loved ones when it’s close to being finished.)