Sunday, July 04, 2010

Writing Life: Tips For Beginning Writers (Part 1 of 5) - Basics

Though I haven't published anything so far (except here!) I have been writing regularly for quite a few years. I've been thinking of what I've learned so far and decided to write some thoughts down. Originally, I was going to do a journal entry for my own clarity but I decided it would be more fun to do a blog post instead. None of this advice is cut in stone and what works for me and what I've learned may not work for you.

My writing life so far: I've drafted a first novel and am working on the second novel, I have at least 10 short stories under my belt that don't have anything to do with my characters created here on this blog (all in first draft form), I'm going to use one of my short stories to draft my third novel later this year, I have something like four more novels rolling around in my head, and I write on these two blogs. Will I ever publish? Yup. I'll definitely get there too.


Write all the time. Read all the time. Never give up.

Those are the three basic, classic pieces of writing advice and they are probably the most important. You're never going to get anywhere unless you write a lot. You're never going to learn anything unless you read. And you can't ever give up.

One reason this advice is so important is it takes a long time to grow into a writer. Your writing when you first start out is going to be very different two, five, and ten years later. I read somewhere that you don't really grow into a writer until maybe 10 years after you've started. I've been writing regularly for the last seven years and I'm only just now feeling like I'm getting a grip on my writing. Of course, there are exceptions. Some people are brilliant from the get-go and progress very quickly but you won't know if you fall into that category until you get started.

Writing all the time is the bedrock of the writing life. Easier said than done. There's work, family, and a million other things on your schedule. I'm an odd exception to all that. Other than work and my volunteer gig with the penguins, I have set up my entire life to revolve around my writing. This could be considered a selfish act. So be it. I live in a wonderful city that provides endless ideas and stimulation, I'm not in a relationship, I have no children of my own, I don't watch television, I'm essentially a solitary person in my day-to-day life, and I carefully chose my activities to ensure that I have plenty of time for writing. I have obscene amounts of free time to myself.

I realize most people can't do that but making time to write still has to be a top priority if you want to be a writer. If you're just starting out or trying to get re-started I recommend you try to carve out two hours a week. Two hours a week may not seem like a lot but this is where I started and after you've been writing two hours a week it becomes easier to build on this time. If you don't build on this time you'll still see some results. If two hours a week is still too much then start with one hour a week. Where can you find this time? If you watch television is there a one or two hour block you can give up? That's probably the easiest place to find your time.

One thing I've learned this past year, and this goes along with writing all the time, is the concept of endurance. Before I joined my writing group "Shut Up & Write" I was flailing around. I had a tough time sitting down and focusing. I didn't realize I didn't have the necessary endurance built up to write regularly. In our "Shut Up & Write" sessions we get together at a cafe for an hour and write. We don't do critiques (we have separate sessions for that), we don't share what we're writing other than to mention very briefly about what we're working on ("I'm Mock Turtle and I'm writing a novel"), we just write. Sometimes we talk a little before and after the sessions but the main thing is to write for an hour. Since going to these sessions regularly I've found my endurance for writing has increased dramatically. I can write for hours, all day long now if I want to. Also, because I've built up this foundation and practice, I can write for very short periods of time and still be productive. Many times I'll start a scene during my morning commute on MUNI or for a few minutes during my lunch break. I write it down on 4x6 index cards, and then type it up when I get home. This keeps me connected to my story and helps me feel productive because I've been doing some writing throughout the day.

If you don't live in the Bay Area and don't have access to "Shut Up & Write," I highly recommend you start one in your area. Whether you decide to do it formally by contacting our organizer for tips, etc. or you decide to do an informal version in your own home by yourself, I still think it's a very worthwhile endeavor. If you're going to go this route, I highly recommend you go to a cafe or library or somewhere else to do your writing when you're starting out. It's very helpful to be away from the distractions of home. Writing with other people, even for an hour, is also invaluable.

Reading all the time is something I don't do and need to do more. The idea is you learn to write by reading widely. Not only in your chosen genre which is very important, but also in completely different areas as well. Reading brilliant works is a no-brainer but there's also much to be learned from reading lousy books. There are plenty of writing books which discuss reading in this manner. Usually when I find a scene or dialog or description that really stands out for me, either good or bad, I'll stop and try to figure out why it stands out. I'll ask "Why does this work?" or "Why is this so terrible?" and take some notes.

I also recommend reading poetry and graphic novels/comics/manga on a regular basis if you don't usually read them. Reading poetry will give you a different perspective on language and how to use it in ways you might not have thought of. Graphic novels/comics/manga tell stories in a very different way using pictures with words. This will also broaden your perspective and give you some new ideas. When I say read them on a regular basis I mean pick them up every now and again. Some writers recommend you read poetry every single day. I don't do that but I can see where it would be helpful.

Never giving up is just that: no matter what happens you keep going. If the project doesn't work, you start the next one. All this means is you have more to learn. I used to envy people who had to write; it's a compulsive need they have. Stephen King is a famous example of such a person. I didn't have that need to write when I first started out but now I've turned into the person who must write, no matter what. This was something that happened to me gradually over a period of time of regular practice and learning about my own working style. I know now that I will never stop writing, that even if I never publish I will still go on writing short stories and novels because the process of writing is so satisfying for me.

A word about writing practice and morning pages. When I was in my early 20s I picked up a book called "Writing Down The Bones" by Natalie Goldberg which is a fabulous overview of writing practice. I spent some time experimenting with writing practice which is where you free-write for a particular period of time with a chosen topic. While I don't really do writing practice now, I think it's a great way for a beginner to experiment to see if it works for you and see what comes out of your writing. This would be a wonderful way to begin if you don't have an idea for a project in mind. I used to free-write just before starting on my writing session for 15 minutes as a way to warm up but now I just dive into my story because I can't wait to get started on it. As for morning pages, I'd read about them a few years ago and went back to trying them earlier this year. I don't hand write them, handwriting is frustrating to me, but I was writing three pages first thing in the morning and it was very helpful with clearing my head and making me feel calm. I don't think about what I'm writing, it's basically a massive three-page brain dump. More like therapy, really. I recommend trying it out if you find yourself ranting and raving about stuff going on in your life rather than working on your project.

Next Post - Working Styles & WIP

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