For some reason I’ve recently started getting a ton of emails from young people saying, “Hey, this writing thing. It seems awesome. How do you do it?”
I have to confess, when I get an email like this my first response is to blink several times and then mutter, “Buh? Hell if I know.” And then I go get more coffee, and I sit down and write a response. I’ve even participated in student writing projects. I’m happy to do what I can and to share what I’ve learned.
However, lately it seems all I’m doing is rehashing the same information. I try not to send form responses to emails, as that feels horribly rude – I do my best to answer every email individually. In my mind this includes cutting and pasting something I’ve written before. So obviously, this particular subject is taking up an increasingly large chunk of my time – time that could be spent writing.
So, today I’m going to translate the pitiful writing advice I’ve been doling out into a single blog post. I should note that I feel extremely foolish doing so, as I know nothing about writing. There are far more competent authors out there, authors you should listen to first. I should be the author of last resort. I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing – that is both my gift and my curse.
But, from Lia’s fingertips to your eyes, here’s what I know:
Write. Just freaking write. I know this is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. This is Zen Master Level Writing Advice, right here. But I don’t hold with that “oh, you’re a writer as long as you have an idea in your head and a song in your heart” stuff – the only way to be a writer is to write. That story you want to tell? It begins with a single word. That book you want to pen? You’re going to need an awful lot of words for that. And until you sit down and actually string them all together, one at a time, that story does not exist, that book is not to be, and you are not a writer. So sit down. Write. That is how your journey will begin and how it will end.
That said, please don’t feel like Real True Honest-to-God Authors sit down and write effortlessly. Hahahaha, no. God, no. The project I’m working on now? I’m more than 2/3rds in, and I still have absolutely no idea how it’s going to end. Hell, I don’t know what’s going to be in the next chapter. Each day I write is a day spent second-guessing myself, despising choices I made years ago, and alternating between doubt and anxiety. The difference between me, Published Author, and all the people out there who aspire to be published but are unsure where to begin, or perhaps scared of trying? I just kept writing, anyway. And that is not a virtue. That doesn’t mean I’m braver or smarter or more creative than anyone else. In a way, it means I’m dumber. I just refused to give up. I just kept plugging along. Do that. Be dumb, like me.
On a related note: Real True Authors do not produce perfection the very first time they jot down their ideas. I re-wrote Departed 6 times, Beloved 5. Writers edit. We refine. We forget things about our own characters and have to cut out entire chapters. We fail. We break our own laws of physics. We edit. We refine. We eventually produce something worth reading. Don’t like your first draft? It doesn’t mean you’re not an awesome writer. It means you’re not done yet.
Ignore everyone else. Write what you love. Write what you want to see. Write as if no one’s watching, as if no one’s judging, as if the words will only ever be seen by you and the gnomes that live inside your computer or the silverfish that will eventually congregate to eat your journal. Ignore all the rules you were ever taught. Or better yet, laugh at them. Put your periods at the top of each line. Write about making out with corpses. Instead of starting your story in the middle of a pivotal scene and worrying endlessly about your hook, write one long pointless “once upon a time” that will be celebrated for centuries. (Fact: Even I could not stomach that much “once upon a time” and actually hurled this book across the room in college. And yet it’s still studied by serious literary scholars. Don’t ask me why.) Now, I’m not saying that doing these things will guarantee you publishing fame, but I think they will lead you to create your best work. Strive for freedom, above all else.
Don’t plan as much. I especially stress this to high schoolers, because I remember all too keenly being a creative high schooler with a journal full of ideas. I also remember being a roleplayer, and thus learning to think in terms of character sheets and trading card stats. To combine the two is dangerous, and I still have high school journals that tell me that Character Y loved pizza, had blue eyes with a ring of green about the pupils (God, why do we all care about eyes so much in high school?), and fell down and skinned his knee when he was in kindergarten, leading to a scar and his inevitable meeting with Susie Kneesoother…but you know what? Character Y was never written. Character Y was never real in the way that characters become real. He was overly planned, as thin as the paper his boring statistics were scrawled on, and useless. Don’t do that. If you have an idea? Just leap in and start writing it. Take that energy and passion and do something.
Read. Especially if you’re young. Read graphic novels. Read banned books. Read scientific articles that make your eyes cross. Read the backs of shampoo bottles. Listen, too – to audiobooks, old radio dramas, monologues. Watch silent films that force you to read the cards. (Metropolis is my favorite film ever.) Expose yourself to absolutely every use of the language that you can. Absorb it. The English language is a form of music, and far more important than memorizing grammar and spelling rules (although grammar and spelling are important) is developing an ear for it.
In practical matters:
How do you start a story? By showing us something about the characters that we need to know.
How do you get published? Nowadays, by educating yourself about your options. Check out AgentQuery for information on agents, and avail yourself of the collective wisdom at Absolute Write, where you can learn about traditional models of publishing, self-publishing, and everything in between. Read blogs. Go to conferences. Introduce yourself to people. Actually share your writing.
How do you improve your writing? By writing more.
Where do you get ideas? By exposing yourself to great ideas. By pondering them in quiet moments. By joking with friends. By staring out the window without seeing anything. By drinking too much coffee and blithering to yourself in your room until you hear something that makes you go, “Wait, that’s not crap.”
How do you get to know your characters? By being them. (Although I do not believe my characters are beings beyond myself, or that I am channeling them…this idea works for some authors, it doesn’t for me. Personally, it helps me to imagine my characters as toys that I take out of a chest and play with, that I control as I please.)
That’s it. That’s all I know, right now. I may be of more use after a few more years. Those who wish I’d give them a roadmap – I’m afraid I can’t do that, because every writing road is different, and I’m not sure which one you’re on. You probably won’t know until the end. I can’t reduce the creation of an entire universe to a ten-step plan. It’s something you must work out for yourself.
I can tell you, though, that my best work comes from wandering about mapless. If I had a map, and I followed it, I would only be recreating someone else’s path. I much prefer to make my own. And I can honestly say that sitting down and writing Departed for my own enjoyment is what got me this far.
This article copyright © 2012 Lia Habel
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