How to Write: Lesson 1
I would like to do a postmortem on The International 2017 but my manager has informed me that I should be offering writing advice instead. Having now published my first book, I feel like I’m a little more qualified to offer tips on the process. There are some past articles I’ve done on related topics addressing the generation of ideas but I’ll try to make this series a bit more direct. There is, of course, a caveat to writing. As with all creative endeavours, what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another. However, I will try and keep the tips and secrets as universal as I possibly can.
And actually, coming up with the first lesson (or tip, really) for writing was pretty easy. It’s the advice I always give whenever someone mentions that they are interested or trying to write their own stories. It’s possibly the easiest advice to give and the hardest to follow. And that tip is…
It sounds rather stupid on face value but there’s no other way you’re going to get your story completed without following it. Do you have a story you want to tell? Do you have a word document or piece of paper nearby? Then write. Have you stopped writing? Open up that word document or grab another piece of paper and start writing again.
Writing is a long process. It’s also a hard process and you’re never going to finish if you don’t sit down and do it. However, I can probably predict how most people will approach the task of writing. They’ll schedule a few hours on a slow day or they’ll find a quiet moment when the inspiration strikes. They’ll get their desk ready. They’ll find a warm cup of coffee or tea. They’ll set aside their writing material. They’ll get a few snacks ready. Then they’ll sit down and—
They’ll look up some songs to play in the background. They’ll browse the Internet for the latest news. They’ll open up their email. They’ll look up some photographs of their nieces. They’ll see their desk is messy and start to tidy it. Oh, but the floor is dirty too. Maybe that could be quickly swept. Oh, I should really add apples to the shopping list. Maybe I should check in with Becky and see what she’s doing tomorrow.
Before they know it, twenty minutes have passed and that blank page is still staring at them. They’ll get up to stretch. They’ll flick on the television. They’ll get started on an assignment due next week. And, you know, that new episode of Game of Thrones is about to start so better catch that. The words can always be done later.
In fact, people have a rather creative knack for avoiding any actual writing. I know this first hand. In fact, training myself to actually consistently write everyday was perhaps the hardest part of becoming a writer. Even if you managed to convince yourself to sit down before the screen, you’ll find your mind seize. Writer’s block will grip you. You won’t know what to write despite having imagined with the greatest ideas ever earlier while in the shower. Nothing will sound right in your head. And that blank page will keep staring at you.
I can’t count the number of people I know who have been trying to write a story. I can guarantee, however, that the reason they aren’t succeeding is because they don’t follow today’s tip.
And you want to know my secret? How do I overcome this initial inertia that paralyses so many others?
The trick, however, is to turn off your internal editor. Shut out all distractions and focus simply on putting words onto paper. That is the most important part. In fact, those words don’t even have to be good. They will typically be absolute garbage. I’d wager that about a quarter of my writing is actually serviceable. The rest I’m embarrassed to even show my family.
But it doesn’t matter because bad writing can be edited and fixed. But you can’t edit nothing.
And once you start getting things down, you’ll find that it gets easier. The worst is that initial start: that fixed point wherein infinite possibilities expand. It’s like the writing equivalent of the Paradox of Choice. You could go in just about any direction and choosing which one leaves you unable to select any. But once you’ve made that commitment and once you’ve started down that path then you’ve got a direction and focus that makes continuing easier with each step.
So what are some tips for conquering that dreaded blank page and ensure you just write?
- Write a quick little sketch of the character for your story. It doesn’t have to be a scene that you plan to include. Have your character buy some coffee. Have them practice their sword work. You could take a fantasy princess and chuck her under the ocean or into a Star Wars cantina for all it matters.
- Write what you see. Describe your work space. Describe your cat sitting on your keyboard. Describe how dirty your curtains are. Just don’t get up and wash them until you’re done your writing.
- Set yourself realistic goals and don’t leave your writing space until you’ve achieved them. For my first novel, I wouldn’t get up from my desk until I had written 1,000 words. A paltry amount now but back then it could take me until two in the morning to achieve it.
- Make a schedule and keep to it. Force yourself to write 1,000 words every day of the week. Participate in challenges like National Write a Novel in a Month (NaNoWriMo). I once did a challenge to write a novel (50k words) in a weekend. You really learn to turn off your filter and simply write with a compressed schedule like that!
- Don’t worry if your writing is bad, your dialogue is stilted and your characters are shallow. Every author’s first draft is awful.
- Don’t worry if your writing isn’t even connected to what you did yesterday. You can fix issues in your story in post-production (i.e. editing).
- Write what you like. Don’t worry if anyone else will. You won’t ever finish anything you don’t enjoy. Find the whimsy and excitement in your own work first and let others discover it later.
- Close this page and Just Write!