As a new writer, be it of poems, songs, plays, novels, screenplays, non-fiction, or anything else, you are in an inevitable position. Neil Giaman says —
“When you start out in the arts, you have no idea what you’re doing. This is great. People who know what they’re doing know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not, and you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts, were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible, by going beyond them, and you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do, and because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.”
As a young writer, all I wanted was a straightforward set of rules. I remember reading part of ‘Bird By Bird’ by Anne Lamott and thinking, ‘Stop talking about your father and the kitchen table — just tell me how to write!’ Later I would feel very differently and see ‘Bird By Bird’ as a masterwork, but at the time I was just looking for simple help.
So here, as best I know, is the simple help I was looking for twenty years ago (also check out my post of a simple step-by-step process for the newbie novelist)
10 Suggestions for the Beginning Writer
- Join a critique group. Hopefully in person, but online works too. You just need to find people who will challenge you and encourage you. In my mind, it can work miracles and cut years off your learning curve — I owe my first group so much!
- Write all the time. If you love writing, do it! (if you don’t love writing, you may have come to the wrong site…). Life passes fast and you want to spend it doing the things you love. I’ve never regretted a day or an hour spent writing. And it makes you SO much better (as a writer, but actually, as a person too). They say it takes 10,000 hours to make someone really good; what they don’t tell you is how awesome-fun those hours along the way can be. So make time every week for your passion.
- Read all the time (not just your favorite genre). Almost without exception, we writers are storytellers. Fiction, non-fiction, songwriting, poetry, journalism — story is how we convey information and make people care about it. So I encourage you to read old books and new, the famous and the vague, your favorite genres but also ones you’ve never considered before. Special note: movies are great for dialogue but so, strangely, are comic scrips. There’s such an economy of words, such punch! Find some classics like Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes as well as new gems like Poorly Drawn Lines and early Get Fuzzy scripts. The more you read (and the more widely you’ve read), the better writer you’ll become.
- Read some good books on writing (see the ‘Novelist’ and ‘Screenwriter’ pages). Taking a class can be even better, but don’t think you have to spend a lot of money to learn to write. A few good how-tos and lot of your own writing time will do wonders. And all teachers/instructional books are different — keep reading until you find the right ones for you.
- Think about characters as all being flawed and heroic and interesting — no one belongs in a box. Above all, characters are human beings. Think of why you do things, or your sibling, or your best friend. Recognize that your love interest, your villain — they too feel pain and hope and bravado and weakness. Dig deeper than the surface — interview your characters, make a playlist of their favorite songs, buy a piece of jewelry ‘they’ would wear. About all, instead of thinking of yourself as ‘creating’ a character, envision that you’re ‘uncovering’ the deep and and full person that’s already out there in the ether somewhere.
- Do what you love. Writing is a long process and becoming better takes even longer, so you want to enjoy the journey. So only write the stories, songs, plays etc that really move you, make you excited, make you giddy. Ideally, you want to feel like you’re getting away with something when writing. In the beginning it’s hard to know what your favorite kind of stories to write will be but don’t be afraid to try different genres, ideas, etc, and be weird and awesome and passionate when you do find those great ideas. My breakthrough probably came when , after writing my long fantasy epic first novel, I ‘Let my romanticism off the hook’ and wrote a lush, love story, Gothic novel. We should trust ourselves more, trust the beauty of our souls, and write more crazy shit. 😉
- Spend more time improving your work than ‘selling’ your work. I haven’t regretted any time spent writing but I’m not sure the time I used sending out early short stories or querying every agent under the sun was time as well spent. I had to try, and maybe you do too, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But remember to spend most of your creative time being creative and becoming better. I don’t want to discourage you but the early stuff is often not-quite-ready-for-prime-time (as they used to say). And when you start getting really good, you’ll be really excited and in command of your abilities, so keep working on your craft and then they’ll beat down the door to work with you (hopefully).
- ‘Trust the Story’. I’ve had the same index card on my wall for 20 years now with those three words. ‘Trust the story’. Sometimes this means the larger trajectory of my life and career, but mostly it’s actually about the novel or screenplay itself. Trust that if something fascinates and interests you, there’s something there, and you’ll discover it. Trust the plot to become uncovered over time, trust the characters and their weird whims. Above all, trust yourself — you are here in the middle of this swirling whirlpool of possibilities but faith led you to this place, and your faith in the story will lead you either home or to a far-forgotten and long awaited shore.
- Help others. I have found that sharing your knowledge (even when you’re starting out) encourages your development in untold ways. And first of all, even if you’re on day two of learning to write, there’s someone on day one! Help them. Aiding others helps you learn faster (since your solving other people problems as well as your own), increases your confidence (everyone has special talents and knowledge), and it just plain feels good.
- Trust the process. First I had you ‘Trust the Story’ you were telling; now this is the other side. Process. Process is about the long haul, the work from idea to finished, polished (published!) product. For me, the process is about getting bits of ideas of worlds and situations, finding the people who live in those worlds, then taking time to think and play with that place. Then writing as free and meaningful a first draft as I can, with the confidence that there will be many more drafts to come to polish and improve the story. Then reader feedback etc. The process works; don’t get too far ahead of yourself (man, I should remember this — this is good advice!). 😉 Enjoy each activity and have faith that you’ll get to the result you want (or something better!)
- BONUS: Talent = Love + Time. I don’t believe in talent. Or at least, I don’t believe in some universe-bestowed gift given someone at birth. There may be a knack, or a bit of early understanding but read the great book Talent is Overrated to really understand how little what you start out with matters as you begin to put in the hours. Soon, the person who practices all the time outpaces someone with a little more foundational skill who is not putting in the work. But there is one important thing you’ve born with — love. You should be spending your life doing something you love. Like, really, really love. If you ‘like’ writing but love bassoon playing, I’d spend my time on the bassoon, if I were you (or at least most of it). Love is what keeps you going and keeps you excited while you’re putting in the Time to learn and grow and improve. What we call Talent is often just the results of long, hard labor, done out of sight with great love. The ten year, ‘overnight’ success story is true, so don’t worry about if you have ‘it’ — just go to work on something you love and you’ll find ‘it’.
And always, always remember this quote if you’re feeling unsure of yourself…
Also check out my post ‘How to Write a Book‘ for simple, plain-spoken advice on how to build a birdhouse.