Well it’s Monday so once again time for your local unemployed author/journalist friend to dispense some kind of wisdom about how I got here, or how you out there might be able to take your own journey into the writing world. Today’s post will be a combination of these themes, condensing down the general notion of “how to write” while still retaining as much content from experience as I can. So, how do you write? I wish it was as easy as the blog post tag line, to be honest.
First you need to have something to write about. That also sounds simple, but it’s one of the hardest things we practitioners of the page deal with every day. Sitting down at the computer/typewriter/pad of paper as it stares blankly back at you can be very difficult to overcome if you don’t have a firm idea of what your aim is with the written word. I won’t be all that helpful when it comes to explaining specifically what to write, but I can offer a few pointers.
The axiom “write what you know” probably reached cliche territory a few decades ago, but it remarkably holds up regardless. While I’ve read diatribes maintaining that this adage is pointless and detrimental to authors, for the most part I’d say it stands up pretty well. I certainly would not have anything close to the output I have without life experience, and I think many authors would say the same. For Our Senior Year, this was the general feeling of high school life, living in a small town, dealing with religious fundamentalism, and more granular details like car accidents and other tragic events, all of which I repurposed for use in the novel to describe these years my life in the most relatable way. With Last Man on Campus it was a little trickier, given that I never saw any ghosts or conspiracies during my time at college, but I was still able to appropriate some great scenes from dormitory life for the novel. I guess the easiest advice to give here is to think about some of the meaningful events of your life. Was there any kind of narrative coursing through these events? If so, is it a narrative that could be repurposed with a dash of artistic license? And if that’s so, you are well on your way toward beginning a story. It could be as simple as a trip to the local farmer’s market - say you met a peculiar individual on the way or at the market; that person could show up as a character in a short story. Or it could come from larger parts of your life - people you’ve known over the years who could appear as characters in your novels. This was a tactic I probably over-used in my first two novels, but can be a reliable way to jump-start your mind into imagining other stuff for these characters to do.
I wish I had more specific advice to give on this one, but I will say that you’ll need some kind of overarching design for your story before you can implant aspects of your life into it. For instance, I had a general outline dancing around in my head for years concerning the overall story of Our Senior Year (guy goes to church, meets girl, falls in love, and has his life collapse all in one year) but had to fill in many of the gaps with events from my high school life. I knew Jack Wayne *spoiler alert* was going to off himself in the final act, but I had to decide what was going to earn that decision other than losing a girl, which I felt in itself wasn’t enough. So I dropped in his friend getting in a terrible accident, his grades slipping, and his inability to escape his father’s chosen line of work and life once that happened. These things all came to me at different times, but they were all parts of living in a rural, small-town environment that I observed over my years there. The important thing is using those parts of your observed life well enough so that your own character can become part of the book. Now, this works great for books like Our Senior Year, which are based closely on real life, and work OK for more made-up stuff, what happens when you would rather start from scratch and not “write what you know?” Well, I’ll let you know when I encounter that problem, as it lies on my horizon to be dealt with someday. Ha ha. But seriously, if you stick with writing what you know at first, the rest will come naturally.
So you might have a general idea of what you want to write about. Now, how the heck do you go about doing it? That blank word processor/torn out page of paper/cave wall is calling out to you, screaming for your attention to its bland possibilities. How do you get yourself motivated enough to start? Well, I hate to say it so bluntly, but just freakin’ start!
Don’t worry about your expectations, don’t worry about what other people might think, and really don’t worry that it’s going to suck (because it will, at first). Throw all those problems out of your headspace for one hour and just start. It could be as simple as writing down the first words of the novel or blog post, and taking a break to see where to go from there. It doesn’t have to come one right after another, but it should be some kind of coherent whole when you’re finished with your section for that day. I hold myself to a hard-n-fast rule of 1000 words for every writing session, in which I cannot leave my desk until I reach at least that many words of a novel. You could implement a similar arrangement for yourself - start out nice and easy with 100 words, or 200, or 500. You don’t have to go way out there with your goal; just have one! And if you meet the goal each day for a week, then look at expanding it. This has been a tried and true way for me to expand my words per day, so now I’m cranking out close to 5,000 each session without breaking a sweat. But you certainly don’t have to try for that level anytime soon. Or if you’re bold you could say 5,000 is piddly, you want at least 10,000 each time! That might be all right if you’re working on the next War & Peace or whatnot, but I would advise starting small and working your way toward a bigger number each time. When you find the number that you’re most comfortable with, stick with it until you can attain it without agony and without looking at the clock every five minutes (I would advise having no way to measure time available when you write, but that’s up to you).
Once you have the idea in your head, and have a reasonable schedule in terms of amount written each day, see how long you can make it last. Considering an “average” size novel is going to be around 75,000 - 100,000 words, factor that into your schedule as you go. At 1,000 words per day, it will take roughly three months to iron out a good first draft. Do you have the patience and wherewithal to hack it for that long? If not, you better find it. But again, don’t be afraid to start small. A nicely written short story could be 1,000 words, and you could crank that out in one day. Twenty days later you’ll have a nice start to a short story collection. Looking more on the journalistic side? A quick article could be around 700-800 words, or a nice meaty blog post. Do that twice a week and you’ll have a nice portfolio even in a month’s time. The important thing is to stick with it.
Which brings me to the third point of advice here - how the hell do you stick with it? How does one not only get the idea straight, set up a workable writing schedule, and get a nice first draft completed within a decent time frame? Here again I can only offer what works for me - you’ll need to tweak these rules accordingly to find out what works for you.
Regarding motivation - to a certain extent this will be entirely up to you. If you want to make it as a successful writer, you’ll find the motivation somewhere. Those of us who hope to make it in this industry know how to overcome that blank screen, the desire to quit before you’ve met your daily goal, and how to tie it all into a coherent whole. (I should also add here a good support system is second to none: I would not have anywhere close to the amount of work done without the constant drumbeat of support to be found through my wife). This can be very simple. One of the joys I have in my day now that I’m unemployed is a nice routine. I get up, do some stuff around the apartment, make coffee, and then settle in to write. Having a steaming cup of coffee next to me is sometimes all the motivation I need. Or promise yourself a fun activity if you can just crank out your daily goal. Say, allow yourself an episode or two of your favorite TV show, some kind of food-related item that you really like, or find another way to reward yourself that won’t do more damage than it’s worth. I wish I could say it’s more complicated than this, but it really isn’t. If you want to make it as an author in today’s day and age, you need to do the work, but make sure it’s worth it to yourself. Right now all I really need is the promise of coffee and maybe a bowl of cereal, but this could be anything that gets you planted at the desk writing, or motivates you to finish writing so you can have it. This could be something you fit into your schedule as a routine, so you could have two hours of writing in the morning followed by one hour of video games, or a nice walk on the bike trail with a hilarious podcast (my preferred way to wile the afternoons these days). Whatever it is, make sure it motivates you enough to complete the original task AND keeps you wanting to do it every day. Because you really need to do this every day, especially if you hope to produce a lot of work.
So, consider this a brief introductory course on “how to write.” Trust me, you could spend an entire day searching online about advice for authors. There was a time when I scoured sites for this type of information, overloading myself on steps to take by various people who had “made it” and wanted to dispense some advice out there for those getting started. And by all means, if you want that kind of advice go seek it out - some of it can be very valuable. But after a while I stopped reading those types of articles completely. Because when it comes right down to it, as a writer you need to find your own voice. No one - not a famous author, not me, not a writing instructor or professor - will be able to find that if you cannot. This ties a bit in with the first part, which is finding the idea. While there are a few good ways to go about doing this, ultimately you’re going to have to needle your own brain for inspiration. This can come from your own life or whatever you come into contact with, but what matters is how you interpret them and make them into a workable story. So by all means, if you feel like the advice I’m laying out here isn’t working for you, go out there and look for something else. The great thing about writing is that it’s a pretty freakin’ old form of communication that has existed through various ages and mediums, and still remains (in my opinion) the most powerful form of interacting with others that we’ve got. Of course this is now splintered into a thousand different forms with the advent of the ‘net and social mediaz, but that’s a post for another time.
In conclusion, here’s my initial advice on “how to write:”
Will these notions work for you? There’s only one way to find out. And if there are some budding authors out there reading this, I’d like to know how they work for you. If you found this to be helpful (or not), please feel free to let me know in the comments. I will have more in-depth stuff to write about regarding this topic later, but for now I wanted to condense it to the most basic form I could. I hope this is of assistance to some of you out there who want to pursue this writing gig as I have.
And as always, thanks for reading.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.