I had another interesting email yesterday – time stamp was 4:04am! Were you really awake then?? – from a fellow who wanted advice on how to keep the momentum on his manuscripts as he’s writing. Again, as I thought the answer might be of benefit to the larger community, I thought I’d share it here.
He mentioned that while he loves to write, worldbuild, and character build, his biggest stumbling block is getting past page 10 – that is, actually sitting down and writing the whole novel – and he requested some tips and techniques.
Now, my first instinct was to offer up my pithy and usual advice when people ask me how to become a writer – “Sit down and write.”
Hockey players drill, surgeons read text books, fast food employees learn how to flip burgers; writers need to practice too, and the only way to do it is to shut up and write. There is no magic pill that you can consume that will make you instantly awesome, just as there is no magic pull to make you instantly able to play hockey at the NHL level.
Writers need to write.
Writers need to practice putting words in order on a page before they can learn which words they prefer to use, before they can figure out how they like putting together their sentences and which themes they prefer to explore. Like being that NHL player, writers must practice consistently to form the habits and muscle memory to be able to write easily and in their own voices, and it takes years of writing to find and hone that voice. Before I became a science fiction novelist, I wrote essays, articles, poems, journal entries, thousands of blog entries, screenplays, theatre plays, audio dramas, short stories, novellas, two large thesises, novels, and fanfiction. I have probably, to date, written about a bazillian words, and well over a million pages.
And it took those million pages to realize what kind of writing I preferred, how I prefer to do my writing, the style I like to use, my own voice, and my preferred themes.
In learning and honing your preferences, you also become better and faster at writing the novel, because you learn what kind of tempo the book needs, and you learn your own rhythms for writing. It took me 10 years to write my first book (technically a trilogy, I guess, at 100 000 some odd words), 3 years to write the next one, 1 year for the next, and the one I just completed was three months, though I know there will be another 6 or so of editing, revisions, and polishing to do.
Thus, the only way to become a great writer is to write. A lot.
But then I realized that this fellow wasn’t asking for advice to become a writer, but how to stick with a manuscript past ten pages. Well, the easiest way of saying it is: “Write page 11.” But again, that’s pithy and not entirely helpful.
My advice then, is “form the habit”. And do whatever you can to help you do that.
And here are some ways to do it:
Legal implications and author’s preferences aside (and please, please, please always have respect for both!), fanfiction can be a great way to form a writing habit.
Now, as I mentioned above, I grew up in fan culture. I wrote fan fiction. Scads of it. I learned to update a story often and finish it in a timely manner, and learned a self-imposed discipline from it.
I consider this my global apprenticeship – there is no better way to learn to be a writer, because the commenters are helpful, supportive, enthusiastic and often times harshly honest and downright brutal. Nothing any agent says on a rejection to me can be worse than some of the stuff people have left on my blog. Through fanfiction I learned how to craft believable characters and to wrestle with spelling and grammar. I learned to think around problems and play in established worlds. Fanfiction is a great writing exercise because you’re given a template and shorthand in the form of established characters and worlds, and you can focus instead on the narrative you’re trying to tell.
Once you’ve mastered that, then stepping out of the fanfiction context to begin building your own characters and worlds is much easier. And by then you’ll have learned how to plot a story and stick to finishing it – your readers will eat your face if you don’t.
Outlining and Writer’s Software
I am a big fan of FinalDraftPro for when I write scripts, because it takes care of the little things like formatting and keeping track of locations and character names for you – all you have to do is write. There are issues with the software that plague more advanced screenwriters, but if you are just starting out it is a great little piece of enabling software.
Others really like Scrivener – I’ve never tried it, but for people who swear up and down by their outlining process also swear up and down by this software. If you’re a planner, then this is probably a miracle for you.
Planning vs. Pantsing – Planners are those writers who write outlines and then write from those. Some are very detailed and some are just general. Pantsers are writers who just sit down and go, flying by the seat of their pants. I am a hybrid – I do some brief outlining, generally write the first chapter and then the last chapter, and then the climax, and then go back to the beginning and fill in the rest.
Outlining your book minutely might help you get past page ten because you know already how awesome page eleven is going to be, and twelve, and heck, 300! Or, like I do, if you come to a block, then just skip forward and write something else cool. Write a scene that you’ve been thinking about that happens on page 100 – just write SOMETHING else in the book.
Agent X has a great article here on writing without excuses.
Competitions and Word Wars
Do NaNoWriMo, or one of it’s offshoots. The 50 000 words you’ll end up with at the end isn’t a full novel, but it’s an impressive chunk. If you’re a competitive person, then having the peer pressure and community support will help you get past your blocks and just get into the habit of sitting down and writing. Once December hits, hopefully the habit will be ingrained and you can just keep going.
If you’re too late for NaNo, then try finding an online group with which to have a word war – everybody agree to write a certain number of words by a certain date, and then go, seeing who can do the most. Sometimes I have very short word wars with writer friends – whoever can do the most words in an hour wins a free drink from the other when we next head to the pub.
In a similar vein, find or start a writer’s circle. In the one I had in Japan, we would meet once a month at somebody’s house. A week before each meeting you had to put your new chapter or short story up on the message board. For that week all members were expected to read and prepare a critique on the writing. After the meeting you had one week to edit your chapter based on your feedback, and two weeks to write a new one to then post. In this way I finished my first trilogy.
There’s community support and pressure here, too, but this focuses more on the craft of writing than simply output.
I also host a write-in on certain afternoons; this is where writers come, drink tea and coffee, eat snacks, and ignore each other en masse while we all write in the same room, the silence guilting all of us to putting fingers to keys and just doing it.
Online Fiction Sites
HarperCollins has two fiction hosting sites – authonomy and inkpop – where you can post your novel and receive the critiques, comments, and support of fellow would-be writers. These sites offer valuable exposure and the possibility of getting your book to cross the desk of a HC editor, and you can update chapter by chapter.
But I would caution people against two things: one, be aware that the first rights of publication might be jeapordized by “publishing” there first; and two, many of the participants of the site waste a good deal of their time soliciting backings so their books can get to the editor’s desk, and not actually focusing on writing another book or polishing the one they’re shopping. Don’t get sucked into the culture of self promotion at the expense of craft. On the other hand, it’s also quite useful to gather a following because they will be eager to see what you do next (just like in fanfiction).
These are all places where a writer can find a fanbase and also the pressure required to continue a story.
Get a Schedule, but Go with the Flow
Write when you are inspired to do so. It seems like silly and obvious advice, but I know people who don’t write ideas down when they have them. I carry a notebook with me always, and if it means that I lose two hours of sleep to stay up and write a chapter, then I do. I find if I don’t write when the urge strikes, I lose the energy and impetus of the scene.
At the same time, I also set aside a certain number hours on certain days of the week to write. I write from 2pm to 3pm every Sunday, no excuses, even if I have to do it on the bus, or excuse myself from a family function for a little while. Generally I manage to generate 1 000 or so words on Sundays. I edit on other days of the week, and try to write again on Thursdays, but I’m not as strict about that if I managed to write another time since Sunday.
Turning off your Editor Brain
Perhaps one reason you’re not progressing is because you are uncertain if the story is worthwhile. We all get that, wondering if the character is too likeable or not likeable enough, wondering if the tie should be blue, and the lamp white, wondering if anyone will ever buy this and how will you finish and what’s the point?
When writing, the best advice is to just turn off your editor-brain, and go.
Shut up that little voice of self doubt. You are awesome. You are going to write a book! So do it!
You can worry about revisions and editing later, when you have a first draft. Until then, the mistakes will not go off and rot the whole narrative. If you need to, you can keep a list beside your keyboard of things you want to go back and fix, change, or add when you are done. Get those out of your head and save them for later.
But finish. Put the emphasis on finishing, and the second guessing that cripples you should go away.
But in the end…
Having said all that, I have to fall back on my old standard: The only way to become a writer, and the only way to finish a manuscript, is to sit down, stop worrying about tips and tricks to become a great writer, and just write the thing.