Saturday, May 21, 2011

Waiting For Inspiration: The Worst Thing You Can Possibly Do

Last time I talked about the importance of writing regularly, though I didn’t go into an enormous amount of detail for fear of cramming too much content into one post.  Unfortunately, this time around, I bring the bad news.  While sitting down at your desk and getting something out every day is necessary, it’s not enough to just push out one or two paragraphs.  In order to get the ball rolling, you’ve got to write a lot more than you’re probably comfortable with.  This means setting goals and sticking to them no matter what.

Now, this is where a lot of people are going to disagree.  “Creativity can’t be turned on like a faucet, mister!” you say.  You’re correct.  It’s true that you can’t simply make something out of nothing when the inspiration or the idea isn’t there.  But this is a very tricky concept, and one that I honestly believe has prevented the creation of countless books.  For you see, while you may not be able to write the next chapter in your story until you figure out whether your character is taking a right or a left at the fork in the road, you can still ensure that once you do figure it out, you’ll be able to take him or her wherever they’re going with great ease and confidence.  And to achieve this, of course, you’ve got to loosen up that writing muscle.  But do not dismay!  For there is a light behind this monstrous, oppressive cloud of impossible goals and quotas, and it is the existence of this simple little concept:

When doing your writing for the day, you can write about anything!!!

The world is your... kitten burrito?  Man, that's a stretch...
Again, this is the sort of thing that you’ll hear from any author, but I can’t stress its importance enough!  It’s so easy to simply nod your head and say, “Yes, I agree, it’s very important to write every day, regardless of what it is,” but it’s another thing entirely to actually do it.  When you sit down at your laptop or notebook or whatever and stare at your story like it’s a little gnome dancing around in a cheese hat and you find that you simply can’t push beyond your bafflement, you haven’t lost yet.  Because all you have to do at that point is brush the little gnome off the table and get to work on anything.  Anything at all.  A summary of your day, a particular memory, a story about a killer pair of pants, it doesn’t matter at all.  Even if you scoot away from your desk with a chapters-long rant about how smelly your old gym teacher was on your paper, you’ve still won.  Do you know why?  Because the guy next door who fancies himself a writer but refuses to put anything down “until inspiration strikes” wrote nothing today.  You did.

And here’s the thing about writing…  It seriously doesn’t matter what you’re writing—whether its good, or bad, or thoughtful, or funny, or just plain trash—because the more you get on the page, the better you’re going to get.  Doing push ups is a good way to get better at push ups, but you know what?  Spend a few months doing lots of other random exercises with your arms—pull-ups, boxing, swimming, lifting weights, tossing around a football—and I can pretty much guarantee you, when you finally hit the floor again, you’re still going to be able to do a lot more push ups than you could before. 

When you write, you get better.  You stretch your narrative muscles.  You tap further into that part of your mind that lets you translate what you see and feel into words.  And that is why writing every day is so important.  It’s daunting, making a goal and sticking to it, but isn’t it freeing as well, knowing that it matters none what comes from your fingers?  Whatever it is that you’re writing, the more you do it, the easier it will be to articulate your thoughts; and when you finally do figure out which road your character is going to take, you’ll carry them to the next leg of their journey with fluid prose and a keen eye for imagery and a general ease that is fun to read and a joy to write.

Listen to this guy.  He knows what he's talking about.
But exactly how much should you write per day?  Well, surely it could be different for everybody, but I personally find that I don’t get anything done unless I commit myself to at least a thousand words, and I don’t suggest going much lower than that.  Stephen King explains in his wonderful book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” that he never stops writing until he’s gotten at least two thousand words on paper.  As a result, he has loosened his mind and his pen to the point where stories and strong narrative poor from him like water; he pushes out one or two quality books per year, and short stories seem to accumulate around him almost on their own, like swelling clouds. 

As I said before, I recently self-published my very first novel, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only reason I finished it was because I told myself I absolutely had to do a thousand words a day.  When I made that decision, I had about fifteen thousand words on paper, which I had turned out over the course of maybe nine or ten months.  And guess what?  About two and a half months later, I was done.  One-hundred thousand words.  I had written an entire novel.  It had felt so impossible before, yet there it was. I mean, just think about it: If you can really get into the groove of writing and manage a thousand words a day… that’s a book every three or four monthsThat’s three or four books a year!  Granted, those are short books, a length suited for something like young adult fiction, but still!  Let’s just round way down and call it a book a year!  Have you ever written a whole book?  Think back to five years ago.  Doesn’t feel that long ago, if you’re anything like me.  Now come back to the present, and imagine that you brought five full-length novels with you.  A thousand words a day doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

The simple fact of the matter is that if you want to be a writer, you have to write a lot.  That neighbor who’s waiting for inspiration to strike?  There’s a good chance it won’t come.  And if it does, there’s almost no chance that what comes from his pen will be a very good piece of writing.  Why?  Because he doesn’t know how to write.  He never learned.  He’ll turn out two awkward paragraphs and find it too difficult to continue.  This is what separates the writers from the posers.  I urge you, if you have ever had even the slightest urge to put your thoughts on paper, start now!  Sit somewhere with your notebook and blurt out as many words as you can.  Make it a priority.  No TV until you hit eight hundred words?  No Facebook until you’ve got fifteen-hundred?  Whatever it takes.  It will be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.

And if you're looking for a good book on writing, try Stephen King's.  It's a good chunk of practical advice wrapped in a bit of an autobiography, so you'll definitely enjoy it if you like Stephen King or want to read about the life and growth of a great author.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Push Ups

The first piece of advice I’d like to give is an obvious one.  Ask any author, consult any book on writing, and this is the first thing that will be shoved in your face.  Why am I including it here, then?  Because it’s the single most important thing you can possibly do as a writer, and probably the thing that aspiring writers fail to do the absolute most.

You have to write.

You laugh it off, you say, “Well duh, I have to write!  That’s the point!”  Yet that point still somehow slips around us as we go about our day-to-day life.  The entire concept can be summed up with one simple analogy, and it is that writing is a muscle.  Sitting down to your computer or notebook that first time, your head pregnant with ideas and rich with dreams of writing that masterpiece you’ve got welling up inside you, it’s very easy to find yourself stuck after a paragraph.  In fact, I think I might venture to claim that this happens to everyone the first time, myself and countless other authors included.  You blurt out a short passage or two, and this starts happening:

“Describing a scene is hard…”
“I can’t think of a word for this particular thing…”
“I can’t decide what this character looks like…”
And the big one, “Where is this going?”

I doubt there’s a person on the planet that doesn’t go through this at some point or another.  You have the general idea of the story in your head, but you either can’t think of how to bring it together or can’t conjure the words to make it happen.  And do you know why this happens?  Because it’s exactly like doing a push up. 

The proper way to do push ups, just in case you were wondering.
You’re full of energy, you’re pumped, you’re totally going to finally get fit!  “Yeah!” you say, “I’m going to do twenty push ups a day!”  So you stretch, you drop to the floor, you brace your arms and you push.  The first one feels pretty good—a little harder than you expected, but still exhilarating.  The second one still feels okay, but a bit uncomfortable.  The third one feels like it takes about ten times more effort than the first did, and on the fourth you only get about halfway up before your arms crap out and you fall face-first to the floor with a sweaty slap, heaving great gulps of air.

…Okay, I can’t assume that everybody out there is as out of shape as I am, but bare with me and think of some other  act that requires a specific set of untrained muscles—playing the guitar, perhaps, or shooting a bow and arrow.  The point is, it’s hard the first time.  Really hard.  So hard that it can be completely discouraging.  And if you do have the tenacity to come back and try it again the next day, guess what happens?  Yeah, it’s just as hard, if not harder.  This is enough to make some people quit right then and there, or at least put the task on the back burner indefinitely.  But you know what happens when you try and “fail” over and over?  One day you find that you can do six push ups before passing out, that you can form a ‘G’ chord with your fingers in under five seconds, that you can draw the arrow without using your knee to pull the bow away from you, that you’ve got two paragraphs on the page and your mind hasn’t even turned to jelly yet.

Yes, this image was necessary.
It’s always so hard to get through that first push.  You feel like you’re accomplishing nothing, and all you want to do is quit; but I guarantee you, if you just keep on keepin’ on, you’ll be thankful that you did.  So if it’s hard for you to get started, I forbid you from ever thinking that it has anything to do with your ability as a writer.  I started the exact same way; I’d have an idea for the beginning of a story, and I would sit down to write it, brimming with excitement and creative energy… only to realize after half a page that this whole writing thing is hard.  And now, I’ve self-published an entire novel, about the length of the third Harry Potter book.  A few years ago it simply didn’t seem possible.  But then, playing the guitar doesn’t seem possible the first time either, but after a few years you find yourself playing a song and wondering how it could have ever been so hard.

So keep using that muscle, and it will always pay off.  Use it every day, and I promise you’ll be writing cohesive stories before you even know it.

(Hm, I should probably start doing push ups again…)   

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Writin': A Blog of the Craft

Let me preface this entire blog by saying that I am not a very experienced writer.  I’m in my early twenties, I have never been paid for a piece of my work, and in fact I have only just finished and self-published my very first novel.  But in the same way that we all wish we could go back in time and tell our young selves all the things we know now, I often wish that someone would have just sat down with me from the start and told me how to write well.

Now, you’re no doubt thinking to yourself, “You sir, are a silly goose!  No one person can tell you how to be a good writer!”  And you are completely correct in believing so.  There is no formula to writing well, and at its core it can’t exactly be taught.  But still, even as I write my second novel, I’m discovering things—little tricks and tips, most often easy to summarize in a brief sentence—that impact my writing tremendously.  They’re such tiny ideas, the kind that make you say “Why didn’t I think of that before?”  (Well, they made me say it…)  Yet at the end of the day, they can make an enormous difference in the feel and quality of your work. 

Here's some nice clipart, just to make you feel safe.
My goal for this blog is to amass all of the knowledge I have gained in my short years of writing, so that another aspiring author can come away with a stronger foundation and ultimately at least a slightly better understanding of the craft.  Again, I don’t claim to be an amazing writer, and I still have just about everything to learn.  (I’ll probably be learning how to write for my entire life, I think…)  But at the very least I can fill you in on these little tips that for me, at least, have made all the difference.

Some of these concepts are rather broad and obvious, and can be found in just about any book on the subject or on the lips of any author.  These I will stress anyway, just to drive the point home a little more in your mind.  Others are merely the tiniest of tips that I have found in random places, yet to me are so important that it’s a wonder why they’re not engraved on some huge “HOW TO WRITE” chart.  These I will fill you in on, if only because I wish that someone had filled me in before I even started in the first place.

These concepts will cover a variety of subjects, including dialogue, narrative, word-usage, and the like—mostly things pertaining to fiction, though I can’t say there won’t be at least an ounce of advice that can be used in non-fiction as well.  And probably more often than is useful I will find myself simply writing posts about my own thoughts on the art of writing.

I hope you can glean any sort of usefulness out of this amateur’s sermons, or at least a small bit of entertainment.  Like any art form, writing isn’t just “something you do”, but a walk of life—and that walk is always much more fun to take with someone else.  I invite you to leave many comments, and even discuss your own feelings on the subject. 

Thank you in advance to anyone who listens, and happy writing.

Jack Thomas