Want to write something but can't quite get yourself to do it? Laboring under the delusion that surely no one else bears the problems that you face whenever you sit down to a blank sheet of paper? Just looking for some general insight regarding the craft? Well pull up a chair, take a deep breath, and let's talk about it. I promise you'll feel much better by the end.
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 months! That’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.