You have an idea for a book, a blog, or an article that consumes your thoughts and sets your fingers tingling.
You can’t wait to sit down and write. It is the most intriguing, interesting, captivating plot ever, filled with wonderful characters and amazing twists. In your mind, you can see it now: the finished project, a book with a compelling cover and large bold type across the front. And inside, it is filled with all the clever words you have amassed, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph on white paper, neatly arranged and perfectly edited.
You can imagine how people will pick up the book and feel the same sort of enthusiasm and passion for it as you do. They will read it and be amazed. You will not only have the pleasure of the accomplishment of writing, you will have the joy of hearing these words from those who read it, “It was so good! I couldn’t put it down. I learned so much. Thank you for writing it.”
Wow! You’ve knocked their socks off!
One day you decide you will begin your book.
You have some of the ideas written down in a jumbled form, and you know basically what the plot is going to look like and who the characters are that will people your book. With this information in your mind, you turn on your computer, open a Word doc, and stare at the blank page. You might manage a sentence or two, but when you look at those two meager sentences, you decide they are not well written, and you delete them.
Then you stare some more at the blank page. I can tell you truthfully, there is nothing more depressing than gazing intently at a white page as the cursor blinks at you. You might attempt to write some more, but every sentence you tap out seems so insipid and just the opposite of what you want to communicate that you finally give up in disgust and go off to do something else.
How do you get from the idea to the finished project?
Writers start every book, article, or blog with a brilliant idea, yet if they don’t have the skills and knowledge to build a cohesive and readable manuscript, they quit before they truly begin. They give up and say something like, “I just don’t have it. I’m not cut out to be a writer.”
One of the first things I learned about writing came from my teacher and mentor in college. It’s this:
Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Believe me. I have spent a fortune on anti-deodorants!
What does it take to write a book? How can one become a successful published writer? What is the secret to sticking to a book project long enough to see it become a published work that people will enjoy reading and come back for more?
I would like to share five simple principles that have carried me past the “oh, wow! what a wonderful idea” stage to actually sitting down and writing the beginning (the hardest part!), the middle (challenging!), and on to the finish line, the climax or the end (extremely difficult if it’s a good one!).
Believe in yourself.
Something that may have seemed extremely easy like child’s play may turn out to be an impossible task. This is usually because we do not want to take the time or the effort to get some training. Take a seminar. Read books on how to write. Do the practice writing assignments the teacher requires of you. Set up your office and writing time like you were going to work at a “real” job.
You wouldn’t dream of becoming a doctor or an astronaut with no training, yet we blithely attempt writing, thinking we don’t need to invest in our skills and knowledge to do the job properly. Yes, I know there are writers who sit down and, with little training, write books that knocks the socks off everyone, or so they say. Honestly, I don’t believe it. I have a hunch they spent mega-bucks on an expensive editor.
It’s not just so much how to put words together properly with the right grammar, punctuation, and spelling in place, although that is a part of it.
The skill of writing involves so much that it takes a lifetime of learning to master it. Every genre demands different types of skills. To write well, you must learn about research, plotting, conflict, dialogue, setting (description), scenes, climax, character development, climax and endings, emotions, word choice, editing, grammar, style, theme, and many more.
You must believe that if God is calling you to this, you can do it with His help and guidance.
Butt Time. Sit your butt down and write!
The experts say the first 500,000 words a person writes are practice.
I have written five full-length novels that have yet to be published, but I’m not going to discard them. I still may re-write them and publish them. I’ve heard it said that the first 1,000 blogs are practice, too. Everything you write may have value, yet sometimes pressing the delete button is cleansing for the soul and the mind – and for your manuscript!
No one expects a one-year-old child to walk perfectly the first time she sets out across the living room.
Yet we demand perfection of ourselves with little or no practice. Writing demands a lot of patience with ourselves. There are days when I feel like giving up, yet I am drawn back into my work in progress because I know there is something I need to say and that God can say it through me. I grit my teeth and stare at that white page again and the blinking cursor and start again.
Spend the time and the hours required to practice the art of writing. The hardest part of writing for me is the original manuscript writing. I will do ANYTHING (and I mean anything) to avoid the incredibly hard task it is to write that first draft. I once scheduled a dentist’s appointment to delay that awful moment of facing the dreaded blinking cursor!
Blunders and mistakes.
They happen. Allow yourself to write nonsense if that’s what it requires to practice. When I can’t think of a good opening line, I just start writing.
I write whatever comes into my mind, like: I would prefer to be riding my bike right now, which I can’t, really, because it’s snowing and the roads are probably icy, but still…” You get my drift. By the time I get to about the 100th word, I’m ready to start writing seriously. Or humorously.
Either way, allow yourself to write dreadfully. Awfully. With adverbs, even! And if it makes you feel better, use exclamation points! Gasp! Just write.
After you’ve written for a while, sit down and read a book on how to write. Note the things you have done wrong. Go back and change those things in your manuscript.
Read a good book. Or a bad book.
Make notes on what the author did that captivated you, held your attention, and drew all the story lines together to a satisfying conclusion. On the bad book, make notes about why you didn’t like it. What did the author do that made you stop reading?
Begin to notice the bad, the good and the ugly for your own benefit.
I remember reading a book years ago that was poorly written. I made a list of all the things that I thought the author wrote that was not feasible or was badly portrayed. One of them was that one of the characters slammed his fist into a solid oak desk and left an indentation in the wood. Have you ever tried that? I can guarantee that unless you are Superman (or woman), or know karate, you can’t do it. You would break all the bones in your hand if you attempted it.
I am sure the author had not tried that. Do you see how easy it is to write something and never think about it? I assure you that your readers will think about it. If your book or article is filled with such things, they will stop reading. They will put your book aside and say something like, “I just couldn’t get into it.”
Box up the two functions of writing: fast writing (first draft) and editing
Separate them as you would two quarreling children.
These two writing functions require the use of two sides of the brain. The first draft writing I call “fast writing” because you are getting words down and not thinking a whole lot about editing, spelling, or grammar. In my seminars, I give the people a chance to try this out, and I am always amazed that some have never done it before.
I do not allow them to go back and change anything of what they have written. At the end of the allotted time, it is fun to read what they wrote. I am sure most of them are surprised that the words flowed so freely from their minds to the paper. Fast writing frees the right side of the brain, the creative side.
If you have done your homework sufficiently so you know the plot, the characters, the setting, and the conflict issues, you can do this with your manuscript. I would suggest you write three or four pages without editing it at all.
Let it cool. Let it set overnight or for a few hours. Then go back to it.
Now you can employ the left side of the brain, the cognitive, critical side. You can look at your work and see how it needs to be fixed. If you’ve read some books on how to write, you will soon pick up some errors you have made. Change the spelling errors. Fix all the mistakes you see, but don’t give up on yourself. Remember you are learning a new skill, and it takes time to write skillfully.
When you feel your work should be perfect, and it isn’t, and you don’t know how to fix it, you will get discouraged and quit.
Spend time on research before you try speed writing. Get your plot figured out for at least the first part of the story. You may not know how it ends, but at least decide the first part. I write my plots out, a very shortened version of the story.
Remember there is no story without conflict, so figure out conflict issues for your characters. Write several pages about each main character – his or her personality, goals, background, idiosyncrasies. Write maybe a paragraph about the minor characters and the villain.
With this in your mind, begin to fast write. Don’t agonize over the opening sentence. You can fine tune that later. Just get something down and get it down fast. You will be surprised at how the words come when you turn off the critical side of your brain and give free rein to the creative side!
Beating writer’s block.
I get asked how I overcome writer’s block. Here are a couple of tricks I use:
I always start each session of writing by going back over what I wrote the previous day and lightly edit it.
Typically, I read the last three or four pages I wrote previously. I change a word here, take out a phrase there, start a new paragraph or add in something that’s occurred to me. By the time I reach the blank page where the cursor is doing its annoying thing, I am “in” the story, and I am ready to write. This little trick has never failed me in over thirty years of writing fiction.
2. Do some more research and plotting.
When I “run out of words” and my brain is dry, I don’t panic or try to force the “muses”. Usually I cannot write because I cannot visualize the scene or the characters. When I wrote my first medieval book, one of my main characters was a Benedictine monk. So, I found myself writing about a man who lived 800 years ago in France and was a monk in a Catholic abbey. This was so completely out of my experience that I spent a lot of time doing research. I went online, found pictures of France, and researched the Benedictine order in the days in which I was writing. I figured out his schedule, his food, his attire, the rules of his abbey. I looked at pictures of France, studied maps, and read books about medieval days.
Pretty soon, the creative juices started flowing, and I began jotting down ideas for the plot. Following that, I couldn’t help but write my story!
When you hit a writer’s block, it usually means you haven’t done your homework in research, plotting, and character development. DO IT! Immerse yourself in the world you are writing about, and the people in it. Soon you will be back on track, ready to write again.
Do you have tricks to get past writer’s block? Reply and let me know. I’m collecting them!
So, here we have it in a nutshell:
Believe in yourself.
Commit to some butt time in the chair.
Separate speed writing from the editing process.
Allow yourself to write badly.
Get past writer’s block by doing your research and some light editing of what you wrote the day before.
And above all, practice, practice, practice!
Writing is my life.
I often say it is my biggest blessing and my biggest curse. It is wonderful, exciting, impossible, challenging, weird, and exhilarating. But it can also be demanding, defeating, dastardly, and dumb. But I love it and wouldn’t trade anything for it!
Come, join me on this wild ride.
This crazy calling, this exhilarating life, the life of a writer. In the next blog, I will share interesting gems on how to write fiction that will knock their socks off and set you on a path to become the writer you always dreamed you could be — how to organize a book, mastering that first sentence and baiting the hook, and how to write settings that will come alive on the page.
If you have any questions, please write me. I’d love to hear from you, and I promise to answer you – that is, if I can wrench myself from my computer where I’m pulling my hair out over the latest escapades of my characters.