Note: I wrote the article below last year, but thought it might be a good idea to post it here before NaNoWriMo, as it contains the “secret” to becoming a real writer.
I was sitting at a sidewalk table last week, enjoying a cup of coffee, when I overheard a group of twenty-somethings at the next table talking about the writers’ conference that was scheduled for the next weekend. The conversation turned to the art of writing.
“It just takes so long to get inspired…”
“I get stuck making the first paragraph perfect, and never get any farther.”
“I get this great idea, then the phone rings, and it’s my friend, and I end up going out and when I get back the idea is gone, and I don’t have anything to say.”
“There’s just not enough time. I get home from work, and it’s dinner, catch the news, work out, go out with friends, walk the dog, call my mom, whatever. There’s just not enough time to write.”
“When I write, I have to get my music going, light candles, make sure everything’s perfect, then I can get in the the mood, and it will all flow.”
“I can write pages and pages, and I know it’s good, so I don’t even have to go back to read it. Someday, I’m going to sit down and write a whole book.”
Anytime I hear a conversation about writing, I’m fascinated. Writing is my avocation– something I’ve done steadily since childhood, at one level or another. Although I started with some of the same ideas as the young people I overheard, I’ve since learned a few things.
If you wait for inspiration, you’ll never write anything.
If you stop to perfect the first paragraph, you’ll never get any farther.
If you don’t stop distractions, they will stop you.
If you don’t take the time to write, you’ll never be a writer. You have the same 24 hours a day that everyone else has. You choose how you’re going to spend it.
If you wait for the perfect mood, moment, and method, it’s likely that you’ll still be waiting when the undertaker arrives.
If you fall in love with your words as they spill unedited onto the page, you’ll never write well. An 1879 article from the New York Times (download in PDF) eloquently elaborates on Byron’s point that “easy writing is cursed hard reading.”
Almost anyone can learn basic writing skills; many people can learn to write well; a few will become writers. The foundation for each level of skill is not talent, but discipline. If you want to become a writer, you must do two things:
It’s that simple. Sit down and write using whatever method is at hand. Don’t wait for a new computer, a soft leather notebook, new purple pens, 27 years of backstory, full biographies for all the supporting characters, the perfect name for your main character (just use “Fred” until inspiration strikes), complete details on the historical context, or the stars to align. Just sit down and write.
When you have written, it’s time to edit and rewrite. Evaluate your prose; cut the fat; sharpen your verbs, tighten the narrative. If you have trouble evaluating your own writing, find an editor that you can trust (search the NAIWE database), and get some feedback.
If you aren’t writing, you can’t be a writer, no matter what you
- want to do,
- plan to do,
- intend to do.
If you aren’t doing it, you aren’t a writer. If you want to write, sit down and write. That’s how Jane Austen did it. That’s how Victor Hugo did it. That’s how you’ll have to do it, if you really want to be a writer.
You may or may not have the creativity, knowledge, and skills needed to become an Edith Wharton or a C.S. Lewis, but if you have self-discipline to sit down and write, whether or not conditions are perfect, you’ll grow in the skills you need to become a writer.
Once you’ve learned how to be a writer, you’ll need to learn how to be published. But that’s a subject for another day. For now, you just need to write (and so do I). And if you wonder what kind of writer would get sidetracked with soft notebooks, purple pens, and ridiculous amounts of backstory, you’re looking at her. So yes, I’m preaching to the choir!