“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
– Sylvia Plath
I was speaking to another writer and I realised how much we writers deal with doubt. But as I talked to her, I found that I have learnt some valuable lessons since I started writing, lessons I wish someone had shared with me when I first decided to string some words together to tell a story. So I’m sharing some of them in the hope that it will help other writers.
1. There’s no perfect time to start
There’s just one way to be a writer: You write. There’s no point waiting for the muse, or sitting at your desk staring dreamily into the future where you see yourself winning the Man Booker Prize, or arranging your writing space till all your pens and pencils are perfectly aligned. If you want to share your words with the world, if you want to be a writer, start now. Make time each day and write. Bum, chair, write. You are welcome to change that sequence to suit your needs.
2. Learn how to tell a story
Whether you are writing a novel, a short story, or a blog, storytelling is an essential skill and it’s a skill that can be learnt. There are a number of books you can read that will give you valuable pointers on what makes a story work and how to write it, such as On Writing by Stephen King, Hooked by Les Edgerton and The Writer’s Journey – Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, which is based on Joseph Campbell’s book, The Writer’s Journey. If you want inspiration and motivation to write, follow Jeff Goins’ blog, where he generously shares his insights on writing and life.
These are just a few drops in a sea of advice that you can find on writing and storytelling. But remember, these are not strict rules, they are merely guidelines. When you search google maps or any GPS navigation device for routes, it usually gives you a number of route options. Whether you use one of them or a combination of them, you can still get to your destination. You can be as adventurous as you want to be. It’s the same with writing.
3. Use your imagination
You know how people tell you to “Write what you know”? Well, if everyone wrote only what they know, world would be full of boring books, and the fascinating and thrilling books would all be written by sociopaths and killers. Yes, writing what you know is a good place to start. But don’t stop there. Explore and research. Dig deeper. Find out things you don’t know, little titbits of information can trigger a story. Use your imagination, we writers have been gifted with a vivid imagination. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be writing. Cultivate your imagination. It’s simple really. Take any dull situation and apply ‘What if …?’ to it. Say you are falling asleep at work or at a class in college, what if your boss or teacher turns into a dragon? What if he disappears right in front of your eyes? What if, in the middle of a meeting/class, he can’t remember who he is? Or what if he gets attacked by a ninja, drops down dead and people look to you to go after the ninja? I could go on like this whole day. It’s a lot of fun. But please, do be aware of where you do this and who is around you. You can be Walter Mitty if you want to be, but don’t blame me if you get fired trying to save your grumpy boss from an imaginary ninja.
4. Call yourself a writer
Go on, do it. Say this aloud, ‘I’m a writer’. Say it again. Remember these words. Keep repeating them till you find yourself saying it in your sleep. Remember them when you are full of self-doubts and you think you can’t write. Tell yourself this every morning when you wake up, irrespective of what your day job is, whether or not you believe it. Soon, you’ll believe in yourself and your abilities as a writer. And you will write better because you’ll make the effort to ‘be a writer’. And remember, like Spidey says, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Well, Uncle Ben Parker said that, but Spidey makes it sound so much cooler … at least the way I hear it in my head.
5. Listen to criticism
Find some writers you can trust and ask them to critique your writing. When I say critique, I mean constructive observations intended to improve your writing and story. Bullying or putting some one down is neither constructive nor acceptable. Don’t get defensive when someone tells you something isn’t working in your story. Hear them out. Whether you agree with them or not, that’s completely up to you. But if you turn a deaf ear to criticism, you’ll never learn. Writing requires learning, constant, persistent honing of your craft, like a sculptor chipping away at a chunk of stone to find that masterpiece.
6. Read a lot and learn
These days when I read a book, I not only enjoy the story, I love figuring out what makes the story work. Things I like and don’t like become learning tools. I think about how I would have told the story and how different it would have been. And I learn from every book. You don’t have to necessarily do this. But read, a lot. As much as you can. One day when you are stuck with a plot in your book, you’ll find a way to fix it by remembering something you read in some book. Our minds have amazing ways of storing things, including books. Use it.
7. Don’t let someone tell you how good a writer you are
Perhaps your English teacher told you that you should never write another word, ever. But you think you’ll be a good writer. You try and churn out some stories. But the face of your old school teacher looms in front of you every time you sit to write. Do you give up? Well, that’s completely up to you. How much effort are you willing to put in and how badly do you want this? There will always be people who think you can’t do the things you think you can. Don’t do something just to prove them wrong. Do it because that’s the only thing you can see yourself doing, because you are willing to wake up on a cold morning, sit at your computer, and write for the next ten to fifteen years. Write because you have something to say and you need to say it. Learn everything you can about writing, and practice, a lot. Persistence is the key to being a great writer. It’s not enough to want to be a good writer, you have to do your very best to be a great one. Doing the best that you can is the best thing you can do. And don’t ever let anyone tell you how good you are at writing or in life. Only you know how good you can be.
8. Speak to other writers
I made a recent post about why art shouldn’t be lonely pursuit. We writers think we need to sit in our bat-caves to write “good things”. But we forget that there are people out there, going through similar experiences, facing similar problems and difficulties, people who share our passion for writing and understand the frustrations that come with it. The idea that sharing a problem makes it easier to face applies more than ever to writers. We need to share, that’s fundamental to who we are and what we do. So reach out and connect with other writers. You’d be surprised how generous your fellow writers can be, how willing they are to share their process or give advice on how to solve that pesky plotting problem you are having. No one expects you jump right in and pour your heart out. Take your time but don’t hide behind your computer, typewriter or notepad. Meet other writers and speak to them. There’s no reason you have to do this alone. And you never know, you might end up getting some amazing ideas or meeting another kindred spirit who could be your writing partner. As a writer, it’s very easy to stay in a cocoon. We need it sometimes to dig deeper into ourselves. But you need to come out at some point. You know what happens to the caterpillar that doesn’t emerge in time from it’s cocoon as a butterfly? It dies – cue in dramatic music.
9. Be generous
As an aspiring writer, your views on sharing can be split into two categories. One, people will steal my ideas. Two, I don’t know anything.
There are a lot of ideas and stories to go around. Even if someone is following a similar idea, there’s only one you. Find your unique voice and no one can take that away from you. That doesn’t mean you prattle on about the brilliant idea you have for a story to anyone and everyone. As a writer, you should know when to talk and when to listen. That skill never grows old and is always useful to have.
Don’t let your insecurity come in the way of sharing what you know. And trust me, you do know something. When you are just starting, your thoughts usually revolve around, “I don’t know anything”, “I don’t want to say something because people will think I’m stupid”, “I don’t want to ask for help because they’ll know I don’t know anything”. Say you are an engineer and another writer is working on a story in which the protagonist is an engineer and she wants to know what that really involves. She would be grateful for the information that you can share with her because you have the real life experience of being an engineer. So don’t shy away from sharing what you know. And before you start saying something on the lines of “a story about engineers would be so boring”, people probably said that about archaeologists before Indiana Jones.
If you are still afraid someone is going to steal your ideas, write them down and put them in a vault. Don’t forget the combination for it though, or your ideas might never see the light of the day, literally.
10. First drafts are crap
So you’ve written your first draft to that mind-boggling novel or short story. You’ve left it for a few days and now you are ready to sift through it and polish it. You sit down to read it and it hits you, like a truck, full of smelly manure, all tumbling down on you – every word is crap. What do you do, sit crying and rocking in the shower for hours because you can’t get rid of all that smell? Oh the drama! All that would do is give you a cold, make your bum sore and waste a lot of water. So when you are tempted to do something like this, remember these words: first drafts are almost always crap. And yes, it happens to everybody.
Most people feel this rush seeing their words flow on a page. That’s good. But the real work comes after you have finished it. It takes a lot of editing and rewriting to get a polished story that works. It’s part of the process and you’d have to be daft to skip it. And the fact that you recognise what makes your writing good or bad just proves that you have grown as a writer.
You might have read about writers who spew gems in their very first draft. They are the exception. Yes, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be one of them. But when you are just starting, it pays to learn as much as you can and be humble. In fact, it always pays to be humble, no matter how many books you have sold.
11. Live your life
There are many writers who have spent their life in isolation, crafting literary masterpieces. You could be one of them. But is that really what you want, a life of solitude, without the support of family and friends, without experiencing the beautiful world around you, without having walked on dew-covered grass or soaked yourself in the first rain of the season? The more you live your life, weather the highs and lows of life, the more enriched will your writing be. Travel and see new places whenever you can. It doesn’t have to be expensive trips. You will gain vast life experiences. You will draw inspiration from them and from the people you meet. Since I started writing, odd bits of conversations that I hear inspire me to write. I’ve found story ideas from words I thought I heard someone say. With my imagination, I hear the wildest of things and it has resulted in some fascinating stories.
The added bonus of living a full life is that instead of being a depressed writer leaning towards self-harm, you will be happy and alive to share your writing with people who enjoy reading it 🙂
Share your tips on writing in the comments.