Writing is a tough job, especially because most writers work other jobs, in addition to every day life. Yet, we are still expected, by ourselves, to work our butts off and plot and plan and tell the best stories that we can. We are all different.
Here is my approach to being a writer who actually writes (and doesn’t just talk about how he is a writer, or thinks about how he is a writer):
1. Be realistic in your goals. Don’t say “I’m going to write a best-selling novel,” if you’ve never written a novel before. Just say, “I’m going to write a novel.” And then, get to work.
2. Set a schedule. I like to block out periods of time that I stick to every week. Some people have busier times and slower times, and their writing schedules vary. Some people aim to write for 30 minutes a day. Find the time where you can consistently have some time, and just do it. You have to sit down and write if you want to actually write.
3. Have a purpose. Know what you are writing (to some degree) and why you are writing it. It can be simple. I wrote a fart story once, because I wanted to have something that would make me laugh. I wrote a story about excuses that students make once, because I wanted to have a story that was a sort of time-capsule of a class I taught. It also made me laugh. I wrote a novel where I examined light and dark, because I wanted a metaphor for good and bad that literal. It was also the kind of story I would have read as a child, and I needed an excerpt for my Gr. 5 class to read, and I couldn’t find the right one. So I wrote it. Have a purpose. Then you can keep going.
It’s the fairytale rom-com couple that sets out in their rented Jeep and says “We’ll see where the road takes us!” who end up having the time of their lives, learning about themselves and becoming a stronger couple. But in real life, we need to know where we’re going, especially if we want to be taken seriously about it. You need to write, and you need to know why you are writing.
4. Keep a notebook handy. You need something to jot down ideas, words, phrases, dialogue, and wonders on. I have lots of notebooks – I keep one at work, and I have them scattered around the house. I was lying in bed reading the other night when a word sparked an entire series of ideas. I was too cozy to get up. I could have let it go, but I knew the ideas would be gone if I didn’t write it down right then, so I grabbed my phone and emailed myself. Believe me – you will forget your ideas if you don’t write them down.
5. Have a space. Earlier this year, after I’d completed some major writing, we decided to move the computer down to the living room, so that my wife could have a true scrapbook room. I was trying to be selfless. Being selfless will get you no where. My wife would always say, “You can put the computer back up there to write, I don’t mind!” But I was stubborn, and wanted her to feel like she was special. Silly me, she already did. When she got herself a laptop, we moved the computer back up here. Now, I can write again. Not everyone has lots of space, but you don’t need lots of space to write. The laundry room, the kitchen, the dining room – they all work, as long as while you are writing, you aren’t interrupted. It didn’t work for me to have my computer in the living room, because the space was too big. I need a small space to stay focused. So find a spot, and try it out. When you find the right one, stick to it. I’ve never written so much as when I had the computer up in this spare room. I’ve never written so little as when I had it in the living room. You need a space.
6. Read. For God’s sake, you have to read if you want to write. Stephen King has been over-quoted but this line is the be-all-end-all of writing advice: “If you don’t have the time to read, then you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” How can you understand story, character building, plotting, and everything else involved in telling a solid story if you aren’t reading? Don’t be an idiot. Read.
7. Write. If you don’t actually sit down to write, and if you don’t sit down to write more than a few times a year, then stop calling yourself a writer. I am sick and tired of meeting person after person who claims to be a writer, and yet doesn’t actually write anything. Maybe you’re a dreamer. But don’t say you’re a writer. It’s like when someone says, “I’m going to write a picture book one day. Anyone can do it.” Then do it.
I get that part of writing is coming up with ideas – staring into space, wondering, reading, daydreaming … I do all of those things. But, I also write. I have four dedicated hours JUST FOR WRITING. I am a writer. Are you?
8. Work out. OMG. I HATE working out. I hate it more than I hate when my pyjamas twist around me because I laid down on the couch in a weird position. But I have to tell you, I have been more successful in coming up with ideas, and actually writing the words down, when I am following some sort of work out schedule. When I completed my first real novel (the actual first one was not nearly long enough – or good enough – to count), I did it in 3 months. I followed my writing schedule, and between that schedule and working out every other day (okay, sometimes every third day), I was extremely driven to keep winning. I wanted to write because I was feeling energized from the workout. I wanted to work out because I knew I was kicking butt in the writing department. Every time I turned around, I was winning.
9. Give yourself a break. I know I’ve berated you “writers” who never write. But, writing isn’t a mechanical engineering feat. It’s a work of heart, of art, of creativity. Sometimes, it won’t flow. Creativity is 5% inspiration, though, and just 95% work. I heard that at a conference and it struck a chord with me. It is so true – you need one good idea to get the ball rolling. The rest is about work. Hard work. And hard work deserves a break. Today, I watched TV, napped, took a walk, and talked to my wife. We ate bacon sandwiches. Then, I sat down to write and the ideas wouldn’t come. I tried and tried. The novel would not jumpstart for me. I was hoping to figure out who my main character was, but he just refused. “It’s Sunday, guy, leave me alone.” So I decided to give myself a break. I forgot about the clock, and I just started writing. I wrote a picture book instead, and then thought, “Hey, I wrote something. Suck on that, main character from the novel I am hoping to write.” I gave myself a break by doing NOTHING all day, and then doing something FUN during my writing time. Let’s face it, writing isn’t always fun.
10. Network. If you’re Tweeting, Blogging, and Facebooking about your triumphs and woes as a writer, you’ll start to network with others who are in the same boat. This will keep you accountable. Join a critique group. They’ll keep you moving, too. Talk to your friends about what you’re doing. Make it known that you’re trying to write something great, and eventually, you will finish. It will probably suck. Then, you will revise it and it will be a masterpiece! (Disclaimer: first drafts always suck. I’m not being mean, just honest. If your first draft is incredible, you’re either drunk or you are a genius and in that case, you should revise anyway because the second draft will be literal gold. You won’t even need to sell your book. You can just go to stores and be like, “Hey, I wrote this,” and the cashier will be in awe and just GIVE you your purchases. Wow.)
11. Write. I know I already listed it, but write already. Stop thinking about being published. Stop thinking about going to a fancy lunch with your agent and sipping lattes in New York while strangers ask for your autograph. STOP SAYING you’ll be the next JK or Stephen King. You won’t. You’re YOU! Be happy in that! You might become a billionaire writer, but you’ll still be you, not them. Stop imagining how you will go to your first movie premiere and be more famous than the famous actors in the movie. It is a great thing to have dreams, but if all you do is imagine it, and you don’t actually write and write and write, and critique and rewrite and revise and write and write, you will never, ever get there. You need to write.
If you want to be a writer who actually writes, you just need to do it. So turn off your social feeds, close this browser, and go write.