As I’ve mentioned in the past, my mom is a teacher of adult literacy and an English language instructor. She’s also a remarkable mentor to a number of both traditionally and non-traditionally-aged people who are navigating the terrifying waters of their first year of college. She’s patient and supportive and pretty fabulous.
Currently, my mom is mentoring a young woman who is interested in writing her own book. She has an idea, and she has a desire to write, and she asked my mom “how she should prepare to be a writer.” My mother, in turn asked me.
And then told me that, “Jeez…I don’t know…ask someone smarter than me,” is in no way an appropriate answer.
So…after some thought, and in light of the fact that Thursday marks the start of NaNoWriMo (which you should absolutely participate in if you are looking for a reason to start that book), I give you:
How to Be a Writer in Ten
(Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying (Mostly) and Just Write the Stupid Book)
10) Sit in the Chair — That’s the most useful thing I have to say. All the rest of this stuff is minor compared to that one. The only way to write is to…well…write. The only way to learn to write? Write. The only way to write well? Yeah. Write.
9) Read. — As much as you can, as often as you can. And read things by people more talented than you are. Read the things that people say are “must reads,” both in your genre and in the English language. Read Dickens and Tolstoy and Morrison and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Atwood. When you see beautiful language on the page, or a sentence that moves you, stop and reread it. Think about how the sentence is crafted.
8) Find Writing Buddies — They will be your best friends through this journey, because here’s the thing — the only people who understand just how joyful, painful, challenging, rewarding and just plain hard writing is are other writers. They will support you and love you and read your pages (even the bad ones), and they will celebrate your wins with you. Shout out to my small, stellar posse: The amazing Sabrina Darby, Sophie Jordan & Carrie Ryan.
7) Learn to Take Criticism — If a writer writes a book and no one reads it, is it really a book? To succeed at this, you will have to put yourself out there. You will have to show people your pages. You will want to hide under the covers and never come out when that happens. You will be nervous and stress eat. But you will survive it. Even if they hate them and think you should never have been taught the written language. You will grow from criticism, and learn what to heed and what to ignore. You will learn who to trust. And you will keep writing. Because…
6) Appreciate That You Are Always A Student, Never A Master — If writing were easy, everyone would write a book. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s also not magic. It’s a skill that can be honed and crafted. In fact, it must be honed and crafted. Ray Bradbury said that you have to write 1 million words before you write something worthwhile. I think he might be onto something (and I haven’t hit that million-word-mark myself). You will grow and change and evolve, and some day you will look back on the first thing you published and think…Really? People thought that was good? You are a student. Writing is a life-long study.
5) Pay Attention to People — The best authors I’ve read are best not because they have a wonderful command of language (though that helps) or because they are consummate storytellers (also good), but because they seem to understand people. They craft characters who seem real and honest. They aren’t cartoon-y or one-dimensional or single-minded. They have nuance. They experience internal conflict. And they struggle, as humans do. Pay attention to how real people act. Write that way.
4) Revise — You think your book is done. It’s not. Read it again. (This is true until you get a finished copy of your book, with a cover and everything. Then, I recommend never ever reading it. Because you can’t change it. And you will find things you want to change.) Also, I would add that this is my favorite part of writing, because the story is already there. You just have to make it awesome now.
3) Find Time to Fill the Well — I don’t know where ideas come from. Maybe a muse, maybe real life, maybe they’re the only thing in the universe that comes from thin air. But I do know that to be your best writer, you have to make time to fill your creative well. You cannot survive on writing alone. You need friends or museums or movies or books or knitting or long walks with your dog or playtime with your kids or (insert your favorite thing in the world here). Maybe one day a week, maybe one hour a day…you have to figure that part out yourself. But you need it. Because it’s in those moments that the writing prepares itself.
2) Don’t Believe Writing Advice — Except for #10 & #1 of this very list, when writers tell you what works, there’s a caveat–it’s what works for them. Write 1000 words a day, or 2000 words. Write first thing in the morning, or late at night. Don’t let yourself have lunch until you write. Outline. Never Outline. Write by hand. Write at a desk. Write on an Alphasmart. Write beginning to end. Write straight through, without editing. Revise as you go. Blah blah blah. Here’s the thing: You’re going to figure out what works for you. But they only way you can do that is to…
1) Sit in the Chair — I know. It seems like I’m cheating. I already said this. But the truth is, it’s not just the most useful thing. It’s also the most difficult. There’s only room for one of you in that chair. The words don’t get written if you don’t sit there. In that chair. And the book doesn’t come if the words don’t. But ultimately, it’s the best and most powerful place for you to be. It’s your captain’s chair. Or director’s chair. Or throne. You choose the design. Whatever one you pick…you’re the boss of it.
So…there it is. That, and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee. Good luck, writers! I’ll see you on the other side!
Are you a writer? What are you working on? Planning on NaNoWriMoing? Share in comments!