how to write
I’m in the kitchen icing a cake.
This happens, like, never. I’m a notoriously bad cook. When my kids see me making dinner they cry and run away. Baking is better, but I do it so infrequently no one ever really remembers I can, including myself.
So I’m icing this cake. It’s a zucchini blueberry cake with lemon buttercream frosting. (Kinda weird, right? But also maybe yum.) My hair is a mess. So is my face. Not to mention the kitchen. In fifteen minutes a group of friends will show up at my door for book club (aka, wine club). The knife slides along the surface of the cake, forming tiny wakes of buttercream, when suddenly a voice says, “Most of the time I feel miserable and alone.”
The knife stops mid-swipe and I listen. Not with my ears, though, because the voice is in my head.
The call is coming from inside the house.
I don’t know who this character is talking to me (yet), but in my mind I can see her walking through a crowded high school hallway and in my chest I can feel what she’s feeling. It’s like I’m some kind of medium for fictional people.
I put down the knife, pick up a pen and start writing her down. The cake can wait. So can my hair and my face and the clock and my friends showing up at my door with wine. There’s a voice in my head with a story to tell.
And that’s how this writing thing works.
For me, at least.
And are you sitting there wondering how exactly you go about writing the novel you’ve promised yourself you’re finally going to write?
Have you bought books about how to write your novel?
Are you googling in hopes of finding the right resources to get you started writing your novel?
Are you reading blog posts from others writers to learn how to write your novel?
Are you putting off writing your novel because you’re doing “research”?
I’ve done all of those things. I have a lot of writing books. And I read a lot of blogs about writing. I’ve gone to conferences and seminars and workshops and classes.
There’s only one thing you need in order to finally write your novel this year.
You need to write.
Go and write. Don’t worry about anything else. At least not for now.
For now, just write.
How many words?!
Honestly, I get spooked writing a short story that’s more than 10,000 words. Ask my writers group. They’ll tell you.
My fear comes from not knowing the whole story. I’ll have a beginning scene and a rough idea where I’m heading but not know how to get there. Or I’ll have a single scene in my mind and very little info on who this character is and why he’s doing what he’s doing.
It’s a bit like being told to drive to a city you’ve never been to before, find a person you don’t know and tell him a message you don’t really understand. Here are the keys. Go.
Yikes. So many words to write, and no idea what they are or where they lead.
I know the key to writing is, you know, writing. So I sit my butt in the chair and I write what I do know about the story. Still, sometimes as I’m writing, my brain will start fretting about the stuff I don’t know.
What about the middle? Who is this bad guy and why is he doing these things? Where is all of this leading?!
The thing about fear — for me at least — is it can be paralyzing. It can make me stop writing. And stopping is bad.
Lately I’ve been practising a new way of keeping fear at bay.
Stay in the present.
I live a better life when I’m focused on the present. When I’m immersed in the now instead of letting my mind fret about the future or the past.
What’s true for living is true for writing.
I write better when I’m focused on the present scene, the scene I know. When I’m immersed in that scene, rather than worrying about not knowing the middle or end or even the beginning.
And just like living, writing in the present takes practice and discipline. My thoughts start to scatter and I reel them back in. Again and again.
The key is to slow down until the characters and setting and interactions become real and solidified in my mind.
As I do this, that present scene triggers ideas for other scenes. And as I stay with those new scenes, I discover still more and more of the story. The chapters stack up. The word count increases.
Sometimes the scenes come to me out-of-order. Ending first, then something from the middle, then second to last and then the beginning, etc. I’ve learned to let that go and just write what I can see.
I just trust that, in time, all of those scenes will chain themselves together into an entire story.
A short story.
So I’m working on some projects right now, and as usual, I have to keep the Yousuck Monster at bay. You know, the one that sits on your head and tells you over and over how awful your writing is and how you’ll never make it and you should just give up now.
Well, today I had an idea. A new defense of sorts.
When the Yousuck Monster shows up and you’re really feeling down about what you’re writing, go read the first thing you ever wrote. Or as close to the first thing as you can find. You know, that story you wrote six years ago that you were sure was going to launch your career. That brilliant idea that no one had thought of before. That beautiful prose dripping in detail and sensuality.
Not as good as you remembered it, is it?
That’s because in the last six years (or however long it’s been) you’ve grown as a writer. You’ve learned how to avoid adverbs, passive verbs and adjective storms. You’ve learned to really see a setting before putting your characters into it. You’ve learned to dismiss your first idea and your second idea and even your third.
You’re getting better every time you sit down to write. The draft you’re working on right now — the one the Yousuck Monster is hassling you about — is so totally way much better than that first story, isn’t it?
Now flick the Yousuck Monster off your head and get back to work.
As I thought through what I could share about writing on today’s post, I found myself returning to the same thing.
Because all of the advice I could give boils down to the chair. And your butt in the chair. And your brain crafting the story. And your fingers typing or writing it down. It’s as simple as that.
Getting yourself to stay in the chair…well, that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, remember this:
The writer is the one who stays in the room. (Ron Carlson)
Gotta get my butt back into the chair now. Hope you get there, too.