This week’s prompt for our writing community at Andilit is to write out ten pieces of advice that I would give myself as a writer.
I do love a good list. I’m writing this to me, but maybe you’ll see something that applies to you, too. Disclaimer: if you are looking for advice from a writer who has actually published something…then you should go read that (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Stephen King’s On Writing are my top recommendations), because brilliant as I may be, I’m not there yet.
1. Get it together!
My schedule is crazy, so if I don’t plan, it doesn’t matter how many story ideas or “I should write a blog post about that” I have. If I don’t plan, writing doesn’t happen. Schedule writing time, but don’t stop there. Schedule specific blog posts by topic and date. Write ahead so that when something comes up on that day, all that is left to do is copy, paste, and click publish. Organize writing time into specific sections for each WIP, self-editing, editing for friends, blogging, and poetry, or, because I know me, I know that I will spend the whole time writing ranty posts that, while fun, will not get that manuscript finished this year.
2. Have different editors for different days.
I need tough criticism. Most days, that’s the kind of critique I want. But some days, when Bob (Fishbowl’s main character) is feeling particularly fragile, I just want to protect and defend him, even when he says stupid things that directly contradict what he said two weeks/chapters ago. So on those days, I need to read feedback from people who love Bob almost as much as I do. There are all sorts of tips out there on the kind of critiques that will make your work better, but I don’t think there’s just one kind that helps. I teach public speaking, so I’ve had to give a lot of feedback, and I know that hard critique doesn’t mean it’s bad – it just means that it could be better. But I also have a mean inner critic and dark seasons, so sometimes I need the outside voices to tell me all the good things so I can remember that I’m not a total hack and that there’s no need to host a Fishbowl bonfire. And because I hope that my book will be read by lots of different people once it’s published, it just makes sense to get feedback from lots of different people before it’s published. I like to think of it as collecting preliminary ratings.
3. Learn the difference between distraction and inspiration.
When I take a writing class that is prompt-intensive with lots of deadlines and designed for people who need help getting started, I get distracted by the socializing and the prompts and my compulsive need to be the best student ever, and I don’t actually write anything toward the projects I already have started. When I participate in NaNoWriMo, I focus and write like the wind. When I watch Friends, I’m just vegging out. When I watch Firefly or Gilmore Girls, I end up pausing it so that I can rewrite some dialogue on a piece that hasn’t been working. I can’t tell anyone else what their distractions or inspirations are, and I imagine that they differ wildly from mine. But I know what distraction and inspiration look like. If it spurns you to create, it’s an inspiration. If it spurns you to nap, it’s a distraction. I’m not saying eliminate the distractions, because sleep (and by association, whatever gets you there) is important, but inspirations should outnumber them. And if any of them leave you no time to write, see #1.
4. Write every day. That means all the days. Is it a day? Then write at some point during it.
Failure to do this is how I end up at the end of the month with little more to show for it than I had at the beginning of the month. Having made the schedule (all things circle back to #1), stick to it. If I skip a day, that’s a day I get nothing done. Obviously. But it also makes it exponentially easier to skip the next day. And the next. And then it’s Friday night, and that’s one more week that I’ve delayed finishing all that I’ve started. That’s one more week that I’ll never get back.
5. Set goals, and tell someone about them.
Since I keep going back to #1, I’ll pause and let you know where the things on the schedule come from. I make goals. The most helpful thing to me about the community Andi facilitates is that every Monday, we set goals for the week. And every Friday, she checks in and asks how those goals are going. She doesn’t let us get away with just making plans. She comes back and says, “So…those things you meant to do. Did you do them?” Have someone who does that for you.
6. Every once in a while, let a polar bear walk through.
Confession: I didn’t watch Lost until it was finished and came out on DVD. I stand by my decision to do so, because it gave me angst, and I would not have survived the week-to-week (not to mention season-to-season) wait. Many things have stuck with me about the show, but this scene is one of my favorites:
I can see the writers sitting around, wondering where to go next with the crazy plot lines on this shows. I imagine that it’s 4:00 in the morning, and nothing new or fresh is coming to any of them. Then one of them says, “What if they were chased by a polar bear?” and because they’re filming in Hawaii, the rest of the writers look at this person like she or he has lost her or his mind. Then, because it is 4:00 in the morning, and losing one’s mind is the normal thing to do at that time, it starts to sound like a good idea. And that’s how polar bears wind up on Lost, sparking dialogue and becoming part of a memorable scene.
I don’t actually know if this episode was written by multiple people, or if so, where the sun was when they wrote it. I just know that sometimes, you have to throw a polar bear into the mix. I mean, it can be a penguin. Or a car crash. Or an unexpected visitor. But don’t be afraid to surprise everyone. Especially yourself.
7. Read all the things.
Read Elmore Leonard to learn how to write dialogue. Read Robert Jordan to learn foreshadowing (specifically, how to act like you’re dropping a plot point and then pick it up four hundred pages later). Read Twilight and Bridges of Madison County to remind yourself that even if you and all the Internet hate it, someone will like it enough to make a damn movie out of it. Read other people’s work, because that’s how you learn. Read other people’s work, because you want others to read your work. I don’t trust writers who don’t read.
8. Don’t be stingy.
If you want people to read and edit your work, return the favor or pay them to do it. It’s rude to ask people to work for free, and editing is W.O.R.K.
9. Speaking of people…have some.
I never stuck to a writing schedule before I joined my online writing communities via Andilit and Story Sessions. I didn’t start my manuscript until I admitted to friends that I wanted to be a writer, and they called me on it by saying, “So…what have you written?” I can make a goal and really mean it at the time, but I will let myself off the hook when something easier with more instant gratification comes up if I’m the only one who knows about it. Knowing that others will ask how it’s going is sometimes the only thing that keeps it going.
10. If you break every rule, don’t dwell. Move on.
I read lists like this, and I am tempted to say, “Oh, there’s all the things I’m doing wrong.” Then I focus on how wrong I’m doing things. I give it a good, long ponder.
All my other distractions put together don’t waste as much time and energy as this does.
Obsessing over doing it wrong is doing it wrong. It’s good to know what trips you up. It’s good to recognize distractions. But self-awareness is the means, not the end. Letting mistakes stop the process is like looking in a mirror, noticing you have jam on your face, and letting it stay there. Wipe it off, and then put the mirror down and go on with your day.
So here I go.