How I Write: Tips & Advice
When I was in the first grade, we had to draw a portrait of what we wanted to be when we grew up and become hardworking adults. I remember drawing a picture of a man, who looked nothing like me, in a white coat and a stethoscope. At the bottom of the paper I had written "heart surgeon." I'm sure my spelling had some sort of remedial charm, something along the lines of "sergen" or sirjen," and I was just as clueless about how to spell surgeon as I was about what one actually did. I won't even get into the weird phase I was in during my freshman year of high school where I thought I wanted to explore being a defense attorney, that lasted almost as long as the remarkably short-lived teen. drama Swan's Crossing (Remember that? exactly. Bet you didn't know Sarah Michelle Gellar and Mira Sorvino were in that, did you?) I didn't know what I wanted to be, or what I wanted to do, as if an occupation sums up a person as a whole. The one thing I knew I loved, was writing. I wrote all the time: poems, short stories, weird journal entries about fictitious people, or situations. At some point, I began telling myself, "My plan is to move around from place to place, and write a story about wherever I am." It was kind of a joke, as in I didn't really think I was going to set out to do that on purpose. Strangely enough it was exactly what I ended up doing for most of my adult life. Being a writer means one simple thing: if you write, you're a writer.
I tend to get asked questions about what my writing process is like or how to start writing. This is a tricky thing to answer because what works for one person may not work for another. However, there are certain things that I found helpful that are common among writers. So, let me break down what works for me, what I've found to be helpful and some things that will make anyone a better writer, regardless of whether they're any good or not.
Figure out when you're most productive. After a while, you'll figure out when you work best. For me, I know that I get more in the flow state between 11 am and 5 pm. Once I figured that out, I tried to write during that time frame if possible. It would usually be on a day off from work. I would set aside one day a week to actively work on a project, whether it would be writing chapters, outlining or researching material that was relevant to my story. I turned off my phone and refused to use the internet unless I was looking something up. I would always try to read something on the days I wasn't actually writing. It helps keep you in the zone (think Britney Spears circa 2003).
Try to remain a Writer—Uninterrupted. One of the biggest issues with creativity for me is being interrupted. Solitude and an environment without distraction is crucial to working on your craft. I may look like I'm just staring vacantly at the five-word sentence I managed to squeeze out in the past hour, but there really is a whole creative process happening behind my eyes (usually). And if I get interrupted, that amazing idea, thought, scene, chunk of dialogue or description will be shattered into a million pieces and I'll never be able to put it back together. Although, having said that, I would often walk to The Perfect Cup on Damen Avenue and sit at a table from 11 am - 5 pm. Sometimes I needed to work at home, but sometimes being in a cafe full of people all on their laptops and not actually socializing with other humans was just the ticket.
Be consistent with your dedication. If you are the type of person who works better a little bit at a time, then it's really important that you remain consistent with your writing habits. It's like exercise. The more you do it, the easier it is to keep doing it. The second you stop, suddenly you can't lift a head of lettuce and your pants don't fit. When I was writing "Sage, Smoke & Fire," I told myself that I would write at least 1,000 words a day, but I would shoot for 5,000. If I did skip or miss a day, I would make sure that I made up the words the next day. I was kind of obsessive about it, which is usually how I am with ked out most things, so it worked out well!
Write now, edit and revise later. So many writers get hung up on making what they are writing outrageously perfect. I get it. You want it to be good right away. A first draft, in an unpopular opinion, is about 80-90% ready. Accept that it won't be perfect. There are going to be spelling errors, unnecessary words, stupid descriptions and things that don't make sense. Don't worry about that, worry about getting your thoughts onto the page—you can fix it later. Think of it like rewriting, but with intention. The more you write three sentences, stop, analyze them for 20 minutes, delete two words, add one and then analyze that for 5 minutes, the longer it will take you to finish whatever it is that you're working on. This works very well for those people that have an idea but have no idea how they should start. Just start somewhere, you can always fine-tune and revise your work later. For one of my books, I didn't write in chronological order, I wrote the scenes I wanted to write first, and then married them together later on. Don't stress about having the perfect opening sentence, or the best first chapter, the more you write, the more your writing will guide you towards what that first sentence should be or where your story should begin.
Let your characters tell you their story. Not the other way around. Flesh out your characters until you know how they take their coffee, what their first word was, and why they cry and ask for a refund every time they get a tarot reading. Even if you don't use all of these details, you know they make up who your character is, and the more you know who they are, the better they will be at showing you what their story is. When I write, I often picture my characters as if they are actors in a film and I'm just watching everything happen. In a way, I'm narrating what I'm seeing my characters do and say in my head. I'll be totally honest too, characters and plotlines totally do things I never planned on. They really do have a life of their own.
There are no new stories, only new ways of telling them. An art teacher once told an ex of mine this very thing. The originality is not in the actual story itself, but in how it's told, how it's arranged, crafted and executed. Don't let the fear of being too derivative keep you from writing. Your perspective is unique, work with that.
Study other writers. When I was at Columbia College Chicago in the Fiction Writing program, my instructor told us to "pay attention to what the author is doing on the page." I had never heard an instruction like that before and it changed a lot about how I read from that point on. I wasn't just reading a book from end to end, I was noticing how the story was told. I started looking at their sentence structure, their punctuation choices, their stylistic idiosyncrasies and their rhythms. Learn from those who you admire, and even those who you don't. Borrow a method, experiment with a new way of structuring a sentence, model a chapter in a style that you liked. It's how we learn.
If it helps—make an outline. Some writers hate this, some love it. I can't do a plot diagram to save my life, I work with outlines. I'll write an entire outline first, and then work my way down to the very end. Sometimes things change because the story has decided it was going to do whatever the fuck it wanted to, and that's a good thing! I don't always know the exact ending of a story, but I know there will be one by the time I get there.
Be truthful, raw and real. I don't want to read a candy-coated story, I want the truth. I want the raw emotion that's present in everyday life. It's real and I want to read things that are just that. I want steak, not skittles. Truth hurts...oh well! I don't believe in shying away from being controversial, or remotely offensive. What the hell kind of story is that? Life is full of these things and your story should be too. There have been plenty of people I've written about that I'm 100% certain hate the fact that I've included them in a story. Granted I've always changed the names, but even still, I'm sure they know who they are. I'm sure I've been that person for someone else! Being honest and truthful isn't always pretty, but it is incredibly necessary if you want something to have genuine merit. You'll probably make some enemies, but like Jack Nicholson as the Joker said, "You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs." We write what we know, and what we don't know, we learn and research.
Find your voice. You can mimic other writers and play around with style, but make sure you are being you when you write. Don't try to douse your paragraph with words you would never use just to feel impressive. You'll notice it later when you read it aloud or you go back to revise. If it doesn't sound like something you'd write, it probably isn't.