You have questions.
And the internet is a rabbit hole of answers.
When is the best time to write? How do you tackle revision? Should you write in the morning? Do you need a Mac or is Windows still ok? Word or Scrivener? Music or no music? What kind of music?
Suggestions are everywhere.
Truman Capote only wrote lying down. Philip Roth writes standing up. Writing in long hand boosts creativity. Your desk should face the window. Your desk should never face the window.
How do you know you’re doing it right?
On a snowy night in late March, I sat with two other writers in an Irish pub discussing our works-in-progress (all first novels, two Women’s fiction, one hard Sci-Fi).
We all needed answers.
I had a new chapter to workshop. The Sci-Fi guy, a proud new dad and entrepreneurial mogul, was making progress but wanted to write more consistently. The other WF writer, an MBA and busy VP Marketing executive by day, had just finished her rough first draft and was “stymied” by revisions.
We tossed around suggestions over appetizers and a vodka tonic (don’t judge—the drive in from the suburbs was horrendous).
Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method which I saw him describe in a TV interview, struck a chord with Sci-Fi guy. I’d brought along four books on revision to help MBA tackle her second draft. Sci-Fi guy produced a three-foot long stapled printout from Scrivener illustrating how he kept track of character arcs and timelines, because I’d lost count of the draft I was on.
This was good stuff. Stuff we could act on.
Creative Commons: blogs.worldbank.org
Still, we pondered. Were we doing it right? Maybe we should try that new book or class! Then Sci-Fi guy said something that we strained to hear over the music and revelry of the pub:
“Or, we could just do the f$#king work.”
My eyes locked on MBA’s, and together we turned to Sci-Fi guy, not sure we’d heard him correctly.
The look on his face was what I imagine Ben Franklin looked like when his uncredited minions helped him discover electricity. It was a literal “Aha” moment.
I resumed my book recommendations, pointing out a chapter MBA might like on setting. Sci-Fi guy grinned at us (I’d say maniacally but, you know, adverb) for a few seconds. Then he interrupted, louder this time:
“Or, we could just do the f$#king work.”
No problem hearing him this time.
MBA: “Wow, this meeting just took a turn.”
We all laughed, until he said it again.
Sci-Fi guy: “I’m serious. We need to just do the f$#king work.”
Maybe a rowdy Irish pub wasn’t the best place for a critique group, now that we thought about it.
Fast forward two weeks to a snowy April night (that’s right, snow in April . . .my kind of town, Chicago is…), MBA and I sat in the same pub and shared an order of fries. She provided specific, generous insight that helped me interpret feedback I’d received from a professional editor
Then MBA said she had a question for me.
MBA: “What notebooks do you use? Like, how many different ones and how do you organize them?”
I laughed out loud, repeated Sci-Fi guy’s memorable suggestion and then said, “No, seriously. I have like one for the novel, and another for interviews. . .”
So what’s the point? The point is you have questions. You need advice. You need to learn craft. And you will find endless answers. That’s what fantastic blogs like Writers Helping Writers and Womens Fiction Writers and Bang2Write and are for.
The point is no matter how far you are into your essay, or memoir, or novel, you may always feel you’re doing it wrong.
The point is no matter how many books you read, or how many lists you study, or how many podcasts you listen to, no one way works for every writer.
“The process has its own intelligence. Committing to the process through all the different obstacles that are presented has its own logic and its own power, and it will take you through the process. There will be an end.”
In other words, the doing of “it,” whatever “it” is, teaches you how to do “it.” You have to DO. You have to mess up.
All the “Habits of Great Writers” lists and viral posts in the world can’t change that.
Sometimes you’re just scared and stalling. How can you tell the difference? How do you get from stalling to writing?
Here’s the best of what’s worked for me:
Set a goal. Any goal.
What should yours be? Who cares? Time spent, words added up. It doesn’t matter. My first one was 500 words a day/5 days a week (flexibility was key).
Refer to a few trusted guides (don’t overload).
Stay in touch with your project as often as possible.
Don’t fall prey to the drift. I like Seinfeld’s approach. When I had the flu, it all went to pot. Touching it every day makes it easier to get back in. Staying in touch can mean reading a paragraph, or rewriting a whole chapter. You decide.
Practice. Reading about how others do it isn’t enough.
Find a suggestion that resonates? Put down the damn book and go try it. Then and there. Share what worked and what didn’t with your peers.
If you believe you don’t have time to write, keep a time/activity log.
I claimed to want a writing life as I munched on popcorn watching The Voice for the third time in a week. That’s not writing, that’s lying. Make your intentions match your actions.
Make contacts with writers you admire who will call you on your BS.
Go out on a limb. Take a class. Go to a conference. Be brave. Be bold. Have business cards or a pen and notepaper (you’re a writer, after all). Get contact information. Email people. Invite them for coffee. Bam!
Eventually, as Sci-Fi guy knew, we all just have to do the f$#king work. And that’s the only answer you need.
Are you ever guilty of avoiding the work? How do you get back to it? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.