by Anne Bradshaw, BJ Rowley, James Dashner, Janet Kay Jensen, Josi S. Kilpack, Julie Wright, Linda Paulson Adams, Linda Shelley Whiting, Lisa J. Peck, Marsha Ward, Rachel Ann Nunes, Shirley Bahlmann, Tamra Norton, and Tristi Pinkston
I’ll make the gigantic assumption that because you’re reading this book, either you already want to write something, have written before, or have something to write about—and because you’re literate, you know your way around the language and understand on some level how it functions. I’d venture a guess that you may even have a great love for language, the way words sound, the way writing looks on paper, and maybe have a passion for written expression.
In that case, I don’t have to tell you that writing can be a rush, a guilty pleasure, a joy and a pastime that far exceeds any “ordinary” hobby—hobby? How insulting! Life’s dream is more like it. I also don’t have to add that anyone who writes wants to be known for being good at it. You find few authors willing to say, “Yeah, so I’m a crummy storyteller. So what if my writing stinks? I’m published!” (Although, how often do you read a book that fits that description and think, “I can write better than that!” Yeah. You’re not alone.) Every would-be author wants to write the best book the world has ever seen—a bestseller topping the charts. Every one of us secretly daydreams about that call from Oprah, inviting us to be her guest.
So the question changes from not merely how to write or what to write about, but what are the secrets to writing well? Can quality writing be taught? I’m afraid that’s one of those heated questions like “What is art?”—but I believe there’s a learning curve. Over the course of time, the skill or talent you possess today will improve, so long as you work at it and don’t hide it under a bushel to rot, unused and underdeveloped.
WHY CAN’T I JUST DOWNLOAD MY BRAIN?
Most writers agree that we don’t suffer from a lack of ideas. If anything, the problem is having too many of them rush together all at once and not enough opportunities in a lifetime to get them all down.
It can be the greatest thing in the world to have a story flood out of your mind like water from a collapsed dam. Then it seems as though you just can’t write fast enough. More than once I’ve wished for a machine like the one in Minority Report that could take the images in my imagination and morph them into finished text or video.
When inspiration washes over me that way, I can become so involved in the story that I forget everyday things—like my spouse’s name, that it’s an hour past dinnertime, or that it’s way past my bedtime, and I have to get up in a few hours to help my child get to early-morning Seminary.
Sometimes ideas jumble on top of one another, and all I can think about are all the books I’m eventually going to write. It feels like too much to accomplish.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed. And when you’re overwhelmed, the common response is to do nothing at all. Terrible, isn’t it? Lemme tell ya, that response doesn’t get much writing done.
What I’m getting to here is that to produce any writing at all, you need to set a time and a place. Schedules are critical to the serious writer. If you wait for your muse to strike, she might come at the most inopportune moment possible—and be gone before you can find a pen and paper, computer, or PDA to file the thought away. I wrote a poem about this phenomenon:
my muse speaks.
grand phrases she floats through
the ethereal space of my thoughts;
she speaks wisdom, profound, of a depth
greater than my mind alone can fathom—
i bow down
bent over a poopy diaper.
by the time
the putrid mess is scrubbed off
wrapped tightly in plastic
the crusade complete (down a flight of stairs,
lift the lid on the Rubbermaid trash can,
deposit the offensive item in its interior)
and I hunt down my ball-point pen—
she is gone,
i stand still, mouth open mind blank
clinging to my notebook
my pen drops out of loosened fingers
clattering across the floor
in the distance i hear my child
As you can see, no matter what the circumstance, life doesn’t always wait for you to have a profound thought and get it down on paper. It doesn’t matter so much what your schedule is, so long as you have one. Pick something that will work for you and stick to it. Make it a habit. If you get too elaborate about it—such as, you have to have your pen and notebook, you have to be in the bathtub at the perfect temperature with the house perfectly quiet, with the perfect amount of bubbles and soft music (conducive to inviting the elusive muse), and candles—well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this exact situation won’t present itself very often. You may need to compromise. Whatever you do, make sure to make the time.
Okay. Now that you have it—you’re sitting there museless as the seconds and minutes tick by. What happened to all those brilliant ideas? They seem to have escaped on the wind.
This is the point where “free-writing” might be the best thing to do to break through that block. Set a timer and write whatever nonsense flows into your head—don’t worry whether it makes sense or will someday be the Great American Novel. Remember there are no rules with rough draft. If you don’t want to capitalize or punctuate, don’t. Just be sure to fix everything before other people see it so you know it makes sense to the rest of the world. Don’t worry at this point about sentence fragments, grammar, or spelling. Too much of this will slow you down and hedge up what I call the “download” or “brain dump” phase of writing—getting what’s in your head out on paper.
Many new writers get caught up in the mistaken idea that they must write from beginning to end, skipping nothing. There’s a famous quote that says, “Begin at the beginning, continue through the middle, and when you get to the end, stop.”
However, in this initial rough phase that’s not entirely true. It’s often the cause of writer’s block. Write out the parts that clamor most in your head. If it’s the end—write that first! You may discover interesting things about your characters that way. If you write nonfiction, this method will work for you, too. Maybe you don’t have an introduction yet or don’t know which chapter will be placed first. At this stage, it just doesn’t matter.
I like to remember a line from an old song by The Carpenters: “Don’t worry if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear . . . just sing, sing a song.” This is so true for rough draft.
After all, no one but you ever has to read it. You needn’t foist it upon the public eye if you don’t want to. And by the time you have a finished, well-edited product, no one will ever know which piece you wrote first, or which took the most rewrites, unless you tell them.
In the first edition of Prodigal Journey, I did make a note to readers about which chapter was written first (the scene where my main character Alyssa is healed). It comes near the end of the book. I felt mentioning it was significant because the rest of the series stemmed from my discovery of that one scene. I had to know for myself who she was, what happened to get her there, and what happened next.
If I had sat down with a notebook and said to myself, “Hm! I think I’ll write an awesome trilogy about the Last Days today!” rather than discovering my main character in a single life-changing scene, I’m sure it would have turned out forced and strained. The plot flowed naturally, and it seemed the history and characters were already there in my mind—I just had to unearth them and let them live.
FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS
In any case, if you feel that inner voice telling you you’re a writer, buckle in, and get ready for the wild ride that awaits you. Writing seems like a quiet thing to do, since it’s done in virtual silence. All you hear is the click of your fingers on the keys, the scratch of pencil or the glide of pen across paper, but it can give you anything but that peaceful easy feeling.
I haven’t even begun to share with you my feelings and experiences as a writer. This has just been the briefest of overviews.
In the pages of this book you will find information that I hope will inspire you to become the writer you’ve always wanted to be. What goes on in your head—not to mention anxiety and tension over future editing, publishing, contracts, seeing your work in print for the first time, you name it—is . . . another story.