on writing

Crippling Advice For Beginning Writers

Félix Vallotton - La Revue blanche, 1er semestre 1895, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Félix Vallotton – La Revue blanche, 1er semestre 1895, Bibliothèque nationale de France

You want to write. Perhaps you have a story to tell, or maybe you earned some positive feedback from teachers, friends, and family. Maybe the feeling is more compulsion than desire. Regardless, you have arrived at the decision that you want to write, and you want to know where to begin.

You’ve bought books on the subject, subscribed to magazines, searched for online articles with cruddy titles like “Crippling Advice For Beginning Writers,” and now you feel somewhere between overwhelmed, confused, and despondent. Why does it have to be so hard? Why can’t I just write?

You can, and that’s what makes the following writing tips so deadly for a novice writer. The most important thing is to get your hand–or hands, if you prefer a keyboard–moving, but all of these well meaning bits of wisdom act as speed bumps, sapping your enthusiasm and slowing your creative energy.

So here you go. You have permission to ignore the following bits of expert advice:

  1. Create a sacred space/time where you can sit and write. You don’t need a study, a Moleskine notebook, and a relaxation candle in order to write. I write everywhere. I’ve written on receipts, grocery bags, my hand, and newspaper margins. I text myself ideas, dialog, and the occasional sentence too good to let get away. Humans have cruddy short term memories. If an idea strikes, get it down before you forget it. (Note: If I disappear after this posts, you’ll know I’ve been taken out by Big Candle.)
  2. Find your voice. What does that even mean? Your voice will find you. Just write.
  3. Aim for X words per day. No, aim to write. People don’t realize how emotionally and mentally exhausting writing can be. This thing takes a lot of energy, just like a marathon. Nobody goes from sedentary to marathon ready by aiming for 10 miles per day. They start by getting off of their couches for an evening walk, then a jog. After a few months they’ve built the stamina necessary to run. It’s all about conditioning. Just write. Daily word targets are something to consider when you’re in shape.
  4. Start with a plot / Begin with the end in mind. This one is pure poison. It’s like handing a preschooler a box of Legos and saying “Begin with a finished Death Star in mind.” Parts of speech are just Legos–start by playing with them. Stack them up, string them together, enjoy yourself. Be open to the fact that the Death Star you thought you were building is turning into a football helmet, but what a cool football helmet. Many beginning writers will fold under the weight of trying to plot an entire story rather than just writing the damned thing to see where it goes.
  5. Write background profiles for your characters. If that keeps your hand moving and gives you some Legos to work with then feel free, but as you grow as a writer you’ll find that your characters reveal themselves as you write. “Steve patted the pocket where his phone always was.” There’s a Lego. The next one you add will teach you more about Steve.
  6. Avoid cliches. Embrace cliches. You’re just starting out: What you know is mostly cliches. Cliches are the big, rectangular Legos of popular culture. As the pages stack up and the years go by, you’ll naturally move away from cliches because they will bore you. You will want more variety in your work. It just happens. For now, though, just write.
  7. Vary your sentence structure and word choices. Both points are critical to good writing, but your mission is this: Stop caring about writing well. You are practicing right now, not competing. The important thing at this point in your career is to keep your hands moving.
  8. Grammar matters. Yes, it does, but not right now. The longer you write, the more interesting you’ll find questions of how language works. There’s a corollary here to photography. Cellphone cameras are ubiquitous, and thanks to that technology most of us can take a pretty nice looking photo of our grilled portobello sandwich with locally sourced baby kale and heirloom tomatoes. A few of us become so enamored with photography that we go down the bunny hole of shutter speeds, focal lengths, aperture settings, on and on. These people are photographers, the rest of us take pictures. When you’re starting out as a writer, making word pictures is good enough. It’s fun. It’s motivating. Don’t let fear of a dangling participle or a split infinitive keep you from making word pictures.

If you avoid all of the cruddy advice and simply write, what you’ll wind up with is stacks of pages. Some will be junk, others will contain flashes of greatness. You will have some Legos to play with–some characters, dialog, settings, plot ideas, and what-if statements. You might even have a rough draft of a story, at which point a whole new list of writerly tasks and considerations comes into play, but that’s an advice column for another day.

You’ll have gained something else, too: Stamina, the ability to sustain concentration long enough to get complex ideas out of your head and onto paper. That’s the most important goal for a young writer, because once you have stamina you can start working on control, which is what many of these bullets are really about.

Now go play with your Legos. Have fun. Worry about being a “writer” another day.

Categories: on writing

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