Taking the Plunge: An Initiation into the Writing Life

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asked a lot of questions by people who are interested in writing a book. They range from tire-kickers to hard-core committed, but they all have one thing in common: fear.

One of the main questions was: how do I get started? Most of my clients have day jobs, and writing tends to take a backseat after dealing with long days of corporate shenanigans. Plus, there is this big myth surrounding the writing life, that a mere mortal can’t get a book written. Granted, it takes a lot of focus (and prayer) to get a book put out there, but no more than it would for someone to work toward a promotion, or earn a college degree (at any level), or raise a family. And with the ease of self-publishing these days, it’s really not that hard to become a published author. Still, people freak out about the very act of getting started.

Folks, there is no magic formula to writing a book. The only thing you have to do is: write.

(Publishing is another matter, but let’s just focus on actually having something to publish, for now.)

“But…but…I don’t have the time,” you may wail. “I have a job/kids/bowling/errands/pets; when am I going to find the time to write?”

Answer: you will find the time when you make the time. As with most goals in life, it all comes down to desire: how badly do you want it?

We all make time for things we want to do. If writing is what truly lights you up inside (as opposed to something you see solely as a means to make money), then carve out the time to do it. Wake up earlier to get some writing time in. Use your tablet/iPad/smartphone to get some writing in on your lunch break. Write before you go to bed.  But most importantly, write.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Baby steps. Writing for a short time a day, or a few pages a day, when done consistently, will yield a book. A book can range anywhere from 150-350 pages, on average, depending on the type of book you want to write. Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) has a good solution to the “I don’t have time” conundrum. Try it and see if it works for you.

A book that I highly recommend is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (yeah, that Stephen King).

On Writing S. King original  On Writing 10th anniv edition S. King

The popular author of bestsellers such as Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, The Running ManThe Shining, and short stories/novellas that became movies (The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me were originally published in a collection of short stories, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) wrote a very comprehensive guide to writing that is part autobiography, part writing boot camp. (did you know that he actually threw the manuscript for Carrie in the garbage, because he was so discouraged by rejection from publishers, and thought that he didn’t have what it took to get published? His wife fished it out of the garbage and sent it to his agent. The rest, as they say, is history).

One of the things that King mentions as a must for writers is reading. A writer has to read.  This is non-negotiable. It’s important to see how other writers set up scenes, move plots, describe characters, put words together. It’s also a good way to get ideas (most book topics out here have been recycled many times, but with different spins). Keep in mind that getting ideas is not the same as plagiarizing; if you can’t make a subject/idea your own without blatantly copying from another, then let it go.  I mean, really making it different: this goes beyond just changing a character name and/or location and passing that off as originality. I can’t tell you how many The Da Vinci Code knockoffs I’ve seen circulating around; they are very obvious, so you’ve probably seen them too.

Another vehicle that I recommend is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. I’ve done this every year for the past five (six?) years. This occurs every November, and you have the entire month to write a 50,000-page novel (which is approximately 250 pages). The “winner” (who reaches or exceeds the 50K-word goal) gets bragging rights and a bunch of discounts and freebies from self-publishing vehicles such as CreateSpace and Lulu, and e-book vendors such as Kobo (I finally “won” in 2013, and that is the book that is coming out this October. Yay me!). You have to buy your own T-shirt, though. 🙂 There is no fee for entry, and it’s fun to participate in local events that are geared toward helping you get to that 50,000-word finish line. This is a good way to meet other writers, who can help hold you accountable toward finishing your goal. It’s a good way to make yourself write and if you don’t “win”, that’s cool; at least you’ve gotten started.

An expanded feature of NaNoWriMo is that they do Camp NaNoWriMo, which are month-long, virtual writing “camps” that take place in April and July (signups for July are now open). You get to meet “cabin mates” (fellow writers who can help you be accountable) and set your own writing goals, as opposed to the default 50,000 words. If you only want to write 10,000 words (approximately 25 pages), then do that. 25K words? No problem. Whole hog at 50K? Go for it! It’s all good.

[As a matter of fact, I’ve signed up for the July Camp NaNoWriMo, so holler at your girl (I’m afrosaxon in the ATL). Maybe we can be cabin mates!]

One thing I don’t personally recommend is writing workshops, where a bunch of people sit around and share and critique each other’s work. There are some good ones out there (I guess), but my experience with said workshops is that not all participants are in it to win it. Some use workshops as a safe space where they don’t actually have to put themselves out there to the public; you’d be surprised at how many workshop participants have been in them for years, and are always “preparing” for publication. These also tend to be the same people who are quick to tear down your work in a non-constructive way (under the guise of constructive criticism). What starts as a vehicle for nurturing becomes a crutch. When you are a serious writer, and especially a fledgling writer, you need to surround yourselves with people who are in alignment with your goals. It’s just like marriage, or a committed relationship: are you going to take advice from single friends, or from those who have achieved that which you seek and are thus better equipped to understand your struggle? You can’t fly like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.

So to those who are thinking about writing a book, article, blog, it’s time to roll like Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

yoda do or do not try

Thanks for stopping by.

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