For July this year I held a writing workshop for young adults at the public library in the city.
During this time I’ve learned a lot about myself as a writer, while trying to guide others through their own writing experience. I’ve also come across some misconceptions people and prospective writers have about writing in general. So I thought I would share them with you this month.
1. Most people don’t understand what it takes to be a writer.
Writing, like painting or dancing or sculpting, is a creative art. But while it is acceptable that a painter take careful time to paint a portrait or a dancer through daily diligence works to choreograph a piece or a sculptor patiently chips away at a block to achieve the correct form, I think most people believe writing happens all in one creative blast when you are suddenly inspired and BAM! a story magically appears on a page.
Though I have experienced incredible bursts of what seemed to be writing genius in my life, especially while writing poetry, everything else has taken time.
Writing a creative piece is a process of working through and working out your story. It takes time and dedication, and sweat and tears and anxiety and stress and long nights and busy days trying to sneak writing in at every corner and missing being apart of the party to work on your book and everything else in between that comes when you work hard for something you want.
It is WORK and it is WONDERFUL to see it form under your hands and the more time you put into it the better you get at it but what it ISN’T is fairy godmother magic and ‘poof’ a book appears.
2. Procrastination is the bane of a writers existence.
Writers need to write. If you don’t write you will not get anywhere. So putting it off until tomorrow or when you have time (you will never have time! And when you do you’ll end up browsing Yahoo and Facebook) is not helping you get your writing done any faster. Just do it. Now. You cannot have a story if you don’t write one and you cannot write a story if you don’t sit your butt down and start writing it.
3. You are not serious about writing until you set a deadline to finish your work.
Serious writers set deadlines for their work, and they actually work on completing it by the end of that time. They give themselves a daily word count that they have to reach every day and they get into the habit of writing every single day and they keep writing until their book is finished.
That’s how you get to that first draft. That’s how you get your whole story down so you can edit it. That’s how you get something workable that you can take to publishing. Not by putting off writing. Not by saying you’ll do it tomorrow and then never doing it. You set a deadline and you stick to it. Otherwise you’re just dreaming about being a writer really.
4. A first draft doesn’t take long to write and is mediocre at best.
Now, if you just have a vague idea and it’s not a story yet then maybe you should spend some serious time brain storming and building plot points. But outside of not knowing where you want your story to go, a first draft once you stick to it and put in the work writing everyday, does not take long to hash out. Two to three months tops.
I have literally had people look at me cross-eyed, from academics to regular joes, when I tell them I do NaNoWriMo every year (sometimes twice a year) and I crank out 50000 words in a month. I have had people doubt the quality of work that comes out of such a neck breaking writing sprint but there’s no reason to doubt the quality.
First, because 50’000 words ain’t all that much to begin with once you’ve done it a few times and second, because I know it’s mediocre quality. So is every first draft, whether you take one month or one year to write it down.
A first draft is a blue print to build on. Under no circumstances, I don’t care if you are the most celebrated writer ever, do you take this to publishing. You do not want to go down in history as the writer who published a first draft or the publisher who let them. I won’t call any names but let’s just say your situation will be very grey if you do.
And it’s okay if it’s mediocre. That’s what revision is for. You can go back and fix it later once you have your core story down. Having that base to work with, having a completed albeit rough story is so much better than plodding along, nit-picking and fixing everything and making sure every sentence is perfect before you move on. It is tiring and discouraging. Get it all down, then fix it.
5. Revision is your best friend
This is where the true magic happens. This is where you sew your awkward caterpillar of a book up into a cocoon and work on making it a beautiful butterfly. Do not throw that cocoon under the bed or stack it in a book shelf thinking you are done because you wrote the words, “The End.” Whether you are considering publishing or not, if you want your book to be the best it can be revise and rewrite it.
Editing a first draft takes a while. Sometimes years. Tolkien worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy for 12 years before he took it to publishing and even then it took about four years to actually hit the book stores. Think of the bazillion amount of drafts that manuscript probably went through in that time to get to the celebrated literary piece that it is today which was evidently worth it.
Your book will go through many drafts as well until you are satisfied with it. Of course you don’t have to take as long as Tolkien did. Clearly his work creating a whole civilization with different cultures and history and languages was a magnanimous under taking.
But things like grammar and sentence structure, more detailed descriptions, plot sequence flow, everything that you had leave to vaguely ignore for the sake of getting your story down in your first draft, revision is where you fix that.
5. The only way to know if something is worth writing is to write it down
Every writer thinks their idea isn’t good enough at some point. Whether at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of your story. You will feel as if what you created isn’t worth being written far less for being published for others to see.
You’ll read bad reviews about books you thought were actually pretty good and doubt your intellectual tastes. But here’s where the ‘why’ behind your writing comes into play, and reviews and the perceived worth of your written work has nothing to do with that.
Sure I’ve scuffed at my fair share of books that I thought were horrible. I’ve been honestly upset over published pieces that made what I want to do and try to be as a writer seem inferior. However if the writing of that piece helped to cleanse or heal or fulfill something in the writers that wrote it, then the book did it’s job and just for the sake of that it should exist.
Because writing is therapy for many people. It’s power and inspiration and living and breathing, fulfilling a deep need that only writing your words down can fill.
I can try to describe what writing means to me a billion times and I will NEVER feel as if I did it adequately enough. My best explanation of why I write is still to this day a quote from a woman who used to write in the editorial section of one of our daily newspapers.
If I don’t write, I’ll die. – Jaye-Q Baptiste
Simple. So if you want to write something down and it’s killing you that you are not then just write it. You can decide if it’s good enough when you are done but for now remember that writing is for you first, everyone else later.
6. Writers need to get out of their head.
So this is a note on editing (revision!!). I found that many of the writers struggled with developing their main characters but one of the best ways to do that is to put a little work into your supporting characters and the relationships your protagonist has with them.
If you understand ALL your characters and why they do what they do it makes their interactions with each other feel more real. Otherwise you can also run the risk of making assumptions about your other characters that make no sense. Especially if you are writing from inside your main characters head.
One of the excerpts I read from a story during the workshop had one main character whose father had left when she was eleven and turned up again when she was eighteen. Her anger and frustration at him leaving suddenly and not keeping in contact was understandable but it wasn’t understandable why her brother who had the same man leave him at the same age as well didn’t seem to have any hurt feelings towards their disappearing dad.
Matter of fact he didn’t seem to have any feelings at all about it. Whether he was upset or not upset that his father had abandoned their family was unknown and it made the story seem very unbalanced as for pages I had to read of how upset the main character was about it and how everyone else was understanding of how upset she was about it. But eventually I found myself wondering, why is she the only one upset about it? It’s like the rest of her family wasn’t apart of her family when her father left and didn’t miss and love him too. It made no sense.
Maybe the brother just had a different temperament than she did. Maybe he was upset but was hiding his feelings. Maybe he wasn’t as close to their father as she was. I don’t know, but it was never clarified and made the protagonist seem unreasonable and rash which I don’t think was the way the writer had intended for the reader to view them.
The brother’s character was never developed past being a side prop for his sister’s emotions. And that’s one of the ways writers ‘write in their heads’. Creating a dynamic between her brother’s feelings and hers and how he felt about their father, whatever his feelings were, and using it to develop the story would have made it more interesting and her main character more understandable.
Explaining too much is also a fault of writing in your head (points at self) so there needs to be a balance in how much you explain for the reader to build a connection with your characters.
A simple way to help fix this, and most rough spots in your story really, READ YOUR STORY OUT LOUD. If what you are reading doesn’t make sense to you or the person you are reading it to, you will be able to tell when you hear it ‘outside’ of your head. Hopefully the holes in your plot will be clear. Well, if you are open to seeing them. 😀
– Written by Travesaou
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