verba volent, scripta manent – words flee, writing remains
LEARNING HOW: WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!
Article # 3 in the "Getting Started in Fiction" series
"Practice is the best of all instructors."
– Publilius Syrus, Syrian-born Roman author
A writer writes. And writes. And writes. Writing is one activity where practice does make perfect — or at least, better.
But what is writing? Yes, it's sitting in front of a computer and typing in words. But if you've ever faced that blank screen and not known how to start, you'll know that the process of writing must involve more than the physical act of striking keys on a keyboard. So what is writing?
Well, before you can do anything, you have to have an idea, even a glimmering of an idea. Once you have that, you turn your mind loose on it; you start the writing process by thinking. Yup, thinking. Ask writers how they write a story, and they'll tell you that up to 75% of their writing time may be spent seemingly staring into space, not typing anything at all.
Thinking an idea into a story doesn't have to be conscious work. Lodge an idea in your mind, and you'll be surprised at what it spits out, at the unlikeliest moments. I've learned to keep a pen and notepad by my bed, in the bathroom, in my car. While you're on autopilot, doing things you don't have to think about, like waking up and taking a shower and driving to work, you've cleared more space in your mind for it to work on that idea. Be ready to write down what it comes up with.
When you do start jotting things down, you may be surprised to find that the simple act of putting pen to paper seems to act as a conduit — more and more flows from your mind onto the paper. Write it all down. Don't try to organize it or prettify it, just write it all down. Do you feel yourself getting excited? Is it all coming together now? Then move on to stage two — sit down at your computer.
"Ah," you think then, "the moment of truth. Can I do this?" Not if you sit and worry about it. A writer writes. Don't talk yourself out of it, just do it. Right now, no one but you will see this. So what are you afraid of? Who are you trying to impress? Are you that hard on yourself that you can't throw the ideas clamoring in your mind out onto a computer screen? This is your first draft; it's as far as you can get from the finished product, and that's okay. Don't know how the story will end yet? Don't know what happens after the first scene? Oh well. Think about that when you get there. Right now, write. Chances are, once you get going, the first scene will point the way toward the next logical scene, and so on.
"But I don't know how to begin the story yet," you protest. "I only know what's going to happen in the middle." So write the middle. No one ever said a story has to be written chronologically, from beginning through middle to end. It just has to read as if you wrote it that way, when you've finished writing the whole thing. Go back to write the beginning once you've written your middle. Knowing where the story goes will help you write a suitable beginning.
Still feeling intimidated? Look at what you've decided to write. A novel? That's a big commitment; of course it's scary. Take it a page at a time. Or try writing a short story instead. Even the thought of a few-thousand-word short story leaves you feeling inadequate to the task? Well then, try flash fiction (a story between 100 and 1,000 words). All lengths contain the same basic fiction elements, so whether you write a 500-word flash fiction piece or a 5,000 word short story or spend years creating a novel, chapter by chapter, it's all good practice, and practice makes your writing better, remember. Just keep in mind that writers write, but a story isn't a story unless it's finished. So tackle a length that will let you finish what you start, a length that will, indeed, gratify you with a sense of accomplishment.
Should you write every day? Many writers will say that yes, you should sit down and write every day. And it's easier to keep the ideas flowing from mind to screen if you open the conduit every day. But remember, there's more to writing than hitting keys. If you feel intimidated when you sit down some days and look at that blank screen, then sit somewhere else. Write in a journal. Read over what you've already written. Research some aspect of the story you're working on. THINK. It will come. Just don't let anything put it off, once it does. Writers write. Procrastination isn't writing.
Okay, so you've written something; you've finished that first draft. Are you done? Are you a writer with a finished story now?
Nope. Just as writing isn't just hammering away at a keyboard, there's more to writing fiction than thinking through an idea and writing it down. The next step in writing an effective piece of fiction is revision.
What? You think it's fine the way it is? Consider what best-selling author Richard North Patterson has to say: "Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with a first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing."
An inevitable part of writing is revision. Once you've poured everything out of your head onto the screen, now's the time to look at it not as the creator, but as a reader. Does everything make sense? Does everything flow logically? Do the characters seem real? Are all your facts straight, your own inventions plausible? You learn to write by doing. You learn to write better by making mistakes, seeing where you went wrong, and being willing to fix them.
"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon," said author Robert Cormier. "You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile." Don't be afraid to change things or move things around; if something doesn't fit, you have to cut it...at least from this story. If something doesn't work, rewrite it. If it still doesn't work, rewrite it again. Or cut it. If you can't bring yourself to do this, then you're still in creator mode. Put the story aside for two weeks, maybe longer. Then look at it from this new distance, and ruthlessly make it readable. As Patterson said, the difference between being a writer and a publishable writer is being willing to revise.
Writing is thinking, writing, and revising. It is also having the courage to show what you've written to others — to share a piece of yourself with others. My sister has a drawer full of her writing. She's never shown it to anyone, not even me. Is she a writer? Yes. Has her writing improved, with all that practice? Perhaps. Will she ever know? No.
Send it out. Send the story to a critique group, and learn from members' feedback. Submit it for publication...and learn from rejections, and send it out again. Having the courage to send what you've written out into the world is your final act in writing. And in order to be a writer, you have to act.
Marg Gilks is a writer and professional editor specializing in fiction. She's been working one-on-one with authors to help them prepare their work for publication for over ten years. Visit http://www.scripta-word-services.com/ to learn more about her editing services, manuscript evaluations, and FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION, her 8-week e-mail course covering fiction-writing basics including point of view, showing instead of telling...all the way through to putting the final polish on your manuscript.
This article may be reprinted in its entirety (including bio) if you e-mail me for permission.
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