Five lessons I’ve learned from writing five books
1. Time is a writer’s most valuable commodity: It’s hard to write when you’re tired. When I teach creative writing classes I tell my students that I write every day, which is true, but that doesn’t make it easy. When I sit down at 9 o’clock at night, after a long day, and try to continue a story that I’ve been writing for three months, it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. It would be easier to sit down and watch an episode of Stranger Things, or read a book, or go for a walk, or bake a cake. It would be easier to do just about anything than write the next part of that book. So if you’re out there, and you’re struggling because the only time you can find to write is at night or at 5 in the morning, I feel your pain. Try to find time, time when you’re fresh. Fight for that time and don’t feel guilty when you take it. People fight for time to exercise and they fight for time to make money, it’s perfectly legit to fight for time to write.
2. Do the work every day: You’ve no doubt heard the quote by Ovid, “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” Well guess what, that’s not just a hokey inspirational quotation, this actually holds true with writing. If you can move your story forward a little every day, even if it’s only one sentence at a time, there will inevitably come a day when you write those amazing words, “The End.” That’s how you slay the dragon and become a hero. That’s how you finish what you start.
3. Finish what you start: Okay, so I’ve actually written six books in the last six years, but one of those books hasn’t quite made the cut. It’s a good story, with interesting characters, and a distinctive style, but it’s not ready for the world yet. I knew it wasn’t quite right halfway through writing it, but I’ve made a vow to myself that I will finish everything that I start. Why? Because it’s the only way I will figure out what’s wrong with what I’m doing. If I bail on a project because it’s not working, then I never consider why it’s not working. If I walk away I learn nothing. When the wheels fall off you must consider why that happened. Is it the plot? The characters? Is it the point of view? Figure out the problem, fix it, and march on. Once you cross that river, once you start the book, burn your bridges, there is no going back.
4. Finish the first draft: My worst habit as a writer is going back and constantly revising the first half of my book. I’ll write the first 40 pages a dozen times, maybe two dozen times. I tell myself I’m doing this to make sure all my ducks are in a row, but really I’m doing it to avoid moving on. I’ve watched myself waste two weeks (sometimes more) writing one beginning, changing it radically, and then revising myself back to the original beginning. I’m hiding from the ending. I’m resisting writing the next part. Here’s the thing, you probably don’t know how the book is going to turn out until you actually finish the first draft, so revising the beginning over and over doesn’t put all your ducks in a row, because eventually you’re going to have to make changes to the beginning of the book based on the ending, which you don’t know until you FINISH THE FIRST DRAFT.
5. Take some time to plan before you begin: I know some writers say they don’t plan, but I bet they do. They might not lay out their story plot point by plot point, but I bet they mull things over in their head at the very least. I recently watched a video clip in which Stephen King said he’ll tell himself a new story as he goes to sleep before he starts to write it. He seems pretty dead set against planning out his books, but it sounds like he works things out in his head, at least a little, before he starts pounding out words on a keyboard. I like to plan a bit, and I know it saves me time in the end (and time is my most valuable commodity). Ken Follett plans a lot, Stephen King is on the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m somewhere in the middle. A lot of young writers don’t want to plan, they want to get their ideas down on paper and they want to do it right away, but in my experience spending some time planning things out will make your story better in the end.