Writing is Practice
Your first draft is not your final draft.
How much time do you sit at your computer writing? How much time do you not sit at your computer but think about writing? How much time do you not sit at your computer and think about how much you should be writing?
These are all different levels of writing, but only one actually gets the work done. But this isn't another piece of writing advice designed to make you feel bad because you aren't sitting in a chair for five hours a day writing your novel or working on your memoir. This is actually the exact opposite.
Why do we not write?
We turn ourselves away from writing so often because we are worried we don't have anything to say; we are worried we won't say the right thing; we find a disconnect between what we think our story is about vs. what we have written on the page. The blank page becomes a trope, a dragon needing to be defeated or a mountain needing to be climbed, or a zombie endlessly feeding on our brain until there is nothing left for us to think about.
How did it come to this?
How did we go from a writer with a need to share our story with the world to a shriveling, sniveling mess brought to tears by the cursed blank space of a literal or simulated piece of paper?
Because we have given that blank page power.
Why have we given the blank page power?
Because we compare our not-yet-written work to the works of our writing heroes.
It doesn't matter who you admire: King, Rowling, Brown, Morisson, Lispector, Saramago, Pousson, Achebe, Adichie, Oyeyemi, Dunn, Dickens, and the list goes on and on and on…
You compare the page not-yet-written to their completed works of fiction, works that have been sweated over, bled over, revised, revisited, thrown out, dug out of the garbage, cleaned up, edited, looked over by Beta readers, looked over by professional editors, looked over by copy editors. You compare your not-yet-written story to works that have gone through practice.
Have you heard the term "Writing Practice?"
Writing practice was how many of my instructors, and myself, referred to the act of writing. As a writer, you should know, words matter. By emphasizing the concept of practice, we can come to terms with the concept of work in progress, writing in progress, writer in progress.
Do not call your manuscript a book; do not call it your novel or memoir. Put a word to the concept that makes it less scary, that reminds you to exercise, experiment, and explore. It is your practice, a place for you to find the words that explain your concepts. Your practice is a way to discover how you want to write, what you want to write about, and giving yourself the space to learn the rules, find the guidelines, and break everything until yourstory emerges.
Even as writers, and knowing words matter, it's still not as easy as it sounds to change a word and suddenly feel better about the entire situation. How we connect to the page is as important as the words we put on the page. Feeling scared about the page repels us from writing. Feeling good about the page draws us to the chair to write more. Feeling bad about our writing repels us from the page. Feeling good about our writing brings us back to the page to write more.
Practice Makes Imperfection
Instead of just talking about changing our words and needing to look at the page differently, let's put these words into practice with a number of exercises that may make your writing and the blank page far less precious.
1. Write blindfolded
If you can write blindfolded, you won't be looking at the blank page. You'll sit in the dark, envisioning your work, and finding the ways to bring what you see to the page.
2. Make a collage
If you aren't happy with what you've written or you are compelled to stay away from your pages, turn them into a collage instead. If the former, print out the pages and cut them up literally using scissors. Whether cutting full sentences or words, cut them out and place them back together to see what story you are making now. If the latter, write without thinking about what story you creating because you know you will print out the pages and cut up the sentences and words.
3. Give yourself permission to write terribly
If writing badly is your fear, give yourself permission to write one horrible sentence, then another. In fact, do it on purpose. Write the worst sentence you can think of, something like "fun was had." I hate that sentence; why? Because it's so distant, it's so passive, it has not character. What sentence will you write if given permission to write your worst?
4. Write an entire bad story
Write an entire bad story on purpose. Use all the techniques you hate or were told are terrible. Break the rules, leap over the guidelines, tell and don't show, exposit every detail, forget quotation marks, insert a twist without any breadcrumbs. When you write badly on purpose, you get a story on paper you can then revise. I quote Jodi Picoult all the time because her advice is spot on: "You can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page."
5. Pick a prompt
A prompt helps us escape the dreaded blank mind, when we look deep into the abyss of the white page and think "I have nothing to write about." A prompt doesn't have to be specific. It could rely on theme, it could rely on an action, it could rely on a feeling. It's about giving you a starting point from which you can feel confident leaping into the abyss.
A writing practice is an exercise routine
you won't stick with something if you hate. Hate running? Don't run. Hate yoga? Don't yoga. If you hate sitting at the computer for four hours, don't. If you hate sitting at the computer waiting for inspiration to strike, don't.
Every writer has advice on how to start writing, how to get in the char and get the work done but it, as I've said before, that won't help you. You need to find what works best for you and how you need to work.
Start with changing your wording around your writing. From now on, it is your practice, a place you to explore your craft and get better every time you sit down at the page.
And when your first draft is done, you have done some great practice, and can then return to your writing to start the next draft, knowing full well, the original was a great start but is not anywhere close to the end.
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