Writing is like lightning in a bottle. As authors, we often feel like we have to be struck by inspiration before we can sit down at the keys or with pen in hand, and put our ideas down. But if you want to write for a living, that isn’t a very helpful way to approach your craft.
I was in second grade when my mother decided I should take piano lessons. My foray into the musical arts didn’t last very long and, to be honest, I was a horrible pianist. I did take something away from those lessons, though. “Practice every day for at least one hour,” my teacher told me.
I wasn’t a good student; I hated practicing, and I stopped the lessons in a matter of weeks. It’s no surprise that I can barely play chopsticks some 33 years later. Professional musicians practice every day and that is why they are able to make a living at music.
In college, I was away from home for the first time. I wanted to be an art major, because I loved to draw. That lasted about three and a half years. I had some talent for two-dimensional art, but I was an impatient twenty-something and easily distracted by the new world around me.
One of my professors told me, “Draw every day, even if it’s just doodling.” I didn’t. I drew when the muse struck, and claimed I couldn’t draw otherwise, or if people were watching me, or on demand for assignments. I was rewarded for my excuses and lack of commitment with a slew of “C’s” in my art courses. Eventually, I switched majors and earned a degree in something that didn’t require me to be creative on demand.
I neglected to do something in both pursuits which might have made the difference between success and failure. I neglected to engage in my chosen craft every day. Two years ago, when I decided to give writing a real shot, I recognized that I would go down that same path to failure if I didn’t change my outlook on “practice.”
Write every day. I know what you’re thinking. “I don’t have ideas every day for my novel/story/memoirs.” So what? Who says you have to write that every day? Just do something directly related to your writing. Immerse yourself in the craft of writing every day, for at least an hour. Seven hours a week is not a huge commitment if this is something you want to succeed at.
“But Bridget,” you think, “I don’t have an hour of free time every day. I have work/kids/underwater basket weaving class.” I don’t recall saying it had to be a consecutive hour every day. 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there. Find those moments when you can focus on your craft. Tell your significant other and dependents that you are “On Duty” for that block of time. Turn off Facebook, the cell phone, the television, your email. Nothing is going to explode if you dedicate a few minutes to work on something important to you, right? And if you don’t make your hour today, add the time to tomorrow’s hour. At first, you may find yourself having to play catch-up on the weekends, but so be it.
I know some of you are looking at this, stumped over what to do for those seven hours a week if your muse is on vacation in Tahiti, sipping a drunken monkey on a beach, while you’re locked inside your brain trying to put thoughts to paper. Some ideas:
- Write your story/novel/memoir. Duh. This is our goal, but it doesn’t make itself available to us every day. Some days, there seems to be a 30 foot-high wall between our ideas and our fingertips, locking away that all important route through our brain where ideas become prose. Some days, we have to do something else in order to break down that wall. Thus the rest of my suggestions.
- Start a blog reviewing books, posting recipes, or telling jokes. My husband and I put together a small blog reviewing local food trucks. We try to post once every two weeks. It gets us used to deadlines and schedules, and also the practice of research (tasty, tasty research.)
- Write little anecdotes for public consumption in a note on Facebook. I have a friend who puts up hilarious little slice-of-life snippets about incidents with her adorable son. It might not advance your novel, but it advances your ability to communicate a scene to a reader.
- Read a book on writing and complete any provided exercises. There are thousands of resources out there. The more we learn, the better we write. One of my favorites is “On Writing” by Stephen King.
- Doodle, or write up character sketches, of your protagonists and antagonists. They don’t have to be beautiful art or poetry, but get the images out of your head onto paper as a reference for yourself and others. I have in depth descriptions of Sister Mike Lassiter and Eleanor Wickham, as well as sketches of them. These will never appear in my stories, but the references ensure my characters are portrayed consistently.
- Brainstorm story ideas. Make up a list of ideas you have for characters, scenes, plots, dialogue, situations, and backgrounds. Mix and match them. Who knows? Put enough of them together and you might find a story in there somewhere.
- Interview your characters. Come up with a list of questions (I particularly like James Lipton’s 10 questions on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”) and write your characters’ responses to them. This helps give your characters depth and life, and gives you a written reference for how they see the world.
- Engage in text-based roleplay. There is an entire world on the internet in which people roleplay as characters in situations through the written word. Play-by-email, MUSHes and MUXes (played via telnet), Livejournal RP communities, Forum RP, and RP even on MMOs. Would it surprise you to know that several of my characters were created for MUXes? Eleanor Wickham started off as a cop on a game based in the world of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories. Finn Walker was crafted for a World of Darkness Changeling game. Roleplaying those characters in different environments helped me to craft their personalities. Visit Mud Stats and peruse what’s out there in the MUSH and MUX offerings.
- If all other avenues elude you in which you actually write something, engage in research for your stories and take copious notes. Spend the day surfing the web, going to the library, photographing a location, or visiting a museum in order to inspire yourself and expand your knowledge base for your work. I’ve been to the Texas Renaissance Festival dozens of times, which inspired my story “Chivalry Is Dead.” It would have been very difficult to write if I’d never been there.
- As a last resort (or in the case of having finished your draft), edit your story/novel/memoir. Duh part two. The word vomit we initially put on paper is typically not fit for human consumption. Go back and tighten up part of your story if you’re stuck in the progress department. BUT BE WARNED! Don’t get too deep into editing before the rest of the story is down. Many writers fall into the trap of an edit loop, where the rewrite the same chapter or three over and over and over, and never finish the story.
These are all just suggestions, but one thing is an imperative. Writers write. If you want to be a writer, then write every day.
What tricks do you use to get yourself writing again?
Bridget P. Haines is the author of “Cold Hard Cache” and “Chivalry Is Dead” from Deadly Diversions. A native of Niagara Falls, NY, she now lives with her husband Paul in Houston, TX. This self-proclaimed geek-girl is also a gamer, hobbyist photographer, and cake decorator.