I have three kids. I have a full-time job running a 24-hour restaurant. I own a home that requires constant upkeep. I have a wife who’s guaranteed to leave me a “Honey-do” list every week on my day(s) off. And yet, these are the least of the problems that keep me from writing.
The thing that keeps me from writing most is when I hit the wall with a story. So many times we’re told that you must write 1,000 words every day and we mustn’t abandon a project until it’s completed. I think this is usually pretty good advice. But not always.
The Gold Standard
Stephen King’s On Writing is the gold standard of writing manuals. Everybody loves it and many authors swear by his methods. I enjoy the book, but many of his ideas do not work for me.
Two, I’m a planner. It works for me. I know this because I tried to be a pantser for a long time and was never able to finish anything. I don’t believe in writing “organically.” I believe what artists do is necessarily “inorganic.” For me, the spontaneity of writing is in the outlining, and I allow for the story to change when my characters surprise me. An outline isn’t written in stone.
Finding what works
He’s also a big believer in finishing one project before moving on to another. I remember reading about a professional writer (whose name eludes me) that kept five typewriters in his office. Each one had a separate project and when he ran out of steam, he moved to the next typewriter and continued writing.
And then, of course, there’s the famous Anthony Trollope, whose method of writing 3 hours every morning before work allowed him to write almost fifty novels in his life. And he was panned not for the quality of his works but because of this fact. How, the believers of organic writing would say, did Trollope arrange this daily meeting with the Muse? That’s not possible, they say, and as evidence I’ll point to how much I always struggle.
My point is that writers should be willing to acknowledge that there’s not one method. And that discovery should lead us to two facts. First, just because someone works in a way that doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean that they’re not good or “real” writers. Second, try every method out there and find out what works for you.
I live by the outline, but I write freely as well. Most of my stories come from one image in my mind. I write out that scene and then create the characters and outline from it. My outlines are usually pretty detailed. Each scene has a starting and ending point. But, how I get there is for me, and the characters, to find out as we go.
A lot of this is necessarily dependent on you having writers in your social circle. Talk about processes that work for you and listen to the processes that work for them. Try them out. If they work, incorporate their techniques into your own and find something that consistently works for you. And this goes for the actual tools you use as well.
- Do you write only on a manual typewriter to feel like Hemingway? Try writing on your phone, see what happens.
- Only write using an iPad? Try writing everything freehand just to get a feel of it.
- Only write using blue ink on yellow legal pads? You may like a word processor, give it a try.
Don’t pigeonhole yourself into a technique even if it works for you. Always be willing to try something different.
And just about every one of us feels beholden to a specific genre. Either one that we enjoy or that we’re good at. We see Stephen King, the master of the horror genre and forget that he wrote “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Or what about Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series who also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Take a chance.
Switching it up
- Always write high fantasy fiction? Write a mystery story and see what happens.
- Only write erotic fiction? Try sci-fi and see if you don’t surprise yourself.
- Love to write thrillers? Try a straight mainstream love story.
Cross into different forms of literature as well.
Expand your literary oeuvre
- Write a poem from the point-of-view of one of your characters.
- Write one scene purely in the form of a play.
- Write a nonfiction essay about what inspired you to write the story.
Fragmentation is all the rage these days.
Which brings us back to On Writing. Just as writers should feel free to pick and choose what makes their story, only use what works from different advice and not necessarily the whole process. I’ve got so many different writing books I can hardly keep up with them all. But it would be impossible to use everything from all of them all of the time. John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth was a book I was given in my Advanced Creative Writing class last October. I really enjoyed this book. The practical advice is amazing and I recommend it with almost no reservations. Almost.
The one issue I have is his belief that a writer should set a timer for a random number of minutes each day and just write. This is very similar to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way who recommends three longhand pages of “morning writing” at the beginning of every day. There’s nothing wrong with this and it is outstanding advice. But I think Dufresne takes it too far. He says that you should do this every single day and if you don’t you’re not a writer and you should just break your pen in two.
I disagree. I don’t think anyone can tell you that you are not a writer or you are. James Baldwin said that we don’t become writers, we discover that we are writers. Once you find this is true, you’re always a writer. You may not write today or tomorrow. You may take a week or a month off. As long as you come back, you’re a writer.
The most important thing is to not place limits on your writing. You really should dabble in everything. In the end, we’re creating whole worlds out of nothing. Why would you want to limit that at all?