As part of my life as the 2014 Piedmont Laureate, I am writing a new blog post every other week. I am more of a writing coach/mentor than I am a blogger, so I decided I would use this blog space to present a series of mini-lessons on writing short stories.
Think of it as a free online writing course. Feel free to share it with your friends.
Let’s get started.
That’s the hard part.
Writing is usually not a team sport. Even if you are working with another writer on a project, you are still really working alone most of the time, with a little bit of sharing thrown in once you’ve got it figured out in your head.
That’s the key: IN YOUR HEAD. Writing is a head game and in order to succeed you need to keep your demons at bay and not lose your nerve or, worse, lose your way.
Writing is not only a creative act; it’s a courageous act. It takes courage to put your thoughts on paper. That empty white sheet of paper or that blank screen in front of you is intimidating. The joke used to be that a writer started out every day by sharpening twenty pencils, shuffling papers, making a cup of coffee, returning a few phone calls, eating lunch then sharpening another twenty pencils in order to get started by 3pm. Some, like Hemingway (one of my favorite short story writers), managed to smoke a few cigarettes during this getting started exercise while he sipped a few cups of whiskey-laced coffee before the first word dropped onto the page. I’m more of a tea drinker and a desk cleaner. From time to time I throw in a few ankle circles just to keep the blood flowing to my brain.
When they took the pencils and the paper away, it made starting to write a lot harder. For a brief moment in time there was just that terrifying blank computer screen waiting to be addressed: no pencils, no excuses, plus the computer had spell check so you didn’t even have to get distracted from the task at hand by leafing through a dictionary. Then along came Facebook to replace those twenty sharpened pencils and that list of phone calls needing to be returned. Posting on Facebook, alas, is not writing.
So, how do you get started? Get comfortable.
Yep, it’s as easy as that.
Find a place where you feel comfortable. I’m talking about a comfortable table and chair, as well as a comfortable environment. The table could be your kitchen table, or a table at your favorite coffee shop. What matters is that when you sit down with your computer or your notepad in your writing place, you’re ready to start writing.
Next, turn off your cell phone and do the best you can to keep from clicking on that Facebook icon. Do not punish yourself if your mind wanders. Wandering is good for writing, as long as you return from your wandering to write.
Start slowly. When you first begin, commit to writing for a half an hour each day you sit down to write. Stare at the page a little. Be happy with a false start or two. Get familiar with that magic delete button. Make it work for you. Let it give you courage to put down anything that comes to mind. Getting started means turning on the words and letting them out, no matter how messy or miserable they might be.
I often start a piece in longhand in a small notebook I carry around in my purse. I prefer mechanical pencils to ones that need to be sharpened. I also like starting on 5x7 note cards. A blank 5x7 card is not as intimidating or as big of a commitment as a blank screen or a full sheet of white paper.
I consider a good day of writing to be two pages. That is, two pages that are polished, that I like, and I think move the story along. Three pages is a personal best triumph.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that two pages, or even three, are paltry… not worth the effort. But, think again. If you wrote two good pages every day for a year, and you took off four weeks for vacations and holidays, another week for your birthday, and every weekend, that means you would have 235 days of writing, which would net you 470 pages. Once you got those 470 pages down, you’d want to edit (more on that in a later blog) and would more than likely lose 70 pages. After editing you still have a 400-page manuscript. That’s a big deal. That’s a big book.
But, let’s be realistic. Stories take time. Good writing is really rewriting. And, life happens all the time.
I’d be thrilled to end a year with 200 pages I loved.
Get started. Be kind to yourself if you don’t make those two pages every day or even only one day out of five. Life is like that: take notes.
NEXT: LET’S TALK ABOUT SHORT STORIES.