Here is what works for me. I call them “rules,” for lack of a better word. They are things that I’ve noticed along the way. You might call them landmarks, just like on a road. I’ve discovered that when I don’t pay attention to these rules, I don’t write as well as I can. Yes, I know all about “the rules are made to be broken stuff,” but before breaking them, consider being mindful of them – because they really work. Be flexible. I continuously revise my rules as I discover something new that works.
If my suggestions don’t work for you, invent your own. I am not joking. Notice the pattern that supports your writing, and go with it. Also notice what undermines your writing — and do not feed it. You know what works best for you. Tap into your strength and listen to the wisdom of your inner voice. Listen to the quiet even when it feels like it is the void. Your Voice will eventually emerge. It always does. Believe.
1/ Write at the same time, in the same place. Every day. Otherwise, write for as long as possible, whenever and wherever possible. Give yourself a minimum quota – VS Naipaul writes only 200 words a day, Stephen King writes an average of 4,000 words. Figure out your comfort zone and push for 15% more. Do timed writing as an exercise. Try writing for ten minutes non-stop. Increase it to twenty. See what happens.
2/ Suspend judgment and go through your fear. Allow yourself to write, even if it’s shit and you end up throwing it out. And believe me, sometimes you will. Writing is by definition the process of self-discovery. Breathe life into your writing by going through your fear rather than avoiding it. The more you avoid fear, the more it crops up. All fear stems from the unknown. By making your fear known to yourself, you are dispelling its power. When you are a writer it is more frightening (and self-punishing) not to write than to write.
3/ Put your “critic” in jail, for life. Note: the critic does not deserve a capital “C” here or in your writing life. The critic doesn’t write. He or she thrives on being critical and only becomes taller by making you feel smaller. The “critic” is that voice in your head that stops you by telling you things like “you’re not good enough, you’ll never be good enough, the reviews will be lousy, you are a hack, yadi yadi ya, etc. etc.” Do not stand for any of this. Be relentless. Give your critic a life sentence and never allow him or her out on parole. You may, however, forgive your critic, because all writers are by nature perfectionists. While you write, suspend judgment. This is not to be confused with “not editing.” Simply allow yourself to write – on good days, but especially on bad days. Some of the best writing is done on “bad days.” Really.
4/ Never write drunk or high. If you are lonely it isn’t because you are a writer. It is because you are a writer who is not writing. Don’t romanticize those so-called “writer” states. In my opinion, no one ever writes anything worth reading when toasted. If you have a substance abuse problem, get help immediately. It will do wonders for your writing, if not instantly, then certainly long term.
Most writing is done alone. Occasionally you will write in a “writer’s group” in unison with other writers. However, even then, you are still writing your own words on paper, solo. Notice that once you write, you never really feel alone. Feel the smoothness of the paper beneath your hand, the feel of the pen gliding or stumbling, the memory of a place you never knew you knew so well, the mysterious future that unfolds with each word. It is the alienation of writers who do not write and or their personal life that is lonely, not the writing life. The best way to deal with your loneliness is to write. Breathe in and out as you write.
5/ Revise, edit and close your door until you’re ready to open it. I repeat. Revise and edit. That means you practice getting better and better. Just like biking, or playing an instrument or making love. Draft one of most stuff is well…let’s just say it’s draft one. Work alone without soliciting anyone else’s opinion, until you feel you are ready to open the door.
You will know in your gut when the time has come to open that door. Do not hold onto the work once you feel you have a completed manuscript. This does not mean that you will not need to revise again. It just means that you are ready to have some distance from your work. Put the manuscript away or show it to someone you trust. Don’t solicit their opinion about it for at least three to six weeks. Go back and reread your manuscript as if another writer wrote it. Make changes only if necessary. Learn to leave well enough alone. Learn to rework when necessary. How will you know if it’s necessary? You’ll know. Listen.
6/ Create a “Sacred Space” for writing that is totally and completely your own. Ideally this room has a door and at least one window. Have the tools that you need – pen, paper, typewriter or computer and printer – everything that you need, including space for your manuscripts. Don’t do your bills at the same desk if you can help it. Do not share your writing space with anyone or allow any intruders in your space. That includes the missus, the man of your dreams, holy and unholy children, your dog, your pet bird, your shrink. Even your mother. Find your place and sit in the comfort of its center.
7/ Read. Great writers read other great writers. That’s one way we learn how to become great.
8/ Copy, steal, and emulate the greats — but never plagiarize. All writers are influenced knowingly and unknowingly by what other writers have already accomplished. Be humble. You are lucky because many others have traveled this road before you and are invisible and visible guides. Tap into their energy, strength, and wisdom.
Stretch. You widen your horizons by stretching yourself in different directions. For example: try writing the same piece as seen by two different people. Or write the same story in a different tense. See what happens. Revise it, if it doesn’t work. Don’t get discouraged. Your worst pieces often lead the way to your best pieces.
9/ Listen, eavesdrop and stare. Great material is everywhere. On the bus. At the diner when you’re getting a cup of coffee. In bed, with your lover. In bed, when alone. In your dreams. When you’re riding a bike or walking your dog. Listen to your thoughts and everyone else’s. See life. More than 80% of our thinking and feeling process is through our eyes. That’s why the expression…”a picture is worth a thousand words” resonates. Great writing always paints an accurate “picture” of events and our inner workings.
10/ Be kind to yourself and to other writers. Writers are always hardest on themselves. When you allow yourself to enjoy the process even on less creative days, you allow yourself the freedom to experiment and discover what works and what doesn’t. Don’t worry if something doesn’t work. You can always throw it out, revise it, edit it or start completely anew.
Never disrespect and or hurt another writer, whether they’re great or lousy — especially if they’re lousy. Even the best writers are lousy some of the time. In fact, you help other writers whenever possible, because it will come back to you tenfold.
Give interviews, answer questions and talk to other writers. Do not consider your process as secret. Help others by sharing your views, what you have learned, where and when you stumbled. I recently read an interview with I. B Singer – and his words had a profound effect on my current work. It’s as if he came back from the dead just to help me. His words resonate and sound true. Thank you, thank you I.B. Singer! To paraphrase Natalie Goldberg from “Writing Down The Bones” – writers are carried on the backs of other great writers who have preceded them. We do not exist in a vacuum. We are connected through the Word – regardless of what language we are writing in.
11/A Do everything in your power to get published*. Correction. Get published! even if you have to stand on your head. Writing stuff and letting it collect dust in a drawer won’t do you or anyone else any good. Even Emily Dickinson (God rest her soul) finally gave her wonderful gift to the world only once she got published. Writing is communication and — as Stephen King puts it in his book “On Writing”– telepathy. Communicating with thin air is meaningless, unless all you want to accomplish is to scrimp on therapy. Listen to your agent and your editors. Be polite even if you don’t agree. Consider that they may be right. Often, you’re too close to see things clearly. Agents and editors can also be wrong. In which case you’ll have to work together, edit and rewrite. They are not doing this to torture you. When you succeed, they succeed. Listen, show respect and be polite, even when you don’t agree. Don’t burn bridges. Ultimately, it’s your work. If you still don’t agree, reserve the right to do as you please with it. However, realize that you always have to face the consequences of your choices – both good and bad.
11/B * Don’t stop writing, even if you don’t get published. While the intent of being published is important, the outcome should not determine if you continue to write or not. If you are a writer, your job is to write, regardless of your success. Remember, Kafka was not successfully published in his lifetime, and Van Gogh was too poor to buy paints for his canvases. Both are now considered giants in their respective fields. Write for the love of writing and because it helps you focus and express yourself. Let your words float on the wind. Like seeds they will find fertile ground. Have Faith.
12/ Join the writer’s union. Go on retreats. Attend seminars. Compare notes with other writers. Join a writer’s group, if it is supportive. By definition, writing is done alone, but it isn’t lonely. It’s just how it’s done. Writing material, however, necessitates that you spend time with other people. You can go to writing school, but don’t expect it to be the magic wand. There is no substitute for sitting down and putting words on paper.
13/ If you decide to use a pseudonym, choose it carefully and with love. Names are powerful manifestations of who we are. Breathe life and love into yours. Note: Mark Twain, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tony Morrison, and many more who reinvented themselves through their writing and also with the help of a new (sometimes ancient) name. Read “The Language of Names” by Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays.
14/ See yourself as a writer who earns a living through writing and use spell check. Writing is a life calling and a vocation. It is work (though it may not feel like work because you love it), and like all work, you need to get paid for it. You deserve it. However, in order to earn it, you must “Show up” at the office or (in your case) at your desk. Many of us look at work as “not fun” or joyous. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you are on your life’s path, it won’t feel like work, though you may work very hard at it. There will be many moments of joy. There will also be moments of despair and frustration. Keep writing. Go through it, knowing that this is just a bump in the road. Believe that your writing is worth reading and you will have readers – who will pay for your books. Don’t worry about the money. The money will eventually come. Believe. Believe. Believe.
Even the best writers are too close to their writing to proof their own manuscripts. Use the spell check on your computer or get a proofreader. Ideally you should have a professional proofreader read your manuscript before you send it out.
15/ Write and pray regularly with great reverence. It doesn’t matter if you are religious or not. Even atheists and agnostics feel a greater power at work when they are writing. Great writing is about making a spiritual connection and this only comes with great faith.
Do you still want to write? If your answer is YES — start writing. Keep writing, keep saying YES – and never, never, never, give up.
When you’re a writer, you know who you are!
All my best,