When I’m not writing books, I spend my days teaching about them. One of my favorite courses each year is Creative Writing (obvious!). Every once in a while a student will ask how I go about my own writing. I’ve collected a few notes here to that effect. Following this list certainly doesn’t guarantee your writing will be good, or even that mine is. These are just some of the patterns I used to get from hundreds words to hundreds of thousands (Yes, Fragments is technically tens of thousands, 57,000 if you’re looking for any level of accuracy, but it’s not the only book, now is it?). Here they are.
There are few writers who would question this first bit of advice. Whether the analogy is to a muscle that needs exercise to grow stronger or to a practiced skill such as musical scales, one’s word hoard (if you’re Beowulf) needs to be accessed frequently to do it’s best work. It’s easy to tell yourself that words aren’t flowing on a particular day, but the important thing is to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) anyway. Write even if it’s bad. Write even when a page takes you an hour. Write something different if what you planned isn’t working. Just write. And then, when you’ve written something. Feel free to walk away. Some days are thousand word days and some are ten thousand (and sometimes one hundred). Again. Feel free to walk away.
There is no writer’s block.
This one might be controversial, but I feel very strongly about it. If you believe that your creative mind, your human ability to express yourself, your capacity for creating beautiful art can be extinguished like a birthday candle flame, then you're right and it will—often. But, if you resist, if you find the secret passage through the wall, the tunnel under the mountain, if you drive your pickaxe into the solid rock face and pull yourself inch by treacherous inch, you'll find that what you once thought was writer's block is now only a distant memory—if you remember it at all. And on the days when you really do have to fight for every word, you will have trained yourself for the fight and not the habitual retreat.
Don't try to plan everything.
If I had a nickel for every time Robert Burns's advice proved itself true, well you know. He said, "the best laid plans of mice and men go often askew..." and then followed it up with something darker that John Steinbeck took to a place darker still. But this initial piece carries the point for writing. You may think that your protagonist will fall in love with a certain fetching side character or that the villain will surely be defeated with all of your lovingly crafted friends still intact, but just look to the line above to see where it will get you. Plans are an excellent place to begin, an excellent place to which to return, and a terrible instruction manual with which to tell your story. If your characters are anything like the people we encounter in life, then they'll surprise you, and in so doing will hopefully surprise your audience as well.
Work in the morning.
This one may be even more controversial than Writer's Block. However, there is no better time in your day to write than when you first come to your senses (notice I didn't say "wake up" because that's a terrible idea). Most importantly this strategy gives you the fewest excuses. You only have to defeat the pull of the snooze button (no easy task, I am aware). Once you have done that—if you've set the alarm early enough, that is—you're free to make something with nothing else on your mind. If you wait until after lunch, the bills or the lawn or the TV show you missed last night will come calling. And, if you wait until the evening? Well, the distractions only grow and your energy only wanes. Attack writing with the freshest energy you can, every time you can.
Edit first thing, then follow the thread.
To combat the cobwebs that you might be dealing with when following the previous advice, try doing your editing before you write. I find that if I grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and reread my progress from the previous day, I usually find a handful of little changes I can make without slowing myself down too much. This strategy doubles as a way to merge with the stream of your prior work. Often I see clear breaks where writers have picked up the thread cold the following day. We don't use the same language in everyday life as we do when writing (even if your setting is contemporary and your characters are, like, super-trendy!). Give yourself a chance to wake up, a chance to remember, and maybe, just maybe, a chance to enjoy your efforts.
Feedback is critical, but in the end it's your story.
This one is tricky but true. Eventually—if you're serious about this writing thing—you have to ask someone else to read it. When they do, they will have feedback. It might be useful, overly critical, ignorant (in the best way), simple, or just damn right. In whatever way it manifests, you then must deal with it. Sometimes the answer will be to smile, nod, and file it away. If it comes up again, you might have a problem. If it turns up a third time, you most certainly do. Other feedback will make sense immediately, change your story for the better, and just generally make you want to hug the feedbacker (it's like football, right?) like you're the abominable snowman and she (or he) is Bugs Bunny ("I will pat him and pet him and call him George." Speaking of Steinbeck). Like it says above, in the end you decide what the story is, what happens next, who lives, who dies, who falls in love, and on and on. Just know, that in your decisions you can and will be wrong. Plot twists will fall flat. Scenes will drag. Characters will say too much, or too little. When you make these decisions, do your best to hear what your readers are saying. After all, without them what do you have?