More people than you’d think harbor dreams of writing. This is apparent to me because when someone learns about my experience, I often hear a variation of, “I’ve always wanted to write.” If I ask the person why they don’t write, the main reason has something to do with not having enough time. Yet people somehow find time to do the important stuff in life like binge watch House of Cards or take the “What Would You Be In a Salad?” quiz on BuzzFeed.

Lack of time doesn’t hold individuals back from writing. Fear holds them back. Fear that surfaces through procrastination and stalling tactics so the desire to write withers to little more than wishful thinking. This stalling occurs because most novice writers, aside from having ridiculously romanticized ideas about the writing process, don’t know what many advanced writers have learned through years of trial and error.

For those who want to benefit from someone else’s trial and error, here are three concepts I wish someone had told me when I first started.

Reading is Linear… Writing Is Not

When we read a great novel, it’s a linear process. We start at the beginning of the book and finish at the end. Even though most of us know better, it’s too easy to imagine the writer penning the work in a linear fashion. This gets lodged in our brains as we sit down to write. Then when we get stuck trying to perfect the first sentence or paragraph, we get frustrated. Over many years of writing I’ve learned this: it’s hard to write well if frustration is the primary emotion you feel while doing it.

A quick analogy. If you’ve ever completed a large puzzle with lots of pieces, think about how you did it. I bet most of you, after turning all the pieces face up, worked on the frame by connecting all the outside edges together until you had a large rectangle. Then you worked on the easy stuff… the old tractor in front of the red barn. A dog loping through the grass at the edge of a majestic cornfield. The farmer in his overalls studying the thunderstorm in the distance. Once all these images are finished, floating untethered in their relative positions, you do the tedious work of connecting them together uses puzzle pieces with the same colors (blue sky, green grass) and few visual clues on how they should align and fit. At this point it’s simply hard work, yet you want to finish your masterpiece so you persevere to get the job done.

Let’s back up. Imagine you love doing puzzles using the method above, but some crusty authority figure issues a supreme command. From this point forward, you must complete the puzzle from left to right, no exceptions. You must interlock every single piece on the left edge until it’s complete, then you must connect all the second column pieces before you can move on to the third column of pieces.

Even if you love to work on puzzles, this would be a mind-numbing way to complete one. It’s also a mind-numbing way to write a piece of any length. But novice writers sit down to do it that exact way quite often.

If you have a book idea, you probably have key scenes in mind. Easy to start a scene if it’s at the beginning of your story, but what if most in mind happen midway through the book or near the end? Or perhaps you don’t know where the part will eventually land. Don’t wait to write these scenes. Get them out of your head and onto the page no matter where they will end up in the linear progression of the book. You are doing a disservice to yourself, and the scene that needs creating, if you think you must first write everything that may come before it.

And unlike putting together a puzzle with the luxury of checking the box top to see the finished product, we usually don’t have a clear idea how the final story will look. Getting out key scenes will free mental space so you can work on the connective tissue that binds them. In turn, this will lead to other important scenes necessary for the final draft.

Tale of Two Writing Modes

I don’t hear many writers talk about this but I believe the best ones know, either instinctively or through trial and error, that there are two distinct and separate modes used in successful writing. Combining the modes leads to frustration. I’ve already mentioned why you want to avoid that emotion.

What are these modes?

left-brain-right-brain

I call them the creative mode and the editing mode. Both should be used separately. I like to think of the creative mode as building the raw block of stone I will later sculpt in detail, chipping away everything that doesn’t look like my vision for the piece.

We writers aren’t as fortunate as sculptors who have beautiful, raw blocks of marble or onyx delivered to their studios so they can chip away to reveal the masterpiece within. No. We writers must create our own raw blocks of stone. To do this, one must get everything out onto the page including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Later, we carve away the bad and the ugly using the editing mode so only the good is left. Or so we hope. We continue with another editing mode session… or two… or three… or four… to layer in additional prose to elevate the piece.

So how do you best create your raw block of stone?

Start by banishing your inner critic. Barricade the ugly monster at the door. It will huff and puff and beat on the threshold demanding to be let in, but you must be strong. If you can’t muster the strength to silence the inner critic during the creative mode, you will forever struggle when you write. Once you’ve shown the monster who’s boss, it will slink away leaving you to write, write, write. At this point, you let everything pour out. I do mean everything. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, word choice, or any other writing advice your ninth grade English teacher tortured you with. Including how you shouldn’t end a sentence in a preposition or use a fragment. DO NOT, for any reason, go back and edit.

I know, I know… it’s hard to do. Temptation to edit is monumental when writing on a computer, when you can cursor-slice a sentence midway to wreak havoc with the delete button. If you have trouble resisting the temptation, do what I do. Although I’ve trained myself to not edit during creative mode when on a computer, I still get the dangerous urge to do it on occasion. I’ll resist, but if the impulse becomes too strong, I pull out my old-school notebook and trusty ink pen to write longhand. This technique removes temptation to edit and allows me to focus on getting all thoughts out of my head and on paper.

Warning…

When you spew everything onto the page in creative mode, you will likely cringe at the junk you’ve produced. It’s okay. Happens to the best writers. But write in this manner often enough and from the junk, gems emerge. Later, after you chip away the bad and the ugly in editing mode, you polish these gems to full shine with hopes of creating something beautiful. But before you do, put some space between creative and editing mode by walking away from the piece for a while. It will look much different when enough time has passed, making much of the necessary editing work more apparent.

Want more good news? The more often you write, using the creative mode followed by the editing mode at a later time, an odd thing happens. Over time, your writing during creative mode needs less editing. Your brain begins to automatically incorporate your sharpened editing skills before the words hit the page.

I’ve mentioned these modes should be kept separate, but there are exceptions to everything. I’m vigilant to rarely let myself drift to editing mode when my intention was to write in creative mode to build my block of stone. But I don’t hesitate to let myself drift from editing to the creative mode if something sparks my imagination and I need to quickly get a series of thoughts down. It’s easy to return to the editing mode at any time, but if you consistently let yourself drift from creative to editing mode, you not only short-circuit your creative process, you develop negative habits that will stunt your growth and future as a writer.

Train Your Brain

Good writing is a small percentage of innate talent and an overwhelming percentage of working hard to learn the craft while developing solid writing habits. To do this, you must train your brain. No great accomplishment happens without some sort of training or practice. Ask any millionaire sports figure or Grammy winning singer. Yet, people think they can write something great without dedicating serious, consistent practice to the craft. If you’ve never trained your brain to write, then writing is a difficult activity to do well. But magic happens when we train our brain using good writing habits. Here are some worthy ones to develop:

  • Write often, even if only for a short period. Daily is best and anything is better than nothing.
  • Learn to clear your mind of life’s endless distractions for a predetermined time. Sorry to break it to you, but you will never get them all done anyway so train your brain to block them out so you have a clear mental space from which to write.
  • Use the creative mode often, not allowing yourself to do any editing so you have numerous blocks of stone to work with at any given time.
  • Write often. (Did I mention that one already?)

Do the above and you will strengthen the neurological pathways in your brain to become a better writer. But know this: if you are a fledgling writer or haven’t done it in a while, expect low quality before you get high quality. This shouldn’t need explaining. I bring it up because I’ve seen so many beginning writers get frustrated when the perfect story in their heads doesn’t transfer perfectly to the written page. Most who have dreamt of writing have read works by published authors and thought we could have done better. But good writing is harder than it looks. We hear it took an author nine months to write the great novel we read, but that’s not entirely accurate. It may have taken the author nine months to produce and assemble the words in a pleasing manner, but developing the skill to do it fast and well may have taken twenty years.

Also, know everything you write is a culmination of all you have written before. You’ve probably heard, “If you want to be a writer, you must write every day.” Not bad advice, but what’s missing, and where fledgling writers stumble, is they believe they must write something good, or even great, every day. Not true. Give yourself permission to write badly at first. And trust that no writing is wasted. Those crumpled pages in the trashcan from yesterday’s writing session have helped your progression as a writer by making your next attempts better… as long as you don’t wait too long before the next time you write.

New York Times bestselling author, John Hart, has two unpublished novels sitting in a drawer at his house. He knows those first two efforts weren’t wasted. They trained his brain to become a better writer. Some last words on this from James Thurber: “Don’t get it right; get it written.” This applies to training your brain and writing in the creative mode. We know Mr. Thurber was the better writer (than me, not John Hart) because he explained the creative mode in seven words instead of the 700+ I dedicated.

Writing well is not a mystical ability granted to some chosen few. If you have a love of words and description and stories, you probably have the ability to learn to write well. However, it doesn’t happen without some serious effort. If you feel these ideas will help you improve as a writer and you want more, let me know in the comments here or on the social media sites where I’ve posted. Perhaps I’ll pen a Part Two.

In the meantime, go write. Your block of stone is not going to create itself.

 

Subscribe Now to Live Your Best Life

Every Journey Begins with a Single Step

I'll never share your email and you can opt-out at any time. Powered by ConvertKit