One of my clients is writing a book. We met this morning to discuss her progress. I love these conversations. I too am a writer, with one book out last June and a second in progress, and each insight she has either echoes my own experience, or offers a different perspective that opens up new possibilities.
It occurred to me that you might be interested in what we have learned about writing by doing it. So here is a window into our shared experience.
1. Come to the page every day. Writing coach Eric Maisel talks about the importance of staying close to the work. When you write every day the book is always on your mind and even when you are doing other things, your subconscious is playing with threads and knitting them together for you. When you leave the work for days at a time it starts to fade in your memory and your internal sorting system pushes it into the background. Then when you come back to it you have to retrieve and refresh before you can move forward. So come to the page every day.
2. Set yourself a writing goal. When I am writing a first draft, I do a series of timed free-writing sessions. That is, I choose a section of the book to focus on and a time period for writing, then I dive into whatever section calls to me on a given day, writing in a stream of consciousness sort of way, the ideas, stories, quotes etc. as they come to me. Later, I come back and re-write the sections. When I’m re-writing I set goals by section. I tell myself “I will revise the introduction this morning.” Or, “At the end of this session I will have a 10 page section that reads well.”
3. Write first thing in the morning, and then whenever you can find some space in the day. I refer again to Eric Maisel. He talks about the importance of making meaning in the day. You begin to make meaning by declaring to you matter and that your project matters. You claim the authority to choose where to invest your time and energy. When you choose to invest time and energy in a project you give it meaning. When you put it first in your daily routine, you are prioritizing what matters. There is dignity in this. Working on and completing projects that you have declared as personally meaningful, leads to a sense of fulfillment in the moment and over time. Making meaning first thing every day grounds you against the push and pull of the outside world with its competing priorities. giving you a sense of being in charge of your life and your work.
4, Give yourself a writing prompt each evening. Why not have your subconscious working for you? Ask it an interesting question about a character, or plot, or some dilemma or other you are wrestling, before you go to bed. When you return to the writing in the morning, see what has been percolating while you slept.
5. Write your dedication first. To whom or what is the book dedicated and why? Writing the dedication reminds you who you are writing for and what gift you most want to give. When you envision the person you are writing to or for, or who inspired you to write in the first place, you tap into your emotional motivation. This is much more powerful than writing a list of potential benefits for anonymous readers.
6. Use a structure to organize your writing and to protect you from the overwhelm. When I sat down to write Conversations for Power and Possibility I started with this outline: tell the personal story of how I discovered Conversations for Power and Possibility; outline each of the four conversations; provide case studies for each conversation; share my vision of how Conversations for Power and Possibility can change the world. My client is using the structure of The Hero’s Journey, outlined by mythologist Joseph Campbell: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” There are many ways to tell a story. Choose a structure that seems to fit the book you want to write. Then when you sit down to write, you can enter anywhere in the structure. Set yourself a writing goal for the day, and begin.
7. Tell a story. Your story is what will hook your readers’ attention and create a relationship between you. This is true even when you are writing non-fiction. Another benefit of telling stories is that when you imagine or recall a story in detail, your body reacts as if you have actually travelled there to the time and place of your imagination or memory. You experience all the emotions as if you are actually living them. This is pleasurable or disturbing, depending on the subject matter. But it is essential for good writing because when you write from inside the experience, you are able to capture the details of observation and sensation that you could not notice from a more distanced place. You will be able to describe your world more convincingly on the page for your readers.
8. Tell your story with all five (six?) senses. Describe your setting to make it easier for your readers to imagine themselves there. Take them with you on your journey. Let them travel alongside you, experiencing the journey, making discoveries together. What do you see, hear, smell, feel? What is the taste in your mouth? I once took a writing workshop with Martyn Kendrick and he had us tell our story with each of the senses separately. Tell the story in images. Tell it in sounds. Tell it in smells. Tell it in physical sensations.
9. Write the first draft as fast as you can. The most vulnerable part of the writing process for me is the beginning, while I am still figuring out what the book is going to be, worried it won’t be anything at all. Trust that the story already exists inside you. As Julia Cameron says, it is more about getting it down than thinking it up. Begin anywhere. With a piece of dialogue that keeps running through your head, a character as you picture them, a story that you remember, a scene that you have envisioned. Start writing, catch the narrative and then stay close to it until you have laid it out on the page in no matter how rudimentary a form. Expect that it will be raw and rough. Don’t be discouraged. Be proud. Most people don’t make it this far. Take a bit of a break (not too long) then begin again, retracing the tale from the beginning and going deeper, crafting more carefully. As you do this you will begin to see the the book that you want to write, emerging from between the lines of the first draft.
There is so much to learn about writing. But these lessons are a start. Here is a nine point summary in place of my usual morals:
- Come to the page every day.
- Set a writing goal for each session.
- Write first thing in the morning, and in the spaces after that.
- Give yourself a writing prompt before you go to sleep, so you dreams work for you.
- Write your dedication first.
- Choose a structure for your book and write into that, one piece at a time.
- Tell a story.
- Tell it with all your senses.
- Write the first draft as fast as you can.
Yours with creativity and imagination,