You write fiction because you’re creative. So why is creating so difficult? I believe it’s the tyranny of expectations. You sit down in front of that blank screen and you have to produce. I don’t know any writer who isn’t somewhat cowed by that pressure.
For me, the good news was discovering a secret to dealing with the pressure: keep expectations low and standards high. It all comes down to three words: embrace the work.
The work of writing can be a joy, but it takes concentration, focus, and will. If you wait for inspiration, you’ll never put fingers to keyboard.
I like author Wayson Choy’s advice: “The only secret to writing is AC – ass on chair.” You sit down and write, then rewrite, then rewrite. There’s no other way to master the craft. It’s a process – a fact my agent still reminds me of when I face the uphill slog of creating a new novel. Except, being a New Yorker, he says, “It’s a process, sweetheart.”
Let me share with you five tips that help get me through that uphill first draft.
Tip #1: Get dressed
I mean it. When I sit down to write at home, I don’t do it in a ratty old track suit and slippers. I get dressed as if I’m going out into the world to work. I take a shower, put on clean clothes, brush my hair, and go to meet my characters.
There’s a story about Florenz Ziegfeld and his famous Ziegfeld Follies in the 1920s. These were lavish Broadway shows filled with beautiful girls in stunning, though scanty, costumes. One day Ziegfeld felt the girls had lost their zip. They didn’t look sexy, because they didn’t seem to feel sexy. So he told the stage manager to order pure silk underwear for every girl. The baffled stage manager asked, “Why? The audience won’t know they’re wearing silk underwear.” Ziegfeld replied: “The girls will know.”
Now, you may or may not want to wear silk underwear when you write. The point is: it’s all in the head. Small ambitions invoke small efforts. Every good writer is trying to be a great writer.
Tip #2: Write every day
Question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Answer: Practice, practice, practice. Musicians practice every day, for several hours. Dancers are the same; they take class every day to stay supple and receptive.
My advice to writers is, be like these performers in honing your craft. Try to write every day, even if it’s just for an hour. Make that writing period sacrosanct.
Tip #3: Read every day
I try to read great books, of course. But I read bad books too, and I’d like to say a word in praise of bad books. I’ve learned a lot from them. With a great book it’s hard to see how the author did it. Their work is so seamless the craft becomes invisible, and so compelling you get drawn in and stop examining the structure.
But with a poorly written book it’s easy to stay detached and study why it doesn’t work: faults of craft like a passive or unempathetic protagonist, no clear conflict, too few dramatic turning points, or a flat, unsatisfying climax. So I recommend studying both kinds, good and bad. Keep reading, and keep learning.
Tip #4: Give yourself time to think
I spend a lot of time daydreaming. I’m at work. I’m pondering what choice a character will make under pressure. Or I’m considering how to bring in my inciting incident earlier, or I’m mentally testing the introduction of a reversal into a scene.
Don’t let anybody tell you you’re wasting time when you’re staring out a window or gazing into space. You’re at work.
Tip #5: Keep expectations low and standards high
Years ago, whenever my writing wasn’t going well, I’d dread going in to my desk. It was that tyranny of expectations thing. Every morning I’d stay in the kitchen with my mug of tea for as long as possible and think, I can’t do it, I just can’t go in there and write something good. Then one day I got so frustrated, I actually said out loud, “OK, I’ll go in and write something bad.”
It was instant liberation. The pressure evaporated. Because I knew I definitely could write something bad. So I went in and sat down … and I did write something bad. Hallelujah. So, adopt this guiding principle: Give yourself permission to write something bad.
Because the corollary of that guiding principle is: Everything can be fixed. It’s true. You can rewrite and fix something that’s bad, but you cannot fix something that doesn’t exist.
So there it is. Embrace the work. Remember – it’s a process, sweetheart.
This article is condensed from Barbara Kyle’s online workshops, “Writing Fiction That Sells.” Watch a clip