I am often asked at the end of an interview whether I have one piece of advice for the writers listening to the show. Or, if it's November, whether I have pointers to offer those writers cranking out a 50,000-word novel as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it's popularly called.
My problem with the question is not that I can't answer it. My problem is that I have more to say than the allotted time will allow!
My solution? This blog post, timed to coincide with NaNoWriMo but filled with suggestions that will work for you year-round. All apply to fiction or screenplays; many are equally relevant regardless of your form, medium or genre. So, here goes...
My Top Ten Writing Tips for Authors & Screenwriters
1. You Don't Have to Know What Your Book Is About Before Starting.
I have rarely known what my books were going to be about before I began writing them. With three of them, I didn't even know I was writing a book when I started!
With The MoonQuest, for example, a writing exercise in a class I was teaching sparked a story I knew nothing about. When the class was over, I just kept writing...and a novel eventually emerged. The Voice of the Muse and Dialogues with the Divine each grew from journaled jottings that were never (consciously) intended for an audience.
(It's those experiences that prompted me to write a book I did know I was writing and what it was about: Birthing Your Book...Even If You Don't Know What It's About, a step-by-step guide to getting your book written, whether or not you think you know what you're doing.)
2. You Don't Need to Plot, Plan, Outline or Otherwise Prepare.
Of course, you can plot, plan, outline or otherwise prepare. There's no right or wrong way to write a book...or any other creative project. The only right-write way is the way that works for you on this book. (It might be different next time!) Just so you know, though, I have never outlined. Nothing. Ever. Not even my screenplays, which orthodox screenwriting lore would have you believe is compulsory. (That's why I wrote Organic Screenwriting: Writing for Film, Naturally – to free you from creativity-stifling orthodoxy.)
So how do you begin? With one word, any word. And then another and another and another. And another. No stopping. No editing. No censoring. No going back. Just racing forward through and past the fear, anxiety and inevitable nonsense and into the story that will reveal itself to you through the writing of it, if you get out of its way and let it. That's a Cliff's Notes version of my "Writing on the Muse Stream" method. Read more about it in any of my books for writers.
3. Forget the Rules. All of Them.
All my books for writers include a set of tongue-in-cheek "rules" for writers. And although they vary depending on each book's theme, they all share the same first and final rule: There are no rules.
Whether during NaNoWriMo or at any other time, write the book (or short story or poem or screenplay or stage play or essay) that demands to be written as it demands to be written, not according to anyone else's rules or strictures, including those set out by the folks at NaNoWriMo.
- You haven't started yet? Start today. Now. Or start tomorrow or the day after or next week. Just start!
- Your book is a memoir or other non-fiction work? Or it's not a book at all but a screenplay? Celebrate the fact that you're writing something instead of beating yourself up for not having written a novel. The fact that you’re writing, that you’re moving forward with a project you’re passionate about, is more important than its form, medium or genre.
- Your NaNoWriMo draft is shorter than 50,000 words? Celebrate that you've finished your draft instead of mourning the fact that you didn't meet NaNoWriMo's arbitrary word count.
- You don't finish by NaNoWriMo's November 30 deadline...or by whatever deadline you have set for yourself? So what! However many words you have written are more words than you would have written had you not launched the process. When the time comes, celebrate that.
4. Don't Judge.
Just as you are not judging your process, don't judge your output. If you're participating in NaNoWriMo, you are racing against the calendar to meet a November 30 deadline and have no time to fix 'n fuss as you go. That's a good thing. The most uncreative thing you can do is edit while you write that first draft...of anything. NaNoWriMo or not, let your first draft be as chaotic, repetitive, inconsistent and illogical as it needs to be. Just get your story onto the page, however it comes out. Use subsequent drafts to polish, hone and refine your rough stone into the jewel it was meant to be.
5. Trust Your Book & Its Characters.
Your book and its characters (if it's a novel) are smarter than you are. Get out of their way (and your own) and let them tell their story through you. Abandon control!
6. It's Okay to Be Out-of-Order.
Like movies, which are rarely filmed in sequence, your first (or second or third) draft may not write itself in final book order. That's okay. In this as in all aspects of your writing enterprise, let the bits and pieces of your book or other writing project come as they come...and write them that way, knowing that your project's innate wisdom will determine the appropriate order when the time is right.
7. Take Risks.
Creative expression is about risk-taking. It's about pushing boundaries – your own as well as those of others. It’s about boarding Star Trek’s starship Enterprise, taking off for parts unknown and journeying to the edges of the creative universe. Commit to taking more risks. Commit to the creative artist you are.
8. Do the Best You Can, and Let It Be Good Enough.
Your book may be excellent, accomplished, creative and insightful. It may be brilliant, compelling and universally lauded. But perfect? Not possible. It’s not possible because when we translate an idea or concept into language, we’re taking something that is infinite (energy) and dynamic (neural impulses) and converting it into something that is finite (language) and static (squiggles on a page). The resulting “translation” can never be more than an approximation. Do the best you can, and let it be good enough...because your book will never be perfect. Not. Ever.
It seems obvious, particularly in a month devoted to novel-writing. But it can be easy to put writing aside in favor of research. It’s even easier to put writing aside while you try to figure what your book is about.
Don’t wait to figure out what your book is about. Don’t worry about its direction, theme, structure or focus. Don’t worry about chapter breaks (my first MoonQuest draft had none). Don’t worry about what people will think of it, or of you. Don’t worry about anything. Set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and, without judging or second-guessing what emerges, let your book do its wizardly work – on you as much as on the page.
In other words: Write...the book (or other project) you didn’t know you had in you...the book you could never have imagined writing...the book you believed you could not write...the book that is yours to write.
10. There Are No Rules
You may be wondering whether I have ever participated in NaNoWriMo. The answer is yes. Three years ago, I wrote The SunQuest, the third and final installment in my Q'ntana fantasy trilogy, during NaNoWriMo. Amazingly, I did it in 21 days. But not every book can be written in 21 days...or 30. The StarQuest, The Q'ntana Trilogy's Book II, took me 11 years and two false starts to get from the first to the final word of a first draft!
However long it takes, the important thing is that you're writing. So hurry up and finish this blog post, open your notebook or writing application and WRITE!
Oh, and don't wait until your book is finished and released to start promoting it on social media. The best time to start talking about it online and off is now...even if you haven't started writing it yet! My newest book – Engage! Winning Social Media Strategies for Authors – has lots of tips to help you do just that!