Michelle was an old friend from high school (and no, I am not referring to myself in third person). I didn’t know her all that well since she was older and therefore cooler than I was, but we went to a small school where everyone kinda knew everyone, which made our high school reunions much more fun than most.
So when she asked me to lead a writer’s workshop/retreat at her home, I agreed only because of our long connection, and because I really needed a weekend away with the girls.
Little did I know that nearly two years later she would include me in the dedication to her first novel, and how much that would come to mean to me. In fact, I believe it’s the next step in my evolution as an author—to give back, to help others tell their story in their own way by sharing my process.
So here it is, how I do it. It’s by no means the best way or the “right” way to begin the hard but intensely rewarding path of getting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, but it’s one way to stop talking about it and get to work. Because if it really is THAT important to you to “someday” write your book, then you’ll find a way. Make it today. Or a weekend when you’ll likely have more time. Three days is all I ask.
Friday: Gather your materials/Make your introductions
I’ve read a ton of “how to write” books, but my personal favorites and those most instrumental in helping me with actual structure are “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler, “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder, and “What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers,” by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.
Once you’ve assembled your “how to” arsenal, grab your journal (hopefully you already have one if you have writing aspirations) and your favorite books by authors you hope to emulate.
Now grab your coffee or wine or water, depending on your personal preferences and the time of day, and start scanning. No, don’t READ it all, just let your eyes wander over the first few pages of these materials and get your brain warmed up, no expectations. Go through past journal entries and see what “issues” come up, the conflicts and themes that surface in your life experiences, or if you haven’t been writing these down, take the time now to contemplate this and make a new journal entry. What are your deepest fears and desires? What dilemma have you been grappling with, either secretly or publicly? What is the ONE single idea that you can’t let go of, that haunts you day and night until you MUST WRITE IT DOWN?
That’s your book…or movie, whatever the medium. Write at the top of your first blank page:
Now either take a walk, do some sort of yoga or dance or exercise, or if this took you all day and you’re tired, listen to a meditation CD or soft music and GO TO SLEEP.
Get up early. Or not. Personally, I am not a morning person, but that’s ironically when my mind is at its most freshest (Is that a word? Probably not, but I’m not awake yet). I am the type of person who stumbles to the coffee pot before doing ANYTHING, take my morning constitutional while I read the aforementioned “research” books and check my email, before plopping my butt in my chair to begin my “work.” Some days the words just flow, other days, not so much. But more on that later.
Your first order of the day is to look at the theme you wrote last night and create a main character. Turn to page 46 of “What If?” and create your protagonist’s back story. Just go to town with the details, make him or her really come alive! Don’t get all anal with this either—you can always change it later. Feel free to base some of this on yourself or traits from people you know. My characters are usually a hodge-podge of different people in my life, but it’s pretty funny when people just ASSUME you are talking about THEM.
Resist the urge to make this all about YOU. And if it is indeed a true story about someone you know, make sure you have their permission, and be prepared to pay them.
In addition to your character’s name, age, looks, quirks, etc., make sure to include the thing your character WANTS THE MOST. And if you’re not sure, then go take a walk. Or a shower. Or do something ELSE until it comes to you.
However, be sure to come back to this. Tell someone else (spouse, roommate, cat?) about your hero/heroine. Describe them like they are a real person, and then go all crazy and LET THEM TALK TO YOU. Soon, you’ll be hearing their voice in your head and if you don’t write it down people will start to wonder about you…
Eat breakfast or lunch, take a little break, then sit back at your desk. Resist the urge to check your email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Spend your afternoon creating a workable outline. One way to do this is to turn to page 8 of “Writer’s Journey” and type in the hero’s journey. Or visit http://www.blakesnyder.com , click on “Tools” and download his “Beat Sheet.” Both of these outlines will work for either a fiction novel or screenplay. If you wish to write a non-fiction book, that’s a whole different blog.
Now close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and SEE what is the very first image that comes to mind?
Take a few minutes to free write that down in your journal. No worries about punctuation and grammar at this stage in the game. You can fix that later. For now, just describe your mind’s image in detail, and from this little exercise will come either your first chapter or opening scene.
Time for a break. I’m a big fan of these. In my world, there’s no such thing as getting stuck or having writer’s block. It just means it hasn’t come to you yet, and you need to make a little space for the thoughts to become clear. Writing is a lot like exercise in that it’s tough in the beginning, but if you do a little every day it gets easier and easier. You don’t have to write it all at once, just like you wouldn’t train for a marathon all in one day. Start small, stop trying to envision the whole enchilada, and take small, manageable bites.
When you come back to your chair, it’s time to either research your ideas on the internet (YES! Finally!) or do a few of the suggested exercises in the “What If?” book or read your favorite books. Then, take the rest of the night off and do something FUN and social. It’s Saturday night!
Wake up early. Or not. Ha ha!
Resist the urge to read the newspaper. It’s all bad news. Trust me, I’m a recovering journalist.
Look over your notes from the day before and begin to fill in the details. For example: Chapter 1: Ordinary World
If you don’t know what this means, ready Chris Vogler’s first few chapters. Then culling from your main character’s backstory, write where he or she is coming from. It has to start somewhere. Later on, if this part sucks, you can always throw it out and start at Chapter 2. I do this often.
Or, if you’re writing a screenplay, read the first few chapters of “Save the Cat” and begin your “Set Up.” Start with FADE IN in Final Draft or some such program (or you can format it as a Word doc), and INT. or EXT. SETTING-DAY OR NIGHT- MAIN CHARACTER does this and wears that, etc. and READY, SET, GO!
Write for as long as you can. I don’t like to make myself write for X number of minutes or X number of pages per day. You may need that, but I don’t like to set myself up for disappointment. Some days I write pages and pages, others I only write a paragraph. Or a sentence, even. But at least it’s something.
On days it just doesn’t flow I do more research. I read what I wrote on other days and edit. I go for longer walks and take hotter showers. I exercise, meet a friend for lunch or coffee, pay attention to what they’re saying and listen to the people around me for ideas. I take notes.
And then, when the spirit moves me again, I sit in my chair and make myself do it. I treat it like a real job with the proper respect. If your boss told you to sit at your desk and do a project you wouldn’t whine and not do it. Or maybe you would, too much, and then you’d probably get fired. So sit until you get a least SOMETHING down on the page, and if you find you’re super inspired that day, cancel everything you can and make time for your passion!
So there you have it, my writing practice in a nutshell. From here on out you need a plan. If you have a “day” job, and I highly suggest you do unless you’re independently wealthy already, then you need to find a time when you can write every day. Or, find a more flexible job like I did (massage and yoga) where you still get paid enough for survival while you fuel your writing habit. And write because it’s FUN, remember? Not for the money, and if you’re extremely lucky, someday you MAY get paid for it. But this shouldn’t be the motivation, more like the icing on the cake.
When you get about half way through, you may be tempted to quit. You may hear that insistent asshole voice inside that criticizes, judges, ridicules you and makes you ask who the hell do you think you are, trying to write a book or movie? We all struggle with this itty-bitty-shitty committee, the duck on our shoulder quacking away at us. My advice? (I learned this from my chorus.) Tell it to shut the DUCK up! And start to tell everyone you know that you are a writer, because you ARE! This took me years, even after I was published, to get the courage to call myself a writer. But here’s the thing, if you are brave enough to even write one word then you have my permission to call yourself a writer. Own it.
And once you complete your masterpiece, put it in a drawer and let it simmer for a few weeks. Smile, brag on Facebook if you must, maybe go on holiday. Then sit your butt back down in the chair for the big rewrite, because that’s where the real work begins. Go get a book on rewriting, because this is a blog only on getting started. You can also pay people to help you edit. But please make for damn sure your manuscript is CLEAN and ready before you even think about sending it out for publication. Write, Re-write, Re-write AGAIN, and repeat. Just like shampoo.
I hope this helps. Keep believing in yourself and your story. Don’t listen when the world thinks you’re nuts for following your heart against all odds. I have written four books and two screenplays now, and I’m almost finished with my third script (yay!). Three books were published, one sucked so bad I shelved it, and the two completed screenplays are still unsold to date. But it doesn’t matter. I still have hope. Every day I write, I exercise, I play, I take long showers, I imagine and create. Then I repeat.
Life doesn’t get any better than this.