If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway

As a writer, sometimes ideas come easy. Inspiration can strike while I’m in the shower, on the drive home from work, or while I’m reading. Ideas can take form from something someone says in passing conversation, the lyrics in a song, the words printed on a sign. But sometimes, our creative outlets are tapped. When you’re in a writing rut, nothing seems worth writing about.

It’s times like those, I find that I must write anyway.

William Campbell Gault says, “If you haven’t got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you’ll only have to throw away the first three pages.”

writingSometimes the best thing I can do is write just to see where it takes me. I have to write outside my comfort zone, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes all it takes is changing my physical writing spot, like moving out to the patio to take in the sights, sounds and smells. Or ditching my laptop and taking a notebook to write from a coffee shop or a park bench – these are great places to eavesdrop on conversations and take notes!  A change of scenery and a change in the regular writing routine can be a simple trick to inspire something new.

But what happens when you get to the fourth page, or the tenth, and you still don’t have any ideas? We all have days when it seems no matter how much we write, or how hard we try, the writing just isn’t there.

And that’s okay. Not everything we write is publishable, sometimes it’s just practice.

Looking back in old backup documents, I recently found dozens of short pieces I had written over the years. I couldn’t  believe how many of them there were and it was fun looking back on them. And it was then, I realized, even if I never get to quit my day job to write full time, I can still call myself a writer because, after all, a writer writes. And I will always write.

What do you do when you’re stuck for ideas?

An Ode to Shitty First Drafts

We’ve all heard the quote from Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

What an empowering thing for any writer. How liberating to be reminded that when we sit down to write, our first draft is probably going to be awful, but that’s okay. It’s part of the process.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to write an assignment for a local newspaper, I was reminded of this quote. The blank document stared at me and every time I started to write a sentence, I deleted it or worse – stopped myself before I even put any words on the page. I was too focused on wanting it to sound good.

Finally, I said to myself (out loud) “Okay, this is going to be shitty, but I’m just going to do it.” It got a lot easier after that.

Once I gave myself permission to write badly, I was able to get out of my own way and just write. I simply had to remind myself that what I was writing didn’t have to be perfect. I had to tell myself that no one was going to see this draft but me, and that I just had to get the words down and I could figure out the order of them later.

Fortunately, writers have a lot to say about first drafts. Natalie Goldberg says, “If every time you sat down to write, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus, that expectation would also keep you from writing.”

I can’t talk about first drafts without talking about Anne Lamott. She wrote a very helpful, very reassuring chapter on Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing which I wrote about here.

She reminds us that all writers write bad first drafts. She says, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” No one sits down to write and gets it right effortlessly on the first try. She says the only way she can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. I find the same is true for me, too.

Lamott insists that the first draft is where you let it all pour out onto the page, no matter how childish or silly or terrible it may seem. She says to just get it all down on paper because, “There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

The key is to not let that terribly written first draft stop you from going back to it and writing a second, and a third.

For me, the first draft is for figuring out what the story is really about, what story I’m really trying to tell. It’s about getting the ideas down, discovering who our characters are, their motives, and their flaws. Who are they and what do they have to say? Anne Lamott says, “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t – and, in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”

I find that sometimes the story that comes out on paper is very different than the story I imagined I was sitting down to write. It’s easy to dream up an idea, to have a plot in mind, but it doesn’t always work out the way we imagine it would.

Jack Dann says, “For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time, I’m surprised where the journey.” So while first drafts can be a struggle, they can be surprising.

Check on my For Writers page to find other great books for writers and resources I have found helpful .

Keyboard vs. Longhand: How do you Write?

I recently read this post on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog from the New Hampshire Writer’s Network. The  post was part of the Friday Fun series where each week, they pose and answer a different question. This week, they posed a question about writing with a keyboard versus writing longhand.

QUESTION: Early adopter or luddite? A shiny laptop and the latest writing software, or crisp paper and a fine pen? Which do you prefer? Why? If you use both, what drives your choice?

This inspired me to think about my own writing habits.

While I love the feeling of pen-in-hand, I find more and more I use the computer (or my iPhone) for note-taking and writing.

NotebookI still carry a notebook with me and always make sure to have good pen (or three) on hand at all times. In fact, I have notebooks everywhere; a fun-sized notebook for my purse, a notepad in my glove compartment. You’ll find notebooks in my desk drawers, my nightstand, the end table beside my couch. I have them in a variety of styles, spiral bound, Steno pads, and composition notebooks.

I am known for writing things down on post-its and scraps of paper, then losing said scraps of paper. So I’ve taken to using my phone to record my shipping lists. I used to be an avid journal keeper and always wrote in journals by hand. Despite my tendency toward typing in recent years, I love to write notes in beautiful cursive and fear that good handwriting is become a lost art form.

For my freelance writing work, I have always taken notes longhand on a notepad during interviews, but have recently come around to bringing my laptop for note taking. I can type so much faster than I write, that it’s easier to keep up and much better for accurately recording direct quotes.

I do most of my creative writing on my laptop in Microsoft Word. I don’t have much experience with writing software, however, this past November I tried yWriter for NaNoWriMo and enjoyed it. I have also taken to writing notes or starting drafts using my Gmail, composing an email then saving it as a draft to come back to later. As silly as this seems, I can easily access my Gmail from anywhere.

How do you write? How has technology changed the way you write?

NaNoWriMo : Not a Win, but not a Failure

I had hoped to start a winning streak. After experiencing the joy, the relief, and the satisfaction of winning NaNoWriMo last year, I was hopeful I could do it two years in a row. But I didn’t even come close.

I started out strong the first week. I was committed to making time for multiple writing sessions to write 1,667 (and often more) words each day. I started to struggle around the 18,000 word mark. I got through the excitement of the first few chapter and found myself unable to determine what happened next. I had a rough idea, I had an overall outline but it wasn’t enough. I had hoped the plot would come to me as I wrote, that I’d be able to write my way through the mushy middle of the story. But I was stuck.

I felt my trouble was that I didn’t know my characters well enough yet. How could I know where the story was going without truly knowing who my characters were at their core? So I started on a blank page and started writing journal-style from the points of view of my different characters. I got a few thousand more words out of that and got to know them a bit better in the process. But I still didn’t know how my characters were getting to where  I saw the story ending. And that’s when I knew I wasn’t going to reach 50,000 words this year. Instead, I made it about halfway to the goal.

Looking back at last year’s Nano, where I broke the rules by writing a work-in-progress rather than starting a new story from scratch, it was much easier to get to those 50,000 words because I was so familiar with my characters and their stories. Those characters have been with me for years, from their humble beginnings in a short story I wrote in a writing workshop years ago. My characters for this year’s Nano are still new to me. They are like new friends I am still getting to know. I haven’t given up on them, or their story. I just need to spend some time with them, and get to know them a little better before I can tell the story.

Participant-180x180-2Though I didn’t “win” NanoWriMo this year, I don’t consider it a failure. NaNo provided the push I needed to experiment with this story that’s been floating around in my imagination for a while.

And it has given me the motivation to treat every month as if it is National Novel Writing Month. While I often find 1,667 words a difficult daily goal to maintain, I will set a more achievable daily word goal for myself. Let the spirit of NaNoWriMo live on!

Congratulations to those who crossed the 50,000 word finish line, and good luck to you in your editing endeavors in December for National Novel Editing Month!

NaNoWriMo Week 1 Wrap up

We’re one week in to NaNoWriMo, and it has already had its ups and downs.

I got off to a good start with solid word counts the first few days. When the weekend rolled around, I was determined to use those days to get ahead, and I did, writing nearly 5,000 words over the weekend, bringing me ahead of schedule.

But then, my muse took a day or two off. Blame it on gloomy weather or the lack of daylight after daylight saving time, but I found myself apathetic and unmotivated. I had some pretty dismal word counts for a few days and I went from being ahead to being behind.

After a few lousy days, I think I’m back into the writing groove and got back on track today.

Word count aside, it’s important to keep in mind what we’ve all accomplished so far this month. I have sat down to write every single day for the past week, multiple times a day in fact, even though some of those days I wrote less than 1,100 words which isn’t much by NaNo standards. I’ve been waking up early each morning to write before work, plugging in earphones and tuning out the word to write on my lunchbreak, setting aside time each day to write. And because of that, I have a quarter of a novel written in just one week’s time.

Words Written Today: 2,004
Total Words Written: 13,554
Words to Go: 36,446
Percent Complete: 27%

NaNoWriMo Kickoff!

Today marked the kick off of National Novel Writing Month. For the next month, I will be working toward writing 50,000 words of a shiny, new novel.

I have spent the past few weeks fleshing out my characters, creating an outline and drafting scenes. Today the writing officially started. Here is a glimpse at the story I’ll be working on for (at least) the next 30 days:

After a failed marriage, Eden Stone is determined never to rely on men again.  She and her daughters, Sam and Nora, learn to support themselves.

When Eden’s estranged sister, Annette, has an accident and ends up in a coma, Eden suspect Annette’s husband had something to do with it.

Everyone must adjust when Annette’s daughter, Veronica, comes to live with Eden, Sam and Nora – her estranged aunt and cousins. As Eden faces the possibility of losing her only sister, she begins to discover how little she truly knew about the life her sister was leading, and has to confront her own demons.

I hope to post updates regularly with my progress, here’s where I stand after day one:

Words Written Today: 1,966
Words to Go: 48,034
Percent Complete: 4%

Preparing for NaNoWriMo

There are only a few days left until National Novel Writing Month officially begins for 2012, leaving me with not much time to finish preparing and outlining!

I was reflecting on last year’s NaNo, and here are a few things I learned in the process:

1. I am capable of getting out of bed  early every day to write. I am not a morning person. But it’s what I need to do to make the time to write.

NaNoWriMoThough I am a night owl, I had some of my most productive writing sessions before the sun came up. Evenings, for me, are full of distractions and temptations I can’t resist (read: prime time television) If I want to make writing part of my day, mornings may be my answer. And coffee of course.

TIP: Find out what time of day you are most productive and make that your writing time.

2. A little brainstorming goes a long way. I never thought taking ten minutes to think about my writing could be all that beneficial. But several times during NaNo 2011, I picked up a pen and paper on my lunch break and just started writing my next scene. In just a few minutes time, I gave myself a jump start on what I could work on writing that night when I had more than ten minutes. It helped me overcome that glaze of starting at the cursor, trying to figure out where to begin.

TIP: If don’t already carry a notebook with you wherever you go, make sure you do in the month of November. Don’t be caught unprepared if you find yourself with sudden inspiration. Take a few moments of your day to jot notes about what you intend to work on that day, plan your next scene or your next chapter. A few moments of preparation is worth pages of writing.

3. Valuable writing time can be wasted in hitting the snooze button and the few moments it takes to make a cup of coffee, turn on the laptop and get settled in my writing spot. I needed to give myself a few extra moments so that these seemingly quick tasks didn’t cut into my writing time.

TIP: Do everything you can to prepare, so that once you sit down to write, you don’t need to get up for at least an hour. Have everything you need within reach including a beverage or snack, a pen or pencil and a notebook nearby to take notes –  if you suddenly decide what you want to happen in the next chapter, write it down to go back to later, then keep writing.

What have you learned from past NaNoWriMo’s? What tips do you find useful to help you make the most of your writing time?