(*Awesome. I'm always looking for good books to read.)
Recently, I've had a spate of people contact me, looking for help writing a book. Not editing or grammatical help, thank god, but help more along the lines of: "I wasn't an English major...can I write a book?" Questions like this make my inner obnoxious teenager want to roll her eyes and say, "I don't know, can you?" Listen, you're the one who wants to write a book; why do you need my, or anyone's, permission? Your human experience is valid. What you have to say is as valid as what anybody else has to say. Get to work. Also, as you probably know, the best writing comes from confidence: You're the author, take charge!
But the more I coach, the more I understand that empty, so-called "motivational" phrases aren't helpful, and in actuality, can cause a great deal of anxiety to people who have something important to say, but are still developing the confidence to believe in themselves. With those good people in mind, here's some steps to help you get started writing. (When you thank me in the credits page of your best seller, please remember to spell my first name with one "T.") Good luck!
1. Tell a story you care about. I personally am not interested in genres; I'm interested in characters who are believable and interesting stories. I'm interested in ideas. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, and who buys books, accordingly. If you want to write a paranormal romance, or whatever, instead of speaking to ten different "book coaches," and asking them if there's a market for your work, i.e. asking strangers for permission, realize there's always a market for good writing. Alternatively, if you decide you're only going to write something "trendy" or a sure-fire hit...what exactly would that be? Not to mention, for every classic that changed people's lives, there's a million other people out there who roll their eyes at the same book. Can't please everyone. But if you care about your story, you'll present it in a way that makes other people care. Give people some credit: trends come and go, but good writing always finds an audience.
2. Make a commitment to write every single day. If nothing else, set the egg-timer for 15 minutes, turn off your phone, Facebook, Pinterest, silence all beeping devices and write. You can read a thousand and one books about how to write a book...or, you know, you could set aside 15 minutes in the morning or evening, depending on your writing personality, and start writing paragraphs. Paragraphs lead to pages. Pages lead to chapters. Get enough chapters and oh my goodness, what do we have here? You wrote your first book. (You're welcome, America.)
3. You have to make the time in your life for this book TODAY. Life won't wait. It drives me crazy to hear people say, "Well, one day, I kinda want to write a book." One day when? If it's hard to write a book today, why on earth would you think it'll be easier in a year or three? No, the longer you wait, the harder it'll get. The less confidence you'll have. If you want to write a book decide that SOMEDAY is TODAY, and set aside 15 minutes today, RIGHT NOW, and start writing. Tell fear to get fucked, and commit to your better angels. Write an outline, write the first paragraph, write a title page. Write something and make your book become a little bit more alive. It's a process. But you have to get started to begin the process.
4. Write more, ask for permission less. If you feel you're not qualified to write a book until, for example, you graduate from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, understand that what you're really doing is giving yourself an excuse to not write. How likely is it that you'll get accepted to some prestigious workshop, or get an agent? Thus, how likely is it you're going to be able to avoid writing the book inside of you? Listen, you're not cheating anyone but yourself. But I think you deserve better.
5. Don't worry about being published, getting an agent, or anything like that. Just. Write! If you decide that you're not going to write your book because, well, Carlota, the publishing industry is in tatters, and um it's really hard to get published, and hey is that my phone ringing, I gotta go...Listen, you don't owe me any excuses. It's not my dreams you're destroying. You're just hurting yourself, and the people who might have loved your writing. Before you decide that you can only write if William Maxwell is your editor, how about you just simma down and start writing. If you can only do something if you're 100 percent sure it'll work out perfectly...how do you get up in the morning? How do you live your life? There are no guarantees in this weird, messy, frenetic, heartbreaking, marvelous world of ours.
Relationships come and go, friends drift away, people we love die, we age and life, inexorably, continues. For every published author's book you see in the stores, you know how many other unpublished, unreadable, failed manuscripts he might have in a box in the basement? Maybe he had to write all those books to get to the book that worked. Does that mean that the other books were failures? No, failure is giving up, or even worse, never starting. The other thing, that thing about trying again and again, that's called life. You're going to have to believe in yourself, and the importance of your story and commit to that. You're going to have to accept that no, not everyone will like your book, but there will be readers who will stay awake all night to finish your book, feeling a little less alone in the world. What a triumph that would be!
True story: when I was 17, I wrote a one-act play that went on to win the 1991 Young Playwrights Festival, and be produced off-Broadway, under the direction of Mark Brokaw. I wrote a one-act play about characters that interested me for me. The play is about two men in prison, so clearly it did not arise from my personal experience. It came from reading (almost) every play in the New York Public Library, and writing about people who interested me. Then, with my playwrighting teacher's help, I submitted the play to the Festival and won. If I had written a play to be popular, or if I had decided that well, I'm 17, what the hell valuable do I have to say, I would have lost out on some life-changing experiences. Start writing and stop censoring yourself! (Get to work. Seriously.)
Finally, I urge you to write the book(s) inside of you, because if nothing else, that process, and the confidence, hope and pride it brings is bound to change at least one person's life...yours.
If any of these hints helped you get started writing, I'm truly thrilled. If you have your own hints, awesome, please tell me in the comments, or, if you're feeling shy, don't hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!