The Writer’s Guide To Writing
Finding one’s true ‘writer’s voice’, creating unforgettable characters, bringing stories to life, making memorable plots, and most importantly, overcoming the dreaded ‘writer’s block’ are just some of the things writers wish they could effortlessly take care of.
Novelist and memoirist Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird is a classic guide for writers, helping them to not only write better but improve life along the way too. It is an honest, witty, distinctive, and unique perspective, dotted with personal anecdotes from Lamott’s experiences, explaining how to instil commitment, discipline, and focus into one’s writing.
She emphasises that a good writer not necessarily follows a strict routine and that inspiration for writing can come from anywhere, especially when one slows down, observes one’s surroundings keenly, and looks deep within oneself.
Everything That Happens
One has to generate good material to write well. And to generate good material, one has to be a good observer. One often finds that good writers have a tendency to keep away from the crowd and observe everything in their surroundings – the people, their mannerisms, the settings, etc.
A writer needs to articulate everything that is seen or experienced. Articulation, therefore, needs focus and a relaxed manner. Rushing, or forcing the process of articulation doesn’t help. Like it or not, writers need to be patient and learn to pay attention to everything ranging from the person’s curious gait, to how the evening sunlight frames a face, to the feelings a memory brings forth.
Observation and noting down what one observes in the surroundings helps in conveying the truth: a quality that good writers must possess. It isn’t important whether the writer thinks that his observations will result in good material or not. What matters is that the writer is able to seek truth in observations and use them in the story that the writer wishes to tell.
Drawing on past experiences is another ability that writers must possess. One’s own past and childhood is a treasure trove of true information. However, writers must ensure that they carefully, and truthfully, use their viewpoint to make the story compelling. Examining oneself and everything around is an intrinsic quality that writers can use.
Finding One’s Own Voice
Every writer should have his/her own ‘voice’. A ‘voice’ is a writer’s own style of not only including details but also telling a story, and honesty in expressing one’s own feelings is the only way to develop it.
Expressing one’s true feelings cannot happen without facing some stark truths and opening emotional doors. Thus, developing an authentic ‘voice’ by discovering and confronting ones own feelings and emotions is the key to writing truthfully. For example, writing truthfully about raging anger or profound grief can only be truthfully penned down if the writer accepts and faces them during the process of writing. This is also true of painful or extremely private feelings.
Furthermore, to truly accept such emotions and feelings, a writer has to be ‘present’ in them and be fully aware of how it feels to be experiencing them. Merely thinking about them will not lend authenticity to a writer’s voice. In other words, being in the present amounts to understanding one’s reality and being comfortable with the entire spectrum of one’s own emotions.
To be a good writer, one has to stop worrying whether they are a good writer or not. Like everything else, writing develops with practice, and believing in one’s own ability to write is key.
Writers have to accept that not all days are filled with a good flow of words. There will be days and weeks of blank pages and that patience is a virtue, as is determination. Such faith and persistence are important, especially for young writers.
Over time, and with practice, a writer can feel a yearning to write. Faith in one’s own ability to write, and the yearning to write well can replace the frustration one experiences on bleak days.
Faith is also crucial when a writer needs to believe in whatever he/she is writing. If the writer doesn’t believe in what he/she is writing, no one will. But how does a writer generate such belief?
The answer lies in making an effort to understand and care deeply about life itself. Writers have to connect with their own stories and write about everything that is important in their life. That includes examining not only the dramatic, drastic, and important events in life but also the banalities of life.
Establishing A Daily Routine
The biggest assumption that writers have, is that they can write well only when inspiration strikes. However, establishing a strict daily writing routine and incorporating discipline in the routine is essential for success.
A writer should find a place to write and go there every day, at the same time, whether productivity strikes or not. Following a routine of time and place prepares the unconscious mind to yield creativity at the time and place designated for writing.
At first, a writer could get bored, or even not write anything at all. However, as a writer persists with the routine, the positive effects of the routine will lead to success. The mind will automatically start creating a ‘mental writing space’. Eventually, the routine will become a habit and will train the mind to ‘get creative’ at the designated time every day.
While routine is essential to write, it isn’t the sure formula to write well. There is no secret code or password that unleashes good content. One needs commitment too, to succeed as a writer. The author, for example, realised that all good writers are not only disciplined about their writing routines but are also committed to their work.
Just as meditation requires routine and daily practice in quietening the mind to hear the inner voice, writing requires routine, discipline, and commitment for finding the inner writing voice.
The Shitty First Draft
To put it bluntly, no one writes a great, elegant first draft. According to the author, all good books emerge from a series of better versions of ‘the shitty first draft’.
At the first stage, even the most seasoned writer finds it difficult to accept the shitty first draft. However, it is essential that all writers – seasoned or young – not only accept the shitty first draft as the first stage but also accept it as part of the writing process.
In fact, a ‘shitty first’ is an opportunity to play around with ideas and let the mind wander. At this stage, writers should simply write, without overthinking about its quality. Overthinking can lead to blocks and frustration, where a writer could end up giving up the idea of writing completely.
The shitty first draft should be the point where a writer should enjoy getting their hands dirty, make a mess and know that they can clean it up later. It should be the stage where the writer dumps everything that is on his/her mind because no one judges a writer by the draft.
Once the first draft is written, the writer can revisit it, edit, and refine it, focussing on improving writing. While writing, the second draft is considered the ‘up’ draft, as a writer is fixing it ‘up’, and the third draft is called the ‘dental draft’ as it includes prodding and poking, just as a dentist first examines a patients teeth.
The whole process is akin to watching a Polaroid develop slowly, revealing the finer story with each successive draft.
Knowing The Characters
A good story has memorable characters, and a writer has to know them well to make them unforgettable. It is the job of a writer to bring the characters of a story to life.
Every character owns an emotional acre, just as a real person does. It is the space where everything about the personality grows and develops. A writer has to get a sense of each character’s emotional acre, think about what grows or blooms in it, what dies in it, the condition of the acre, etc.
Next, a writer should get a more detailed look at the character. The writer has to think about what is happening to the character, why is it happening, and what the character is doing.
Furthermore, a writer should not be protective of the characters. Essentially, a character should have bad things happen to them. Making a characters life ideal and painless can render the story flat and mundane.
A character should have a voice of its own. To give characters a voice, writers should model them on real people they know. This not only gives characters a ‘true voice’ but also makes readers believe that the characters are telling the truth. Writers should understand their characters to be able to bring them to life, and allow the dialogue and plot to emerge from them naturally.
Writers should imagine their characters in real-life situations, and think of how they will act and react in challenging situations and different settings.
Writers should remember that dialogues reveal more than lengthy and detailed descriptions do. Hence, a writer has to pay attention to what a character says, as well as how they say it. Diction, speaking style and pace make a dialogue good and realistic. Writers should thus, read the dialogue out loud to get a feel of how the character sounds.
Details In The Atmosphere
Details make a story tangible and believable. Moreover, details in storytelling help bring a reader inside the story. They involve a few important components that writers should focus on.
The setting of a story can bring it to life. The story and the world the characters live in, get a three-dimensional feel with a good setting. Writers have the ability to tailor a set to fit their characters, as well as the story itself. For example, the details of a crime scene in a dark, dank, forest in the night will be different from those of the same forest depicted on a sunny day, where a family is enjoying a picnic.
Settings can reveal a lot about characters too. The relationship a character has with his space can help focus on certain aspects of the character’s personality. For instance, a character that wanders around a huge empty mansion can help show the relationship the man has had with the house, his status, and even the family residing in it.
Details can reveal themselves to a writer anytime and anywhere. Thus, to have an eye for detail, writers should carry a notebook with themselves so that they can jot down any interesting detail they observe in their surroundings.
For example, if a writer is attending a grand event in a mansion, details such as the number of steps in the staircase, how long it takes to go from one end of the staircase to the other, the colour scheme of the walls, paintings, style of furniture, windows, etc. are details that can be used to create and describe a setting.
Details also help in moulding the structure of a story. Writers often use a plot treatment – a detailed ‘list of details’ of all the things that happen in each chapter of their book. This helps in checking the narrative or flow of the plot. A plot treatment helps in weeding out illogical details or find missing details in the story.
The Big, Bad, Writer’s Block
The much-feared writer’s block is inevitable. All writers have faced it at some time or the other. It is a feeling of being ‘creatively empty’. Not having any idea of what to write can be very debilitating for writers. However, there are ways that writers can get past writer’s block.
The first step, when a writer experiences a block is to simply accept it. Admitting that one is just not in the mood to be creative is important. However, it is important to keep following the daily routine of writing at least a page, without thinking whether it is written well or not.
The thing that actually gets writers past writer’s block is confidence. It works like a supporting pole that gives a writer the knowledge that they will be able to write again.
There are times, however, when a writer can lose their confidence as well as the inspiration to write. Though it is a tough situation to be in, there is a way out. Trusting one’s own ability and intuition can help a writer remain connected to writing and get back on track. However, at times, intuition can send warning signs that the story is simply not good too. Writers have to be able to respect and observe that information to ascertain whether they should trudge along and persevere, or simply let go of the story.
Observe The Weakness And Write About It
Denying feelings often results in loss, especially for a writer. One can learn a great deal from feeling alone. Even dangerous feelings such as jealousy can teach a person a lot.
Jealousy can leave a writer feeling miserable and paranoid; eventually, affect the quality of writing itself. While it is unwise to let jealousy foster, writers can use it to their advantage.
The feeling itself can be used in writing, where a writer describes the experience and reveals the beauty hidden inside the feeling through words. Writing about such negative feelings helps a writer grow, both, personally and professionally.
Though it is incredibly difficult to face and confront certain emotions, understanding the weakness in these emotions can help a person emerge stronger, and eventually help one in seeing the humour in them. These emotions and feelings, which seem like personal weaknesses, can be ultimately used to colour the personalities of characters in the story.
Talking To The Right People For Inspiration
Stories are all around us. Every person has a story to tell, and just like every writer is waiting to hear the right story, a teller is waiting for the right writer. Thus, for a writer to find the right story, he/she has to talk to people.
Writing is often seen as a solitary endeavour. Most writers end up confining themselves to isolation in search of solitude. Writers should avoid isolating themselves as it can lead to a disassociation from people and even life itself. Many writers have wasted away, unable to distinguish between reality and the fiction they write about.
Reaching out to others and seeking inspiration from their stories can help avoid isolation and disassociation. Simply initiating a conversation with a stranger while travelling on a bus could bring inspiration for the next story, or the setting and personality of a character in one’s story.
Sharing and discussing work with other writers is another way to get inspired. One can perhaps join a writing group, enrol for creative writing workshops or classes, and discuss their work with other writers in the writing profession.
However, one has to be wary, as sometimes, such groups tend to be overly critical. Too much criticism from instructors, friends, and colleagues alike can lead to the shattering of one’s confidence. It is thus important to find someone who is supportive, can help with constructive criticisms and can give good writing advice.
It’s Better To Write Well Than Get Published
Many writers simply aim at getting their work published. While publishing one’s work and getting readers for their material is essential, it should never be the main goal of writing. Sometimes, the need to get published, garner acclaim and find a large audience can become an obsession.
Fame is a fickle friend and obsessing over it can only lead to disappointment. Leading with the expectation that once a book is published, one attains fame and wealth is folly. Yes, publishing can give a feeling of accomplishment, get a writer noticed in the writing community, perhaps even earn a few good reviews and followers, but it can never be the yardstick that measures quality.
A writer that cannot write well before being published will not be able to write well after publishing either. What really matters is the journey a writer takes while writing, and the transformation experienced – personally and professionally.
Getting one’s work published should be regarded as a treat. However, the real fruit of writing lies in getting to live a writers life, caring deeply about one’s own work, and achieving a small goal daily. Writing should be a means to live a fulfilled life and to feed the soul.
To be a good writer, one has to develop the skill of observing one’s surroundings, paying attention to small details, and endeavouring to seek the truth. Routine, discipline, faith, and confidence are the key to writing well.
A writer should have confidence in a ‘shitty first draft’ and know that it is the base of any story. Furthermore, a writer should know and understand their characters, learn and write about their weaknesses, talk to the people around them, and never, ever, be afraid of writer’s block.