Today I wanted to talk about the process and act of writing. What I mean by that is the simple craft of regularly putting pen to paper. As Stephen King famously said, “Amateurs wait for the muse to come. The rest of us get working.” That is so incredibly true. When I was a creative writing undergrad at San Francisco State University, like many young [writing] students, I thought that, when the ‘muse’ came, I could then write the Great American Novel.
The truth is—any professional can affirm this—and I hate to break your heart here: There is no muse. The muse is like Santa Clause; it’s a hoax that we tell beginners to try and inspire them. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But at some point, if you take yourself seriously as a writer, you will have to let go of the Santa Clause Effect, and sit down every day to write. No matter what.
The trick is to treat it like a job, which it is. For those of us who have actually made money from our writing (even if it’s just a little bit), you know. Editors, whether at magazines, lit journals, or in-house, demand speed. You need to get those edits done fast. And you need to put the proverbial pen to the page every day or close to it. It’s the regular practice of writing that makes you better. That and regular reading of other authors’ work.
I like authors like Harlan Coben and Stephen King, not because they’re famous, but because they criticize creative writing classes (including MFAs), writing critique groups, and the idea of The Muse. King states that he writes 4-6 hours every day. Now, I know, I know: He made a quarter of a million bucks off Carrie, his debut novel. That’s not fair: He has been able to write daily from the “beginning” because he wrote good, salable prose that had an audience. He was lucky enough to have had an agent and an in-house editor that recognized his talent and the potential audience. So he’s been able to live in luxury since that time, in terms of carving out time to write.
Of course, he’s also had a wife and kids. And some could argue that the starving artist thing is actually helpful in terms of writing motivation: It keeps you hungry.
But I digress. I saw Harlan Coben speak at the Writers’ Digest conference in New York City back in early August, 2014. He knocked me sideways by suggesting, like King, that creative writing classes and critique groups actually often prevent you from doing the one thing you really need to do: lay down lots of prose. Whether the prose is of substance or not is really irrelevant. The point is to nail down that first draft. THEN, later, go back in and look at what you’ve got; edit, revise, rewrite, hand to beta readers, etc. King talks about reading first with your heart and then with your head.
In both cases, the authors’ say write a lot and read a lot; that is the key to success. Any professional will tell you this. Agents always say it doesn’t matter if you have an MFA or not. Check out the book MFA VS NYC edited by Chad Harbach.
In my own personal case, I write on average about five days a week. Sometimes more like six. Rarely every single day. But close. I allow myself to GO when working on a new piece of fiction. For example, the other morning I woke up, showered, made tea, and sat down to write. In less than two hours, I had 4,600 words on the page. I think this is a pretty good story! Sure, it’s not going to pop out at the end perfect, finished, ready to publish. It’s going to need work, as all writing does. But the point is that I allowed myself time to just let it out. Tell your inner critic, your inner-editor to take a hike when you write. Later, when you’re in the editing process, then you can bring that inner critic out. But not before.
As a freelance book editor, one of the most common things I see is writers who can’t allow themselves to finish a book. They might have been chopping away at a novel for a year, two years, three. But they keep going back to chapter one, revising, changing, altering. They keep moving the characters around. They keep getting conflicting feedback from their group. King says it should never take you longer than three months to write a first draft.
Ok, again, accepting that he’s an extreme, I do think there’s still value in that idea. Just let it go. Find that two hour or three hour period everyday when you can allow yourself to write. Use that only to work on whatever piece you’re working on. Have a basic plot-outline done before you begin. You can veer off the grid anytime, but at least you have an idea of where you’re going. Then just type. Allow yourself to get into the groove. Before you know it, you’ll have a very unready, imperfect first draft. Then wait a while and go back to it in a few months, seeing all the plot-holes and character issues.
From there you’re on your way. It’s a process. Allowing yourself the right to write is a big part of the early stages of this career.
Order Stephen King’s “On Writing,” his memoir on the craft.
I do developmental book editing. Right now I am—happily—booked solid until June, 2016. If you want a free test edit now I can do that, but I’ll have to throw you in line for June/July. Cool with that? Have an adult novel (no sci-fi please) or memoir? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.