Writing terrifies me. As I type this, I have a neat little pile of fingernail crescents next to me, which I’ve peeled off while thinking about my novel.
This isn’t writer’s block. This isn’t procrastination. This is terror, this is fear, this is primal angst. I’m not sure exactly what I’m afraid of – maybe it’s the feeling of playing God as I dictate my characters’ lives and deaths, maybe it’s the fear of caring so much about something and failing at it, maybe it’s the sheer potential energy of all the stories whirling around in my head - but whatever it is, it scares the sh*t out of me.
And, also, I love it.
Writing is a big deal. It’s not like plopping down your cup of coffee at the office and deciding which email to respond to first. It’s not like deciding between satay chicken noodles or penne all’arrabbiata for lunch. It’s monumental. It matters. Writing, when you feel your story so strongly, is enormous.
It’s hard to do enormous things. Which you have realized, and thus are reading a How-To article. You’ve probably read other articles, too, so I need to go above and beyond Schedule a writing hour every day or End today’s session in mid-sentence so you have someplace to start tomorrow.
So here goes:
1. Channel your inner Dorothy Parker
Somebody once asked Dorothy Parker whether she liked writing. Her reply: “I enjoy having written.”
Writing is an outlet, an expression of your soul, the voice with which your very Being addresses the cosmos… but it’s also drudgery, tedium, and hours spent in front of a keyboard when you’d rather be doing something else. While we’ve come a long way, there still isn’t an app1 that plugs into your brain and channels your brilliance directly into a document. You have to put in the hours.
The hours aren’t what motivates you, obviously. It’s what happens after. It’s that moment you write the best sentence you’ve ever read, let alone written, and get that tiny little shiver down your spine. It’s the feedback you get from your writing group, or your spouse, or your editor, when you can tell they are actually impressed, not just making encouraging noises. It’s the feeling you get when you pour the glass of wine (or whiskey, let’s be honest) at the end of a long, multi-chapter day, and can completely relax into your pride.
Write to write, because sometimes it’s wonderful – but when it’s not, write to have written.
2. Create accountability, even if it’s arbitrary
Everyone wants to write a novel someday. Millions of people have even started a novel. But if you want to be one of the people who finishes a novel, you need to get your act together. That means setting deadlines, hitting goals, and keeping yourself accountable.
I love NaNoWriMo, because it gives you one month to write 50,000 words – and instant feedback on how you’re tracking. You can see how many words you’ve written, how many you need to write, and – if you’re of a certain personality type – how many more words that other person in your genre has written. If it isn’t currently November (or April or July), find an app to track your progress, build yourself a dashboard in Excel, or update your word count every night on a white- or blackboard.
Treat finishing your project like a job, because it is. Either it’s what you currently do to pay the bills, or it’s how you’d like to make a living in a perfect world. Or maybe you love your day job and this is just a side project – but whatever it is, remember, writing is work. Set deadlines, track your progress, and make sure you produce something tangible.
3. Realize no one cares
Uncomfortable truth: no one cares as much about your story as you do.
For proof, think about yourself as a reader. Sure, there are a few books that really, really speak to you, but for every one of those, there are probably five or six2 that you’ve read, enjoyed (or at least not hated), but now barely remember. They were fine books, but they didn’t change your life.
That’s what your book will be, at least to most people. Depending on your genre, it might take 10 readers before anyone really connects with your characters, with your plot, with your message – or it might take 10,000. Maybe no one will ever connect with it…but so what? You’ll have written a book, and as long as you care about it, it was worth the blood, sweat, toil, and lattes.
The fact that nobody cares isn’t supposed to be discouraging; it’s supposed to be liberating. Your book won’t actually be responsible for relieving (or instilling) existential angst in your readers, which means you don’t need to lay awake at night agonizing about that one throwaway scene!
So stop worrying so much, and just put it out there. It doesn't have to be the next great American novel, it just needs to be an American novel. You don’t have to be a New York Times best-selling author, you just need to be an author. Which leads me to my next point.
4. Writers are tautological
There are a lot of goals that you can set for yourself that you don’t really have control over achieving. You want to be a millionaire? Great. You either need to inherit money, convince someone to hire you or buy your product, or else win the lottery or a lawsuit.
What do these all have in common? A third party. Someone else has to act in order for you to achieve your goal – someone has to allow you to be a millionaire.
But say you want to be a writer. What has to happen?
You have to write. That’s it.
I am a writer, because I have written3. Maybe I’m not famous, maybe I’m not critically acclaimed, maybe I’m not published…but I am a writer - goal completed. From here, I can work toward all those other adjectives, because at least I’ve built the foundation.
There’s an important corollary to this. No matter how many great ideas you have, no matter how many stories you’ve started, no matter how many worlds you’ve created – if you haven’t written them down4, if you haven’t put in the work, you’re not a writer. You still can be, don’t get me wrong, but you’re not a writer yet.
So get started! Grab a pen and transform a couple of thoughts from abstract swirls to crisp, black words. Watch how quickly they turn into sentences, into paragraphs, into chapters...
Writing is scary because it is hard. It’s much harder than you thought it would be when you came up with your amazing idea. It turns out there’s more to the equation than just a Macbook, a few afternoons at a coffee shop, and a book deal. But the fact that it’s terrifying, and that it’s enormous, means that you should do it. You have to do it. You will do it.
Use these tips… or don’t. Figure out what works for you. Find something that motivates you, that keeps you accountable, that frees you to write what you want to write – and then write.
And try to keep your fingernails intact while doing so.
1 As of this writing ↩
2 ...hundred ↩
3 Or, because nothing builds street cred like Latin, Scripsi ergo scriptor sum ↩
4 You also have to do something with them. A wise man (who is my husband) once told me, "The difference between a great idea in your head and a great idea that you’ve written down but not published or posted is the time you wasted writing it down" ↩