Years ago, I read a book called The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham, and the first thing on the list is “Don’t Make Excuses.” The entire chapter is basically just saying you have to write every day and not make excuses for why you don’t want to. The thing that sticks out to me now is, “Writers write; everyone else makes excuses.” When I read this the first time, it apparently didn’t speak to me, because I didn’t actually stop making excuses until years later.
Somewhere around the time I read that book, I went to a book signing for Cassandra Clare with some friends. This was during my undergrad years, and someone in the audience asked her what advice she had for aspiring authors. She told us to write every day. Even if it was just 100 words. To at least write something. And I did for a while that summer, but then the habit fell away again.
Then my mom gave me The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I don’t remember exactly when that was, but I think that was finally the book that made me look at what I was doing. The author talks about being a professional when it comes to writing. He says: “The amateur plays part time, the professional full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.”
He goes on a few pages later to say, “All of us are pros in one area: our jobs” and gives a list of ways in which that’s true, including: showing up every day, showing up no matter what, staying on the job even if we don’t want to, and a number of others.
This is the big difference between how I viewed writing up until two years ago and today. I always said I wanted to be an author, but I never put in the time and effort needed to get anywhere near that goal. I did basically everything except write. I drew and painted and played videogames for hours on end. I took up crocheting for something like a year, and while all of that was fun, it wasn’t getting me to where I wanted to be. It wasn’t helping me finish Rowan’s story.
It wasn’t until the end of 2018, when I decided if I wanted to be serious and actually get somewhere, that things started to change. I told myself that during 2019, I would sit down to write every day, whether I wanted to or not, even if I was tired or not in the mood or just over it that day. I made a goal of writing at least 500 words daily. And, of course, I didn’t write every day, because life happens. My mom was sick and then passed away. My sister got married. I was doing my Master’s program and working, which kept me busy. But I tried so hard to sit down every day and put at least something to paper.
And by the end of the year, I’d managed to finish the third rewrite of Rowan’s story. And sure, it was a mess, and I rewrote two-thirds of it last year again, but it helped me form a habit. There are still days where I don’t want to write. There are days when I’m tired and just want to take a nap. There are days where my motivation is in the toilet, but I sit down at my dining table or on the couch and put words down anyway, because writing anything is better than nothing. And if it’s terrible, I can always fix it in revision.
That seems to be the advice most authors give when asked that question. In his Masterclass, Neil Gaiman basically says the same. He keeps it simple, “You should write.” And “Finish things.” But the thing is, that’s the best advice there is. Just write. If you’re really serious about writing, sit down and put words on the page, whether that’s in a notebook or in a Word document or on a typewriter. You can always fix it later, but there’s nothing to fix if you don’t get anything written.
People think writing has to be a solitary affair. I thought so, too, for a long time. But you know what’s so much better than doing it alone? Having a writing buddy. Some people call them critique partners, but it’s so much more than that if you find the right person.
Writing buddies are a beautiful thing. You get a critique partner, but also someone who you can just talk to about your book or short stories or novellas or whatever it is you’re working on. It isn’t the same, trying to talk about your book with someone who might not actually be interested or who may not understand. And, of course, there’s the fear that you’ll annoy someone if you talk about it too much, but that’s not an issue with your writing buddy, because ideally, they’re as into the book as you are.
With a writing buddy you have someone you can bounce ideas off. You have someone who can give you unsolicited advice that you didn’t know you needed until she suggests it. You have someone rooting for your work and asking for more. It’s a great feeling to see “Ready for moreeeeee” at the ends of feedback emails. Even better is hearing that they’re having fun reading the 738-page book they’re beta-reading for you, because “it’s almost like a reread cuz I already know the story and the world, so it’s just comforting.” You have someone who not only looks forward to your work but whose work you look forward to reading in return. Maybe you can even buddy-read books with them because you’re basically the same person and so, of course, you enjoy the same books.
A writing buddy like that, who has also become a dear friend, is invaluable and a literal blessing. They’re someone who can urge you to write when you’re not feeling like it, someone who can help keep you accountable or also acknowledge that, no, sometimes it’s okay to take a break and take that nap you’re just really wanting to take. I know a lot of people say they write for themselves, and sure, I do, too. I wouldn’t be writing the stories I am if I wasn’t interested in reading them myself, but you know what else is nice? Having someone to share those stories with that’s excited about them. And they make you feel like, oh, maybe I don’t entirely suck, and maybe my work is worth the time and effort put into it.
I decided, partially, to get my Master’s because I wanted to surround myself with other writers, but I somehow never expected to actually find a friend that I would end up talking to literally daily. So, thank you a thousand times over to my writing buddy’s partner for pushing her to message me. I will be eternally grateful to you always.
Now go check out her website, because the trilogy she’s working on is amazing. And also, her post about writing buddies here, because naturally we organized posting these at the same time ;).
What I wrote over the last week
Inserted two more chapters into The Children of Oher, because apparently I just can’t stop expanding this book.
What I’m reading right now
Blood Sworn by Scott Reintgen
The Last Revision by Sandra Scofield
Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
And finished Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer yesterday
I feel in no way accomplished enough to give my own advice when it comes to writing, but I will happily pass along some that I’ve gotten from others. Some that has helped me.
I got myself a Masterclass subscription for Christmas, and naturally I had to start with Neil Gaiman, because I love Neil Gaiman. And during one of the videos he said of new writers, “Your job is to get the bad words, the bad sentences, out, the stories that aren’t any good yet.” It reminded me immediately of something one of my undergrad professors told us in a creative writing workshop, which is to give yourself permission to write badly.
This is such a great lesson, not just for writers, but for anyone who’s trying something new. You’re going to suck at first (unless you’re a prodigy or something). That’s inevitable. I certainly have a pile of hot garbage from years ago that will never see the light of day, but without that pile of bad words and sentences and stories that aren’t any good, I wouldn’t have gotten to a point where I feel like my writing and stories are worth showing to anyone. But I think for writing, especially, it’s a great thing to be told that it’s okay to be terrible, because you know what? That’s what second drafts are for. Your first draft can be a disaster, but you can fix it. And then fix it again. And fix it once more, like I did with my first Enorians book. The book as it is now has absolutely nothing to do with the first version other than the fact that Rowan’s name is Rowan (except even that’s not true, because the spelling changed).
So gives yourself permission to write those bad stories or paint those terrible pictures or play terrible music or continue to struggle to make your body do what your brain is telling you it should while you’re on a horse but it’s hard because muscle memory – this last one might be really specifically aimed at myself. You’ll learn something with every wrong move you make, and as with anything else, the more you do it, the better you get and the easier it becomes.
Since I kept it relatively short today, here’s the first couple pages of Chapter One of The Children of Oher. Keep in mind what I just said about first drafts 😉.
Kora’s wedding day looked nothing like how she’d imagined it in her childhood. First, she was only eighteen. She’d always thought she would be well into her twenties or older. Someone else had picked out her dress, a simple, straight white thing that made her feel like she was wearing a sack. Not the graceful gown she’d pictured, with a flowing train and a sparkling bodice. She didn’t have a veil, though she’d always liked the idea of her husband lifting it to kiss her when the time came. Her hair hadn’t even been done nicely. It lay in its dark, messy waves, the top all frizzy from having a bag pulled off her head. Not pinned up in some elegant style like in the pictures with diamond-studded hairclips and flowers weaved throughout. And the last thing she’d ever wanted was to get married in the middle of summer outside. The sun beat down on her, making her hot and uncomfortable. But worst of all, the man Kora stood in front of, the man she was supposed to marry, wasn’t a man she loved. In fact, she hadn’t met him until ten minutes earlier.
Trying not to look into the stony face of her supposed future husband, Kora glanced at the people around her. They stood in a garden surrounded by houses. An unnaturally perfect garden. Kora had always liked overgrown ones, where the plants were allowed to flourish and go where they wished, but this one felt sterile, controlled. Each flower, each leaf, each petal placed just so. Water rushed somewhere behind her. A river? She wasn’t sure. The grass prickled against the soles of her bare feet.
She wasn’t the only one girl who seemed out of place. On either side of her a half circle stretched at least ten girls long, each one wearing the same sack of a white dress. She couldn’t get a good look at some of them, but the ones she could see looked to be in various states of shock or grief. The blonde girl beside her wept silently, eyes on the ground, her shoulders slumped. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. The woman on Kora’s other side had hair as green as the eyes she darted in Kora’s direction. Woman, Kora thought, but young, still. Not much older than herself. All the girls in line couldn’t have been older than their mid-twenties. Had they all been brought in from the outside like her?
Each of the girls had a male opposite standing in front of her. Kora glanced at the man before her again. His skin was the color of wet driftwood, and black eyebrows formed a deep frown, his forehead wrinkled and beading with sweat. The muscles in his jaw stood out, as if he clenched them. But his deep-set eyes weren’t on her. They gazed at something to beyond her, and when they flicked to her, she quickly looked away.
Beyond the couples, if they could even be called that, the garden was filled with a large crowd, all dressed as if they were attending an actual wedding rather than whatever this was supposed to be. They spoke to each other in quiet, excited voices. What were they all waiting for?
Trying to relieve the discomfort of keeping her arms behind her back, Kora rolled her shoulders, grimacing. She tried her plastic cuffs again, moving her hands in hopes this time they were looser. The cuffs rubbed painfully against the already sensitive skin of her hands. All the attempt did was earn her a sharp jab in the spine. She shot a glare back at the man behind her. That earned her another jab in the same bruised spot.
A hushed silence fell over the waiting crowd and all eyes drew to the break between the houses across the garden from where Kora stood. Even the men standing before each girl turned to face the newcomer. Kora followed their gaze, fear and anticipation make her sweat.
The woman who stepped into the garden had a warm, open face, though she didn’t smile. She took in the scene around, blue eyes full of affection. Her long, silver hair spilled down over her shoulders, and as she glided forward, her white robes rustled along the grass. A gold chain hung around her neck, leading to a large disk, which rested in the middle of her chest. Though Kora couldn’t make it out, she could tell there was a symbol on the circle.
With a fresh jab in the spine, Kora realized everyone else had bowed their heads to the woman. Gritting her teeth, she did the same, wondering who or what this woman was. Someone important. That much was clear. She walked with an air of certainty, her shoulders back, her head held high, as if she knew just how important she was. She paused beside the statue in the middle of the garden, one that Kora hadn’t yet taken a good look at. Kora was surprised to see the carved figure had no hair. It seemed wrong, somehow. Strangely, she’d been expecting Oher to be some beautiful woman with long flowing hair and a welcoming face, somewhat like the woman who’d just walked into the garden. Instead, carved out of rough, dark stone, the woman’s face had been etched in a pained expression, something like grief, agony, with her eyes closed as if she couldn’t bear to look at what lay before her. She held her arms spread, like she beckoned them, like she wanted them to take away her pain. It made Kora intensely uncomfortable. She focused back on the living woman.
Clasping her hands together, the woman surveyed them with a smile, her eyes warm and welcoming. “Good afternoon to you all, my beautiful children. What a glorious day she has bestowed upon us on this most wondrous of days. With her divine blessing, we have had another fruitful crop yield. With her divine blessing, we have filled our stores with fish from the river. With her divine blessing, we have protected ourselves from the Abominations lurking outside our walls.” She paused, allowing cries of gratitude. When they abated, she smiled and continued. “My darling children, with her divine blessing, we have found willing brides for our sons.”
What I wrote over the last week
Chapters nine, ten, and eleven of The Children of Oher