Seven goals for the writerly writer

Summer is ending. Hey, look it’s the middle of August. Summer is almost over. How did that happen? Summer is going away now. And hey, I’m now in Los Angeles permanently. At the end of the summer. And California is 200,000 frickin’ degrees. Summer is spiting me.

The school year is starting again, meaning I will have less and less “time to write”, and more and more time to sit around and say, “Hey, I should totally be writing right now.” This summer, I have actually been pretty good about writing, considering that my family moved across three states in a Toyota Sequoia and a Mack Truck. But I know that as soon as August 27th rolls around, the I-Am-Writer-Hear-Me-Roar side of my brain will instantly go into screensaver mode, and I will spend all of my spare time complaining on this blog about how my ink-lings are waddling away from me giggling mischievously, like the Adipose (the creeptastic, living fat blob aliens below) from Doctor Who.

These are what all my good ideas will look like as they happily exit my brain in a few weeks’ time.

However, by the end of this summer I will have written over 65K words total, in both Privateer and “How, Ever.” I think that’s more than I wrote over the course of my freshman and sophomore years of college combined.

I kind of want to keep that going (wouldn’t you?), so in an effort to keep myself from whining, and to spare you the horrendous chore of trying to comfort me, I am going to share a few goals of mine that will hopefully help me (and maybe you!) grow as a writer. If you’re anything like me, I hope you find them helpful, too.

#1. WRITE SOMETHING EVERY DAY.

And now you hate me, right? Hey, you knew this was coming. It’s the inevitable fate of every writer. It comes with the job. But I never realized just how important it was until this past summer.

One of my writer heroes, Anne Lamott, says that anything you write is a miracle; something now exists where nothing did before. Bet you never thought of it that way before. I sure hadn’t, and it changed my whole outlook on writing. I stopped beating myself up about the absolute crap that came out of my head, and started seeing my work in a different light. So what, it’s a draft. It’s not supposed to be perfect. Just put something on paper. Anything. It’s a small miracle. Be proud of it.

#2. FIGURE OUT YOUR RHYTHM.

Because we all have one. Hear that? That’s not the blood pulsing in your ears, nor the drum pounding in your chest—it’s your creative stride, the one you’re smothering with Facebook and homework.

Most people I know start a project on a high and write for a week or so at a break-neck speed, and then that adrenaline sort of trickles away… leaving them with a dead-end chapter or a “what-the-heck-do-I-do-now?” complex. Yes, it happens to all of us. Yes, I’ve done it multiple times. What separates the amateurs from the pros is whether you can find a steady pace and push through to the end.

Is that five-hundred words per day? A thousand words per day? A page per day? A sentence per day? Guess what: YOUR RHYTHM IS GOING TO BE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM YOUR FRIEND’S RHYTHM. Remember the miracle? Writing is a very personal miracle. You can’t compare it to someone else’s. Find what works for you, and refuse to feel guilty about it.

#3. TAKE A PEN EVERYWHERE YOU GO OR WATCH YOUR IDEAS FLOAT AWAY.

When you are writing every day—even if it’s just a little bit—chances are that story of yours is going to be constantly on your mind (in the back, in the front, 24/7). And when that happens, you will be unconsciously looking for solutions to the problems you’ve come across in your story in every day life, or trying to pinpoint that one character who’s giving you difficulties in the people you meet on the street. You don’t know when inspiration is going to strike. You don’t know where.

SO BRING A PEN.

Or your iPhone/smartphone. Or your notebook. Or anything that you can write in/on. Seriously, guys, I can’t tell you how many times I have been on the treadmill at the gym and hit with a sudden bolt of inspiration. I have literally pulled off of the freeway and into a parking lot to scribble down a plot twist. Did you know that the average human’s short-term memory holds a thought for less than 2 minutes before it lets it go? Yeah. Keep that pad of paper next to your bed, sugarplum.

#4. WRITE FOR YOURSELF.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with sharing your writing with other people, whether that is in an online community or with your writing partners or your family or whatever. However, when you do that, you will occasionally get feedback you don’t like. And such situations can easily lead to thoughts like, “But if so-and-so says so, maybe I should change it…” or “I really like this the way it is, but I guess since so many people think it would be better this way….”

Let me tell you something—unless someone else’s criticism has to do with your improper grammar or plot inconsistencies, or that critic happens to be Jesus himself, you don’t HAVE to listen to it. This is your story. Write that on a Post-It and stick it on your forehead. Sharpie it onto the back of your hand. Your. Story. My. Story.

Write what you love, what you feel, or it’s never going to work for anyone else. If your heart’s not in it, neither will it capture anyone else’s. It has to be genuine. You are completely at liberty to use your own judgment about pacing or character development or dialogue (I mean, unless your editor comes along and tells you to take a good look at your choices).

#5. LISTEN TO OTHER VOICES.

While you must write for yourself, you should never block out other people entirely. You need people to look at your work, because—let’s face it—you have been looking at it for way too long. By the end of a year of writing/rewriting the same piece, you have probably completely forgotten what it’s even about. Listen to what other readers have to say, because they have fresher eyes than yours, and they are not as biased toward your characters. Readers can be ruthless. Readers can be brutally honest.

But they are going to make you better.

That is, once you get over the sting of criticism. And it will hurt for a while, if your work does get badly criticized. But I promise, it goes away.

#6. EITHER ORGANIZE OR SIMPLIFY BECAUSE OMG DUDE.

Some people work best when everything is spontaneous and nothing is planned and the whole world is tinted with rays of sunshine and happiness.

Doom upon those people.

Thankfully, they are very few, and most of us have to organize our thoughts before we can get anything done. What’s your method? Do you keep Word Docs full of notes? Binders? Sticky notes? Online storyboarding? A blog? *ahem*

If you’re like me, you like to compose intricate plots with so many twists that you soon lose track of how many problems you have to resolve. You’ve got to put those reminders somewhere, honey. Try this website: Listhings.com. It works wonders for the paranoid who consistently misplace their notes (a.k.a. me).

#7. HOLD YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE BECAUSE NO ONE ELSE IS GOING TO DO IT FOR YOU.

Unless you are a signed author with a series to complete, or you have some other deadline to meet, no one is going to sit you down and say, “How many words did you write today, pumpkin?” Writing is, unfortunately, about responsibility. I know you don’t want to hear it. I shudder at the word, myself. But if I’m not making myself write, who is? No one, that’s who. No one is making me write. No one is going to die if I don’t put a couple of words on paper today. The world will still be intact if I skip a few days… weeks… months…

It all comes down to why we do what we do. If no one else’s lives depend on our words, then maybe we write because our own lives depend on our words. If we can’t make our voices heard, then what is the point of communication, story-telling, free speech, language? We scream into the silence because it helps us exist. Writers are a special breed of people, and sometimes, we even end up speaking for others.

Do you have any more writerly goals like these? Put it in the comments, and share the wealth, yo.

—Samantha Chaffin

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One thought on “Seven goals for the writerly writer

  1. thejaneite says:

    To start, your Doctor Who reference is making my day. Besides the fact that that was one weird episode (aside from Donna’s reunion with the Doctor- best. moment. ever.)
    Now onto my very lengthy comment as I carefully re-read this post.

    #1. I love that way of looking at your writing (that it was never there before, and is magic, in a way). I actually wrote a poem to that effect when I was thirteen or fourteen, called something like “Words”- saying that even if they were lame, the words I wrote were mine, and the people I made up mine, and the story mine, and how incredible that was. It was a stupid poem though.
    #2. Your advice on finding a rhythm is most profound, madam. *high five*
    #3. A-MEN. I have pads of sticky-notes everywhere (bedside, desk, purse, car) because I continually forget what are always me most brilliant ideas unless I write them down! Preach it!
    #4 (write for yourself) is so spot on. I can be super easily influenced by other people, even if they’re not people whose opinion should make a difference- if they have any confidence whatsoever, I assume that their ideas are superior. It’s a problem. So this is good to be reminded of. Thanks! (And I like the line about Jesus- haha that made me laugh).
    #5. It’s true! People who read my work notice all sorts of possibilities and inconsistencies and all sorts of things that I had overlooked / forgotten / never even thought of.
    #6. haha yeah! Organization is the best thing in the world!!! Even if I’m rubbish at it every other day. Also, YOU USE LISTHINGS!? Dude. Can I share my Esmeralda canvas with you, and if you’re feeling inclined can I see yours? Please? No? Yes?
    #7. Grrrr…so true. I sometimes get in a rut and then avoid my laptop for a couple of days. But I DO need to write. I just wish someone would keep me accountable- maybe that’s one of the reasons Figment is good for me- people wanting more forces me to write more. :/

    Also, my own writerly goals? Hmmm….just plain old writing like mad. I’m hoping to have Esmeralda Draft #2 done by at least Christmas, and some copies printed of it from Blurb. Then I’ll start on draft #3… :/

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