Everyone always talks about how hard it is to write. And it is hard. There’s the terror of the blank page, the three steps forward, two steps back torture of plotting, the trial and error of character development—not to mention the tyranny of the impossible deadline.
And it never really gets easier, as we tend to challenge ourselves more with every project.
For me, the worst part is the first draft, which is always somewhat of a slog. I love it and dread it at the same time. It’s like running a marathon when you’ve forgotten how to run. But you haven’t really, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Bird by bird.
When I remember this, the writing is not quite so hard. And I am reminded that writing is not all angst and adverbs. Sometimes it’s actually—dare I say it—fun. There are undeniable pleasures, however fleeting or abstruse or just plain unfathomable to Other People (non-writers) they may be. Keeping them in mind can help us enjoy the writing process more, even on those days when we struggle to make our word count.
The next time you sit down to write, notice—and applaud!—when you:
Find just the right word.
There is no better feeling than nailing the right word. And why shouldn’t it feel good: There are more than a million words in the English language, around 170,000 in current use. Most adult native speakers have a vocabulary of 20,000 to 35,000 words. So finding that one-in-a-million perfect word is reason to celebrate.
Find just the right turn of phrase.
This is related to the above—only it’s more complicated. This is one of the glories of prose, the one that’s closest to the glories of poetry. Okay, so it’s not poetry, but when you come up with a witty bit of alliteration or a new twist on an old cliché or line that drums a sweet rhythm, congratulate yourself. That’s creativity in motion.
Solve an intricate plot puzzle.
I write mysteries, which are by definition puzzles. Piecing together a new puzzle every time is part problem, part play. But as Hemingway pointed out, “there is a mystery in all great writing.” No matter what the genre, figuring out the mystery in the story we’re telling is gratifying on every level.
Make yourself cry.
Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” When we bring ourselves to tears while writing a particularly moving scene, we have connected with at least one reader. And in so doing we’ve increased our odds on connecting with other readers as well. After all, there’s nothing like a good cry.
Make yourself laugh.
When I was an acquisitions editor, I acquired and developed a lot of humor books. Humor is a tough category, because it’s so subjective. But I figured if the writing made me laugh, it would make some other people laugh, too. Enough to warrant publishing the book—and I was usually right. In fiction, the best—and easiest—way to make the most readers laugh is not through one-liners, but through character-driven humor. Write characters that make you laugh, and readers will laugh with you. Bonus: You’ll benefit from all those endorphins released when you laugh, the feel-good hormones that can fuel your storytelling.
Learn something new.
When I get stuck, I do research. I google arcane topics, I conduct interviews with experts, I visit possible settings for scenes. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours tracking down wild orchids in Vermont, archaeological digs in the Middle East, luxe destination weddings all over the world. And that was just for THE WEDDING PLOT (which debuts next week).
Fall in love with a new character.
As an agent, I can tell you that it’s a lot easier to sell stories with compelling characters. (One of the most common complaints I hear from editors is, “I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.) Bringing characters to life on the page is one of writing’s greatest satisfactions. In THE WEDDING PLOT, I wrote a scene with a character I’d not planned to be a part of the story, Bodhi St. George just came to me and I wrote him. I loved him, and that love prompted me to rework the story to accommodate his character. He was fun to write—and apparently fun to read. When my wise and wonderful editor Pete Wolverton read the story, he told me that I’d created this great character, a character readers would fall in love with, so we needed more of him in the book, so as not to disappoint them. I went back and wove Bodhi throughout more of the story, which was also fun.
Work something you love into your story.
Write what you know, that’s the old adage. But I tell my writing students: Write what you know, write what you love, write what you’d love to know. One of the great joys of writing is when you’re able to write about the things you love. That’s why there’s nature, Shakespeare, and dogs in all of my novels. And the scenes where these elements appear are always my favorite ones to write.
Work someone you love into your story.
Most of my characters are composites, built of the physical and psychological traits, virtues and vices, and qualities and quirks of many people, real and imagined. But that changed with THE WEDDING PLOT. I had just begun writing the first draft when my father died unexpectedly, and I was too distraught to do much of anything, much less write. But I had a deadline to meet. I ended up writing my dad into the book. This gave me something to do, a means by which I could honor The Colonel. It was as if he were right there on my shoulder, helping me write his story. I like to think that even now, somewhere he’s smiling.
Right after Frost advised, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” he went on to advise, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Everyone loves surprises—especially those we create for ourselves. Be open to the unplanned, the unexpected, even the unwanted. And when you surprise yourself, go for it.
There are those magical, mystical moments when we find ourselves in the zone, so deeply engaged in the writing of our stories that we lose all track of time. We skip meals, we forget our friends and family, we even tune out texts and emails and phone calls. This is simply writer’s heaven.
Get the job done.
Sometimes the only contentment comes with meeting your word count goal. Soldier on, and then mark that day’s work as DONE. Whether you use checkmarks or gold stars or retail therapy rewards (which I prefer), acknowledge your achievement.
Decorate the house.
Joyce Carol Oates compares revising the first draft to decorating a house. You’ve got the first draft down on paper, you’ve built the house, but it’s not finished until you’ve decorated it. I love decorating, and I love revising. That’s when the real fun begins….
Ultimately writing a novel means entertaining yourself. If we can’t entertain ourselves, why bother? Granted, it’s a hard-won entertainment—it’s a lot easier to binge Netflix or play video games or read someone else’s book—but nothing beats the pleasure of having written, and holding that book in your hand a year or two year later.
I’m just saying.