Getting Started In Writing

8 Mar

Because of my work, I get a lot of email and suchlike from people who want to be writers themselves. I got quite a bit of help and support from others when I started, so I try to make a point of writing a reply to every email, once I have the time. Mostly, my advice is the same as the advice I’ve put on the blog. Work hard, listen to critics and keep learning.

Recently, I got an email that struck a chord. The writer was dyslexic, like me. (I’ve been diagnosed as dyslexic, but my wife thinks I may actually be slightly autistic.) He’d had a bad time at school, like me. He’d spent most of his time reading SF/fantasy books, like me. And he was trying to become an author, even though he’d been told he couldn’t. As you can see, we had quite a few things in common.

His specific question was about writing motivation. How do you move from an idea to actually filling a page with text, let alone an entire novel? How do you remain focused on an idea, if you’re at the very beginning of your career, long enough to craft a novel?

It isn’t easy. The basic problem is remaining focused on a single idea, but this actually can be subdivided into smaller problems. For example, how much time do you spend on the background? Too much will waste your time, too little will leave you with possible plot holes. And then, how do you remain focused when there are plenty of other ideas demanding attention?

At base, the question isn’t so much about writing a novel as it is about developing writing skill and discipline.

Writing is a skill, one you learn by doing. The first million words or so you write will probably be utter trash. (My first novel was horrifically bad by the standards of my second novel, let alone my current work.) There are no shortcuts. The only way to progress is to sit down and actually write. It doesn’t really matter what you write so much as actually writing it.

Writing is also a discipline. You need to develop the ability to focus on your work and stick to it, despite distractions. A professional writer (i.e. one who supports himself by writing) cannot afford to treat it as a hobby. It is discipline that makes the difference between a single completed manuscript and a set of background notes, isolated scenes and a dozen different great ideas that never go anywhere.

In writing, there is no boss. On the plus side, no one will fire you if you decide to take an unplanned day off. On the negative side, no one will stand behind you with a (hopefully-metaphorical) whip and make you work. You have to motivate yourself to do it.

If you’re just getting started, here is my advice.

First, try to write something each day. Set yourself a target (say, around 500 words) and stick to it.

(If you look at everything above this line, that’s 504 words.)

Try to keep doing this, even when it gets hard. Think of it as a form of exercise – the pains you get are your body adapting to the new reality. Do scenes from a novel, which can be linked up later, or write short stories. The important thing is to keep going!

Second, when you feel a little more practiced, try to put together a much larger novel. Write out a rough outline, then follow it. (You’ll probably discover that you’ll have better ideas as you fall into the book’s groove.) Don’t worry too much about the details, just try to write the manuscript. Your first book will probably be crappy, like mine, but completing a manuscript is not a small achievement. You can make a note of it and then move on to the next manuscript. Try not to go back to the first manuscript and repeatedly update it – that’s a good way to get bogged down.

By then, hopefully, you should have the discipline to continue. Don’t get distracted. If you have other ideas, make a note of them – I carry a notebook everywhere, just so I can write down ideas – and come back to them after finishing the first manuscript.

Everyone has different ideas of how and where to write. I use a wireless keyboard for my laptop, others write directly onto the laptop; I don’t like listening to music, but others do; I drink tea (I go 3000 words to the pint); others drink coffee, or wine, or don’t drink (or eat) at all. Find what suits you and stick to it.

Once you have a few manuscripts under your belt, you can start sharing notes with other writers and exchanging comments and thoughts. Find a writer’s group, perhaps; make sure it’s one in the same general field as yours. (A romance writers group is not going to help if your plan is to become the next David Weber or Stephen King.) Like I’ve said before, learn to listen to these comments. A good critic is gold. Someone who tells you that your book is awesome, just to spare your feelings, is not actually doing you any favours.

The important thing, however, is not to get discouraged.

Success does not come easy – or soon – unless you’re very lucky. A friend of mine once compared getting published to going through Ranger School. I’ve never been through Ranger School, but I can confirm that getting published is hard. You can do everything right and still lose.

Most of the tales of instant success tend to have a hidden story behind them (for example, the writer actually revised the manuscript repeatedly or wrote a number of others beforehand.) It is very easy to get distracted or discouraged, particularly if you’re just starting. And it’s equally easy to fall into the ‘indie author behaving badly’ trap – overestimating yourself can be just as dangerous as underestimating yourself. It’s terrifyingly easy to acquire a bad reputation that will haunt you for the rest of your life. I’ve known authors destroy themselves through jerk behaviour.

Like I said, don’t get discouraged. And good luck!

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5 Responses to “Getting Started In Writing”

  1. Bewildered March 8, 2017 at 2:58 pm #

    Thanks for this!!! It’s always interesting to know how authors write and I’ve often wondered about your approach..

    I was fortunate enough to stumble over a video of Brandon Sanderson giving a talk at Google where he mentioned his approach (https://www.tor.com/2015/10/23/brandon-sanderson-reveals-a-dalinar-chapter-from-stormlight-archive-book-3/). Scroll way down the page for the video. Sorry I don’t recall at what point he discussed his writing style, but hopefully the video will prove of interest to those reading comments here. I scribbled notes at the time which are hopefully loosely accurate. Here’s what I recorded him as saying:

    I work at home from about noon ’til 5. I play with my kids, and family from about 5:30 to 8:30 or 9 pm then go back to work and work from 9 or 10 until 3 or 4 am. I enjoy my job, and I don’t have a commute. I’m not a fast writer, but I am a consistent writer. I’m very passionate about what I do so write about 2,000 words a day basically every day.

  2. Arthur Cleaves March 8, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

    Thank you for this Chris! This is a goal of mine as well but chaos and work interfere often. I do get some sweet reading in thanks to Kindle. I appreciate greatly your work, good words and sharing through this blog.

  3. georgephillies March 8, 2017 at 7:59 pm #

    Thank you for your very thoughtful comments.

  4. James Young March 8, 2017 at 10:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on Colfax Den and commented:
    Chris Nuttall provides some advice on getting started I think is very apt. Go check his site out if you get a chance.

  5. iheartdeer March 9, 2017 at 3:53 am #

    Great tips Chris – thank you! ❤️ Definitely ones I’m going to put to use.

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