Getting Into the Habit – Or, How to Begin Writing

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Not long ago, this author was asked by a beginning writer what was the best method for getting words on paper. The answer I gave mirrored the one I received when I asked a similar question: just write. Plunk your bottom down in the chair regularly, open a file folder, and start typing.

Yes, the result of your initial attempt(s) is not going to be pretty, primarily because you are just beginning. No one who sets out to do anything in this world does everything he tries right the first time. And that always makes people feel vulnerable. The reason for this is that we are exposed when we try something new. For writers, when they put words down for others to read, this is even truer. It is worrisome to put our innermost thoughts where everyone can see them, as even a private diary may end up in another person’s hands someday.

But while doing this will be depressing, painful, and embarrassing at first, it will not be so for very long. We know this because these are the same emotions that a young boy feels when he sets out to start practicing football. A girl who begins ice skating lessons will experience these feelings as well. Some people are naturally talented at these sports which means they will progress much faster than others. Others who enter these arenas, however, may fail repeatedly before they learn how to play the game or stand on their skates.

As with ice skating and football, after enough practice the embarrassment goes away. You are going to fall while tackling dummies or trying to pirouette on the ice; it is going to happen, not matter how much you do not want it to occur. That is part of being human. It is also part of growing and getting stronger, as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood* so eloquently put it.

To paraphrase that series, if we are not weak to begin with, then we cannot grow. An ice skater who does not fall in practice sessions is not going to do well when she trips, stumbles, or otherwise lands on the ice during a performance in front of an audience. Whether that audience is at her high school rink or the Olympics matters little; it can and does happen in both venues, sooner or later. Humiliation has its benefits, among them the fact that the person who falls learns to take herself lightly whilst getting back up and performing as a matter of course.

It is nearly impossible for a football player to avoid falling. Even if a boy learns to avoid tripping over his own feet, he is still likely to be hit and knocked over. Football is a contact sport; tackling your opponent means the players on both teams have to be prepared to take a blow and land on the ground. This does not mean they are not good players, but it does mean that they get over the initial feeling of embarrassment and depression while adapting to deal with the pain.

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So making mistakes and “getting messy,” as Ms. Frizzle put it in The Magic School Bus*, are part and parcel of life. This means that they are also part and parcel of the craft of writing. Authors cannot learn anything unless they fail first, just as ice skaters and football players cannot succeed if they never fall in their practices. It is all part of the process of growing into the writer you are meant to be in this world. Embarrassment and pain fade; eventually, you learn to let go of the former and accept the latter. The result is very similar to that of an accomplished ice skater or football player, save that it is less apparent to most people when they see the writer in the flesh.

This leads, neatly enough, to the other emotion I mentioned. Depression is a feeling that is far too easy for a writer to fall into, especially when the rest of life is not going his way. The temptation for a beginning author to feel sorry for himself because his first attempts at storytelling were subpar is almost impossible to avoid. And for some, the lightest touch of despair is enough to make them quit.

So let us return, once again, to the sports analogy. This time, though, we will utilize a different example. A long time ago I heard of a girl who set out to join the basketball team at my local high school. She entered the try outs but failed to get the ball through the hoop. I do not know how often she attempted the shot, but I do not think it was more than once or twice. Either way, at some point during the initial try outs, she gave up and sat down to cry. “I can’t do it,” she said through her tears.

This is not an unusual reaction for people to have, whether they are beginning authors or not. When we have a natural knack for something – anything – we tend to rely on that talent to get us through life. This is especially true when it makes so many other things easy for us. An aptitude for math, for instance, will help those who enjoy this subject enter a variety of fields and hobbies.

However, that ability may make other skills and pastimes more difficult to acquire. Engineers as a group tend to have trouble putting their thoughts into words because they are inclined to the understanding and use of numbers. Conversely, those who excel at reading and writing may find arithmetic a tricky topic to master. This does not make either writing or mathematics better than the other. It simply means that those predisposed to the one pursuit will have to work harder to gain facility in another.

As mentioned above, the girl trying out for the basketball team gave up on her ambition to play because she could not achieve a perfect shot during the try outs. Rather than continue to shoot for the hoop, she simply refused to play the game at all. She allowed one failure to decide her course for at least the rest of the school year, and possibly for other things after that. I do not know if she had a talent at which she excelled. What I do know is that, rather than fall repeatedly in order to gain strength she gave up and refused to participate in the sport at all.

That, future authors, is the fruit of despair. It persuades us to retreat from life, to stay in a stagnant form, rather than suffer through the growing pains necessary to achieve some skill or objective. While there is no shame in being tempted to give up, there is plenty to be found in actually doing so, as the tale above illustrates.

One’s writing does not have to match that of an acclaimed author when they first set out. In fact, these discrepancies are actually a good thing, as they allow the beginning author to find his voice. The authors he admires had to go through the same process he is now treading to reach their goals, and every person on the planet had to tumble before they could learn to walk as infants. Why should he treat acquiring facility with the written word any differently?

Pain and embarrassment will dissolve the more a writer practices, and the despair will be banished the further he progresses. It is much harder for desolation to gain a toe-hold in your soul when you have a string of successes to look back on. Even if it is just the smile on your best friend’s face after he has read your most recent manuscript, that grin can be one of the best motivators to keep going when despondency comes knocking on your door.

“Well, that’s very inspirational,” some say. “But it isn’t particularly practical. How can I grow in this craft if I do not know what I need to do to progress in the first place?”

Good question. First and foremost, search out various exercises to test and develop your skills. This post here lists several such writing workouts, and more can be discovered if you do some research online. Practicing with these will help hone your writing and trim down at least some of the time you will have to spend figuring out where your weak points lie.

Second, write. Write a lot, and write anything. If you have a blog or a diary, then write for either one as often as possible. For a blog, this does not have to be a daily occurrence in the sense that you publish a post every day of the week, though you should post frequently. Publishing an article once a week, for instance, will give you time to make certain your piece says exactly what you mean it to say and nothing else.

It also allows you to set up a writing schedule. If you post every Saturday, for instance, then you have an entire week to choose a subject and begin putting together an article on it. This will mean that you have to plan the time throughout those seven days to write that post, refine it, and then release it.

With a diary there will be less ability to go back and refine, but the time put into setting words to paper should never be underestimated. Keeping your writing time confined to a specific hour or period of the day is optimal but not entirely necessary; as long as you make time to write repeatedly, you build up the habit of parking in a chair and putting words down for yourself and/or others to read. Just as an ice skater or a football player takes whatever free time they can spare to practice their physical skills, so too should you make ample use of any free moment to advance your writing abilities.

Even if your goal is to write fiction or non-fiction books, starting out with posts on a blog or entries in a diary will be helpful. This is not only because it will allow you to find your voice and style, but because the regular regimen of writing will make sitting down to actually do the deed easier. It is hard for a high school football player to get up ahead of the bus to do squats, true, but doing it repeatedly makes the practice easier. The same is true for the young ice skater who spends an hour or two every day at the rink performing pirouettes. She may not want to do it at first, but after a while she hates missing her practice time.

The same will be true of the beginning author who makes time to write. Where the author sits down (or stands up) to write does not matter. Louis L’Amour famously said that he could sit in the middle of a busy street and bang out a story on his typewriter. Admittedly, some authors would find the public nature of this type of writing distracting; there are writers who just want peace and quiet while they work. There are merits to both kinds of writing, but the main point is that both allow the person aspiring to share their words with the world to gain the skills they need to make a readable work.

If you prefer to write in a café surrounded by hustle and bustle, then set aside some time to do so each day. And make time to write or at least edit in privacy, preparing for the day when you cannot afford to go out to your preferred writing spot due to extenuating circumstances.

Regardless of which setting you prefer to get writing, what you have to do is build the habit of sitting down, laptop or diary in hand, and putting your thoughts on paper. As Mr. L’Amour* also said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Find a place where you can turn on the tap and get the ‘water’ in your mind going, future authors. Then make certain you go there as often as possible in order to ingrain the pattern of behavior for the following days and weeks.

There will be times when you will have to break the routine. Life will intrude on your regimen, one way or another. But establishing a customary time and motivation to write will ensure you can reinstate your old authorial habits or build new ones with a little less difficulty. At the very least, it will help you get work done and out where others can see it, if that is your primary endeavor.

Do not give up. Do not stop trying. That is the only way to succeed at anything in life, whether it is producing a book or building a bridge. In essence, you just have to start, and then treat each new day as a time to begin all over again.

As long as you are breathing, there is a way forward, future authors. You just have to find it. Set out today to write, and then tomorrow do the same. I hope to see you walking alongside the rest of us soon. 😉

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue. Her most recent piece is available in Planetary Anthology: Sol. Order them today!

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through it, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer. If you want more insight on how to improve your craft, take a look at Confessions of a Keyboard Monkey* by Kit Sun Cheah*, where he offers insightful advice on the craft of writing. Order your copy today and get started on practicing your craft!

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