The first thing is always the story. Even the best plotted, most profound, wonderfully lyrical writing will fall flat without a real story behind it. Because this fact is inescapable, story becomes the most important thing. Write the story.
Sit down and put one word after the other. Do it when you’re tired, hung over, sick, disgusted, frightened. If you are alive and have five minutes to spare, write the store. Don’t look back over what you’ve written. Don’t critique yourself, not yet anyway. There is no way for me to say this too strongly: Write the story. After that, the rest will fall into place. It may take some time, effort, and practice, but you will improve, if you write the story.
If you don’t, you are not a writer. It’s that simple.
Here is what I think happens. You write. It’s agony. It’s glorious. It’s hard. If you keep at it, your output goes from bad to okay, then from okay to better than okay – sometimes great. Don’t everyone shout at once. Yes, some people do start out great, but most of us work it through just as I’ve said. It’s a job, the job of becoming a craftsman with words.
There’s a way to do it. For all of you who’ve produced 2,000 words and run dry, there is a way to go on and parlay that into a daily routine that will earn you the title writer, but if you’re looking for a shortcut or waiting for the muse, you will be disappointed. There is a secret, and this is it: Write the story.
I have a gift for you, a heartening surprise. You don’t always do your best work when you think you’re hot, burning up the pages, inspired. Sometimes your best work is done when you’re struggling, bored, and desperate to be looking at anything but a blank screen. The next time a dental appointment seems more appealing than writing, remember that. It might help.
After writing, reading is the single best way to become a better writer. Reading doesn’t have to be homework. Read for pleasure. It doesn’t matter so much what you read, just read.
When you read, your mind is active on many levels, and you are learning what works and what doesn’t without realizing it. You are seeing thousands of sentences working together to create worlds and people them with characters that may resonate with you for the rest of your life.
After a bit of that, you will be able to bring conscious and unconscious insights to your own writing and hear your own voice in new ways.
Nothing takes the place of reading. Your brain works differently when you read than it does when you watch television or movies; you are more engaged. Your brain has to create the world that the writer is describing to you, and that collaboration helps you develop muscles that will become invaluable.
If you don’t find a way to be a regular reader, you won’t succeed at your writing, or if you manage to produce, it will be a shadow of what you would have accomplished with an active and impassioned reading life.
These things are easy to talk about, but harder to do: Read and write. Both of these activities can be time consuming and brain draining. This is a given for anyone who pursues the passion of writing. It’s part of the entry fee, but once you have your ticket, it’s a wonderful ride.