Recently, I had a discussion with an acquaintance who was curious about my writing methods. Among other questions he asked were these:
- How long did it take for me to write my two published books?
- Did I have a thorough outline of my books or the separate stories in them before I started writing?
- Did I write every day?
These are common ,if naïve, questions of the sort writers get all the time. In my case, the answers were, respectively: years, no, and no.
During the course of our chat, he volunteered that he’d really like to write a book but probably never would because he isn’t a very skillful writer and because he has a lot of imaginative ideas that mostly come to him in dreams which he cannot clearly remember shortly after he wakes up. (I recommend keeping a pad and pencil at the bedside.)
I’m a self-published author with low volume sales, so I suppose I could be criticized for daring to give personal advice to an aspiring writer, but the fact has never stopped me in the past, and so I did provide some counsel. First, I told him that the length of time it takes to write a book is variable. In my own case, it was several years for each of the two books (Zendoscopy and Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe) partly because I was working as a physician and only writing in my spare time, and partly because the books contain separate, discrete stories or episodes written at different times and then anthologized. In the case of Zendoscopy, the connected episodes were initially written to be freestanding short stories but then re-written as my concept for the book later developed.
Some writers cover walls with detailed plot outlines indicating linkages between the elements of their stories and providing continuity and overall coherence. I tend to be another kind of writer. I rarely know where any given tale will lead when I write its first sentence. Once begun, however, I watch it evolve as I write it. And although I may have some vague idea of where I’m going, it’s rarely fixed and immutable. Of course, there are exceptions.
Two examples from Zendoscopy illustrate these usual and occasional modes: In “Icarus Alt and the Swan Dive of Death”, I did, in fact, know precisely how the story would evolve before I wrote a single word of it but, more typically for me, in “Effie Mae Does Me a Second Favor”, I didn’t have the barest clue of what it was really about until I typed the last period.
In other words, occasionally I know where a story is headed, but mostly I don’t. Suffice it to say that there aren’t any rules, and when I don’t know where I’m going, I just keep writing and allow myself to be surprised.
As for the question about writing every day, I pretty much do write something on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s just a single sentence with an idea. Sometimes it’s a letter to the editor of a magazine or newspaper. Sometimes it’s part of a short story or an essay. And sometimes it’s an article for this blog. For the record, e-mail doesn’t count unless I’m being really creative.
The more one writes, the better one becomes at doing it, so even if one only writes a single sentence every day, it’s worth doing to develop both discipline and syntactical skill. I’d also urge anyone (you!) who wants to write to read as much as possible. There’s nothing quite like seeing how other writers use language to help you in developing your own personal style and voice. And when you’re banging out text on your word processor, be sure to use spell check and be comfortable enough with English grammar so that when you break the rules, you do it intentionally. If you really need help with grammar, you can use the grammar checking utility in your word processing program, although I’ve found that it isn’t always correct in its suggestions for change. Much like the GPS system in my car, which if followed too slavishly, can lead me right into a large body of cold water.
Finally, and most of all, if you want to write, start writing! From experience, I can tell you that it’s addictive. Once you start, you may not be able to stop.
Today’s annoyance: People who don’t know the difference between insure and ensure.