Have you ever taken some time off writing? Maybe it was six months or maybe it was…six years? I’ve gone through unhappy periods in my life when I wasn’t writing at all, and every time I tried to start again it seemed impossible. Even if I only wrote two sentences they were the worst two sentences I had ever seen. And what if you’ve never even really started writing?
A couple of weeks ago my writing group got together and staged a reading. We did it at the apartment of one of our members, and each of us brought a dish or snack to share. We each picked a bookstore or venue where it would be our dream to have our own author event. One of the other writers in our group introduced us and we presented our writing exactly as if our book had just been published and we were doing the book tour. Then we did the Q&A afterward.
It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.
This is what I learned:
Your writing is always different spoken out loud
Sentences that flow on the page might turn up clumsy out of the mouth. Dialogue that seems lackluster in written form can surprise you with how funny it sounds in actual conversation. Your writing takes on a different personality when you read it in front of other people (or even just yourself), and this difference can give you valuable information about the way you work your particular craft.
Reading in front of people builds your confidence
Yes, it is nerve-wracking at first. When it was my turn to get up and read my voice was shaking, my hands were shaking, and I even had trouble breathing! Every gland on my body that could sweat started sweating. But it got easier as I read page after page. The audience laughed at my funny stuff, and groaned at my embarrassing parts. I heard with my own ears how my writing was doing what I wanted it to do, and inside, I grew stronger.
Other writers are just as unsure as you
When you’re struggling to write your first novel, it’s easy to assume that other writers magically have their shit together and know exactly what they’re doing. This is simply not true. There are so many other writers out there who are just as uncertain about what to expect as you are. If we make the journey together and support each other along the way, it won’t be as scary. The energy we would have put toward fear, we can shift toward getting our work published and finding new readers.
So now that you know the benefits, who will be your audience for your very first reading?
Your Writing Group
If you’re part of a Reading Circle, you’re doing this kind of work anyway. But if you’re part of a Critique Group or a Timed Writing Group, it couldn’t hurt to propose a practice reading to your group, solely focused on encouragement and the art of public speaking. Your writing group should function as your sounding board and your local community; a practice reading will contribute to both of these functions.
Open Mic Night
If you live in the city, you can probably find an Open Mic Night at a local bar, bookstore, or community center. These are usually focused on poetry and spoken word, but sometimes you can present flash fiction too. This is a good option for more extroverted writers who like being in the spotlight.
The Stuffed Animal Brigade
If you’re an introvert, or just not ready to share your writing at that level, then the two options above might feel like too much for you. This is when you call in the troops—your favorite stuffed animals, ceramic figurines, Halloween masks—anything with a face! Assemble them all together as your audience and read your work loud and proud.
Reading your work out loud is a serious step toward finding your voice as a writer. You don’t have to agonize over which option to choose, just make the choice and start reading your week out loud, at least once every couple of months.
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No matter what kind of fiction we write, most of us writers have eerily similar personalities. We are sensitive and intelligent, and we have high standards when it comes to our creative work. So high, in fact, that sometimes our standards turn into the two-headed Beast of Self-Judgment that breathes fire with one head and drools poison with the other, usually all over our fragile dreams.
If you are writing your first novel, you will do battle with the beast of Self-Judgment over and over again. And you will even judge yourself on who’s winning or losing the battle.
Here’s how you know when you’re losing:
You hear that critical voice in your head that makes you feel terrible about yourself.
You inwardly call yourself names, or call yourself stupid.
Your chest feels tight, your throat feels tight, you feel like you might cry.
Your stomach sinks like a dead weight.
You get agitated and reach for any addiction—food, the remote, a drink, whatever.
If you feel any of these things while reading your writing, or talking about your writing, or even just thinking about your writing, the Beast of Self-Judgment is in the room with you.
It’s time to do battle.
But how do you fight the Beast? It has an argument ready for every point you debate. It digs up old secrets and memories that make you feel even worse. It hits below the belt, every time.
I’m going to give you a quick exercise you can do anytime, anywhere, and the results are huge. But if you want it to actually work, you have to put your whole imagination into it. No half-assing this. No “kind of” trying to do it. Close your eyes and really do it.
Picture yourself as you were when you were six years old. Remember how you looked, how small you were, how unsure of the world. Page through an old photo album if you have one. Really sit and settle into those six-year-old shoes.
Now picture another six-year-old kid—someone who is not you. Maybe you have a son or daughter that age, or a niece or nephew. Maybe you’re a teacher and you can picture some of the kids in your school. If you really don’t know any six-year-old kids, Google what’s going on at a local school in your community and look at the pictures of the first-graders.
Notice how small and innocent these kids are. How bright and hopeful. Sit with the feeling of being an adult, being a protector and a leader for these kids. Feel how much potential they have, how much joy they can bring to the world.
Okay—now that you’ve got all those feelings loaded and locked down in your psyche, go back to the space where you felt the most Self-Judgment. How would you react if you heard someone being as harsh as you are on yourself, to those six-year-old kids you were picturing? What if one of those kids was writing his or her first story and some mean crazy person came along and told them it was stupid?
How hurtful would that be?
Now go back to six-year-old you. Picture you as the kid sitting there writing that story. You’re excited and having fun, totally lit up from the inside out. The voice of Self-Judgment is the crazy mean person who comes along and tries to kick your story to pieces.
But now, there’s a difference. You are going to come in as the adult and protect you as the child. The six-year-old you writing that story is your little flame of creativity. It has limitless potential, boundless joy and curiosity for the world. You-the-adult understands that some things are worth protecting. That just because someone is small right now and still learning, doesn’t give anyone else the right to try to tear them down.
Anytime you feel that icky feeling of Self-Judgment, that snaky poisonous voice of self-criticism, you’re going to picture yourself as a child once again, sitting at a sunny table writing your very first story. And then you’re going to imagine yourself as the adult you are now, shielding that child inside and taking your creative power back.
This exercise truly can work wonders for you, but you must practice it earnestly. You must be serious about dedicating yourself to the protection and well-being of the child writer inside you.
Be brave—your six-year-old self is counting on you!
Sometimes we get sidetracked from our current writing project. A life crisis occurs, we get a promotion at our day job that includes more hours to be worked, or we get an idea for a new project that’s just begging to be written right now. These are all valid reasons for putting your novel on the shelf and planning to come back to it later. And these are not the reasons I’m addressing in this post. Instead, I’m talking about the situation where you’re halfway through, or three quarters, almost there…but you just can’t seem to pull through it. You feel blocked, congested, and hopeless when you think about your chances of ever having a completed manuscript to show anyone.
Why is this happening? You got this far, so why can’t you keep going? What’s stopping you?
It’s called Fear. Also known in some circles as Resistance.
Fear is a sneaky, snaky kind of operator, and it specializes in using your own voice to trick you. It wears dozens of different masks. But once you spot Fear at work and you know what you’re dealing with, your odds of dissolving it go up astronomically. When it comes to finishing your novel, you can recognize Fear in a few different costumes:
In this guise Fear tells you that your writing isn’t good enough…yet. It promises that if you just revise a couple more times, and comb through every word again, you can make your novel perfect. What is Fear’s definition of “perfect”? Well, it never gets specific on that. It implies that it will be everything you ever dreamed, and no one in the entire world will have cause to criticize it, ever. Of course, reading this now you can see how irrational that is. But when Fear starts whispering the promises of the perfect in your ear, it’s much harder to resist.
Solution: Get to know the difference between “polished” and “perfect.” Polished is when you’ve given it your best effort and the end result is that you show it to someone—anyone. Perfect is like chasing the horizon. Polished is you moving forward. Perfect does nothing but hold you back.
We all have idols, and as writers our idols tend to be other writers. And when we first start writing, we tend to imitate those writer-idols we love the most. So when we read back over our work, it’s very easy to think, “This doesn’t sound half as funny as David Sedaris. I’m so lame.” Or, “Charles Bukowski managed to sound like an alcoholic and a profound poet, I just sound like an alcoholic.” The truth is, you are not David Sedaris or Charles Bukowski. You are not anyone else but YOU. And that’s actually totally cool. Because the world doesn’t need another David Sedaris or Charles Bukowski. It needs you.
Solution: Self-acceptance. You are what you are. That means you look like you, you act like you, and yup, you guessed it—you write like you. Write like yourself, and then set the goal to learn to like your own writing.
The Myth of Never-Been-Done-Before
Because our culture is filled with adoration for those who broke through those barriers of the never-been-done-before—Picasso, Beckett, Steve Jobs—we get obsessed with this notion that if something has been seen or done before, then it’s not worth creating something similar now. This is absolutely not true. Think about the character of Merlin. How may wizards have been based on him? For instance, Richard Harris played Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter and Ian McKellan played Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. Can you picture either of those actors saying, “What?! Another wizard character? It’s so overdone! I won’t do it!” Of course not. Because no matter how many wizards show up in our stories, there is always room for one more. It’s the person behind the wizard—the writer or actor—who makes all the difference.
Solution: Google “archetypes” and see what comes up. Look into it. Seriously. You’ll see that everything has been done before. Just like the human body comes with two hands and ten fingers, it also comes with a human brain. We don’t think that differently from anyone else on earth. After you’ve studied up on archetypes, revisit your previous task of self-acceptance. Learn to love your own ideas simply because they came from you.
You’re Just Plain Scared
This one is the hardest, I think. There is no solution that makes you magically not scared anymore. I was so terrified of finishing my first novel that I kept writing, and writing, and writing…for months after I should have been done with it. When I finally wrapped it up, I’d written over 900 pages.
Do you know how difficult it is to find someone willing to read your 900-page attempt at a first novel?
I don’t regret doing things that way because I learned a lot. But later I saw that I let my fear hold me back. I was so scared that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer that I didn’t even give anyone the chance of being my first reader. And I still get scared. But the difference now is that I keep moving through the fear. I write that last chapter anyway and then hope for the best.
Solution: That saying really is true, you know. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
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If you’ve never written a novel before, you have no idea what to expect. And really, you have no idea if you can do it. It might seem like a mountain of work, or like something only geniuses can do. Never mind the fact that you are—already—a genius. When you’re starting your first novel it certainly doesn’t seem that way. You’re plagued by doubts and fears, and your story is still only a small creative flame. That flame can grow, and it will grow if you nourish and protect it. The place it’s going to grow is your mind. But in order to make the very best creative soil available to it, you have to watch what you’re putting in the soil.
If you want your creative mind to be nutrient-rich, totally organic, and flooded with sunshine and clean water so that your little flame of a novel can grow, here are the pesticides you need to watch out for:
I have a friend who shall remain nameless. She’s a person who I really love, and who is intelligent, funny, and loves me back like a sister. But she’s got a horrible attitude. She always sees the bad side of things, and when an obstacle crops up in her life she always says, “I have the worst luck.” We don’t live very near each other so I do have limited contact with her, but when I call to catch up on things there is one topic I never bring up: My writing.
You don’t have to snub the negative people in your life, and you don’t have to write them off. You might come to a place where you want to do that anyway, just for the sake of your overall mental health. But there’s no need to never talk to someone again just because they’re not someone you can talk about your novel with. However, if you’re going to keep someone negative in your life then that IS the rule: You cannot talk about your book around them, especially not if you’re in the very early stages of writing it.
If your mother has always been critical of you, your coworkers hate their lives, or like me, you have a negative friend who you also happen to love like a sister, you’re going to put those people on a blacklist. Talk about everything under the sun with them—except your book.
Unlike negative people, writing guides can actually be helpful. If you’ve finished your first manuscript and you want to get some ideas on how to extensively revise, or you’ve written a book or two and you’re looking now to really hone your craft, these are situations in which writing guides can come in very handy. But when you’ve just started your very first book, it’s like being plunked down in a foreign country. Looking at 50 different maps is only going to confuse the hell out of you. Start with the basics, find the North Star or track the sun going down and begin traveling from there.
The same goes for critique groups. They can be very helpful once you’ve finished a significant amount of pages and need objective feedback. But in the beginning, when you’re struggling to finish those first two chapters, having a circle of people giving you criticism (even if it’s constructive) will only serve to confuse you and plant doubts.
Anything Online About Agents and Publishing
Again, this is an area that can be helpful—LATER. Websites focused around agents and publishing tend to revolve around a couple of basic themes: What sells, and what’s selling right now. If you have a finished, revised, polished manuscript that you’re ready to send out to agents and publishers, information about the current marketplace is really valuable. If you’re halfway through your first draft and feeling depressed that you might never finish, this information is only going to steer you into comparing yourself to others.
I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I write weird, dark literary fiction that deals with alcoholism and sociopaths. And I’m still looking for an agent. Some days I get sucked into an online vortex of “What Agents Want.” By the time I come out on the other side I’m convinced I need to start writing an edgy, urban fantasy/ paranormal romance for Young Adult readers. The content you consume on the internet soaks into your brain faster than you can put on the brakes. In the early stages of writing your book, steer clear of online advice on how to market it.
These are some of the pesticides to avoid putting into your creative soil. As time goes on, I’ll go over the vitamins and organic fertilizer you want to pour into your brain to grow your healthiest creative flame.
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