If you close your eyes and see words, this one’s for you.
If those words exhilarate and frighten you, this one is also for you.
If you’ve ever entertained a small thread of longing to write a book—of any kind—yet doubt your capacity to act on that longing, this one is definitely for you.
I’m here to tell you that I can see the book living inside of you. I see the pages fluttering with your heart. I see the adverbs in your eyes (but not too many of them). Here’s how you can call these forth into a living, breathing, paginated text.
1. Start with your wound.
If you could shout anything into an empty room—and no one would hear you—what would you shout?
I mean it. You can shout anything at all. No one’s watching.
What comes out?
I have a hunch that what emerges has something to do with the core of your being. It has something to do with your soul. It likely has everything to do with a wound of some kind, a wound that’s urging you to speak.
I’m not talking about a gory mess (although this could be the case). Wounds can be paper cuts. They can be what keep us up at night. They can be what keep us going during the day.
They can be a worldview or a way of being (but in many cases these come from a tiny wound, a grating up against life itself).
You’ve probably already written from this wound. That’s where the words are flying from, most likely.
Spend some time shouting in this empty room. When you find the words flowing easily and quickly, there’s your answer: there’s the profile of your book.
My wound has a lot to do with being a woman.
That’s probably pretty apparent given what most of my articles here talk about—healing from abuse, infidelity, and assault. But when I write about these things, they pour out of me.
When you find that one thing that “pours” out of you, that’s when you know it’s time to listen.
2. Take it piece by piece.
Some writers love the idea of blocking an entire manuscript out from the beginning. While there is value to structure and outline—it can give wanderer-prone writers signposts and direction—sometimes this can stifle the brightness of a beginning vision.
This is especially the case for fictional pieces. In the past, I’ve turned to outlines for short stories and novellas, and while these proved useful in the middle and end of the writing process, the outline sometimes imposed too much.
Thinking about a manuscript in its entire form can also be intimidating. If fear has been playing across your pages lately, take it piece by piece.
Focus on a single bit of dialogue in one sit-down session. Spend half an hour thinking about a character. Write a chapter or the beginning of one poem (not the entire collection).
Books are wild, sometimes stubborn things. Coaxing them out gently and slowly will ensure you’re mindful of their wildness—and that that wildness gets expressed on the page.
3. Establish your writing commitment.
Any vast, heart-filled endeavor requires time and dedication. I’m not here cracking a whip or saying that you have to get up at 5 A.M. every morning to write for two hours (some people do).
Your writing practice should be unique to you alone. It should adapt to the needs of your words. Real books come out of heart and focus.
And you probably know that for the words to stay fresh, it’s important to wade around in them for a while. Too much time away can cause stale sentences and (gasp) writer’s block.
Establish a writing commitment that makes sense to you. If it means writing once a week for an hour, great. If it means thirty minutes at the same time very day, also excellent. Be gentle with yourself but also be realistic—and be consistent.
As Haruki Murakami says about writing practices: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing.” (Check out these fascinating writing habits of twelve famous authors.)
A writing practice is also far more likely to carry you forward if it has the right tools. Identify how you like to write best—dream world scenario—and recreate that.
Don’t settle for less than the best here. If Microsoft Word doesn’t do it for you, for example, download some book writing software. Buy an expensive candle and burn this while you type. Or write by hand or on a typewriter.
What’s my commitment look like? It’s all the more urgent for me given the fact that I also write professionally. For that reason, my golden rule is that my writing gets to start the day—then the “work” writing comes after.
I also like to start by writing in a journal. Then I open my laptop—but only if the internet is turned off and my phone is stowed away.
4. Find support.
You may be tempted to venture into your book alone, sword flaring. But trust me, artistic projects are far easier when you feel hands at your back.
Tell someone you’re writing a book. This someone can be your cat, your counselor, or a colleague. Or it can be a wife, a partner, a best friend, a lover. Tell someone you trust.
You can ask for specific support, if need be, such as a reader’s eyes or periodic chocolate bars and yerba mate lattes (yum). Or you can simply let the fact stand. Sharing can hold you accountable and give your wings second wings—yeah, that’s a thing.
5. Make it visual.
Calling a book forth can be sticky and challenging. When the words get too wordy, don’t be shy about turning to images to clarify your path.
Create storyboards to conceptualize plots and character engagement. Draw your characters—what do they look like? Record yourself speaking like one of your characters. Create a painting that represents a poem or your memoir.
Stepping outside the bounds of letters and punctuation can ignite your paragraphs. It can teach you something new. For me, it often adds dimension to whatever it is I’m writing that day.
6. Spend time with your characters.
If you are writing a fictional piece, go on a date with your characters. Take the whole crew of them to the movies. Get in an argument with the one you don’t like. Listen to the protagonist venting.
Get your toenails done with the mother-in-law in your short story. Let your people speak for a while. Spending time with your characters in this way can give you the insight you need to craft them into flesh and blood.
7. Read while you write.
A beloved professor advised me to read a Great Book while writing my novel (or memoir, or poetry collection, or novella). Writers are the best kinds of readers, after all. And other words can get you out of your head in the right way.
Choose a book vaguely similar to yours for inspiration. Be cautious of choosing an author whose voice you’ll end up just regurgitating (I am so guilty of this). Read pages at a time, especially when you need more flowing juices.
Right now, my inspiration is anything by Lorrie Moore.
8. Honor your voice—every day.
Disappointment, self-doubt, and despair lurk at the edges of every manuscript. These will come and pay you a visit, and it won’t be fun. They may come every day you sit down to write.
Anne Lamott says some things about this in her book about writing, Bird by Bird. If you haven’t yet read this, do.
For now, when these visitors do creep in, remember your voice. (Do you recall shouting into that empty room?) You can do this by free writing in a journal, reading the pages you’ve already written, or drawing what matters to you.
Or go back to that empty room and shout.
This voice will eventually be the one responsible for drawing that book out of you. It’s yours and yours alone. Pay it homage, and the rest will follow.