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Starting a Writing Practice

Want to be a writer? Here's what you absolutely need to know

· Writing Tips

Part I of my summer blog series on Starting a Writing Practice.

I love the term "writing practice." It sounds fancy. It sounds official, like "law practice" or "dental practice." It makes me think of a pretty storefront with petunias in the window boxes, a green-and-white striped awning, and a sign in the window that reads, "Now Open!" Here I am. I'm a writer! Available for all your writing needs! Wait...Am I ready for this? Gulp.

I remember when I decided, Hey, I'd like to write a novel. Just coming to that realization felt like a big deal. I hadn't written fiction seriously before, hadn't even written a story since I was a kid. I didn't know where to start. I knew I needed to get focused and make a commitment, because writing a novel takes time. But how did one actually do it? I kept reading things about how important it was to have a writing "practice," but what did that even mean?

I was excited about starting this "practice," but it also sounded really intimidating. As in, you must have completed years of advanced training and a professional degree to undertake such a serious enterprise! You can't just decide to write a novel and then have a bonafide writing practice the next day! Or so I feared. But is that really true? Do you need three manuscripts under your belt, a fancy suite of writing software, and a framed MFA degree on your wall to be a real writer?  

Nope. Not at all.

Now that I've been doing this for a few years, and been lucky enough to have a couple books out in the world, I have enough hindsight to give you my take on it. To start a "writing practice," you actually need very little, at least at the beginning. But these four things are absolutely essential:

1. Something to write on.

2. Something to write with.

3. Some time to write.

4. An obsessive love of reading.

That's it. That's all you need to start up your new writing practice, and call yourself a writer (at least in your own head, even if you're not ready to declare it to the universe). Why so little? Because "writing" and "learning how to write" are really the exact same thing. The only way to learn to write a novel is to do it. And fail. And try again.

I think that's incredibly liberating! You can sit down today and start being a writer. Yes, it's also a little scary--especially when you're staring at a blank page or a blinking cursor and wondering, Can I really do this? Obviously, though you don't need much to start, writing a novel is a very complicated, long-term endeavor. That's where the other meaning of "practice" comes in. It's ok if you start out terribly, and hate everything you write; as long as you get a little bit better each day, with each chapter you write, and with each revision you complete, you'll get there. You'll fall in love with the process, which is the only way to keep yourself committed.

But what about creative writing classes? you might be thinking. What about an English degree? Or any degree at all? What about workshops and seminars and conferences?

Nope. All are great if you can afford it, but not necessary. And they're no substitute for sitting down and doing the heavy lifting all by yourself. Here's why: a good teacher can try to explain how he or she writes. (Let's just say the instructor is a she). She can introduce you to some important writing theories, great techniques. She'll give you some cautionary advice, tell you hilarious battle stories. But you'll only start learning how you write after you complete a writing assignment, get feedback from the instructor, and then begin to revise your work. You don't have to pay for a writing course or degree to do that. Just start writing, find yourself a critique partner (in person or online), and do your learnin' for free. And on your own schedule.

You might think a writing class will give you the motivation you need because it sets up deadlines. Maybe so. But what about when the writing class ends? You have to be able to find that motivation for yourself. After you've spent a few months in the writing trenches, maybe even finished a first draft, then definitely go ahead and sign up for a local writing conference. Take a class; find out how other writers write. Do whatever you can to keep getting better at your craft. And down the road, if an MFA fits with your goals, then go for it. Leap in already knowing who you are as a writer, and knowing what kind of instruction and environment you need to take things to the next level.

A beginning fiction writer can find about a million and ten ways to get ready to almost start writing a novel. Read all the books about writing penned by great authors! Take course after course about plot structure! Digest spreadsheets about the financial outlook for the publishing industry! Read blog posts about how to start a writing practice! (Ha). But let's call this what it really is: procrastination. You'll do that a lot as a real, official writer, too. But you'll never get to the actual writing unless you cool it with all the prep work. (This is something I have to keep reminding myself all the time!)

Tools of the Trade

Pen & paper. Quill and parchment. A pink sharpie and a Lisa Frank spiral notebook, if you want. An iPad or laptop or awesomely-huge desktop PC. Even a stubby golfing pencil and the back of a receipt (been there). The possibilities are endless. You just have to be able to record words. Also, hopefully not lose them on the way back from the coffee shop or grocery store parking lot or wherever inspiration hit you.

Do you need a particular word processing program? What about expensive screen- and novel-writing software? If you've gotten this far in the post, you already know my answer to that. If you want to use it, then go for it. But here's the key: Don't let something you lack, or some feeling of insecurity, stop you from writing. 

Time, time, time

In my opinion, it doesn't matter whether you give yourself a goal of 2,000 words per day, or just a set aside half an hour--as long as you can keep up that pace consistently (ideally every day), and it fits with your goals.

But this is where things get a little tricky. (Or should I say when?)

How do you actually find the time to do said writing? How do you decide what kind of daily goal to set? I'm sure every writer has been asked these questions, and every writer has a different answer. I want to do more than just say, "It depends." That's why I'm going to give this topic--number 3 on my list of essentials--it's very own blog post next week, when I continue with my series on Starting a Writing Practice. And stay tuned for a follow-up post all about essential number 4: Reading to Be a Better Writer. If you want more guidance as you start your project, check out my post on How to Start A New Novel (if you ever want to finish).

In the meantime, I'd love for you to connect with me on Twitter @anwilliswrites, whether you have a question or comment, or just want to say hi.


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