There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

-W. Somerset Maugham

There are plenty of books out there that will give you tips on how to write. I read a few of them before I realized that it was making my head spin, and I was spending more time second-guessing myself, twisting and contorting my stories to be "correct" according to the lessons I was given.

In order to give some advice to aspiring writers like myself, here are what I think are the most important lessons for new writers.

Just Do It

Pithy, but the most important thing about "how to be a writer" is to actually write something. This seems obvious, and should be, but the truth is that we stifle ourselves all the time. We don't make the time to do it, or we tell ourselves we're not any good. That we'll do it some day. Ignore all that. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. There is no escaping that.

But I Don't Know What To Write

Yes you do. Stop thinking about it so much. More on that to come.

But I'm Not Very Good

Ernest Hemingway famously said, "The first draft of anything is shit." So what if it's not any good? You have to write something in order to critique it, and self-doubt is powerful. We are our own worst critics, because we know all of our weaknesses. We know how to hit ourselves where it hurts the most. It's the same reason why your nightmares are so scary. You know you, deep down. You know your insecurities, and how to magnify them. Resist that urge. Aren't there people who love what you do, even though you think it's not that good? Maybe they are onto something you're not.

Remember: It's Just a First Draft

This was literally the most important mental shift for me, that allowed me to write 700 pages of a novel, long past the point where I would have stopped. Referring to the prior point, you might think it's terrible. Maybe it even is terrible. So what? It's your first draft. It's not the finished product. If you show it to someone, they are not criticizing you, they are criticizing an early version, not the finished product.

I really cannot stress this enough. There are gems in your work, but you have to fill the page with rocks first before you can mine them. Whether it is you or a friend criticizing your work, just know you can always make it better. You can revise a chapter literally hundreds of times. How good do you expect version one to be, anyway?

Your Friends Probably Don't Care

This is a hard one, but at least in my case it is true. Those closest to you in your life, your friends and your family, they hear you're writing a book and they are like, "Oh, that's cool." They might read what you've begged them to read, and they might have given a passive response like "Not bad" or "It's not my thing" or "Hey, nice job." That kind of feedback is useless, anyway, but since they are close to you, and they are not overwhelmed by your brilliance, you start second-guessing yourself.

But think about it from their position: If a friend of yours said they were, say, going to start writing music, would you ever think their music was as good as the music of some kind of famous superstar? You would probably think to yourself, "Hey, I'm glad they are going to follow their dream. But the odds are really against them to become famous or successful off of it. But I don't want to hurt his feelings." They look at your work through that lens, and although they might hope they love your work, they might not...and then what can they say to you? Or they might think it's really good, but lack the ability to articulate what they liked about it. Either way, just accept the fact that some of the best (and most honest) feedback you'll ever get is from total strangers, and move on. Your family and friends will come in line, and be pleasantly surprised, once you've actually published your work and people start buying it. Then they will want a copy, and will actually want to read it.

To them, you're just little Suzie, little Johnny, who they used to play with at school, or who got caught picking his nose or starting a fight or whatever. They will have a hard time taking you seriously, until you actually make it. Because people becoming popular and famous and successful at the art of writing? Those are other people. Not little Suzie.

Don't browbeat your friends and family into reading the things you write, either. Don't browbeat them into buying your book. You want people to honestly care about what you write, and want to read it. Writing is a solitary endeavor in many cases, until you share it with the world. Your friends and family are just a subset of the world—a subset that, quite frankly, just might not be that interested. That's okay, there are other people out there who will be.

So How Do You Write?

This is how I do it. Think of your first draft as a sketch. You're laying it down, freeform, as it comes to you. If you were a visual artist, you'd block out rough shapes and sketches, and compose the overall "feel" of the work, but you're going to draw over that sketch eventually. The original lines, after many layers (or revisions, in your case) will eventually disappear. The end result may end up looking nothing like the original. All the more reason not to get too hung up on your first draft being crappy. You still need that raw material to work with.

So I go into it with the following mantra in my head: "This might be good, this might be bad. I don't know. It's just what came out when I sat down to write."

That's it. Whatever comes out when you sit down to write, that's the first draft. Not that I don't spend moments thinking of how to phrase something a little better, or do little hand-edits to the first draft to correct spelling or weird sentence structure, or that I don't break from the writing at times to do research on things I know nothing about, but ultimately, that's it: I just let it come out, freeform.

I do not plot my work too much. Stephen King in On Writing mentioned that it's more important to come up with a situation. A scene, an interesting character (your protagonist) and put them in a situation, and see what happens.

This makes it a lot more fun to me when I write. I know writers who plan out the entire book before they start. They write outlines, character arcs, they come up with pages and pages of worldbuilding. There's a time and place for that. Probably. I wouldn't know, though, because I don't work like that.

See, to me, knowing exactly how everything is going to turn out is boring. I like finding out what's going to happen as I go. I feel like the story is more organic, more natural that way. That the characters, instead of being wrenched into whatever contrived paths I might have designed for them, instead they are just doing things naturally. I tap into my subconscious, and dialogue and scene details and even surprises pop up. I write them down, I don't think about them too much. I don't go, "Oh my gosh, this changes everything! This book is going to be totally different than I imagined!"

That's actually a good thing.

Do not sit there saying to yourself, "Wow, this thing I just wrote...If I go with it, I have no idea how he/she is going to get out of the problem they will create for themselves."

That's conflict, after all, which drives stories. Go ahead, write down the problem. Let the character get herself into trouble. Figure out how they are going to solve it later (in a future chapter).

If I get a sudden idea, and it just seems random and out of place, sometimes I go with that, too. Because it suddenly seems like an interesting occurrence. I'm not really writing the story at that point, so much, as channeling it.

Maybe when I look back at it in a few weeks I'll think it's stupid. Maybe I'll be embarrassed I ever wrote it. And then I'll say to myself, "Well, it's a good thing this is only the first draft, and I can fix it later."

That's it. The first draft is all about momentum. To paraphrase King again, you're racing down the page, rushing ahead of your self doubt, before it can catch up. Don't stop too much to breathe.

Once you're done, move on. Don't think about it too much, don't even think about revising it or editing it yet. Just move on. To the next chapter, the next story, the next whatever. Let it cool its heels awhile, until you're not so close to it anymore.

Then, when you've got a clear head, and the flaws and issues and things you'd like to change leap off the page at you, that's when you're ready to edit.

Just don't take it too seriously. It's only a first draft. Have fun with it. I suppose that's the most important lesson of all.

Artist Credit

Character Design of Sheldrache

By InksplatterSenpai

© 2015 InksplatterSenpai