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Old 03-13-2005, 01:12 PM
Sampiro is offline
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Dopers who Write: Please give some advice on how to get serious about my writing

I really want to become more focused and generally serious about my writing. Currently I'm more scattershot in the habit. For those who write for a living or who intend to and work at it, what is your advice?

Do you write everyday? If so do you go for a quota of time (2 hours, etc.) or words (1,000 or whatever)?

Any advice on the actual physical writing space?

If you exercise, do you usually write before or after? Do you have a ritual?

And advice appreciated.

Old 03-13-2005, 01:19 PM
pepperlandgirl is offline
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I try to write during a set time. Like from 7-11 pm. Do I write the full four hours? Ha, no. The Internet, TV, my husband, and my cats are too distracting. But those are all distractions, I focus as much as I can on working for the set hours. Also, during the summer when I don't have school and during my vacations, I write all night. Everybody is asleep and there's nothing on tv.

I think you're writing space should be fairly clean and tidy. I work in my living room, and I know when it gets messy, I get distracted and disgusted. I also would suggest temperature control. I cannot work when it's too hot. I'm going to have to get my A/C replaced because when it gets up over 90 degrees, my brain melts. I think it should also be your space. I have my own computer, my own desk, my own chair--I don't have my own room, but one day I would like to.

As for rituals, I always listen to my MP3 player. I choose a CD or an artist that would make a great soundtrack to my work. I find I can't work at all without the earphones on.

I think it's just a matter of getting your ass in the chair, ultimately.
Old 03-13-2005, 01:29 PM
sweetfreak is offline
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Just sit down and do it.
Realize that writing is work, and it's not always fun.
You will not always feel inspired, in fact much of the time you won't.
But it's the moments when you do feel inspired that make all the work worthwhile.

Other than that, I got no other advice.
Old 03-13-2005, 01:53 PM
MissGypsy is offline
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Starting out, I suggest having a more regimented schedule. If youíre a morning person, getting up a couple of hours early will give you some writing time. Iím a night person, so thatís when Iím more creative and inspired.

And Iíve always written every day. Not all of it was useable, but it keeps the words flowing, and it keeps you in the mindset of being a writer. At times, I might write 10,000 words of crap to get 1,000 words of something useful. But Iíve always found the daily flow helps me be more productive.

Blank screen syndrome is a killer. Getting those first few words or sentences down seems to break the dam. Just write something, anything, and you can always delete it later.

Most other writers I know seem to prefer a dedicated writing space, but I like being in the midst of my usual household chaos. I get distracted in an isolated, quiet space, so now I usually write in the living room with a baby on my lap, the TV blaring in my ear, my SO talking to me, and my mother IMing me. If Iím working on a short piece, I scribble sentences on a legal pad while Iím cooking dinner. I can whip out three or four decent paragraphs while waiting for the water to boil, usually.

Rewriting is when I need relative quiet, and concentration. Thatís what I do at 2 a.m., when everybody else is sleeping. I sometimes read it aloud to myself, to see how it sounds, and I could never do that with another person in the room.

I suggest having a dictionary, thesaurus, and any other reference books you might need right there on your desk. When youíre on a roll, itís too much trouble to get up and walk over to the bookcase, or even to go search online for the exact work or spelling you need.

(from Janet Burrowayís Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft) Most of us donít like to write at all; we like to have written. We are caught in a guilty paradox in which we grumble over our lack of time, and when we have the time, we sharpen pencils, make phone calls, or clip the hedges. We are in love with words except when we have to face them.
Old 03-13-2005, 01:55 PM
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I'm a songwriter, but I approach the lyrical side of things more as a poet than a musician.

I think the key is writing often and on a regular basis. How or where you work is a very personal thing, but you'll find that certain places, times or mindsets work better and you will naturally work to create those situations when you need to write.

You might be interested in this thread, which is about poetry but I think it applies to all writing.
Old 03-13-2005, 02:05 PM
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I would also recommend killing the internal editor when you're first starting. It's real easy to get caught up in making a sentence of paragraph or scene perfect and then you forget you're writing an entire story. Lock her up and put her in the closet for the first draft--just get the story out of you and onto paper. There will be plentyof time in the second and third (and fourth) drafts to perfect each sentence and scene.
Old 03-13-2005, 02:21 PM
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Find yourself a good proofreader. (I don't write but I do proofread, so I'm biased).
Old 03-13-2005, 02:22 PM
Sampiro is offline
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Thanks. A question I'd like to add: when you have about five or more plots going through your head but you want to focus on one and bring it through to completion, how do you select which one you go with?
Old 03-13-2005, 02:33 PM
pepperlandgirl is offline
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Is there one particular plot that keeps you awake at night? That's the one I run with.
Old 03-13-2005, 03:00 PM
ITR champion is offline
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I am not a writer by profession, but I hope to be. My advice is:

Write every day. This is absolutely essential. On days when inspiration strikes, sit down and let the inspiration pour onto the keyboard (or paper, if you prefer). On days when inspiration fails to strike, write anyway, no matter how awkward or flat-out bad the results look. If you take the approach of writing only two or three times a week, you'll never finish anything.

Set a specific schedule. I work two or three hours in the evening, sometimes more if I have the time. Without a specific block of time set aside, it becomes too easy to keep putting it off and putting it farther off, convincing yourself that if you have some more time to mentally plan out what you'll write it will become better.

If you have multiple plots running through your head, choose the one that is most complete. I've started novels with the conception in my head being "I know the beginning, I know the ending, and I'll figure out some way to fill up the middle section". Those ones always end of breaking down, because there never is any way to fill the middle section that's both interesting and consistent with the rest of the story. The best chances for success are with projects where you know, with considerable detail, everything that's going to happen.
Old 03-13-2005, 03:28 PM
MissGypsy is offline
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Originally Posted by ITR champion
If you have multiple plots running through your head, choose the one that is most complete. I've started novels with the conception in my head being "I know the beginning, I know the ending, and I'll figure out some way to fill up the middle section". Those ones always end of breaking down, because there never is any way to fill the middle section that's both interesting and consistent with the rest of the story. The best chances for success are with projects where you know, with considerable detail, everything that's going to happen.
My experience has been the opposite. I often have great ideas for the beginning and the middle, and no clue how it ends. Those are still sitting in my own personal slush pile. (The latest is more than 100,000 words in, and I still don't know how to end it.)

I find it easier to have a beginning and an end, and just fill in the middle bits. Fun, like solving a "how to get from point A to point B" sort of puzzle.

And I have just had a revelation about my latest novel-in-work, thanks to you. Now I have to chop off about 30,000 words, write some more, and restructure the whole thing. What I thought was the middle is actually the end.

That's a tricky part, knowing where the story starts and where it ends.
Old 03-13-2005, 03:45 PM
OtakuLoki is offline
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First off, the most important thing is to write everyday. Don't take a day off. Even if you end up writing CRAP, even if it's just one frigging sentence that you know you're going to delete or print out just so you can burn the damned thing - write every day.

For myself, I try to work on just the one plot that I'm pushing, now. However, lately the epilog has been compelling me. And I'm finding that writing it is helping with getting the tone for the rest of the novel together.

I really so no reason that you can't choose to write four or five projects at once. Certain other authors have used that method. However, realize it will mean that your time to produce your first work will go up. Another thing - don't begin editing til you have a first draft done. I find I have a temptation to polish the first chapter, or page, or whatever until it gleams... and until I stopped doing that I kept going nowhere.
Old 03-13-2005, 10:05 PM
Euthanasiast is offline
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Some great advice in here...

As someone who has written and sold work over the past few years, I can tell you right from the start that your world and the world of a published author is closer than you might imagine. The only difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that one got his ass in the seat and never stopped hitting keys, even when he was discouraged. Certainly there are 'gifts' to be had to become a great writer, but it isn't rocket science. You can learn most anything you need to write well.

First, read within the genre that interests you. All of that other stuff takes a back seat to this. In order to write and write well you must be a voracious reader. Read while in the shower, while eating, during sex, while driving, while working in the wood shop, while defusing a bomb, during the trial where you are being accused of murder and everywhere else I haven't mentioned. If you aren't walking around with a book in your hands at all times, you have to start.

Go out and buy a book titled Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, then take it home and immediately set fire to it and allow it to burn until every page is ash. Then urinate on it to put it out. Now go out and get The Elements of Style and read it until it is in tatters, then go out and buy another. It is a small book and a must read.

Learn to divorce yourself mentally from your writer self and your editor/proofreader self during the writing process if you have trouble getting anything on paper. You can always come back to it later and edit.

If you are staring at a blank page or screen and nothing happens, here is a little secret that I have found useful over the years: Pick up a book by an author that you particularly enjoy. These are the people that have inspired you in the first place! Open it to any page and read a little. Find a good place to stop and put the book down. Now pick up the situation right were you left off and take it in a different direction. This is a great way to get your creative juices flowing and aide you in focusing on your particular strengths as a writer. With these strengths identified you will find it easier to get going on your own plots and characters.

When you do finish writing something, throw it in a desk drawer for at least a month. Writers get trapped so deep within the text that they find it difficult to look at the work objectively and miss things like errors or continuity gaps or other things that are obvious to the casual reader of the same work. By leaving it alone for a month or more you can come back to it more as a casual observer and you will be amazed at the things that you missed. Become good at correcting your own work. Never consciously leave anything for an editor or proofreader. Trust me, they will find plenty to fix without you leaving extra work for them. When you turn something in for editing, know in your heart that it is perfect (it won't be) and without errors. Over the years I have found that editors and proofreaders can make you feel like a complete idiot. It's best to get your work the best it can be before submitting it for proof.

Do not give up! Whether you get published or not, the true joy of writing is in creating people, places, or things that otherwise would never have existed. You create characters that need your support and direction at first, and before you realize it they are speaking for themselves. They move in their own ways and their skin turns pink with the flow of blood. Before you know it you are just a court reporter taking it down as fast as you can. The story you have created is alive and you no longer drive it, it is driving you. It is the ultimate rush.

I think you'll do fine.

The lion might be the king of the jungle, but if you air drop his ass into Antartica, he's just a penguin's bitch.
Old 03-13-2005, 10:25 PM
vivalostwages is offline
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I'm with sweetfreak. I have written and published quite a bit of stuff and won contests as well, but it is hard work and I have to make myself sit down and do it. I cannot write every day, since that is just not possible for me. And since I'm already an English prof and a professional proofreader, I can't seem to turn off that internal, infernal editor no matter what. But somehow the stories get done.
"I love a good nap. Sometimes it's the only thing getting me out of bed in the morning."
--George Costanza
Old 03-14-2005, 09:39 AM
LifeOnWry is offline
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First of all, let me say that based solely on what I've read here on the SDMB, you're already a good writer. It very much seems to me that you write best when you're emotionally involved with your subject, but your objective and purely factual posts also have a distinct "writerly" style.

I agree that the best way to become a writer is to WRITE. I do not have a formal schedule, but I do write every day - even if a good chunk of my writing is here on the message board. I make lists, write down sentences that "ring" for me, sketch out characters, etc. I am a huge advocate of freewriting - just get a piece of paper or a blank word-processing document and write or type everything that pops into your head for ten minutes... even if all you're doing is repeatedly writing "I can't think of anything to write, I can't think of anything to write...." The book The Artist's Way is a little bit too granola-y for me in general, but it has several decent writing prompts and exercises that I must grudgingly admit have been helpful, especially the Morning Pages exercise.

I don't want to advertise another website here, but if you e-mail me, I can put you in touch with a site that will allow you to sort of self-publish on the web among other writers, and you will have the opportunity to receive constructive critique for your writing, as well as general support and writing-oriented discussion. (E-mail is in my profile.)
Old 03-14-2005, 09:57 AM
overlyverbose is offline
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I'll second (or third or fourth) writing every day. I don't write a whole lot of fiction - I usually sell business, travel and health magazine articles plus business copy for Web sites, marketing collateral, retail copy, etc. (copywriting is definitely my bread and butter, but my more creative stuff is becoming more successful), and I've found that writing every day is important. Getting into a schedule often helps, simply because it becomes a habit to write, and the more experience you have writing, the better the writer you become.

I'd also recommend reading a lot, both of what you write, and of everything else. Not only will you find out what sells by reading what you'd like to write, reading everything else can give you new ideas and spins, and can also make you a more flexible writer.

I would also second Euthanasiast's recommendation that you get a copy of The Elements of Style. And when you're ready to sell, get a Writer's Market to find places to buy your work. Plus, if you have problems disciplining yourself to write often, take a class at a community college, or even one online, so you have to write.

It can be tough making writing or editing a profession. You'll get a lot more rejections than you will get acceptances, so it's important that you develop a thick skin. It's also important that you research your markets carefully and find out what a particular publisher is looking for. If you ignore their guidelines, your submission or query will go straight to the trash.

So, write what you love, write about it often, read other writers' work, and pay attention to what publishers are looking for, and before you send it to them, edit your work multiple times, or, if possible, run your work by a friend or ask a professional proofer to look at it for you if you've got the cash.

I've only been writing professionally (meaning, I've got my own writing business now and am beginning to make money off it) for a year and a half. The first year was very, very slow, but after making an effort to network, and many carefully crafted query letters and sales letters later, things are picking up and my business is beginning to take off. I wouldn't give up your day job just yet unless you've got enough money stashed away for a year or so, but you can make writing or editing a full-time profession. Just don't give up and keep writing.
Old 03-14-2005, 11:21 AM
OtakuLoki is offline
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Sorry to jump back in, but I have to say, as well, that Stunk and White's The Elements of Style, should be your bible. It's a great book. This isn't to say that you can't break any of the 'rules' given there - as long as you're aware of the rule you're breaking, and you have a reason for it. Deliberately using twisted/warped grammar can make for excellent emphasis: don't over do it but don't be afraid to do it, either.
Old 03-14-2005, 01:00 PM
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Like everything else, the rules are simple. It's following them that's hard.

My basic rule is to write. Then tear it up and rewrite. Do this until you're no longer having fun finding things you can improve. Then show it to someone whose opinion you trust and tear it up and rewrite it again.

As for the problem of five plots at once, that's actually simple. Work on one non-stop until you've run at of things to say. Then put it away and work on the others. Then take them all out and start rewriting.

As for rituals, I grew up in the days of longhand first drafts. I'm still more comfortable with actually hand writing a first draft before going to the word processor. Wholesale deleting, cutting and pasting -- even spell checks -- are too much temptation to write a bad first draft and assume that I can fix it all later.
Old 03-14-2005, 02:08 PM
TV time is offline
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If you are a carpenter, you will work at that hours a day.

If you are a chef, you will work at that hours a day.

It is no different with writing. Apply yourself the same as you would with any other profession.
Old 03-14-2005, 07:28 PM
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I think I'll move this thread to Cafe Society.
Old 03-14-2005, 09:00 PM
VernWinterbottom is offline
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I generally don't write every day, but I must write several finished pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, each month for a small, local magazine my wife and I publish. I also write regularly for my "real" nine-to-five job. Having deadlines does wonders for keeping one serious about writing.

I try to write when I feel the writing will flow relatively well. When I'm in the mood. When I feel creative. But most of my work is written when the damn piece has to be finished so I can lay out the pages and get them to the printer. I'm one of those unfortunate souls whose best work seems to come at the last possible second.

Someday maybe I'll be able to follow the rules: 1) Collect underwear. 2) Write for a certain number of hours every day. 3). . .

For now, though, I write 'cause the stories aren't gonna write themselves.
Old 03-14-2005, 09:21 PM
Sample_the_Dog is offline
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You've got some solid advice here already. I'd only add, find your temperament.

I think this is especially true of multitasking. I used to try to stick to a rigid production schedule, but now I follow natural selection. If I consistently find myself drifting off a project to other ideas, chances are, that project is inherently weak or not yet ready for active development.

Most other experienced writers I know get up early and write early. I can't do that. I write absolute crap in the morning. My first real mentor wrote at her kitchen table starting at 4:00 AM every day. Me... I gotta have a completely separate space for my writing. I don't even allow all my dogs in -- only the ones who prove they can abide by the rules.

But yeah, write daily. I have a poster up in my home office, a rip-off of an old Nike poster. It says, "Either you wrote today... or you didn't."

Carry a notepad. My advice is not to bring it out in front of other people, but have it there for when you need it.

And don't forget to read, too. In my classes I always expected to get a certain number of students who felt that reading other authors would taint their style. I don't know of any successful writer who thinks that way.

Oh, and above all, don't become married to your writing. "Murder your darlings."
Old 03-14-2005, 10:20 PM
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To the above I'd add -- Don't just Write. Make sure your stuff gets read and commented on -- Find a Writing Group to read and critique your writing (and to give you an opportunity to do the same with others). Or get someone to read your stuff and comment on it. (If it's a friend or a relative, make sure they can be honest).

Pepper Mill read my first draft of Medusa and told me it was boring and read like a thesis. So I chucked it out and rewrote the whole damned thing (several hundred pages). That version sold.
Who is the Calypso Singer that rides Pegasus?
Harry Bellerophonte
Old 03-15-2005, 10:13 AM
Carnac the Magnificent! is offline
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Let me play contrarian and first preface my remarks by saying that I've spoken on this topic to the biggest players in the media. I could say more, but I won't.

Knowing the Elements of Style, writing daily, and maintaining discipline are good ideas, but plenty of so-so writers follow these common prescriptions and get nowhere. If you want to be a success in the fiction genre, you need to master a host of deceptively complex skills and learn the art of storytelling. Reading the Elements of Style or writing daily take you nowhere if you're just spinning your wheels and haven't mastered the fundamentals.

Chefs and carpenters do indeed work on their crafts daily. But before embarking on their own, they typically go through rigorous apprenticeships where they learn the fundamentals from square one. While you can learn the essentials of fiction writing on your own, it's unlikely you'll be able to compete in the major leagues unless you're abundantly gifted--and I'm talking a natural among millions of wannabes. Like an Olympian, you may have the gift, but you need to hone it.

My suggestion is this: make yourself a student of fiction writing and learn from the masters, not from wannabes in a writer's group. Some are excellent, but I've seen too many such groups descend into energy-sucking animosities and thwarted ambition.

If you're serious--really serious--seek out a top-flight graduate writing program. The trick is finding the right one, but it's imperative that you plant yourself in fertile ground and let cross-germination take its course. Writing is no different from other disciplines; you should be studying the masters first, before setting off on your own. Take notes. Tear apart great writing and see what's going on, what works and how they make it work.

I'm not suggesting higher education is the only way to go. But it will be your fastest route and smoothes a learning curve that otherwise can be quite unforgiving.

If you've ever skied, you know that learning the technical fundamentals is essential if you want to aspire to the double-black diamonds. Teach yourself skiing and, with much effort, you might become a very competent skier. Receive training from an amazingly talented pro and your success is much more certain and the trademark headaches of learning vastly reduced.

Nothing about fiction writing is easy, but going solo is typically an Eldoradic proposition.
Old 03-15-2005, 11:11 AM
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As a professional procrastinator, I mean, as a professional writer I tend to agree with Carnac.

There's no such thing as one-size-fits-all advice. I can't possibly give Sampiro any advice without knowing what stage he's at. Learning the fundamentals is very important, true, but I've owned Strunk and White for decades and I never look at it except to answer a technical question here on the Dope. I've assimilated the basics. They're less important than you think for anyone who is an educated speaker of English.

The ass-in-chair advice is also something that better applied to some people than others. Admittedly, most would-be writers should be writing daily just to instill the habit and discipline. But it doesn't work for everyone. Some writers find that putting down crap everyday is more problematic than working through a good understanding of the story in their heads before trying it out on screen or paper. This implies a knowledgeable writer who knows what crap is and some writers can only do this by putting it on paper. But I've known several professionals who do all their writing in their head first before simply typing out the words. Again, find the working mode that is best for your individual psyche rather than listening to others tell you How It Should Be.

Graduate writers workshops may work for some people. They are highly controversial, but one thing everyone agrees upon: they are worthless for people who write genre rather than literary fiction. If you write genre, a good local writers workshop - one that has at least some professionally published writers in it - is much handier and far less expensive. You won't know if one is good until you get into it, but you waste far less of your life finding a new one than having to drop out of a graduate school. Again, Sampiro gives us no clue as to the kind of writing he wants to do. Without that knowledge nothing we say can be all that useful.

Of course, I endorse the Read Good Authors notion. But I also endorse the Read Sucky Authors notion. Take a look at what you consider to be bad writing and try to identify why it's bad and whether you have any of those traits in your own work. I may never be able to write like the best writers in the world, but I've become a good writer by learning to avoid clichťs like the plague and trying to ensure that my approach is always original, meaningful, detailed, deft, and respectful of words. I also try to respect the reader by never talking down to them or over their heads.

There are several variations on this quote, but this one is attributed to Gene Fowler:
Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
If this does not fit your conception of writing, stop now and find another pursuit.
Old 03-15-2005, 11:51 AM
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I don't write every day. I'm an in my head writer, whether it's a novel or a poem. I have to think think think about the writing. Writing glurge every day just depresses me and makes me unwilling to start.

I do have rituals, though. I need something in the background that I can switch my attention to when I'm puzzling over a sentence. Baseball on TV is my favorite thing for this. I don't pay a huge amount of attention to the game, but it gives me something to look at instead of staring into space. Baseball season is just starting up which means my writing is back in full swing. Weird, I know.
Old 03-15-2005, 02:49 PM
Khadaji is offline
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I have found that it is easier for me to write long hand and type it in later. Maybe it is because I am a software programmer by profession and after working all day I just can't get into working on the computer at night (although I'll play on the computer at night.)

I have also found that I must put down short scenes when they come to me and worry later about fleshing them out and fitting them in. Sometimes I end up throwing out some solid work, just because I can't seem to fit it in.
Old 03-15-2005, 06:11 PM
Cockatiel is offline
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Originally Posted by Sampiro
I really want to become more focused and generally serious about my writing. Currently I'm more scattershot in the habit. For those who write for a living or who intend to and work at it, what is your advice?
I'm a beginning writer like you, but I do have several habits that helped me get my first novel done. First, like many others have said, try to write every day. This might not work for you, but you should attempt it. And yes, I've broken this "rule" and taken some long breaks when I couldn't think of anything to write. It sucked.

Which brings me to my next point: expect writers block. It will happen, and it WILL suck. Don't let it kill you. I've found that the best way to get out of it is to brainstorm like mad. Can't figure out how to get your character out of a jam? Pace around a bit and just let your mind wander. Once again, this might not work for you, but it helped me. I'm a "mind writer." I think of what I want to happen the night before (usually in bed) and then write it down the next day, so brainstorming's my thing.

Along with trying to write every day, I try to write at least 1000 words a sitting. Sometimes they come easily. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes it takes me two frickin hours . But I try to get them done whenever I can.

I think the best bit of advice I can give, though, is this: Write what you want to read. One of the main reasons I wrote my first novel is because there was nothing like it on the market (at least as far as I've seen ). I wanted a science fiction story that combined a retropunk style world with elements of the supernatural and action. Oh, and lots of robots and propeller driven aircraft. Bizarre? Maybe. But it's my ultimate novel and I love it. So if all else fails, remember to write what you would want to read.

Good luck, and happy writing. I hope to see you on bookshelves some day .


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