Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fake it until you make it - April Henry's tips for success

I've been writing full time for over three years now. Before you get too jealous, know that I spent the 18 years before that working in a cubicle (or for a few heady years, a shared office).  Nine of those years I was publishing books - and still working and raising a kid and (sort-of) exercising and (often Trader Joes) cooking dinner.

Over time, I've become a better writer.  Here's what I've learned:

Butt in chair. I used to think that writing was a matter of inspiration. And that if you weren't inspired, it wasn't going to be very good. But if you wait to write until you are inspired, you might be waiting a long time. Here's a little secret I've discovered: You can always edit crap. You can't edit nothing. 

Keep reading craft books. In the past year, I've read at least a dozen. I put them on hold at the library two or three at a time. I'm far enough along now that I know if they don't speak to me. I recently read Techniques of the Selling Writer, an older book (you can tell it's older, because the author is Dwight V. Swain - when was the last time a kid was named Dwight?), and it was so useful! I found myself taking tons of notes on scenes and sequels.

Have a cheat book. This is especially true if you are writing for a living. You probably already have a book or two under contract. But you should have a book you are sneaking off to write every now and then. A book you are having an affair with. A book you are writing just for you! (Which may later end up being shared with the world).

Push yourself. Force yourself to work on a scene you don't want to for 15 minutes  - after five or ten minutes you might strike gold. Or use any of the exercises in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (you don't have to have read the companion book for it to be useful). One I like goes something like this:  "What is one thing your character would never, ever say? What is one thing your character would never, ever think? What is one thing your character would never, ever do? Find places in your manuscript where your character says, thinks and does these things."

Make friends with other writers. Writing is a lonely business. Online friends are great. Real life friends can be even better. I've been to many conferences or meetings where I felt lost and knew no one. You know what? When I took a chance and started talking to the other people there, I discovered they often felt the same way. I've written congratulatory notes to writers I've never met. Reach out! The worst thing that can happen is that they won't respond.

Reading is also part of your job. Don't feel guilty about reading. I tended to put it off, thinking it was a "treat" that I only deserved if I had crossed everything off my to-do list. But then I read something from Amy Kathleen Ryan where she said that she considered reading part of her job. That changed my attitude.

Get Freedom, a program that cuts you off the Internet for the amount of time you set. You might think you are an adult and that you are able to control your own behavior.  You are wrong. It costs 10 bucks, but it is definitely worth it.
    These are the things that lead to great writing days for me. What tips do you have?


    15 comments:

    1. Great tips! I especially like the one about reading being part of the job. I usually feel guilty about reading when I should be putting my own words to paper, but this might change my attitude!

      Erin @ Quitting My Day Job

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    2. Words of wisdom as usual, April!!!

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    3. oh I love these tips! I do many of them but what a great reminder from a pro, and in a handy dandy list form :-) Thanks for sharing!

      The butt in chair is the one I use the most. If I force myself to write, even or especially when I'm not feeling it, I always break through that wall eventually. But you're right: you can't edit nothing. :-)

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    4. Fantastic post! It's so easy to get distracted or make excuses even as a full time writer. I find I'm constantly making deals with myself when I plan for the day--and almost always hit the mark I set. We have the BEST job!

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    5. I'm not a writer, but as a visual artist these rules still fit. Perhaps they can be generalized to any creative endeavor? Obviously you'd need to tailor to fit the craft, but that's not too hard to do.

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    6. Freaking brilliant!!!! I especially love "You can edit crap. You can't edit nothing."

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    7. "Butt in chair" is my writing group's motto. If you don't do that, nothing else really matters!

      Terrific post!

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    8. Yes, yes to pushing yourself, if only for fifteen minutes. Often that's the difference between being panicked or not if I'm stuck or don't have a lot of time. And I write on a laptop on which the internet connection is off except to update security. If I need to look up something or go on line I have to move to another computer. It helps me avoid those on line time sucks.

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    9. Excellent suggestions. Amazing how I will fight the Butt-in-chair technique when I'm struggling with a scene. I can get my butt in chair, now I need little shackles to keep my fingers from net surfing!

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    10. Great article and list. One thing that really works for me is to get at it early. Like so early I am not fully awake. Before I have time to argue with myself about the lack of inspiration and how pulling weeds in the garden is more important. If I do this, I find that by the time I 'wake up' I am on a roll.
      Writer Chick

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    11. James Scott Bell recommends something like The Fast 500. It's sitting down very early in the day and getting out 500 words. I've been trying it and it really starts the day off right (or write).

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    12. Great tips. Especially the "you can edit crap, but you can't edit nothing" motto. A tip that works well for me is to end in the middle of a chapter, or, if you don't write chapters, end in the middle of something that you could potentially go on with. When you go back to it later, there is no "writer's block". You pick up momentum right away. (At least I do.) I can't remember where I picked that tip up from but it's worked wonders for avoiding the blank screen trance. Thanks for the great post!

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    13. Thanks for these tips. Butt in Chair! I also think I ought to try those Fast 500. No excuses :)

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    14. Great tips, April- thanks! I've been trying to follow Ray Bradbury's advice, similar to the Fast 500, which is to write as soon as you wake up and profit from that conscious/dream state.

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    15. I Just love everything about this post! But I especially love the don't feel guilty about reading advice. I often save it as a treat and I shouldn't!

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