One thing we can say about Five Steps Every Writer Should Take: Part Two? There must have been a Part One. Good news. You can read it here.
Here’s a quick summary. Last week I explored the first two steps every writer needs to take. Finding time to write, and finding the right place to do it.
This week I want to talk about finding:
- A style,
- A subject
- Enough confidence to begin putting words on your page.
“Wikipedia defines writing style this way: “Beyond the essential elements of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, writing style is the choice of words, sentence structure, and paragraph structure, used to convey the meaning effectively.”
For our purposes today, my definition is different, because I would use Wikipedia’s words to define “voice.”
Let’s look at another definition of style. Do you see the humor in everything around you? That’s a clue to the kind of writing style you might adopt, too. Do you dissect every interaction? Do you take even the most surface comments seriously? Do you dig for information when other people run right by that particular hole? Again, who you are and what you love will affect your style. And style and subject are different.
Consider two different authors writing about airline passengers who are told to assume a crash position as their plane comes in for a landing. One author, who sees the funny side of everything, writes about a passenger, whose command of English is rudimentary. The man thinks his fellow passengers, who are all hunched to cushion impact, are looking for something on the floor. So he gets down on his hands and knees, crawling up and down the aisle to find it, peeking under seats, lifting legs. Think about the movie Airplane. Almost anything can be funny.
Another writer, though, could put a religious twist on this scenario, perhaps a woman confronting God as she’s sure her life is about to end. Yet another might be trying to call a family member whom he’s fought with recently to make amends. Poignant not funny. But the same basic situation. Think about Passenger 57, United 93, Snakes on a Plane. (Doesn’t that last one seem like it ought to be funny?)
By the way, you can stop worrying. Our plane lands safely. But have you begun to imagine your own style?
Finding a subject you want to write about seems simple, but it often trips up beginning writers.
Perhaps you have an expertise and want to write a non-fiction piece, an article, a pamphlet, a full-length book. A little research turns up forty other explorations of your subject. So you throw up your hands and walk away.
Don’t. First check out the other versions. Toss out the ones that are badly written and researched. Then examine those that are left. Some are excellent and well-published. Good. Now you don’t have to do what they’ve done. You’ve been freed up to concentrate on a segment of your mutual subject that they glossed over, ignored entirely, or got wrong. Drill down further. Find something nobody’s discussed or written about. You’ve found your subject.
Fiction writers have a similar problem. Let’s face it, certain stories have been done to death. In fact, some experts are convinced that all plots fall into a handful of categories. This author identifies 29. But don’t throw up your hands because somebody’s already explored a similar idea. Again, do your research. If there are hundreds of books using a familiar plot line, readers clearly want to read those stories. Your job is to find a twist, a different approach, something fresh and new that breathes life into a reader favorite.
Don’t give up a subject you love just because others have loved it, too. There’s no subject that’s too trite, no subject too overused, that you can’t find a new way to freshen it and create something memorable.
And finally, finding enough confidence not to bang your head on your laptop.
Seventy something novels later I still write with butterflies in my stomach. By now it feels natural, and I write anyway.
The truth is people may read what I’m working on, and that’s scary. In fact if I’m lucky and blessed, they certainly will.
And yes, readers are critical. They have to be. Forbes magazine claims there are between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published each year in the U.S. alone. I chose to read 50 books last year for the Goodreads Challenge, and barely topped that number. Clearly readers have to make choices.
In the long run, though, does what one reader thinks of your work matter? Every readers group I’ve participated in has had wildly different opinions of every book we’ve read together. The truth is every book has built-in readers, and every book has built-in critics. Your job is to filter out both kinds and write the book you want to write.
Still not convinced? Here’s a secret. You never have to show your book to anybody else. Never. In fact, write as if you aren’t going to share it. Write for an audience of one. Yourself. Free yourself from critical voices, the imaginary editor standing behind you. Love the experience.
Then, when it’s finished, and you can take a deep breath? That’s when you can think about what comes next. For now, let your confidence grow from the act of writing itself. The more confidence you have, the more you’ll want to write.
This week and last I’ve tried to reduce a complicated subject. Five steps every writer should take is only a beginning. But here’s the one thing you should take away from this two-part series:
If you want to write, don’t let anything stop you. Not time constraints, not the absence of a fabulous office, not confusion about what kind of writing you want to do and the subjects you want to explore. And most of all, don’t allow a lack of confidence to keep you from trying something you yearn to do.
Be bold, be brave, be smart. Let go of all the obstacles you’ve stacked in your own way. And most of all, have a ball.