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How to Take Yourself Seriously and Why I Don’t “Just Write”

Since this is a writing blog (mostly) and I should be spending this time working on the Book (which is not book-shaped yet, but will be one-day. I hope…), I am of course going to write a blog post. This is going to be hefty. I’ve included mini-headings to break it up. I would include pictures of puppies, but I figured this blog was pretty long on its own.

30 Books and No Plan

I’ve been writing novels for 15 years. That sounds absurd when I write it like that, but it’s true. For the past 15 years, I have written or worked on a novel every single year. How? You might ask. Or, How many have you published? Or, if we’re really close and there’s wine involved, you might say, in a quiet, conspiratorial voice: Oh, so how many rejections have you gotten?

I can’t believe I am writing this but I am going to be honest and tell you that the answer is…none. I’ve neither published a book nor received a rejection for one, because truth be told, it wasn’t really until a few months ago that I decided I was going to take myself and this dream seriously. Yes, I’ve written books. I’ve written loads of books. And I can promise you, they were all terrible things. At least, they were, before I threw them all in the trash and said to myself “Becky, you are starting over from a clean slate. You will not be weighed down by failure. We are putting failure in the trash bin. You will learn to write a real book and you will like it.”

You may be thinking a few things at this point. Good god, this girl is insane and she talks to herself. She threw away thirty manuscripts? What made her take herself seriously finally? You might even be thinking, Omg, she put them in the trash and not the recycle bin?? (I did put them in the recycle bin. Well, the ones that could go in there. I’m not a monster.)

Here’s What Happened (A Love Story. No, really.)

Now, this story is going to sound a bit like a fairytale and a lot romantic. Because the truth is, the reason I finally started to take myself seriously is because I met a boy. Part of me wishes I could say that I’d finally realized that life is short and that I’d always wanted to be a writer and goddamnit I would be no matter what. I could lie even more and say that when I was laid off from my job in February, I spent an entire month rediscovering the joy and magic of writing and committed myself to getting published within a year. But those things are not true, and besides, the larger part of me doesn’t want to lie to you guys. (I did get laid off, but I spent a month discovering how much I liked expensive colored pencils and learning how to use them.)

Now, this wasn’t any boy. Turns out, this boy would become my boyfriend and then my fiance and, next year, my husband. K is a teacher and a musician and he has a work ethic and passion like no other. Just being around him inspires me constantly to be a better person. It’s true what they say about falling in love – it changes things about you and the way you see the world. Suddenly, I had this guy in my life and I’d gotten a new job with people I really liked, and things were going really well for me, and I was living a great life, and I realized, you know what’s missing? Writing.

I bet you’re thinking: Oh, so she fell in love and was so inspired and sat down at a computer and wrote an amazing book. HA. No. Well, uh, not really. There were other things involved. Things just as, if not more important.

But here’s the thing about K. He’s diligent. He generally knows exactly what he wants and what it looks like (or in his case, sounds like). And he goes out and he gets it. More than that, he takes himself and his craft seriously. He teaches music professionally. He gigs. He’s living his passion. You can’t be in love with someone like that and not want to be like that as well. So I decided to take myself seriously too, now that I knew what taking yourself seriously looked like. I decided that I was going to figure out precisely what I needed to do to write a good book. (Where good = Something I wouldn’t be embarrassed by.)

How I Used to Write

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. You don’t write thirty books just for fun. (Well, you might.) But I never took myself seriously enough. I never thought I could be good enough.

Here’s how I used to write:

  • Find a topic that seemed like it could hold my attention for 300 pages.
  • Brainstorm/plot what I thought should happen in this story (optional).
  • Sit down and type like a maniac. Not sure what line should come next? Doesn’t matter. Just. Keep. Typing.
  • Hit 40,000 words and panic that everything was terrible.
  • Hit delete and start over. Or sometimes charge on and promise myself I’d revise later (I never really did.)

There were a lot of problems with this method. Mostly, the fact that I was charging into a story with no sense of what a story was.

Yes, I said that. I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know what a story was. Not really. Even though I’ve read hundreds of books. I could tell you what a story looked like and the vague, general things that should be in it (Interesting characters! An original plot! Obstacles! Beginning! Middle! End!), but I couldn’t tell you how to do those things. This meant that by the time I finished a book and re-read it, I had no idea what shape it was supposed to be, and therefore, had no idea how to fix it. And so, I’d push it aside, roll-up my sleeves, tell myself I just had to keep typing and that eventually, something would click, and I’d learn how to craft a story. Isn’t that the advice everyone gives as a writer? Just write?

Maybe for some people that works. But I bet those people also have an innate sense of what a story is. I didn’t.

Here’s How I Changed My Writing

So what did I do?

I threw away all of my old manuscripts because I needed to clear away the failure. Yes, this was terrifying. Yes, I did cry. No, I do not regret it.

I bought every book on craft ever. Okay, maybe not all of them. But I bought lots of them. And I read them and analyzed them and hated most of them. Except one: Lisa Cron’s latest book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).

I stumbled upon the incredible Joyce Chua’s post in Maggie Stiefvater’s Critique Partner match up (which I’ve written about before here), and she helped motivate me to push myself from “dreaming to be a writer” to “I’m going to be a writer” because she is so amazingly incredible and I knew I absolutely HAD to have her as a friend and critique partner.

When Joyce suggested joining forces with two other writers to form a writing group, I knew I’d found my tribe and the people that would help encourage me to really become a writer. Did I know how to write short stories? Of course not. Would I try? If it meant I could be friends with these three amazing women, absolutely.

I started to share my writing. I found a friend who isn’t a writer, but who is more than happy to bounce ideas around with me.

Most importantly, I decided, once and for all, that I was going to be a writer, and that I was going to be a writer in a way that worked for me.

The Lesson

Now, I’m not saying I turned into a serious writer overnight or that this book that I’m working on is going to get published and I’m going to be a NYT #1 Bestseller (though how cool would that be?) or even that finding love will change your life completely. But I am saying that if you want to be a writer, you need to figure out ways to take yourself seriously and you need to know what serious looks like for you. Sometimes, you’re just not ready, and that’s okay. But sometimes, things in your life will suddenly align and it’s like the universe is saying “NOW.”

Also, learn how you write. “Just write” can be really great advice for some people. But for me, it lead me to just write really terrible books, because I didn’t know what a story should look like. I’m probably not the best person to give advice, but I’m going to anyway. 

Here it is:

  1. Decide that you’re going to be a good writer and discover what that looks like.
  2. Read a dozen writing guides and try them all. Find the one that clicks.
  3. Pull your favorite books off your bookshelf and apply that writing guide to them. This is important because it will help you learn how your favorite books were crafted. Figure out why you love them, so you can figure out how you’ll love your book too.
  4. Find your tribe. (Maggie’s connection worked great for me, but you can also explore writer’s blogs and reach out to the author. Read through the comments on your favorite authors’ blogs. Be a stalker.)
  5. Most importantly, don’t give up.

 

How do you write?

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5 thoughts on “How to Take Yourself Seriously and Why I Don’t “Just Write”

  1. I’m so impressed by your introspection and your ability to “make yourself over” and allow yourself to take writing seriously–although when you said that you used to delete 40,000 words and threw away your old work, my heart dropped. I can’t imagine being brave enough to recreate myself like that!! But I’m so impressed by you and this decision and I CANNOT wait to see the stories that result from such redetermined dedication. I believe in you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!!! Hahaha, yeah, I do have a terrible habit of deleting huge swaths of words. They are generally not good words though, so I don’t feel too bad about deleting them. I’m really excited about the new stories already brewing. And already, I like them more than any of my old ones, so I’m hoping that’s a good sign! Thank you soo much for saying you believe in me! I can’t tell you how much that means. ❤

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      1. I’m still awed. I’m not sure if I could do that (but now I’m wondering if perhaps I should!). That’s a great sign (and you should, because the one story I read from you was FANTASTIC and I just want more). Of course I believe in you. ❤ ❤ ❤

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  2. A powerful affirmation. I can’t entirely say I’m “there” yet, but I have decided that each week I’m going to put in a set number of hours towards writing; often a mix of reading and writing about writing, and working on/analyzing stories. I can’t say if I’m using the time well, but I’ve decided that I am going to spend the time trying, until I die trying.

    The other linchpin, I feel, has been the decision to write book reviews, both of books that are widely acclaimed, like Harry Potter or Dune, and books that I’ve never heard of. As you say, figure out how the stories do what they do.

    One technique I’ve found really helpful has been to create outlines of the story; first I try to summarize a chapter in roughly 10% of the word count (I don’t actually count the words, but I do develop a sense for what level of detail that looks like). I find it really helps me see how everything in the chapter contributes to 1 or a few big “steps” in the overall plot.
    Then I create another outline, this time reducing the word count to roughly 1%.

    Lastly, I create a vague outline, that only states whether I thought the scenes in a given chapter were focused on action, reaction, character deepening, or setup; and a note about whether the tension in that scene was high, medium, or low.

    Ironically, once I’ve created the outlines, I no longer need them, but the act of creating them helps me thoroughly see how the details of each scene unite into a larger pattern, while still feeling distinct.

    But yeah, that’s been my experience. Still trying to find my tribe, and find more time to write my own stories, but I feel like I’m making progress. Far slower than I’d like, but progress none the less.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Adam! Thanks for writing!! That’s great to hear that you’re also working towards your dream. What I love about writing is that there are so many ways to get there. It sounds like you’ve found a method that’s been working really well for you, which is so awesome!! 🙂 I can’t wait to see how your writing goes! 🙂

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