This is the first entry in a series I’m putting together with writing tips – particularly when it comes to creative writing. Each of these entries revolves around something I picked up along the way and are based on my own experience as a writer. If they helped me become more serious about my craft, maybe they’ll do the same for you.
As I sit down to type this out, it occurs to me that I’ve been copywriting and editing professionally for close to eight years, and creatively for almost three.
Even though I’d been writing for much longer, I really only date myself based on when I started getting serious about my work.
For copywriting and editing, getting serious was fairly easy once I started. It’s not like people just write ad copy as a hobby. I landed an entry-level position at a dead-end company, and then another, before taking the plunge for freelance.
I didn’t have a choice about getting serious. It was get serious and get paid, or keep enjoying boiled chickpeas for another week.
When it came to creative writing, well, that’s another story.
Most people who write creatively, start out writing as a passion. As a hobby. As a way to pass the time, or keep track of errant thoughts and images.
We probably weren’t too serious until something noteworthy came along. A short story contest. An open-mic night at the taqueria. Something propels us into our craft, and from then there’s no turning back.
However, in my case, there was no outside push or force that awoke me per se. it was something much more primal. I knew from early on that I enjoyed writing (nowadays, I would change that to need writing).
I dabbled here and there, but never managed to get much done. If I did, it was more a miracle of perseverance than a true sign I was writer.
The problem was that no matter how much I wanted to write, and how much time I spent on my computer, I wasn’t getting a lot done.
I can still remember opening empty Word documents and staring at the flashing prompt. Maybe if I stared long enough, something would happen.
Sometimes it did, but most of the time I was just wasting time.
Of course, there were plenty of issues holding me back and slowing me down.
Imposter syndrome. Lack of dedication and a good work ethic. Even just plain not knowing how to write and format a screenplay.
(Going to the library and reading a couple of books helped. Syd Field’s Screenplay, Robert McKee’s classic Story and John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story to name a few.)
However, the most glaring problem was that I was unable to finish what I started.
It should be pretty obvious. If you start a story, finish it. The same goes for any craft. If you’re a cabinet maker, you’re probably not gonna spend all day going halfway and then starting the next one.
Unfortunately, I was doing just that with my own work.
I had folders on my computer, notebooks on my shelf and even little yellow post-it notes on my wall filled with half-baked plots, character ideas and portions of stories that would never get finished.
All these things are great to have when you’re a writer (after all, keeping track of ideas without letting them slip away back into the ether is key for coming back to them later). However, I seemed to be collecting bits and pieces of stories and ideas rather than putting them together.
Even worse, I wasn’t really aware I was doing it. I mean, I knew I had lots of unfinished projects, but in my head, I always found a way to justify it.
I would come back to the project later. I just needed to start this next one while it was fresh in my head. And so forth.
It was honestly like I had blinders on and couldn’t see what I was doing. The same as I couldn’t see any of those stories to the end.
Fortunately, I became aware of how big of a problem I had while reading by Robert A. Heinlein’s five rules for writers.
The first rule, is straightforward. He states:
“You must write.”
Can’t argue with that. A person is defined by what they do. Just as a farmer farms, a writer writes.
But it’s the second rule that really hit me:
“Finish what you start.”
It hit me, like a big bag of obvious bricks. I was certainly writing, so I had the first rule down. But damn was I letting those half-completed stories rot.
Having someone (even the words of a ghost like Heinlein) point it out was something I needed. As is the case with many things, we need to hear it from somewhere else. We’re honestly our own worst-judges. We constantly give ourselves bad advice.
If that voice inside my head telling me to keep starting new projects had been a coach, I should have fired him a long time ago.
In a way, I did fire my old inner coach. Or at least, turned him around enough so that the mantra wasn’t to keep starting new things (Ooh shiny new story!) but to finish what I started.
Finish the damn story. Or it’s not a story at all. It’s just part of a draft.
And so that’s what I did.
The first short story that I finished was a mess. It was long-winded, poorly paced (if you can even call it paced) and honestly kind of stupid. But I finished it.
It wasn’t easy. I had a few false starts. A couple more half-entries before I made it to the end.
But one winter afternoon, when big chunky snow was falling outside my window, I started writing and didn’t stop. Sometime later that night or the following morning, it was done. I wrote the story from beginning to end.
The catharsis at having done that, was incredible. A weight had been taken off my shoulders. But even more so, that haunting feeling – the one telling me I might not be cut out to write – was gone.
It didn’t have to have be a remarkable story. It just had to be done. Because once you finish one, each one afterwards gets a little easier.
Even better, when you finish the story, the ghosts of what it could become stop hounding you. You know what it became, so it’s time to bury it and move on.