6 Lessons from the Writing Process
1. Starting is the hardest part.
Nowhere does that line mean more than in reference to writing. This is the first of many lessons from the writing process I’ve learned over the years and the first I’ll share with you today. I don’t care if I’m writing a paper, an article, a book, a client’s press release or newsletter—or this blog post. Seriously…I stared at the blinking cursor far too long for this one. Then I started writing a completely different post that wasn’t what I promised you for today. So, then I stared at the flashing line again…taunting little devil.
What makes that so sad for this post is I’ve known since Sunday exactly what I was going to share with you guys. Didn’t matter.
Starting is the hardest part.
Good news for writers, though—once you get that cursor moving, you find your flow and then words roll. They tumble, one over another, in their quest to convey the information, unveil the tale, praise the product or share the thoughts. As I’ve set out on this book-writing journey, I’ve had a few different starts; which has led me to the second of our lessons from the writing process:
2. Once you start, don’t you ever, ever stop.
When you feel that energy, that flow, that outside force that dictates through your fingers and moves them in such a way that you produce words you never knew yourself capable of—when you feel THAT, hold on to it, ride that high, listen to it, follow it and don’t set it down until it commands you to do so.
I’ve shared with you before my battles with fear and busyness and excuses. I’m done with all of that. Now I face sorting through all the things that pop up in life to determine which constitutes empty busyness or an easy excuse or what gives me a quick getaway. I can set writing times until I’m blue in the face. I could get out a chisel and find a big ol’ rock. But, you want to know what I’ve finally learned this week? It doesn’t matter. Life’s unpredictable. Opportunities, responsibilities and choices pop up constantly. Schedules change. Appointments run long…sometimes really long. People need help. Priorities shift more frequently than you’d think.
With all of that, though, my focus, my commitment, my deadlines, my goals, my promise can’t change. What changes is my writing time. I stay up later. I don’t get to listen to the podcast I’ve been looking forward to for a week now. I miss out on reading that book I’ve been looking forward to for MONTHS. I don’t bake that cake or mop the floor. Those clothes don’t get folded again…what’s one more day, right? And, when I finally get that writing time—even if it’s 2 a.m.—I open myself up to THAT and I surrender myself to it until it bids me goodnight. And, I don’t set this book aside again. Until it’s done. Until it’s written and on its way into the world. Until it’s whole and ready for flight.
Can I actually get it to that point? Self-doubt loves to creep in through any crack or crevice I overlook. Wretched creature! I owe some thanks to the third of our lessons from the writing process for kicking her to the curb today:
3. Set a firm foundation.
I could talk about houses or relationships or a zillion other metaphors for this one, but I’m just going to be straightforward because it’s late and I’m tired and my pillow calls to me softly from the distant bedroom. If you don’t get the start right, if you don’t put in the time to do the initial research, if you don’t plan and plan well, you’re facing an uncertain ending. It could be that I actually knew this lesson first and that’s why starting always gives me such fits.
See…what I’ve had to learn and remind myself of so many, many times over the past few weeks…setting a firm foundation doesn’t mean I have to get it perfect and put a bow on the opening lines before I can move on. Not at all!
What it means for writing is I have to step back to view the forest; walk up to the first tree and examine its bark, its needles, its roots and the moss growing around them; run backward until I see the forest again to remind myself of what I’m aiming for, where I’m going; back and forth until I know the beginning, the middle and the end as well as some of the bits in between; and then I run back to that first tree and I hug it, caress it, examine it, become one with it and describe it as best as I can from every possible angle before I turn to the next tree.
(I may have gone a little metaphor-y after all.)
A firm foundation requires the forest and the trees.
This goes hand in hand in surprising ways with the next of our lovely lessons from the writing process:
4. Be flexible.
Are you starting to see how each of our lessons today can fit beautifully with writing…and even more perfectly with life?
Of all of these lessons, this one might be the hardest for me. I don’t like change. I like to make a plan, stick with it and see everything fall into place exactly as I envisioned it would. I’m not a fan of surprises. I don’t want things to get messy. I don’t like using whiteout. I don’t like eraser marks. I hate to scribble over words. When I make an outline, that’s how I want the final version to appear, whether it’s a paper or speech or blog post—you guessed it…I wrote out my six lessons before I really dove into writing this post, and they’re no longer in the original order.
So, here’s how this applies to Ashlee’s book that I’m writing now. I know when I hand her the first draft on her 25th birthday, there will be changes…many, many changes. I know that she and her family could decide to go with another aspect of their story. We first started off with this book as a story about the family as a whole and how the accident changed all of them, but changed them together instead of apart. Then, we switched the focus and made this Ashlee’s story. Now, nearly a decade after the accident, it could fit better to be the first focus instead…or *gasp* something completely different! But, that’s something I don’t think any of us can know until there’s a story to see, to feel, to experience.
Then, there will be at least two more drafts. I have many more interviews and a great deal more research to do for those. And, that’s all before we even get to the point of seeking publishers. And, with publishers, we know change is inevitable. They may not like the way I’m working in all the details of what went on around Ashlee while she was in a coma while maintaining her voice throughout. That’s not a small change to make, let me tell you!
With flexibility comes the need for some rigidity and organization. This ties back in with setting our firm foundation. What this looks like, though, should be completely different for every person and may even have to change several times over the course of one project.
5. Find what works for you to organize and go for it.
Now, you finally get an explanation of the odd photo and the details promised in yesterday’s Wednesday Writing Recap on my Facebook page—please join me there for opportunities to chat throughout the week!
In my first go-round on this book, I took in tons of information—website updates, three different journals, news articles, videos and my own interviews. I took notes; I made copies. I did my own research on TBIs (traumatic brain injuries). I read scholarly books and articles. I read books similar to what we wanted to create for Ashlee. All of this information needed to be put in order somehow. So, I carefully outlined tabs in a binder. I jotted down details of what happened every single day Ashlee was in the hospital and for months after she went home. These covered index cards…lots and lots of index cards. These cards went in order into a little plastic box for safe keeping.
These past few weeks, I’ve tweaked the original chapter outline I created years ago. Then, I realized it needed more than a tweak…more like an overhaul. Once I had that made out…and then tweaked some more…I knew the timeline needed to come out of its box. So, I took each and every card and separated them by chapter. I went to all three Dollar Tree stores in our town to find the one that still carried school display boards. (Anyone else have fond memories of science fairs back in the day?) I bought 6 (and considered ordering a case of 30 online). Then, I set to work.
My daughter wanted to help, so I let her! She made the pretty pink and purple chapter headings for me, and she helped me pin everything onto my boards. We fit all those cards and chapter summaries on four boards and made memories together.
Now as I build on that firm foundation I’ve created, I will have an organization system that can be easily stored, easily pulled out, easily kept nearby while I write and easily altered as needed. I can pull out all four boards to check on the forest or I can pull off a handful of cards to focus on a single tree.
While I’ve learned countless lessons from the writing process and will learn many, many more as I go, I’ve got one more to share with you today:
6. Take it one word at a time.
Well, that was really anti-climatical, Joy.
Seriously, though, it’s often the simplest statements that make the most profound difference in life…and in writing. I still feel like hyperventilating every time I think about writing a BOOK. I mean, do you know how many words are in a book? Have you ever done the math to figure out how many words you have to write each day to finish a book in nine weeks? I have! It’s terrifying!
And, you have to write all that more than once. And, you have to have other people read it and judge you…I mean, it—the book. And, you have to find a publisher who cares. And, you have to market yourself and it and then you have to convince the world to care with one picture or 140 characters or some quippy little statement that draws them in and makes them have to purchase that book. Aaaaahhh!!!
So, I’m not thinking about writing a book; I’m simply making a plan to write 32-ish (remember that whole “flexible” thing?) magazine features. No biggie! I can do that in my sleep. (Actually, I’ve already fallen asleep while writing this book once so far. No lie!) All the rest is so far away, I don’t even need to consider it. One word at a time; one sentence at a time; one paragraph at a time; one page at a time; one chapter at a time; one book at a time. I could tell you about all the books I have on hold, all the stories I plan to tell, all the marketing I can do for each and every one of those; but, right now, I have one word to focus on.
“My dad says all the time that we are given choices. Life’s full of them. He also says the girl who hit me made a choice. When she did, she took away our choices. But, I felt like I had a big one left—give up or fight like crazy.
I chose boxing gloves.”
54 words. 6 sentences. 2 paragraphs. 1 start.
What lessons have you learned in writing or in life? How could these six lessons I’ve shared with you today help you either way?