For me, there is nothing more liberating, more magical, more fun, more cathartic, more completely and totally transcendent than writing. Maybe that sounds like hyperbole, but I’ve escaped into story for as long as I can remember. I started keeping a journal in second grade, because I was in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and thought that someday I might write an epic memoir. Since my life in the city of St. Louis and suburbs of Chicago was pretty boring compared to Laura’s childhood on the American frontier, I started making up fantastical stories about colonies of cows living on the moon to amuse myself. In junior high, I turned the horrible everyone-is-mean-and-I-hate-myself emotions I was dealing with into poetry. When I was in high school, the poems became diatribes in zines, and then I turned back to fiction.
Eventually, I went to college for creative writing. I got both my bachelors degree and my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) from Columbia College Chicago. While I was in grad school, I met my first agent. A year after I graduated, she sold my first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and a year after that, she sold the second, Ballads of Suburbia.
It was a dream come true, a goal I’d been working toward since second grade, and a HUGE learning experience, so I wanted to share some of what I learned with you, whether you’re interested in pursuing writing as a career or just a hobby. (Fiction is my area of expertise, but a lot of this advice can be applied to writing in general.) This is such a broad topic that I couldn’t possibly include everything (but you can always email firstname.lastname@example.org with more specific queries). In the meantime, here are some guidelines to help you along the way.
Keep track of your ideas.
Every poem, essay, screenplay, short story, or novel starts with inspiration. I’m guessing that if you read Rookie, you are already a very creative and imaginative person who gets ideas from listening to a song or looking at a picture, from watching the news or talking to your friends, from your crazy dreams about time-traveling monkeys or daydreams about how life might be if you’d made a different a choice somewhere along the line. If you don’t already, YOU NEED TO WRITE ALL OF THESE IDEAS DOWN. I literally have, like, seven notebooks going right now—one journal for all those angsty feelings that seem too personal to share but someday may make good fodder, one for the main book idea I’m working on right now, three separate notebooks for the three other fiction ideas that I have brewing, one for my non-fiction ideas, and one adorable little tiny notebook that I carry with me EVERYWHERE in case I get an idea for any of these projects or a new one. I also have pen and paper by my bed in case I have a spark of brilliance while I’m half-asleep.
Daydream, read, repeat.
When I’ve got one idea that I’m trying to build, I try to think about it as often as possible: when I’m running errands, walking to a friend’s house, or supposed to be working on other things. The daydreaming phase is really important. I also find it really useful to make playlists that align with my project, using songs that remind me of characters, settings, moods, or emotional turning points. Also, Pinterest has really helped collect images that inspire me.
Another important source for inspiration–perhaps the most important source–is other writing. I don’t have many hard-and-fast rules here, but this is one of them: read as much as possible. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, books that are in the same genre as ones you’d maybe want to write, and books that are totally different from what you usually prefer. The best, very free way (thank you, libraries) to learn how to write is to examine all of your favorite literary works and see how the narrative was put together. Go to see movies and plays and then read to compare. (You can find plays in the library, obviously, and movie/TV scripts at Simply Scripts and IMSDb.) Devour magazines and newspaper articles. Current events can provide great material for your writing (you might have heard that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction). Check out books by writers about the process, like On Writing by Stephen King.
Discipline, discipline, discipline.
I know what you’re thinking. What happened to freedom and liberation and stuff? Trust me, there is a lot of freedom within the discipline, but writing has to be part of your regular routine. Just like playing a sport or a musical instrument, if you don’t practice regularly, you get rusty, and then getting back into it becomes hard and NOT FUN, so you get frustrated and might even quit for good. I set myself a schedule. I was a night owl writer, but now I do my best work in the morning. Everyone is different, and habits may change. Some people advocate writing a little bit every day. Since I view writing as my main job, I take weekends off (but just from the actual writing, I’m always looking for ideas or thinking about my stories). When I was in school, I used to write a little bit in my journal every day and then sit down at my computer and binge write all day on Sunday. If you follow any writers on Twitter, you might see people asking if anyone wants to do a #1k1hr. This is a word sprint with the goal being to write 1,000 words in one hour. I’m horrible at these things, because I’m more of a slow and deliberate writer. Instead I try to write in concentrated blocks–no Facebook, Twitter, or other internet-surfing. Find a place to write (a café, your bedroom) and a medium (a notebook or computer) that’s conducive for you or else you won’t be tempted to write as often as you should.
Find your own process.
When it comes to actually committing words to the page, every writer is different, and every project is different. Sometimes you might struggle to come up with the first sentence, staring for hours at a blank screen. (Take a break, step away, shower, whatever.) Other times, you might have manic bursts of inspiration. I wrote one book entirely by the seat of my pants, just typing up scenes as they came to me, even if they were out of order. On the other hand, with my current project, I spent weeks writing plot sketches, outlines, and character bios before I dove into the story.
For aspiring novelists specifically, one of my favorite books is Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, because he has a whole chapter devoted to different techniques for what he calls the NOPs (no-outline people) and the OPs (outline people), or as they are more commonly called in the writing world: pantsters and plotters. I also recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder—it’s aimed at screenwriters, and it is full of handy tips.
I think the writing software, Scrivener, is a great tool across the board. It works on Macs or PCs. You can write everything from screenplays to in-depth research papers to novels using it. Plotters can use one of its many outline modes to plot (I love the corkboard!), and pantsters can easily rearrange their various non-linear scenes. You can keep research and pictures in your project file, so you can easily study that girl who looks like your main character without changing computer programs. Then, when you are done, you can compile it into a Word document. Best of all, they offer a 30-day free trial and after that, it’s only $40–cheaper than Word, and an excellent thing to ask for as a present.