On Monday, I took a break in my workday to go for a bike ride. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the air smelled fresh with spring. It was the perfect day, and I decided to go out and enjoy it.
Sounds great, right? Well, it was. But here’s the hitch—I haven’t been on that bike in months. I even bought a mountain bike about a month ago (because I really, genuinely enjoy biking and wanted to start riding on trails) and I haven’t been out on it at all! Crazy, right?
(And, yes, this ties into writing … I promise!)
Now, I’m no where close to a professional cyclist, or even a very experienced one, but last year I was easily hitting about twenty miles in a ninety minute workout. So there I am, zipping down my favorite route, but without as much pep as I had months before, and not even breaking an average of 14mph. I was more aware of my muscles, my cadence wasn’t as fast, and I needed a significantly easier gear to get up some of the hills that this time last year I’d completely mastered.
All of which drove three things home for me:
- I need to get back in a regular riding schedule, even if I’m mixing street or trail riding with riding the Peloton inside on days when I only have time for a quick spin.
- Skills decline if they’re not used regularly, and not just in cycling.
- Repetition and habit are your friend.
- Setting your mind free is a good thing—both your mental health and your creative soul.
And guess what? Each and every one of those points not only has relevancy to the writing life, but also addresses some of the most common questions submitted through my questionnaire. (Want to submit? Just click this link: bit.ly/JK-WritingWed )
Questions like these that folks have sent in:
- I can’t seem to get past the first chapter, what should I do?
- I get busy and then I don’t write. Do you have advice?
- I want to write a book, but it’s so daunting. How do I even begin?
All legitimate questions and concerns that almost all creatives—or anyone tackling a project—for that matter, can relate to. But guess what, you can tackle all those things. (Trust me! I’m a cyclist!)
When you exercise, you work muscles, you build endurance, you burn fat.
When you write regularly, you do the same. It sounds silly to some, but you really are exercising your “writing muscle” when you sit down to write. Do it regularly, and you will build and hone that muscle. You may have to start slow—goodness knows I can’t even do ten pushups!—but if you do just a small amount each day, you will build endurance and you’ll be able to write more and more and more.
And the bonus is that exercising that muscle doesn’t just mean you can sit at a desk and write for a longer period of time, but that you are gaining skills to actually make you a better writer.
You’re learning craft.
You’re learning why one sentence sings and another falls flat.
Why one character leaps off the page and another just slumps there like a soggy paper towel.
You’re learning how to keep going.
Most of all, ultimately, you’re learning what it feels like to finish a book. Because if you do this—if you move forward and don’t sit down each day and rewrite the same scene—you will finish. And in the life of the writer that is a significant point of change.
There is power in finishing, even if your first book will never be published. Because you got to The End, you know that you have the power to take what you learned in the process and apply it to the next book. And the next, and the next.
You’re getting stronger as a writer. You’re adding miles, and those miles add up to experience that can’t be gained by not writing at all or by massaging the same first chapter over and over again.
Big Takeaway: Move Past That First Chapter
(I know so many aspiring authors who will never see their book for sale because they spend months and years revising the same first chapter. Don’t do that. Just don’t. You are not prepared to do that until you’ve honed your skills, and you can’t hone your skills until you get past it. I’ll never hone my skills as a cyclist if I ride exactly the same route every single day.
In order to be a writer, you have to write. But you don’t have to burst forth like Athena from Zeus’s head, fully armed and ready. You can take small steps and still get to the end.
And the bonus? Every day you take those small steps, you get stronger. And soon you’ll be writing pages, just like I’ll be back up to twenty miles.
I’m not saying that you have to sit at your desk for eight hours a day and force the words to come. It works for some writers—it might work for you. It doesn’t work for me. (I sit. I move around. I do other things. I sit and write. I scribble notes on postcards. I write. I outline. I edit. But I show up for the work.)
That’s the key—Show Up For The Work.
You do that enough, and you will learn what process works for you. (ProTip: Your process isn’t a static thing. My process has changed many times over the twenty-one years I’ve been writing professionally. So long as you’re getting the work done, try not to stress. (Easier said than done. Writers are not known for being low-stress).
So what exactly does “Show up for the work” mean?
That depends on where you are. If you’re a writer on deadline, it means show up and get enough good words written so that you will meet your deadline.
If you’re aspiring to publish a book, then showing up for work means getting into a regular habit of working on your story—and getting words down. Yes, there is value in thinking—and we’ll get to that in a bit—but you need to exercise those writing muscles.
Here’s some interesting math: A novel can be as short as 40,000 words (less than that, and it’s considered a novella). If you write only 250 words/day, you’ll have a draft of a novel in two hundred days. And each day that you write 250, you’ll get more confident and more skilled, until you’re writing 1000 or more words per day. (And no, I’m not going to say what a “good” word count is. That depends on too many factors, including the author. But stay tuned; it may be the topic of another column).
Bottom line: Just like I had lost ground in biking, you’ll lose ground in writing if you don’t do it every day. Ideally more than just a ten minute burst before breakfast, but if that is all the time you have, then use it.
Write. Everyday. Day. Make your writing time sacred.
Here’s another ProTip: Don’t worry about writing “clean” yet. Just get the words down. Going back to my cycling analogy, if I want to ride a Century (100 miles in a day) then I’m going to have to get a lot better and faster. But I don’t have to study interviews with cyclists who’ve won the Tour de France. I just have to ride and keep adding time. Eventually I will need to hone my skills. Learn better shifting, what to eat for that kind of ride, how to deal with cramps, all sorts of things I don’t even know about now. But what I do know is that if I’m capping out right now at less than twenty miles, those are the things I need to worry about. Not yet.
Same for you: Worry about the writing. Not the editing. Not yet.
Here’s a bonus if you do that—that story you’re stuck on? Ideas will start to flow. I promise you. I’ve written well over a hundred books, and never once have I written a book where something Incredibly Important And Key To The Story didn’t come to me during the process of writing. I could have spent a thousand years noodling it or making notes about who my character is or what the plot was, and still never known that Key Thing. Why? Because story begets story.
Takeaway: Write even when you’re not sure what is going to happen next. Just write. Skip ahead in the story. Write a conversation between your character and her neighbor where she reveals what’s on her mind. Maybe you’ll end up tossing all of those pages, but even so it’s worth it when you get in the groove and learn more about the story. And you will.
Bottom line: Hop on that writing bike. You don’t have to write a chapter a day. You don’t even have to write a page a day. But you do have to write each day, and the more you hone that habit the more good things will follow like stamina (soon you will be writing a chapter a day!), story ideas, and best of all—you’ll be developing your writing muscles.
So take these ideas out for a spin and keep me posted on your progress!