NaNoWriMo: How to Start Writing

Writing.  It’s easy.  It’s just a matter of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and stringing words in a line.  At least, that’s the theory.  Better writers than me (Ernest Hemingway) have said things like “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”  I wish it were really that easy, but I don’t think that’s true.

As you start your NaNoWriMo adventure, you may find the same issue I have on a regular basis — that is, how to start writing.  Writing is supposed to be like running or fucking or smoking.  You’re supposed to just know how to do it, like it’s some kind of instinct a person has deep within themselves.  We’re a storytelling race, there’s no doubt about it, so perhaps there is something to this idea of just knowing… just knowing how to start.

Starts and False Starts

I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years now (I’m fucking old) and a dabbler for closer to 30.  That means that I’ve had a lot of starts to deal with — and I’ve learned a few things about starting to write.  First and foremost, it’s important to understand that just because you’ve written something doesn’t mean you’ve actually started.  Sometimes you start, but you’re not really starting — you’ve got a false start on your hands.

I’ve had editors give me advice over the years on starts and false starts and one of the most common things I hear (I actually don’t believe this) is that a writer should just start, then erase the first sentence, paragraph or section they wrote and start with the second.  Because the advice is so widespread, it  makes me believe that although it’s not entirely true,  there is something true within it.

To write well, it’s important to understand that starting isn’t always starting and sometimes you have to start again and again before you get it right.  I have days when I struggle to break the seal on my work.  I may write three or four or seven introductory paragraphs before I find one that sounds right.  When you’re writing for the business world, this is frequently wasted effort since the readership can’t tell the difference anyway, but we all strive to be great in our way, don’t we?

So, I guess the first thing to getting started is to understand that just because you’ve smeared some words on a page doesn’t mean that they should actually be there.  This is where that nugget about killing your darlings comes in — if your start isn’t the right start, it’s all for naught anyway.  Cut those fuckers before they grow up to betray you.

How to Get Started Writing

Some days you’ll sit down and start writing and it’ll just flow like warm molasses onto the page.  It’ll roll down to the next and ooze and flow until all the corners are filled.  But more often, you’re going to have to prime and pull again and again, like when you’re starting a cranky chainsaw.  I can assure you, though, getting started is the hardest part of the process.

So, let’s walk through it.  Let me help you, God knows I can’t help myself.

Research First.  Whatever you’re writing, fiction or fact, requires some level of knowledge or research, or a combination of both.  Before you ever set pen to paper, do all your research.  Let those lovely bits of information float around in your brain, twist around one another and prepare to be rebirthed in another form.  Research first.  Don’t write shit until you’re certain you have the information you need.

Know What You Intend to Write.  You don’t need to have it all mapped out, that’s a Hell of a way to crush creativity completely.  But know what you intend to write — the bones of the thing.  I usually start with an outline, even on blogs.  It doesn’t have to be long or even detailed, but jot some notes down either on the page or mentally, if you can hold it that way.  When you know what you’re going to write, it makes it easier to actually write it.

Don’t Stop for Anything.  When you’re trying to get started, don’t stop for anything.  Once you start streaming the words onto the page, just keep going.  Edits are for later.  Write now, spew on the page, and clean up the mess later.  This, of course, is easier said than done for some of us — but the writing is the thing today.  Write today, edit tomorrow.  Write now, don’t look up stuff, just write.

No Peeking.  When I say “Don’t stop for anything,” I mean it.  Especially peeking.  Don’t look back until you’re done with whatever you’ve set out to do for the day.  You’ll want to kick your own ass, you’ll hate what you’ve created, you’ll want to destroy what may deserve to live if you do.  Don’t do that.  Remember, edits are for later — NaNoWriMo doesn’t allow you time for clean-up, it’s a race to the finish.  You’ll edit in December.

Above All Else, Write.  Today isn’t the day to judge your writing or to hold yourself next to someone else or even to learn new things about writing.  Today is a day to write.  So write.  Just write.  Don’t answer the phone, don’t juggle emails, don’t fucking look sideways at the cat.  Just write.  If you need to eliminate more distractions, wear a pair of headphones and crank the music.  Whatever you do, though, JUST WRITE.

NaNoWriMo: There Are No New Ideas

I know an aspiring author who told me that she can’t get past her big brick wall — she’s got a novel in her soul and she needs to birth it, but she can’t get the words into motion.  Now, I’m in no position to judge if she’s a good writer or a bad writer, but until she actually writes a thing, there’s no telling what she could be.  There’s no way to know.

I asked her one simple question, “What’s holding you back?”  Her answer was one of the saddest things I hear from potential writers: “I can’t come up with a new idea.  Everything I think is new turns out to be an idea I didn’t know I stole from somewhere else.”  Ah.  Now this is a problem I can solve!

There Are No New Ideas

If you have a formal education in writing or in English literature, what I’m about to say will come as no surprise, since we had this crap beaten into us in college.  But for the rest of you, you may be incredibly shocked to realize that there are only a limited number of plots, though that number differs based on who you ask.  That’s it.  There are no new plots, there aren’t likely to be new plots, they all fall into one of the main categories.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to experimental and artsy fartsy bullshit, but for real, true fiction, you’re limited to a certain number of stories.  At the end of the day, it’s not even the plot that matters — it’s what you do with it.  If you’re looking for something unique to happen in your story, you have to put yourself into it.  Pour yourself in, like hot molten steel and watch how the cracks and holes fill in.

Plotlines aren’t unique, plot elements are constantly recycled, but the world you create with these building blocks is what makes a story.  There are seventy bajillion love stories, but we keep reading them, watching them, consuming them — and why?  Because each and every story someone writes is different because they make it different.

For you, for Erica, it’s all the same.  That story you’re worried about — just write it.  Just write it, baby.  I’m not good at positive posts, but in this particular vein, I’m drunk on fantasy.  I’m addicted to the inside of your little special brain.  Give me more of that, of whatever you see at night when you fall asleep.  Give me your knights and your space pilots and your underdogs and your sinners seeking salvation.

We tell ourselves stories not to understand the world, but to understand ourselves.  We can’t be more intimate with anyone than to show them our soul — and there’s no way to turn a plotline into a new and unique story without being completely and wholly intimate with our audience.

So birth that story, Erica.  Birth it with all your might.  All the Ericas out there — it’s not about what’s new, it’s about you making something old young again.  It’s all about you breathing life into a thing that’s just a humble framework.  It’s what you do with it that makes it real.

So do.  Go.  Write.

And don’t forget to hire a fucking editor before you try to sell that shit.

The Purpose of Content Mills in the Writing Ecosystem

If you’re an experienced writer, or know someone who is, you’ve probably heard the term “Content Mill.”  These places are about as bad as you’d imagine, with the worst working conditions possible.  They’re polluted (filled with shit assignments), dark (creating feelings of hopelessness) and dangerous (random editors committing randomly stupid edits).  Despite this, they’re a good place to get experience in this darkly digital age.

You simply cannot go out into the world of freelancing and assume everyone is going to think your ass smells like candy.  You’ve got to hone your skill somewhere, even if it’s against a crude stone like the content mills.  So, in this day and age, writing apprenticeships have morphed into grinding out copy about ethereal topics like sailboats, crotch mites and different lengths of wire all day long until you want to cry.  Isn’t that nice?

The good news is that once you’ve built up a decent portfolio of crotch mite material, you can demonstrate your experience in a niche, go out and get some clients and live happily ever after.  But you have to start at the bottom, scraping the older, better writers’ sewage up out of the tunnels.  Sorry.

Some Currently Active Content Mills

Go ahead, get your feet wet.  You’ll love it.

Check out these sites to get your writing career started:

BlogMutt:  You’ll write blogs based on keywords and verticals, starting at $8 per article.  It’s measly work, but the owner runs a tight ship and doesn’t fuck around.  As you write more articles, you’ll earn the opportunity to make more money per piece.  I hear that the highest level writers can also get an ownership stake, though I don’t know if that’s true.

Writer Access:  Apply for casting calls and keep your eye on the work queue and you stand to make a decent living.  Otherwise, this place will feel like a desert.  Every time I check in, it’s because I got an email about assignments that have already been snatched up.  Proceed with caution.

Textbroker:  A good place to get started, TB has a lot of different types of assignments, some with better instructions than others.  Throw anything back you don’t understand or ask a more experienced writer for advice.  Also, they have a problem with virtual W9s, so you’ll have to submit a paper one.  Ancient technology, but it’s work.

Interact Media / Zerys:  You’ll become a master of writing short test blogs on the spot, since that’s what’s required to gain access to various parts of the system.  Don’t get lazy and skip parts of the application, do it all and write all the things!  As you open up more areas, more opportunities will present themselves.  Think of it as questing for writers.