This is an opinion piece by Lila Moore, founder of PopularSoda.com
I’ve said before that if you want to make money writing, you have to treat it like a business. Let’s add something else to that:
If you want to perfect your writing as an art form, treat it like art.
That looks pretty, but what does it actually mean?
It means you need to write things and then throw them out. A lot of them. And often.
In writing communities, I often see writers post snippets and bits of stories, wondering if it’s worth finishing or if it was even a good idea in the first place. It’s always worth finishing. It’s not always worth publishing. Voluntarily and creatively writing will strengthen your ability.
You can learn from everything you write, even if you never show it to anyone else. I wrote a novel when I was thirteen and promptly lost it in a computer crash. But I learned. I found that I had the drive to complete a full-length manuscript, and I realized that you should never keep all your writing in one place. During a train ride from Boston to NYC, I wrote a quick (and admittedly terrible) story about vampires versus aliens. The story was a joke, but I learned that I could pump out a lot of words on a deadline. I write poems to my friend in Japan that follow the rhyme scheme of a certain pop song. The limited structure forces me to be creative in a way that free verse does not.
I have hundreds of half-songs and paragraphs and little ideas and I learn from all of them (even if I’m learning what NOT to do).
There seems to be such a focus on making things perfect for publication. Publication may be the goal, but you aren’t going to get there without a strong skill set. You improve your writing through practice. Not every painting is a well-publicized masterpiece, not every song makes it onto the final album, and not every scene is saved from the cutting room floor. And like ice skaters falling on their bums and skateboarders wiping out, you’re going to make mistakes, but that’s okay.
You’re just writing. Not publishing.
One of my favorite musical artists, Tori Amos, calls the process “noodling around”. She’ll sit at her piano and play without actively working on a defined song. Other musicians call it jamming. Visual artists doodle in notebooks. What’s the equivalent for writers?
Do you noodle? Do you riff? Do you word-vomit? Do you bleed? Do you spit straight truth from the top of the dome?
I write a lot of things just to play with words. I write a lot of things already knowing I won’t develop them further than a paragraph or a half-finished poem. If I’m writing an important scene, I write it more than once. I feel most comfortable when I write it once by hand, once on the computer, and then type up my hand-written notes, self-editing as I go, melding the versions into one, and deleting everything that doesn’t fit. Time-consuming? Most definitely, but we’re talking about writing as an art.
Artists don’t suddenly appear. They work. The aforementioned Tori Amos started “noodling around” on piano when she was two, received a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory at five, got kicked out at 11, played bars at 13, failed with her first band at 25, and finally found commercial success at 27– 25 years after she started playing. Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel when he was only 33 years old, but his artist apprenticeship started when he was 13– twenty years before. He completed the Pietà at 24 years old, only 11 short years after he started working full-time as an artist.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule: you must do something for ten thousand hours before you achieve expertise in the field. From the Beatles to Bill Gates, he presents a compelling case in his book, Outliers. In writing, some swear by a million word rule: you need to write a million words before you pen your best works.
And that brings us back to NaNoWriMo. Fifty thousand words in a month is a great start. So write those words. Write more than the amount you need. Write everything that’s in your head. Write scenes that don’t fit and exposition that’s too long and conversations that are unrealistic. Write boring characters and major plot holes and top it off with a deus ex machina. Write three novels’ worth of material and then gleefully turn your back on most of it.
Because you have to. This is the practice before perfection.