Explore Life Kit
This story comes from Life Kit, NPR's podcast with tools to help you get it together. To listen to this episode, play the audio at the top of the page or find it here.
It's kind of a truism that everyone has a book in them, right? We all have some kind of story to tell. But it's equally true that a lot of us have those crummy little inner voices telling us it's never gonna happen. That we're not Real Writers. That no one cares what we have to say, or that we could never write an entire book. (Or, y'know, that we've only ever written fanfiction.)
November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, so I decided to talk to some people who've both been there and done that, about how to shut those little voices up and get started on your book. Because the one thing I found out while talking to people for this story is that all you have to do to be a Real Writer is ... write. That's all. Just write. So here are six tips that'll help you set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and get going on your book.
1. Carve out some time to write, and then start writing.
Now, I bet a lot of you out there have said to yourselves, I'm gonna write my book someday.
"And someday tends not to happen in life," says Grant Faulkner. He's the executive director of NaNoWriMo. "And so you have to create the conditions to write."
I'm also betting most of you don't have, y'know, a perfect sunny nook where you can settle in with a cup of coffee, your favorite pen and your lucky troll doll and spend a few hours cranking out a chapter of the next great American novel. But what almost everyone has is what Faulkner calls "time confetti."
Time confetti is those little absent-minded moments, the little blanks in your day when you're not doing anything. If you use that time to write, "you can actually get a lot done," Faulkner says. He also, of course, recommends that you sign up for NaNoWriMo.
"One of the things that makes NaNoWriMo so successful for people in general is that we lower the bar of writing. So many people operate with a sense of perfectionism, and they let their inner editor get in the way of their words on the page. And NaNoWriMo is all about setting a goal and a deadline ... And that helps open the gates to your creativity, and lets you get the words out without trying to make them all perfect."
One way to do that? Try a word sprint. You get a prompt, and that prompt could be anything — a favorite family picture, a phrase, even just a single word. NaNoWriMo actually has a Twitter account devoted to word sprints that offers prompts like "something unreal" or "waited too long." And then, you just write — for five, 10, 15 minutes, you banish that inner editor, keep your hands on the keys or your pen on the page and let the words come.
Elizabeth Acevedo is one of the writers who found inspiration in NaNoWriMo — you might know her name; she won the National Book Award in 2018 for her young adult novel in verse The Poet X, and her new book is Clap When You Land.
She says she'll sit down at her computer, set a timer, and "for this hour you're just writing, so it's almost like a sprint." Then she might get up and take a walk, have a snack, sit back down and see how far she can get in another 30 minutes or so. "Here I am, I have to just get through this and it doesn't matter if it's good or not," she says. "I don't revise as I'm writing and I don't go back and reread pages. I kind of just plow ahead."
Just plow ahead. Words of wisdom!
2. Know that there's not one "right" way to write your book.
But I hear you asking — how do I plow ahead? In which direction should I point this metaphorical plow? Should I have every plot point mapped out? Should I know every nuance of every character? Should I know how it's all going to work? Spoiler alert: No.
Grant Faulkner says some NaNoWriMo participants are planners. "They'll meticulously outline their novels ahead of time. And other people are pantsers. They just jump in and wing it. We also have a term that is very unique to NaNoWriMo, plantsers, and those are people who are in-between planning and pantsing."
But here's the thing — are you a planner? Are you a pantser? Are you somewhere in between? Who knows! Certainly, you don't have to know when you're starting out. Just try something and see what works for you.
But no matter how you go about it, says Acevedo, creating isn't easy. Maybe you missed your goal yesterday, and you've got double the work today. "And those days suck," she says. "But also, I think it's important to recognize that sometimes, like — you can't ghost your characters. You have to show up for them, or they won't show up for you."
That's it. Show up for your characters. Doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you do it.
3. Find your people.
No matter how romantic it seems, you're not up in the garret by candlelight, scribbling away, alone in your genius. I mean, maybe you are — but in that case, maybe you're already beyond what we're trying to do here.
I called up my former NPR colleague Kat Chow, who wrote a memoir about grief and identity called Seeing Ghosts. She says it was a hard book to write. "It's nonfiction. But it's also about my family. It's about grief. But sometimes there are just so many distractions."
And when she was really stuck, if walking the dog or organizing the closet didn't help, Chow says she'd call up a friend with a different way of thinking. "Or I would talk to another friend who's writing a book. And it would kind of help me reset, or have to think through the issue with my book."
You don't just have to stick to your friends. Chow recommends that you reach out to other writers, "whether they're potential friends or people whose work you admire, and try and form your own community so that you can have a writers group of people who can kind of talk through any issues that you're having with your book."
One way to find those people? Chow says that if she's just read something really great, she'll flip to the acknowledgements. "And I just love reading who these writers are thanking because oftentimes it's really thoughtful people, or it's books that have inspired them or helped them be better writers, or fellowships or writing centers that have provided support."
NaNoWriMo is also a good place to start looking for a community — they have a lot of local groups that meet every month. Or check with your local library to see what kind of writing events they host.
4. Read, read, and then read some more.
I spend a lot of my day editing the freelance writers who review books for NPR.org — and when I'm working with someone new, there's one thing I always tell them. (Apart from no dang passive voice!) And that's read. Reading helps you figure out what you like, and it helps you refine your own voice on the page.
But sometimes I get a little pushback — I'll hear something like, "I don't want to read other writers, because what if it influences me?"
"Influence doesn't mean that you're a copier," says K. Tempest Bradford. She's a sci-fi and fantasy author, and a writing teacher. "Influence doesn't mean that you're not you, you're not uniquely you — no matter what you do, you're always influenced by something, right? Because that's how culture works."
Your voice is always your own, because it's coming from you. But reading good writers can help you make your own voice better.
5. You will screw up, so learn to take criticism gracefully.
Beyond just keeping you on your deadlines, having a writing group or an accountability partner is helpful in another really important way — they can provide perspectives that aren't your own, and tell you when you've gotten something wrong.
And you will get something wrong, because you are a squishy human being and not a perfect, novel-producing artificial intelligence. Maybe your prose is clunky, maybe your character depictions are kinda cardboard, or stereotypical, even a little bit racist, and you didn't do the work to make them real people.
Which is something to think about, especially now.
The publishing industry has always had a serious diversity problem — but things have really been blowing up recently over issues of cultural appropriation, of white writers profiting off the stories of other cultures.
And that leads to the huffy, bordering-on-bad-faith flounce that you see in some corners of social media: Well I'm white, so I guess I can't write about anything.
"It's not that people are going to yell at you or be mad if you write characters who are outside of your culture, outside of your race or other major identity trait," says K. Tempest Bradford. "What people yell about and what starts causing fights is when writers do it badly."
Bradford teaches workshops through Writing the Other, aimed at helping people not do it badly. The first thing to do, she says, is ask yourself why you want to include a particular character in this story. Is it because you want more representation? That's fine."But sometimes the impetus is, 'I want to have this character of color because I heard that they're trendy.' And that's ... let's not do that."
It's not that you should never write outside your own experience, Bradford says — but you should know why you're doing it. And you should make sure people from whatever group you're writing about have had a chance to tell their own stories for themselves before you jump in.
And once you've written something, she says, "get some sensitivity readers and some other people who are from that group to talk to you about it." Writing the other is a collaborative process, Bradford says — it involves research, discussion, bringing other people into your work. And despite all that, you might still get something wrong. We all make mistakes.
So, learning to accept criticism with grace and humility — whether it's from your writing group or, god forbid, angry folks on Twitter — is an important part of the writing life, and one people don't often think about.
6. Believe that you are a Real Writer.
I wanna go back to something I was thinking about earlier — that dumb, depressing and persistent thought: I could never write a whole book. I can't crank out 2,000 words a day. I'm not a Real Writer. I asked my guests to weigh in on that.
"I think that someone who's storytelling from a place of urgency and is attempting an original way of documenting the human experience, I think that's a writer," says Elizabeth Acevedo.
"If you write, you're a real writer," says Grant Faulkner. "And I think you need to embrace the term 'being a real writer,' and call yourself a real writer, and believe in that, because that will give you power on the page."
Still don't believe me?
"Anytime some guy's like, well, you're not a real writer unless you [do] X, I'm going to say that they're full of hooey," says Tempest Bradford. "Unless they're saying, well, you're not a real writer unless you write."
Whether it's poetry, fanfiction, letters to yourself, even a description of two squirrels fighting in the yard — if you write, if you tell a story, you are a Real Writer. That's all you gotta do. Just write. And you'll find yourself, little by little, writing your book.
NaNoWriMo's word sprints
NaNoWriMo monthly groups
Writing the Other
K. Tempest Bradford recommends:
Writing the Other, Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin
The Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer
Kat Chow recommends:
Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
If you have a life hack you'd love to share, give us a call at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.
If you want more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.
The audio portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle