Writing is finicky. It’s sharp around the edges, full of leaking faucets, burning buildings, melting ice cream and dreamy fields of nonsense. It’s an art form, hobby, and headache all in one. And for the past three years, I’ve written every single day to get better at it and understand how I write and what I need to do to get better. I still don’t know what I’m doing, or how I do it, just that I want to write, and there’s nothing more satisfying, self-indulgent and therapeutic than typing words in Cambria in a half-empty coffee shop while listening to Philip Glass.
Safe to say, writing isn’t a natural talent of mine, and Google will prove this statement if you search my name for a blog post published before 2015. It’s embarrassing, and there are plenty of spelling mistakes, bad sentences, even a missing word here and there that still makes me blush like I’m an idiot wearing her t-shirt backwards. Get used to being embarrassed all the time, the feeling will never go away. But that’s okay: Writing well doesn’t happen overnight and it takes time before you feel comfortable doing it. That’s why I’m writing this, to help other women start writing, which is the hardest part.
READ LIKE YOU’RE A KID
When I was eleven, my rabbit was my best friend. I named him Prosper, after a character in a book called The Thief Lord, and we were inseparable. Together, we read books about Egyptian queens, book thieves in Venice and little girls in the Middle East. At night, after I fed him carrots and watched him poop pellets around my bedroom, we fell asleep together reading stories about things a rabbit and little girl had never seen. Reading out loud to my rabbit inspired me to read more, and is the real reason I started writing. You don’t need to buy a rabbit, but you do need a book. And if you ever get a chance, read to a rabbit out loud. Rabbits love reading more than writers.
BECOME A HOARDER OF LANGUAGE
When I see a word I like, I write it down. I also have a dedicated playlist of Philip Glass, Chilly Gonzales, and Eric Satie to keep my rhythm going while I think of what words I want to write next. Believe it or not, the only font I can write in is Cambria, because it’s the closest font to the one in my childhood adventure novels. I write first thing in the morning because my mind is airy and my memory is as clear as purified tap water. Sure, I can write a few sentences in the afternoon, but it’s not the same. That’s why I edit in the evening, after a few coffees and the day is in a blurry wave between 3 pm and 6 pm. It’s a ritual, you see.
Point is: You need to pick your preferences. Are you an early bird or a night owl? Do you write better outside of the living room or in a study somewhere quiet? Coffee or tea? Is your playlist full of dance pop Grimes or quiet indie Grizzly Bear? Pencil or laptop?
Likewise to my other job as a barista, I need to reorganize the station before I start serving coffee to customers. The towels need to be in place, the spoons where I last put them and the milk on the right side of the counter; the space needs to be MINE. Writing is the same. Close the door, reposition your blankets and make a playlist. Once these things are in the place, the words will write themselves.
START A BLOG AND GET PUBLISHED
In 2014 I started a personal blog and pitched my first story to She Does The City. It was an adolescent piece about getting dumped after a Blue Jays game, and it was called “The Post-Break Up High Road.” I wrote it under a pseudonym because I was afraid that a girl like me could have so many “feelings” and it felt yucky. Ugh. Gross! Not feelings! Comparing this to my later writing, it’s like the first chapter in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since then I’ve written about every topic under the sun like erotica, horoscopes, interviews and life pieces, and my blog is filled with terrible stories that are all very true and full of things I may not want everyone to know about. But that’s okay. That’s what writing is about. Sharing things that are messy, inconsiderate and full of sparkly little diamonds.
FIND YOUR VOICE AND DON’T TRY TOO HARD
This was my biggest challenge. I looked everywhere: In self-help books, GQ, Tom Robbins and Lucia Berlin. I wanted their voice to be my voice so badly. I forced it, and it never worked. I wrote in voices like the bored housewife, the drug-obsessed artist, and the witty self-help comedian; some felt more right than others, but still not my voice. Even with all the voices I’ve tried to force onto myself, my voice was still there. Underneath all the different layers, waiting for me to find it. And after a year or two, I suddenly found it like it was standing right in front of me the entire time. It was cheeky, light-hearted and genuine in places I never expected. It’s my speaking voice. And now it’s my writing voice.
It won’t happen immediately, but when you do find your voice, you’ll know it. And one day, you’ll be walking down Queen West to grab a coffee at Jimmy’s, and suddenly it’ll hit you and you’ll feel like you found $20 on the ground. Hey you! I see you! That’s my voice!
STOP COMPARING YOURSELF
Even now, I still do it. I read a terrific piece of writing and immediately feel sick. “I’ll never write like that,” I think to myself. It’s a downhill spiral, and instead of feeling inspired by someone else’s writing, I make myself jealous and angry. Not good. Don’t do this. Everyone has a different voice, style and way of doing something. Don’t be so hard on yourself if it takes you longer to get there, because it will. It took me over two years to learn why grammar, math, and editing are equally as important as getting the words down. Stop beating yourself up over it.
EDITING IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS
When I first started writing, I was a speed freak. I wrote thoughts that popped into my head and purged whatever feeling, memory or idea onto paper. Almost immediately after finishing, I’d send the piece in without a second glance to double check spelling, flow or clarity. Foolish. But I was so excited to see words and paragraphs, I honestly thought it was done. Like, why would I need to look at this again, now that’s on the page? Well, you do. And it’s the best part. After you start writing. Take a break and do something else for a bit. Return to it after a few hours and read the piece again with fresh eyes, because chances are, you’ll read it differently with a new perspective. Now edit, cut, delete, re-write and prepare for a severe makeover. This is the frustrating part that will make you slap your hand against your head and mutter swear words out loud. Bring it on, because after the editing is over, the writing will speak for itself.
This will help you in the long run. Every week, I set goals and make dorky Google Sheets to track where I want to write and what I want to write about. But that comes much later. So set realistic goals. I write every day, and on top of that, I set time aside to do all the other things that come with writing, like pitching stories to new publications, sharing what I’m doing on social media, updating my blog and reaching out to new people to expand my network. Writing is 2 cups of the cooking recipe. So make goals to reach by the end of the day or end of the week. Every hour counts.
GET USED TO BEING REJECTED
Sooner or later, pitching to publications will become natural, and you’ll be so used to rejection that you’ll expect it with every email you send. Though it seems to be a very obvious part of the writing game, you won’t understand until you’ve submitted a piece to a million publications and nobody wants it. I’m so used to getting rejected that I genuinely don’t care anymore. That’s one of the main reasons I started a blog: So I can give my rejected stories a home. I hate the feeling that I wrote something for nothing. Having it somewhere on display makes me feel better about it. Also, remember that pieces are usually rejected because it’s not the right fit, the timing is off, or it’s not “newsy” enough. This doesn’t mean your writing is bad or you’re not a good person. And in a while, you’ll see a reply that will fill you with possibility and hope for the future.
MEET OTHER PEOPLE WHO WRITE
It wasn’t until late last year that I met other people who write. None of my friends are writers, and I felt like I was boring them with all my nerdy rants about dangling modifiers and individuals who abuse exclamation marks. It was obvious that I needed to hang out with other writers to talk about the emotional mood swings of writing (there are plenty). Once I met some mutual friends, we met once a week to chat about story ideas, rates, and other stuff that only other writers would understand and geek out about. This is where I found my confidence. Every week, we rant about writing like it’s the only thing worth living for. And I love it.
OTHER RESOURCES THAT WILL HELP:
- Read Bird By Bird by Anna Lamonte, On Writing by Stephen King and Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.
- Download Grammarly for spelling and punctuation; if you can find an editor of some kind who turns writing around quickly and is available 24/7, then use them instead.
- If you have trouble finding flow, write down “words or phrases that start sentences” and collect these from your favourite writers. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to write when you know which words make sentences sound cohesive. Learn and steal these words from the greats.
- Watch the movie Finding Forrester, it’s about a famous writer who teaches a basketball player how to write. Busta Rhymes is in it too.
- Read your work out loud to edit. This works wonders.
- Research places you want to write for and start pitching.
- Get used to being rejected. It’s going to happen a lot.