On my honeymoon, as my wife and I were sitting in a piazza in Italy, she asked me: “What would you regret never having done on your deathbed?” Before I could think twice, I said, “Writing a novel and getting it published.”
“When we get home, you need to start taking two hours a day to make it happen,” she said. And that was that. I had shared with her my deepest anxiety, and now I was on the hook to overcome it.
What I hadn’t told her was that, years before, I had moved to Paris in an attempt to write my first novel—only to talk myself out of it. What if nobody liked it? What if I can’t find a publisher? I used the money I had saved to travel through Europe instead.
In short, I had been driven by a fear of failure. There is no other way to put it. But with my beautiful wife ready to keep the world at bay so I could write, I could no longer chicken out. I had to see this thing through. But what was I going to write?
Stephen King has a great line: “Write what you love to read.” That’s where your passion is. If you’re drawn to a particular genre, there’s a reason for it. You’ll also find that you have a great base of knowledge, especially when it comes to why certain books in the genre thrilled you and others didn’t.
I have always been someone who believes that success leaves clues (thank you, Tony Robbins), so I studied the work of successful authors in my favorite genre—political/international thrillers. What was their pacing like? How long were their chapters? How in-depth is the development of their characters?
All of it helped me to develop a mini-Ph.D. in thrillers. Eventually, though, I had to sit down and write—and here is where most authors hit the wall.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an outliner or someone who is more organic, whether you work on a PC or a Mac or if you’re better writing in the morning or the afternoon/night (I’m the latter on all three counts). All that matters is that you write. You must put words on paper (or on a screen) every day and keep moving forward. Do not look back—not until you have completed your manuscript.
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Writers can drive themselves crazy writing and rewriting an opening line or chapter. We obsess over whether it’s good enough without trusting the innate ability we have inside ourselves. Oftentimes, we can’t seem to get out of our own way and get bogged down with writer’s block.
In one such instance, I went casting about the web for help and discovered the greatest piece of writing advice ever: Give yourself permission to write a crummy first draft. I wish I could remember where I read it so that I could thank the author a million times over. No matter how many books I have written, I still hold that wonderful piece of advice above all else.
There is no greater feeling in the world than completing your first novel. I imagine it is similar to running your first marathon or climbing your first mountain. At that moment, I not only knew that I could do it again, but I also knew I would never arrive on my deathbed wondering what my life would have been like if I had only had the courage to see my dream through.
Many people talk about writing a novel, few ever sit down to begin it, and fewer still will actually complete the task. It isn’t because they lack the time (we all have the same amount of hours in our day); it is because they lack the will.
Writers write because we have no other choice. Writing is something we are called to do from a very young age. If you feel that calling, don’t wait. Sit down and begin. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
And if things get tough, remember: Give yourself permission to write a crummy first draft. I’m sure you’ll discover that your first draft is nowhere near as crummy as you may have thought.
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