If you’re starting that novel or planning a tech book, here’s some advice on getting to “Hello Page!”
“I’ve had an idea for a book for a long time but have always been hesitant to start it because I don’t know the best tools and format to use,” says a writer in the PragProWriMo forum. In the Pragmatic Authors Google group, another author writes, “As I’m just getting started, I find it a lot easier to maintain my writing flow by just writing using TextEdit and not thinking at all about markup. However—”
Stop right there. You had it right. If not thinking about markup helps you maintain the flow of your writing, then don’t think about markup. Not yet. And don’t let thinking about what tools and format to use get in the way of getting the words down.
Here at the start, you should just get words on paper (virtual or actual) as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about formatting or spelling or punctuation. Those first words on paper are your “Hello Page!” achievement, the first proof that you have something to say and that you can get it out of your head and onto the page. That’s a bigger deal than you realize. You’ll be proving that to yourself again and again as you write. Here at the start, it doesn’t matter if your “Hello Page!” is a mess.
But this is just one case of a broader principle. Not only at the start, but whenever the words are flowing, let nothing get in their way. When the words are coming easily and you feel inspired, that is writing. Don’t let editing slip in. Writing is linear, editing is fractal. In writing, you keep moving forward, in editing you keep spiralling deeper. Do as Susannah Pfalzer says: Write first. Edit later.
It’s not quite that simple, of course. I said if not thinking about markup helps you maintain the flow of your writing, then you shouldn’t think about markup. But markup is a tool, like a typewriter or a word processor. It’s perfectly possible to be so comfortable with markup that you enter the codes automatically and rapidly, and they don’t slow you down. The only rule here is, whenever the words are flowing, let nothing get in their way.
Letting nothing get in the way doesn’t mean you have to write in a padded room. Unless you do. Virginia Woolf argued that one needs a room of one’s own in A Room of One’s Own, but Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on the road, at least the raw material, in a series of notebooks during a series of road trips. World War II Journalist Ernie Pyle lugged his battered Corona typewriter from Anzio to Okinawa, making notes for “With the Air Force” while actually with the Air Force. I’d love to be able to claim that Beverly D’Onofrio wrote Riding in Cars with Boys riding in cars with boys, but at least I’m pretty sure that’s where she did her research. On the other hand, Thomas Hardy wrote Far from the Madding Crowd far from the madding crowd, in the sleepy 70-year-old Dorset cottage where he was born. You have to find your place.
What you’re looking for is that place where the words flow out of your head as fast as you can get them down, and nobody else can tell you how to get there. “There” either in the sense of a physical place, or in the sense of emotional presence. Did Truman Capote write In Cold Blood in cold blood, or with drops of sweat falling from his brow to smear the words as he typed them? It doesn’t matter; what matters is where you have to be, physically and mentally and emotionally, to maximize the chance for the words to start flowing.
Wherever that place is, that is where your voice asserts itself. That is where you achieve flow. And flow, what’s that, exactly? How do you know when you’ve got it? Well, it’s more about process than result, more a matter of being in it than of achieving it, but it has a lot to do with sound. And with one thought leading inevitably to the next. It’s letting the words come out as they please, which is why this is where your own voice comes through, and it’s why what you write has a naturalness to its cadences. It’s—ah, but you’ll know it when you’re in it.
Maximizing your time in that place is pretty much what our PragProWriMo project is all about. It kicked off at the start of the month, but there’s no reason you can’t jump in—well, now. The forum is a good place to start.
Nothing in this is intended to suggest that you shouldn’t plan and outline up front. You should, but that’s another matter entirely. Nor that it isn’t necessary to edit later. It is. Sometimes a piece of published writing—say, Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s autobiography—reads as though it was written in one inspired burst of flow. It probably wasn’t, but that’s not what I’m talking about anyway. All I’m saying is, when you get into that writing flow, you should go with it.
Oh, there’s another reason you shouldn’t edit your work during this early brainstorming phase. It’s not just that you’re writing so well, it’s also that you’d be editing so poorly. You don’t know enough about the work yet to edit it. You’d only mess it up.
But maybe you should be writing. If so, don’t let me get in your way.
Michael Swaine is the editor of PragPub and the co-author of Fire in the Valley. He is currently writing a mystery novel.