Last June, I decided to finally get started on a bucket-list item by learning how to play the guitar. I’m a songwriter, and I really wanted to be able to play my songs, not to mention all the great guitar songs out there by other artists (yeah, I’ll admit it, I’m a John Denver fan). I’d bought a guitar a few years ago, played for a couple of months, then quit. This time I was determined to stick it out. But if you’ve ever tried to learn an instrument, you’ll feel my pain when I say it’s hard! After eight months, I’m nowhere near ready for public consumption. As I was strumming away last night, and hitting some really bad chords, I realized that learning to play the guitar has a lot in common with writing a book and trying to improve as a writer. Here are some takeaways from my attempt to play well enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed for someone other than my husband to hear.
You have to be willing to suck: As you can tell by my comments above, I’ve got this one down. I definitely suck right now. I practice every day and yet my progress is slow. While I will admit to getting frustrated at times, I understand that I can’t skip the sucking phase. If I’m not willing to sound awful, I’ll just have to put the guitar away and give up. The same is true when you’re writing a book. If it’s your first, there’s going to be a steep learning curve. You not only have to come up with a great idea and write beautiful sentences, but you have to begin to master point of view, pacing, and characterization. Chances are your first draft isn’t going to be fabulous. But you can’t get to your second draft, or your second book, without getting that first draft down. So accept that it won’t be great, think of it as a learning process, and keep going. You won’t suck forever.
You have to be committed: Believe me, there are plenty of days that I’d rather sit down and read a book than practice. On really frustrating days, I wonder if I’m just not cut out to play the guitar and should quit. (My young-adult son, a guitar player himself, encouraged me by telling me it would eventually come, but it might take a long time because old people don’t learn as well. Thanks, sweetie!) But when I started playing this time, I committed to playing for a year before deciding whether to continue. I wanted to give myself time to get past the beginner phase before making any decisions. Finishing your novel probably feels equally daunting and, if you’re not committed, it will be easy to put it aside. Can you commit to finishing your first draft before you decide if the book has merit? Or maybe you can commit to writing for a certain amount of time every day or to scratching out a certain number of words a week. Find something you can commit to that will force you to put words on the page, even when you don’t feel like it.
You have to keep finding joy in the process: My guitar instructor gives me things to work on each week, and I dutifully practice those things between lessons. But sometimes I also find an easy song that I like and play it just for fun. Playing it just because I want to and not because I have to reinjects joy into my practice time. I’m still learning, but it doesn’t feel like practice. There are several ways you could do this with your writing. If you want to keep working on your book but you’re low on enthusiasm for whatever you should be doing next, do something that you really enjoy. Is writing emotion your strong suit? Tweak that scene back in chapter three where your protagonist argues with her husband. Excited by a scene that doesn’t come up for a few chapters? Write it now! You can always tweak it later, if you need to. If you want to take a break from writing your book, write some poetry or a song lyric or whatever else you love writing. Consider using writing prompts so you can have fun writing without having to struggle for an idea. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure it’s fun.
You might need help: The last time I tried to learn how to play the guitar, I taught myself. This time, I got a guitar instructor. Knowing that I have to play for him at my next lesson really motivates me to practice so I don’t embarrass myself! He also makes sure my form is right so I don’t ingrain bad habits. And he gives me ideas for how to improve when I feel stuck. In your writing life, you could get some outside help too. Get a writing coach to keep you motivated and on task. Get beta readers to let you know how the book is hitting readers at this stage. Hire an editor to push you deeper on storytelling elements or to fine-tune the words on the page. The opinion of someone who can look at your book objectively could be just what you need to take your book to the next level.
Learning to play guitar is difficult. So is writing a novel. But if you have patience with yourself, commit to doing what it takes, and enjoy the process as you improve, the sound of those future positive reviews will be music to your ears.