Feb 23, 2007

Learning to Play the Pen . . . Or . . . Eating an Elephant (or Writing a Novel) one 15-minute bite at a time!

by Heather Horrocks

I wrote this several years ago for anyone who has a dream to write. I've gone back through and tweaked it and I hope you enjoy.

If you’re reading this, chances are high you want to write. Why? To become famous? To bank the big bucks? To be recognized for excellence in writing? To have your dream validated (I am a writer)? Behind these myriad reasons to write hide the stories within us that will no longer be contained, but insist on being written and shared. Writing these stories is what I call learning to play the instrument of writing. That instrument is, of course, The Pen.

If you’ve played a musical instrument before, you know you have to learn the basics, and then practice, practice, practice. The Pen is no different. We cannot pick up The Pen and be great the first time we try to make music. Why do we think we can? Because we’ve been listening to others play for years? Why do we think we can bypass years of practice? No one at Carnegie Hall is going to invite us to play the Pen after two weeks of practice. Really.

As a child, I was forced to practice the piano by my cruel and unfeeling parents. I did so every day (well, almost). Grudgingly. Haltingly. Pathetically. Until the day when I made the amazing discovery that I could play songs. In the instant I began to make music, practice turned from drudgery to joy. Now I’m glad my parents insisted I learn and I am asked to play for all sorts of occasions.

So here you sit. You pick up the Pen and say, “Hmm, interesting instrument. I think I’ll learn to play.” You learn the basics, things like show-don’t-tell, strong active-not-passive verbs, definite scenes and sequels, and how to invite your characters to introduce themselves to you. These are the scales on the Pen. Are you familiar with them? Have you learned the scales? Practiced them, day after day, page after page, year after year? (And the years spent thinking about playing but not actually practicing don’t count.)

If you need to, learn the basics from a Pen-Master. Find other Pen-Players and associate with them, for Pen-Playing is a lonely, demoralizing task. You might need help keeping up your spirits when your soul aches to play Mozart, but your Penmanship still struggles with Chop Sticks.

Yet if you are a writer, you must keep going. Why? Because you love the sound of the Pen. You love the emotion a well-played Pen can evoke, the hearts it can touch, the insights it can provide, the lives it can change. Truly the Pen is mightier than the sword, but only a well-played Pen in the hands of a true Pen-Master.

If you love the Pen, don’t be afraid--pick it up! Reach for your dreams! Do it! Lift your Pen and learn to play. Thundering chords. Crescendos. Soft haunting melodies. Light-hearted sounds of laughter. Become a Master of the Pen and your writer’s soul will rejoice.

Forget your excuses for why you can’t “find” the time to play the Pen. “It would be so selfish.” “I have a family.” “I have a job.” “I need my sleep.” Blah, blah, yadda, yadda. Pen-masters are creative, so create time to play. Create it from nothing if you have to. No one else will do it for you. In fact, others might try to keep you from it. Make whatever compromises you need to make--and keep practicing the Pen. All you need is a spare fifteen minutes a day!

And then, one magical day, you will lift your Pen to practice your scales yet again and, instead, find yourself playing the song in your heart--Mozart in place of Chop Sticks. Soaring runs, intricate fingerings, delicate pauses. You find you can play anything you desire. Others will gasp in amazement as you touch their hearts and souls and clap wildly after your performance. All of those moments of practice will be forgotten as you play with beauty and grace, power and precision, heart and soul. This is the day for which you spent all those hours preparing. So you could make lyrical, haunting, beautiful music that will never be forgotten.

One of my favorites quotes is this: “Destiny is a matter of choice, not of chance.” Choose wisely. If you spend just 15 minutes a day writing, five days a week, you will create musical miracles. Practice, Pen-Apprentices, practice. And, when you’re ready, I’ll come to Carnegie Hall to hear you play your Pen and marvel at the virtuosity of the Pen-Master you have become.

© 1998 Heather Horrocks You have permission to reproduce and forward this piece of writing as long as this copyright notice is attached, the text is not changed, and it is used for personal use only. Heather writes three types of novels ... Laugh yourself to death with the cozy mysteries of Heather Cassidy ... Fall in love with the romantic comedies of Heather Pyper ... Enlighten your life with the inspirational books by Heather Horrocks. Visit http://www.heatherhorrocks.com/ to see more.


  1. Great ideas, Heather, and a great analogy. Made all the more apt because of my aspirations as a baritone player. I began at age 63. I know the 15 minutes a day will make me better. I've got to find that time! Too much time spent on my ample posterior in front of the computer.

  2. Beautifully written. Do playing keyboards work as well. I hate my handwriting and I can type oh so much faster than I can scratch out a tune on my pen.


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