Advice to would-be writers
All of the good advice that I know has been said already, hundreds of times, and published in a number of how-to-write books. Still, I’ve recently been asked to give talks at a local writer’s group, and it’s made me think about what advice I would give in general at this point, looking back over almost 40 years of writing and 35 years of being published. I've said a lot of this before, I'm sure.
1) Only take advice from the successful. It’s not that the unsuccessful might not have read a few good bits of advice and be able to parrot them, but why take the chance they got it right? (I laugh whenever I think of an amateur writer who was so sure he knew the “rule” – which isn’t one – about avoiding adverbs, and then circled every word that ended in -ly, like “family” and “only,” which are not adverbs at all!) There are plenty of how-to books out there by the likes of King, Evanovich, and so on. Go read those.
1-a) you could argue that I’m not successful, and I wouldn’t argue against you. I’m more successful by counting numbers of readers than most writers I’ve met over the years, but no, I’m not King or Evanovich or anywhere near that. So take this one bit of advice from me, and then go listen to them for the rest of your advice. It’s what I did as a young writer. I read every how-to book in the library and then started buying more. For self-publishing, read how-to books on the business by people who have books in the top 500 pretty often. You can safely ignore the rest of us.
2) John MacDonald, the mystery writer, is the first person credited with saying “you have to write a million practice words before you can write a good book.” He’s right. Don’t fret and revise a whole lot at first. Write a book, finish it, put it aside (no, sorry, you’re not likely the exception and it’ll probably suck, so set it aside for now), and write the next. (No, sorry again, writing plans and character sheets and drawing maps is not “writing a book.” That’s delaying the writing of a book. Write scenes. Action. Dialog.) After you’ve finished four or five books, start revising/rewriting the best one or two. Maybe one about then will be good enough to sell (to an agent, publisher, or if self-published to an audience.) After a few finished second drafts, go back and look at that first book. Ouch, it sucks, doesn’t it? Glad you didn’t submit or publish it? I bet you are. :D
3) Pay for a couple of workshops with good writers whose work you know and admire, and who have a good reputation as clear teachers, and get feedback from them on your best work.
3-a) Amateur critique groups are of limited use. Where you can learn by joining them is how to analyze how others’ stories went wrong. That’ll teach you not to do that. What you hear about your own story/chapters isn’t going to be all that useful (refer back to point 1). I’d never stay in one for more than six months. You’ll learn what you need to know by then. A writers’ support group is another matter, where you trade information on markets, report how much you’ve written this past week, and cheer on others’ successes. That’s fine. Just don’t fall into the critique trap. Let editors and audiences be your critiquers—they’ll like it, or they won’t. You’ll earn money, or you won’t. That’s the best form of critique.
4) Once you’ve learned to write fairly well with your four or five books, you need to learn the business of writing. It’s a whole ‘nother topic than the craft of writing, but you need to understand it too. There are protocols. There are tax matters to consider. Some advertising works and some is a waste of money. There are ways to be cheated by the unscrupulous. You need to grasp all this as well.
5) You need to read—a lot. Fiction of the last half-century, in and out of your genre, award winners and best-sellers. The point isn’t to say “I can do better than this” (if you haven’t done better, you’re only embarrassing yourself by saying that), but to say “What did this writer do right, and how can I learn from that?” Or: “Why did the reading audience or this prize committee enjoy this one, even if I didn’t?” Also read non-fiction, articles and books, so you actually know a few new things every month. And listen to people, so you know people and how they tick. Listen to how they speak. Eavesdrop on yelling arguments in public and on tight, angry, quiet ones in the corner of the restaurant. Ask people questions: most folks love talking about themselves. I enjoy asking older people questions about their past. “Were you wild as a teenager?” “You’ve been married for fifty years, but who is the one who got away?” I asked a couple kids this year, whom I was doing an art project with, “who is the best artist in your class, and why?” I hear the greatest stories, and I love when people I had believed I knew surprised me with a new view of them. All of that goes into the mix for my fiction.
So, to sum up, write a lot, read a lot, work hard.
How do you do all that and work a day job? It’s challenging. Add children under 5, and it’s nigh-on impossible. You might need to delay a serious try at writing until the kids are in school. Or even until your retirement. You have to sacrifice other activities to have the time to write because the reality for us all is “there are only so many waking hours in the day.” You need to be working sometimes when peers are having fun. If you have a partner, that person needs to be supportive and understanding that half of your weekends will be taken up with writing. A writing friend of mine has saved some hours in her life by never dusting: “Just gets dusty again anyway.” I admire her choice. The tough-love truth is: it takes many hours to get competent and more hours to learn the business of writing. You’ll eventually learn that grandiose dreams of success seldom come true as you watch peers fall away, and you may learn that a lifetime of writing seldom averages out to more than minimum wage because there are a number of $0 years at the start even if there is success later. But if you persevere, you may do okay at it. One in a million who say “I want to be a writer” end up like King or Connelly or Quinn or GRRM. Most don’t reach those heights.
And this is why you have to love the craft of it, the making up of characters and their stories, for its own sake. For years—and maybe for a lifetime—that’s the only reward of it. If you find no joy in the doing, don’t do it. Find something you do love to do—and go do that instead.
And that’s pretty much the best general advice I have. For specific craft advice, like on point of view and character development and thrilling action scenes, better-selling and more respected authors than I have given that. Go listen to them, not to me.