Writing Advice for the Not-So-Timid
A few days ago I was getting another round of work done on my tattoo, and the shop artists were discussing what it meant to be an artist. One of them said something that has stuck with me, and pretty much inspired the majority of this page: “Artists give themselves deadlines and deliver–we need to stress out about it because it’s our job. If you’re not pushing yourself every day, you’re just doodling for fun.”
I should warn you: this isn’t a post to pat you on the head. This about as real as I can be when it comes to the publishing world (and the arts world in general). But if you want my honest advice for getting published or finishing a book or whatever, read on.
If you want to call yourself a writer, you have to put in the time. Otherwise, shut up.
Let me put this as simply as possible: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. There will never be a magical moment of free time to sit at your computer and type. You will never have constant inspiration. There will always be external factors–work, social life, freak acts of nature. The fact is, life will always try to get in the way. It’s really good at it. If you want to write a book, you damn well put on your grownup panties and write a book. You make it a priority. I didn’t have time to write my first book. Or my second. Or my third or fourth or fifth. I made time. I made lots of time. I wrote in the morning and worked at night, gave up social events and fancy dinners and late night benders. When people say they’re envious of the fact I wrote so many books, I get pissed off. Because they’re assuming the clouds magically parted and I just had hours and hours to spend happily writing away. They’re ignoring the amount of work. No one tells a surgeon I’m so jealous of the fact that you’re a surgeon because we know that they put in the time and the sweat and the money they invested to get there. It’s the exact same thing for writing or any other art. If you want to be an artist, you make the sacrifice and you dedicate yourself to being an artist. There is no shortcut. Ever.
The first thing you write should not be your last.
I spent about six years writing my first book. I started writing it in high school and kept rewriting and revising until I’d beaten that dead horse more times than is healthy. I workshopped and queried and pitched. It never sold. Looking back, I’m grateful–because that book, time-consuming and enlightening though it was–was crap.
Your first book is your chance to experiment. This is you finding your voice and style. This is you cutting your teeth on the artform. Your first book may sell. It may not. If you’ve spent five years hammering at a story and it’s just not going anywhere, maybe you need to write a new one. Agents and editors aren’t looking for a one-hit-wonder. They’re looking for clients who want to make a career out of writing. And that career means more books in more worlds.
So, rather than hanging all your hopes on one book, why not ease the pressure? Start another book. Know that pretty much everyone in the industry had to write at least one book that never saw the light of day. Sometimes they wrote dozens.
Don’t give up.
Go read that last paragraph. Most authors have written a handful of books that can’t sell. That’s how they got better. They learned what worked and what didn’t, they found how to avoid cliches (or use them to their advantage). If you want to call yourself a writer, don’t throw in the towel when things don’t go your way. If you can’t wallpaper you room with rejections or aborted first drafts, you’re not putting in the time.
It gets easier.
I said before that constant inspiration doesn’t exist. It’s true. Some days you will wake up and you’ll stare at a page and you’ll have nothing. It doesn’t matter. Write anyway, even if it’s crap. (They made the ‘delete’ key for a reason.)
The fact is, writing is exactly like running or any other physical activity. The first few times hurt like hell. Inspiration doesn’t come. Words fail you. Then, with time and patience and dedication, your writing muscles start kicking in, the routine gets established, and suddenly writing starts happening a little more naturally. Remember: all athletes have bad days. Some days (or weeks), training just doesn’t happen. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. You dedicate yourself to pushing past it. You power through. Even ten minutes a day is better than nothing.
If you don’t use it, you lose it. Be it wordsmithing or a sexy six-pack, the truth is the same.
You need help.
Writing is solitary. Take it from someone who knows: some days, waking up and thinking “today I’m going to sit in front of my computer all day and then I’m going to go to bed” can be painful. Find comrades-in-arms. Write outside of your room or office. Find other writers (we’re everywhere) you can talk and drink with. Even if you aren’t chatting business, being with people who understand the conversations you have with fictional characters is good for the soul. Although not necessarily good for the liver.
Criticism sucks. But it will make your book less sucky
Your manuscript needs other eyes to make it it’s best. This is your baby–of course you think it’s perfect. The rest of the world, however, probably sees a poopy, slobbering mess. Find a workshop to critique your work; make sure it’s people whose advice you trust. Go to conferences. Take classes.
I did a graduate program in creative writing. The most helpful aspect was the workshop. In critiquing other people’s work, I learned how to edit as I wrote. In having my own pieces torn apart, I learned my shortfalls and strengths as a writer. This allowed me to strengthen and flaunt appropriately.
Do something else. For the love of sanity, do something else.
No, no, I’m not saying you should give up writing. I’m saying you should have an anchor. A hobby. It’s so easy to get lost in words or consumed in the pitching/rejection/pitching-again process. Go take a walk. Adopt a plant. Watch really weird foreign films and make fun of them the entire time.
Julia Cameron mentions in “The Artist’s Way” (which I recommend anyone reads) that ideas are like fish in a well. Every time we pick a new one out, we need to refill the well before it goes barren. We fill the well by living. Actually living. Sure, reading is important (see below) but you need to actually live a story if you want to know how to tell one.
In my opinion, at least. I mean, you’re alive. You might as well feel alive.
Don’t pigeonhole. You’re bigger than that.
Don’t focus entirely on one genre. Write sci-fi? Read Rumi. Write non-fic? Pick up Harry Potter. And then try emulating the style.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive. But the only way to really find your voice is to try out other voices. I owe most of my style to the literary fiction and poetry I was forced to read in my grad and undergrad programs. Each genre has a different strength that helps define it–some are language based, character based, plot based. Some focus on a linear narrative, others jump around.
Read it all. Try it all. Your voice will be a happy median somewhere in between them.
Take up this mantle and you’ll never be satisfied. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Being an artist is hard. It’s a long road filled with potholes and toll collectors and shitty detours. You’ll never get to the end. There is always room for improvement. There will always be critics saying you should stop doing this and pick up knitting instead.
Don’t stop pushing yourself. Don’t settle for contentment in your craft.
The best advice I ever got was this: “If what you’re writing doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t be writing it.”
You’re not going to grow otherwise.
Research. Refine. Don’t jump the gun.
Research your genre. Research how to pitch. If you’ve written a book, don’t blow it with an agent because you misspelled their name on your query. Know their guidelines. And if you want a bit more info about how to approach an agent/editor, either in person or online, read my Etiquette Tips.
Success isn’t signing a deal. Success is a state of being.
I want to end this on something positive. But I think this is probably the biggest mindfuck of them all.
Success isn’t getting a big book deal. Because, as you’ve probably gleaned, the process of writing and improving never ends. There will be highs and lows. You’ll make and lose money. You’ll sell books and shelve others.
Success is the process. Success is waking up and writing even when it hurts. Success is the final period on the final page of your first and second and twentieth book.
Success is committing even in the face of failure.
Success is a process. It’s there every step of the way.