“What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?”
Because I’m asked this question more often than I am any other — including most recently in an interview I did on Friday that should be appearing here in the next week or so — I thought I would put together a list of my 11 best tips for beginning writers. Why eleven? Because this is a very good list. It goes to “11”. If you don’t understand, go see the movie Spinal Tap…. Without further ado:
1. Write. Pretty basic, I know. But you’d be amazed by the number of people who want to be writers, but are waiting to start writing until God-knows-what happens. Write everyday. Even if it’s just 100 or 200 words. Make a habit of it, the way you would an exercise regimen. If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.
2. Read. Also basic, and also something that beginning writers often ignore. We have to be readers as well as writers. Being a reader teaches us what works and what doesn’t in storytelling, in narrative, in character development. The more you read, the better equipped you are to teach yourself how to write.
3. Share. Once you’ve started writing, it’s not enough to keep your work to yourself. You have to get used to showing your work to others, to hearing their responses, to putting your ego and feelings on the line. Writing is not for the faint of heart or the bashful. Show your work to friends and family, to fellow writers, to a crit group — anyone. But show it.
4. Listen. Actually, shut up and listen is probably more apt. You’re going to get feedback from your readers. At least you should hope that you do. When it comes, listen to what they say. Don’t react defensively, don’t explain what you were trying to do, or why they’re wrong in what they’re saying. Just listen and learn. Your book isn’t perfect; it probably never will be. But they can help you make it better.
5. Edit and revise without sentimentality. Kill your literary darlings. You know the ones I mean. The little turns of phrase and details that you just adore and can’t bear to cut. Kill them. Not all of them. There will be some you can keep. But you’re going to need to get rid of some of them in order to get your manuscript where it has to be. Be merciless as you edit. You’re trying to create a coherent story, not a boutique of precious prose constructions.
6. Think of yourself as a parent. Pay attention to the needs of your characters. Listen to them. Give them the freedom to grow, to surprise you, even to take the narrative in directions you didn’t anticipate. But remember to be firm. There are times when you can let them roam, and times when you have to rein them in and exert control. You’re the only person who can know where to draw that line. Assume responsibility for them and use your judgment.
7. Maintain focus and pace. Your narrative needs to flow all the time. When it slows too much it stagnates and you lose readers. Remember Vernor’s Law (named for the great Vernor Vinge, Nebula Award-winning author of science fiction, who first articulated it): You need to keep things moving forward, which means that you need to develop character, further your plot, and explain background pretty much at the same time. Certainly you should always be doing at least two out of the three. When you find yourself doing one of these things to the exclusion of the other two, you’re going too slow. If you’re not doing any of them, you’ve lost your way.
8. Send out your work. No one ever published a story that they didn’t send out for publication. No one is ever going to knock on your door and say, “Excuse me, I’m putting together an anthology, and I was wondering if you happen to have a spare fantasy story lying about,” or “I’m starting up a publishing house and was looking for an unpublished novel to print,” or “I’m opening my own literary agency and was canvassing the neighborhood for aspiring, but incongruously shy writers…” You have to make it happen, which means that you have to send out your stories for consideration. Suck it up and send it out. But….
9. Check the guidelines first. All publishers and agencies have guidelines for submissions. Find them on the web or request them by mail, and follow them to the letter. If they tell you to send three chapters, don’t send them the whole book. Send three chapters. If they say that they only read fantasy, don’t send them Military SF because you’re convinced that your story is so good that you can change their minds about the genre. Follow the GLs. If you don’t your book or story will be rejected. They won’t even bother to read it. Be professional; be smart. Follow the guidelines.
10. Remember that all money flows to the writer. Do not allow your desire to be published to cloud your common sense. There are crooks and charlatans out there waiting to take advantage of your dreams. If you find an agent who wants to charge you money to read your manuscript or who recommends a “Book Doctor” who can make your books publishable for a fee, run away. Money flows to the writer. Yes, an agent will take a percentage of what your earn. That’s fine; that’s a fee taken from money that is otherwise flowing to you. But you do not pay out of pocket. That’s not how this profession works. For more on this, go to Writer Beware.
11. Love it. As we’ve told you before and will tell you again, this is a tough way to make a living. Anyone who tells you different is lying. If you think you want to be a writer because it’s kind of fun and an easy way to make a few bucks, find another line of work. If, on the other hand, you have to write, you have to give voice to those characters in your head clamoring for attention, then by all means, write. But do it for the love. Be ambitious, to be sure. Try to write the bestselling, award-winning novel that burns inside you. But remember that you love it, even when you’re ready to tear out your hair. Telling stories is fun, damn it. Keep that in mind.