It’s been awhile since I served up a heaping chaffing dish of unsolicited advice for writers. Yeah, sure, everyone with a blog and the near sentience of a low-IQ squirrel can offer up wisdom for would-be-writers. But here’s the deal—I have been writing professionally since 1993. That’s (gulp) a quarter freaking century. I have probably published close to a million words if you count the books, the feature stories, reviews, comic book scripts, radio scripts, short stories and essays. And I have the war wounds to show for it. Along the way, I developed carpal tunnel (first 80,000 word book) and went from 20/20 vision to desperately seeking an ocular correction (second book; 140,000 words). But hell, it’s all in the name of the mighty word, right?
I’ve been teaching writing since 2001 and every day people ask for advice. So here are a few random thoughts, in random order, for any random people who might stumble upon this.
It stuns me when young students mutter an apathetic proclamation of youth-induced hubris: “I don’t have time to read.”
Yes you do! I have interviewed so many musicians over the years, amazing creators, and they all listen to music constantly. All of them. And they listen all the time.
Could you imagine a film director who doesn't watch movies?
So read. Read anything. Novels. Short stories. Magazines. Newspapers. Graphic novels. Poetry. Just read. Through osmosis, you will become a far better writer.
2. Write. Write Something Everyday.
Stop it with the excuses and the “I don't have the time” or the “I’m tired” routine or the “I’m not feeling it” banter. Write in the notes app on your phone. Write a poem at a party. Blog. Write well-crafted emails. On good days, write your magnum opus.
Even if it’s just 30-minutes a day. Every time you write, you learn and you grow.
3. Make a List of Words You Love
Anytime you read and land upon a word you like, write it down. Look up the definition and make a note of its usage. Save it. These words will become a part of your lexicon over time. Words are tools. Collect them. Store them away. Build your arsenal.
4. Finish Shit
Young writers start far too many things and finish far too few. This is why so many writers are good at beginnings and awful at endings. They don't practice the follow through. Keep your story starts and musings and come back to them when inspiration strikes. Then finish them
5. Jettison the Self-Doubt
There’s nothing worse than the neurotic, insecure writer. It’s boring and it gets you nowhere. Stop the whining and get your work done. Tell the shadowy nag of self-doubt to go lock itself in the port-a-potty at the gates of Hell.
6. Trust Your Subconscious
When we read and we write everyday, we train our subconscious in the art and craft of writing and storytelling. So trust your instincts. They are almost always right. As Ray Bradbury said, “Your subconscious is smarter than you are, so get out of its way.”
This means trust your first impulse with a piece of writing. Follow it through. Once done, then you can intellectualize, analyze, ponder and obsess.
7. Get an Agent
I have had the most remarkable agent for 17-years. She has always stood by me. She has always given me great advice. Sure, we have disagreed at times, as dynamic creative teams often and should do, but she has been my partner and she has negotiated for me and defended me and allowed me to focus on being creative. Thank you Judith Ehrlich!
Funny story: in 2001 while at the National Book Awards, Ray Bradbury handed my agent a beautiful, leather-bound edition of The Martian Chronicles. Inside, he had written, “GUARD SAM!”
Judith has done just this for almost two decades.
8. Don’t Self-Publish
Okay, there are exceptions here, but generally, don't do it. Self-publishing is a vanity project with poor distribution. How do you get your book into stores and into libraries? You don't. The neophytes all think their Facebook author page will result in a runaway indie-wildfire, and this has happened, but your odds are greater of getting gored by a great white shark.
Truthfully? Let's be honest. Self-published books often look self-published. Big houses don't want them for good reason. The pre-publication outlets (PW, Kirkus, Library Journal) won’t touch them either. Get your book in shape. Get an agent and shop it. Patience, grasshopper.
9. Stay Hungry
Be prepared to work your ass off. Never lose touch with your motivation. Never be above pounding the pavement. Stay humble and WORK.
10. Love it
If you don't love it, don't do it. You’ve got to want this. No one else will want it for you.
Well, maybe your Mom will.