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Posts Tagged ‘on writing’

I’ve recently devoted a couple of posts to advice that new authors get which may or may not be worth its weight in gold. After all, everyone agrees that there are no real “rules” in writing–except when there are. (Seriously, no. 3.) What I thought I’d like to do this go-round was offer some tips that I’ve come to value over time. These aren’t rules, so you don’t have to worry about following them. On the other hand, they might make your life easier.

  1. You don’t have to write every day. Stephen King says you do, and he probably knows more than me, but, really, you don’t have to. It would be great if you could, and you should want to, but it simply isn’t practical. We have spouses, kids, work, hobbies, friends, lives… Unless and until you’re writing full-time to support yourself, don’t feel bad if you take a day off. Or the week-end. Burn-out is a real thing. Which brings us to…
  2. If the story isn’t coming to you, walk away from it. Writer’s block is real. Staring at the screen for an hour in mounting angst isn’t going to make the words flow. (Unless that’s your process. I’ve even seen it work a few times.) But while writing should be work, it should not be combat. It’s okay to get up, take a walk, play with the dog…exercise is a great way to free your mind. But don’t feel you’re goldbricking if you take time off to charge your batteries. (See no. 1.)
  3. Do whatever you want with your first draft, because no one will ever see it. (This comes courtesy of Anne Lamott, who wrote the greatest writing book I’ve ever read, Bird by Bird. I know this isn’t a list of rules, but trust me, buy this book.) You don’t show anyone your first draft, because (a) it’s going to suck, and (b) knowing no one will see it gives you the freedom to put down any old garbage, in the interest of getting the story written. You can always edit it away, and who’s going to know? How many drafts did Tolkien take to write Lord of the Rings? Beats me, what difference does it make? You only get to read the final version.
  4. Trust your instincts. If you feel a passage isn’t working while you write it, your reader isn’t going to like it, either. Feel free to trash it. I once had to delete and re-write the first 20,000 words of a novel. It hurt, but I went on to finish the book, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
  5. Don’t expect perfection. You won’t get it. Eventually, you reach the point of diminishing returns. Let someone read your third draft. Submit the story to some markets. See what happens. And get started on a new story. One of the best ways to deal with rejection is to know you already have something even better working.
  6. Don’t get discouraged. You will, of course. It’s inevitable. It can take years (decades!) to sell even a single story. Even when you’ve done that, there’s always another step to climb, another plateau to reach, another market to crack. Take a breath, look behind you, and see how far you’ve come. (Or try re-reading some of your earliest stories, if you dare.)
  7. Defy rejections with persistence. Send that story out again. And again. And again. I’ve sold stories to top-paying venues that had been rejected two dozen times. I sold one story that had been rejected 44 times. “Never give up. Never surrender.”

The classic image of a writer is a loner crouched over his desk in a freezing garret. It may be classic, but it’s not true. You’re not alone. We’re all in this together; we understand what it’s like. And take one last tip from me: It never gets any easier.

But it’s worth it.

ETA: There are no original ideas, and somebody is almost always writing the same story (or blog post) as you, possibly better. Case in point.

#SFWApro

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Having been to my share of “Writing 101” panels at conventions over the years, I have noticed an odd trend, a question from (I assume) aspiring writers that runs something like this: “What are your writing habits?” In other words, how many words a day, do you write longhand first and then transcribe, do you listen to music while you write, do you write in the morning or at night…? I used to be interested in the answer myself, until I finally asked myself, after some repetitions: “Why? What difference does it make?”

Were this asked in general interviews, or autograph sessions, or like situations (which it is), I would understand. For all that there is nothing special about writing–it’s just somebody working at that which he does well, just like teaching math or prosecuting a lawsuit–there is still that air of mystery which pervades all of the arts: Those whose talents do not lie in that direction are in awe of those whose talents do, and who succeed thereat, are treated with respect and sometimes reverence by those who appreciate those talents, i.e., their fans.

That being said, I don’t understand why this question keeps coming from other writers, or even would-be writers. Because how Stephen King keeps his desk,* or when John Scalzi writes, or how many words George RR Martin puts down in a day,** has no effect at all on how successful I am as a writer. No matter how much I know about these people, it’s not going to make me better; the only way to get better is to write. And that’s true if you’re a neopro or pre-published (or Stephen King).

It’s not a crime, of course, to want to emulate your heroes, but you’d get more value emulating the qualities that contribute to their greatness. And even then, everyone is different. Even a common requirement like daily word count varies tremendously among writers.

So in the end, it all comes down to the same thing: Be yourself. Blaze your own trail. Let others ask you your habits if they think it’ll help them.

*Actually, I’ve read King’s On Writing, and I recommend it.

**Yes, I know, the answer is “not enough.” ETA: However, Scalzi just published this column in the LA Times, addressing that same question.

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Recently I was asked for some gift recommendations for a high school graduate who wants to go to college to become a writer. Of course my recommendation should have been “Don’t,” but that’s no more helpful than saying, “You don’t have to go to college to become a writer, better you should bum your way cross-country for a couple of years working odd jobs and meeting people.” (Which was my original plan, actually, but after college.)

So instead I recommended some books that I have on my shelf, books that stand out among all the writing manuals I’ve collected over the years. There are three: Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott; On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King; and Zen in the Art of Writing, Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, by Ray Bradbury. Each is different as each author is different, but each is similar in that the instruction is not limited to writing, but delves deeply into how each writer’s life has informed his writing.

Bird by Bird: I remember two things from this book. First, your first draft can be as awful as you want, because no one is ever going to read it. It can be terrible, atrocious, a pile of dog doo, and no one will ever care, because no one will ever know. Second, don’t try to do everything at once. Build your scenes like you build a wall, brick by brick. This book is essential if you want to learn to write.

(Digression: For basic writing skills, you can’t beat The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White. It’s concerned with non-fiction, critical writing, but the rules are the rules.)

On Writing: I’m not a fan of King’s fiction, but this writing memoir pulls no punches in describing his personal writing journey, and is a valuable look into a writer’s soul. There’s a lot about pulling fiction from your own life, and about discipline.

Zen in the Art of Writing: In my mind, Bradbury should be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare. Not for the same reasons, Shakespeare was a stylist, Bradbury a characterist (to coin a phrase), but both were brilliant. I haven’t read as much Bradbury as I ought, for the simple reason that he makes me want to put down the book and go write like that, and at the same time cry for not being worthy. I can imitate a lot of styles, but his escapes me–because it’s not a style, per se. Bradbury wrote the way he lived, and he makes you want to do the same. You won’t, not like he did, but it’s inspiring to try.

Ask a hundred writers for a writing book, you’ll get a hundred recommendations. But ask a hundred writers for the best writing books, and these three will be very high on those lists. If these books don’t speak to you as a writer, you’d be well advised to go to college and study something else.

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