Recently, I was chatting with some friends at a crafting meetup, and the conversation turned to writing–specifically, what kinds of goals a writer should make to be, well, an “accomplished” writer. Or, in the very least, to finish the thing the writer wants to write, because a writer can’t truly be considered a writer, unless s/he writes something and finishes it. Right?
Anyway, the discussion got me thinking about all of the advice I’ve been given or heard while working on my own craft, and I thought it might be helpful (and fun) to share that advice with others. Most of these nuggets have been passed down by successful published authors, and I take stock in their words, because they are, in fact, successful and published. I think my favorite insights on writing come from my favorite author, Neil Gaiman, who has a whole FAQ on advice to authors on his own blog. I’ll paraphrase some of his key ideas, the ones that worked the best for me.
1. Write. This seems obvious, but how many people in this world have said, “I’d love to write a book,” only to have nothing come of that ambition? They get busy with their lives, or they find something else they’d rather be doing, or they get nervous about the actual prospect of writing. I know, because I was one of those people for a long time. Writing’s hard. The idea of staring at a blank page and filling it with words that may be read by other people is a difficult notion to wrap one’s head around. And not only the putting-the-words-on-the page part, but also the putting-the-words-on-the-page-so-they-make-sense-and-are-thrilling-and-create-a-story-that-people-will-want-to-read part. That’s what makes writing hard and intimidating. The letting other people into your head. But if you want to be a writer, you have to write, just like every singer has to open his/her mouth at some point, every dancer has to get his/her butt on the dance floor at some point, every painter has to pull a paintbrush through paint and stick it on a canvas at some point. A writer has to write.
2. Finish what you write. Again, this seems painfully obvious, but in order to be a writer/author, you really need to finish what you started. The best way to do this is to write every day for a set amount of time, even if it’s just for an hour. I read somewhere that if you wrote a page every day for a year, you’d have a novel by the end of December, because that’s 365 pages right there (366 if it’s a leap year). Turn writing into a job, your work. It will definitely begin to feel like work if you’re doing it every day. You’ll start taking it seriously, and hopefully, the people in your life will see that and begin to take your work seriously, too.
3. Put it away for a bit, and go back to it with fresh eyes. Once you’re finished, write something else (or do something else) for a while, then go back to what you wrote before. If it’s been a significant amount of time–even a couple of weeks–your writing will look different to you, like you’re reading it for the first time. Then, you can go into revision mode and pick it apart. Sometimes, that distance will help make you a better writer. Sometimes, you’ll be a better writer, and you’ll come back to that story you wrote and make it better. Writing groups can also help with this. It takes courage to ask for someone else’s perspective, but those other eyes and brains can be very valuable. A writing group (or a group of beta readers) can tell you what works and what doesn’t work, and they can sometimes help you fix the problems in your writing. I found having the support of my writing group made me a better writer–and gave me the confidence to keep writing.
4. Let it go. This one isn’t on Neil’s FAQ, but it is listed on the “Advice to Writers” website as one of his “Eight Good Writing Practices”. This is also one piece of advice that I had a difficult time doing with The Golden Orb. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to reach perfection. You can fix your writing as much as you can, as much as you want, but at some point, you just have to move on to the next story. I spent a long time on my first self-published book, revising and reworking it and struggling over every comma, but eventually, I just had to put it out there, warts and all. The tweaking is done. It’s time to write something new.
5. Believe in yourself. Keep writing. Another hard piece of advice for me to follow, and I still have days when I feel like a hack making a mess of the English language. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to my first National Novel Writing Month novel. I might not even rework the second one, which was in the middle of a major revision when I decided to put it aside and start over with something new. Both times, I wondered if I really had it in me to keep writing, if it was something I thought was worth my time doing. The next year, I wrote The Golden Orb and finally found a little confidence in my abilities. This is one piece of advice that I’ll have to keep in the back of my mind every time I face a new blank page. Just. Keep. Writing.
There’s more advice than there are stars in the sky, most likely, but I feel these are the top five every writer should know. For a little daily pick-me-up, I started following the “Advice to Writers” Twitter account, which is chock full of helpful nuggets and insights for all kinds of writers given by all kinds of writers. I’ve also received a wealth of knowledge from a podcast called “Writing Excuses”. Brandon Sanderson and three other published authors delve into the art and craft of writing, sometimes speaking with special guests, sometimes discussing their own experiences with getting published, writing their particular genre, and how to write in general. It’s a great podcast, and don’t let their tagline fool you. They start every show with “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart,” but they are actually brilliant authors and teachers of their craft.
I hope these little words of encouragement help, especially if you think you might want to become a writer someday. If you are a writer, what advice would you give someone just starting out?
Thanks for reading.
Amanda Cook is a stay-at-home-mom and writer living in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. When she’s not caring for her family or obsessing over punctuation, she can be found helping out at her sons' school, catching up on her Goodreads list, playing (and sometimes winning, but mostly losing) board games with her friends, crying over her favorite PBS programs, or sewing yet another costume for the local gaming/pop culture convention, where she’ll probably lose at even more board games.
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