By Daniel Ford
Summer is over. Fall isn’t just approaching, it’s here. The sunshine doesn’t hang around as long as it used to, and warm socks and boots have replaced shorts and flip-flops.
If you’re not careful, or have been listening to Robert Masiello’s autumn playlist, things could get depressing in a hurry. That’s why I compiled 15 tips from our favorite authors on how to be a better writer. These should keep your creative tank full well into the winter months.
If you have any advice of your own, feel free to comment below or tweet us @WritersBone. Keep writing!
The advice that I keep in mind as I’m working comes from Alice Munro: “The only choice I make is to write about what interests me in a way that interests me, that gives me pleasure.” Staying faithful to your interests is really liberating, and allows you to takes risks in your work. Plus, if you’re interested in the story you’re telling, that energy and urgency is bound to come through, and it’s far more likely your reader will also be interested.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of good advice from some brilliant writers. But I never really learned that much from all the kind, well-meant suggestions and clever tips. They didn’t stick with me. Just about everything I learned about writing a good book I learned from reading lots and lots of good books. I studied the novels I loved. I read them over and over, sometimes with a pen and highlighter, taking notes. Once, I spent a month rewriting the first five chapters of Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce, just to get the feel of his sentences.
Perseverance is all, and whenever you’re feeling disheartened, read On Writing by Stephen King. He knows of what he speaks, and he’s really funny, too.
Write like you’re part of a continuum of novelists. Know the history and highlights of your genre and your settings inside and out. Novelists should be like painters, building and riffing on traditions that go back centuries. Also read a lot of poetry, and poetic prose, since you are what you read. And for god’s sake, have a sense of humor.
Mainly, be wary of other author’s advice, especially those that make their money solely by giving it. There really are no rules. I’m not saying don’t ask questions of the writers you admire (I did) or that all “how-to” books are snake oil. Studying your profession and using the bits and pieces that make sense to you are essential, but any book, seminar, or pay-to-play contest that promises the moon can be downright predatory. Only three things are going to help you produce art for a living. Producing art, letting people see it, and doing both of those things with fearless tenacity. And none of that will cost you a dime.
I wish I had something better than “sit down and write,” but I really don’t. Write, and rewrite, and don’t be too hard on yourself if something isn’t working. There’s a huge learning curve, and the only way to get through it is to keep your head down and work for longer than seems sane or reasonable. The good news is that if you have a writer’s heart, the above will seem like a fun challenge rather than a chore!
Work as hard as you can and forgive yourself when you’re either not working as much as you think you should or producing work that you think is worth showing anybody. It’s a hard life in the first place and as productive as it can be to censure oneself, and as useful as it sometimes can be to feel bad about things like a lack of productivity, it can also be damaging, because there may be a reason you aren’t writing much at a certain time. Maybe you’re soaking up some of life, reading more, internalizing unconsciously the rhythms of the language, or learning about human beings and understanding people as characters. I think that if one chooses the writing life, there is so much failure, difficulty, and seemingly fruitless striving in it that the kinder one can be to oneself at any point in the process, the better.
Build your network before you need it. Get your website up and running months before pub date. Secure your book’s Twitter handle and start building that audience. I recommend this even if you plan on responding from your personal handle. Having your book’s own Twitter handle is like giving it a home. All the conversations around it come launch should be amplified through that handle.
Find a master and learn from him or her, and read deep and widely to find those in the past who can tutor you in the present.
Write every day. Write when you are not inspired. Write when you only have five minutes. Write while your daughter is building a farm for bunnies around your ankles. Just write.
Be kind! That includes being kind to yourself. That berating voice—“I’m not writing enough,” “I’m not good enough,” etc., etc.—doesn’t aid the work. It doesn’t make you a better person or writer. As soon as I gave myself permission to write less or to write badly, I started writing more, and with more freedom. You have to show up at the desk to get the work done, of course, but once you are there, it won’t do you any harm, no matter how cheesy, to take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re awesome.
Get an editor before you do anything casually like self-publish a book or go hunting for an agent. The more professional you can appear, literally on paper, the more seriously your work will be considered.
I have a handful of reader friends whose advice I rely on heavily, even when it’s tough love time. I think it’s important to find those writerly mates who have your back, as you have theirs.
I’ve said this elsewhere, but I think it’s an important paradox to wrap your brain around: as a writer, you need both the humility to accept criticism and the dumb confidence to withstand rejection. Learn to be grateful for thoughtful criticism, not afraid of it, because that will shape your work more than any compliment. Also, people tend to romanticize publication, to see it as a sign that your work is at last “good enough.” In an age of Amazon and Goodreads and book blogs, however, publishing means you are opening yourself up to more rejection than ever before. At the end of the day, the writing has to be for you.
Persistence. That’s it. That’s the difference between people who make it and people who don’t. I wrote for a very, very long time before I ever got to anything close to something publishable. Some of the earliest writing I had was on notebook paper and I kept it in shoeboxes, and my mother called one day to see what I wanted to do with it. There was probably a thousand pages and I told her to take all of it out into the yard and set it on fire in the burn barrel. A lot of people can’t understand that, but it was the fact that I knew the writing wasn’t any good. It was important. I had to get it out of me. But once it was out, there was no other use for it. I’m probably well into 2,000 pages now and I’m still not anything close to what I would consider good. Whereas that might seem futile to some, it’s that futility that makes it so beautiful. It’s knowing that I’ll do this the rest of my life and never get it just right that makes it worthwhile. You know, Faulkner said if the artist were ever able to get it perfect, “nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide,” and I think that’s true. There just wouldn’t be anything else to do with your life.
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