By Daniel Ford
We’ve been spoiled the last couple of months at Writer’s Bone with the amount of insightful advice we’ve received from our favorite authors.
I needed an extra jolt of inspiration on this rainy, cold afternoon in the Northeast, so I collected all of the tips, suggestions, and inspiration offered by the authors we’ve interviewed recently.
Feel free to add your own advice in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
Don’t be afraid of sucking. There will be plenty of time for that fretting later. Get your first draft done, and don’t look back until you type “the end.” Make it as good as you can, of course, and repair and adjust as needed along the way, but don’t despair over it. Once you get a first draft finished, you have something to fix. Until then, you have nothing.
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.
Keep at it until it starts coming more easily; be open to feedback but know when the feedback is useful and when it’s not; focus on exactly what you want the reader to take away from your story (or novel); learn to switch sides of the table when you’re editing–become the reader, in other words; try not to get too hung up on how the marketplace is treating you–this is more for writers with a book out in the world; and, lastly, always stay true to yourself as a writer, how you define that.
Develop your craft and find your own style. Read books that are not sports-related. Read The New Yorker. If you turn a phrase or offer an insight that seems familiar, consider the risk of plagiarism and Google it before claiming it. Avoid clichés. Don’t cross the line between poignant and maudlin. Don’t expect to make a living doing it. Whether you write for an audience of two million or two, respect them and your name enough to offer your best. Respect every athlete, especially fighters, because what they do is exceedingly dangerous and difficult and chances are excellent that you couldn’t do it.
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.
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.
Simple. Write/edit. Write/edit some more. Then, write/edit again. And, keep in mind that you’re writing can always be better. It’s definitely a learning process, and it never ends.
I think a lot of first-time writers believe what they’ve written is really, really good when in reality, it just might be really, really bad. With The Gemini Effect, I learned a ton while I went through the developmental and copy edit process with my editor at Amazon’s 47North, Jason Kirk. I have a post on my blog that describes in detail how Jason and I worked together to take my self-published novel The Mengele Effect—which had just won a nation-wide contest, but still needed some hefty tweaking—and transform it into what it was striving to become; The Gemini Effect.
Two other ways I improved my writing skills were to join a local writers’ group (The Nebraska Writers Workshop), and to try my hand at writing flash fiction.
Joining a writers group was really eye-opening; I was exposed to a number of different genes and skill levels, and found it very rewarding. The most important thing about joining a writers group is to be thick-skinned—be able to accept criticism, and use it to improve your skills. I’ll touch on that again a little later.
Writing flash fiction paid quite a few dividends. While perusing the titles at Smashwords.com, I ran across a short, flash fiction horror story. I read it, enjoyed it, and did a little research. Flash fiction—stories with word counts anywhere between 300 and 1,000 words—seemed like a perfect way for me to put pen (fingers) to paper (keyboard) and give birth to some of the ideas bouncing around inside my misshapen noggin. They wanted out, so I obliged. My initial venture into flash fiction was titled Ripple. I wrote it on a Saturday afternoon, and published it on Smashwords the next day. For me, the magic of crafting short stories began a few hours later, when Ripple received its first review. Two little words. One was "definitely," the other, "disturbing." With that, I knew I'd hit the exact mark I was aiming for. I highly recommend new writers try writing some flash fiction, as it teaches tight structure, tight plots, and helps a writer learn how to cut all the unnecessary chaff to keep it within a certain word count.
Also, like I stated earlier, learn to have a thick skin. Be willing to accept constructive criticism, and shrug-off the vitriolic criticism that every writer eventually receives. Is this an easy thing to do? No. Not. At. All. Like everything else, it’s a learning process. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, there are two types of writers: Those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review. The first time you receive a bad review, it may feel as if you’ve just shown your newborn baby to a stranger—that baby is the most beautiful, precious thing you’ve ever seen—and the stranger says, “Wow, that is one ugly baby! How dare you bring such a horrid creature into my world!” Then, after the stranger vomits a few times (on your shoes), a crowd gathers, they chase you back to your castle with torches and pitchforks, and everything goes up in flames, especially your confidence as a writer.
One thing to remember is that a review is a message from a reader to other readers—it’s not directed at you. Some authors I know never look at reviews, good or bad. But, if you do, don’t take it personally. Even though someone just called your precious baby ugly, don’t ever let it kill your desire to write, and don’t ever respond. Let me say that again: No matter how badly you want to, don’t respond. Once your story is out in the big bad reviewer world, it has to stand on its own two feet. It’ll get praised, and it’ll get bullied, and you have to stand back and let it happen.
If you do get a nasty one, and it’s bugging you, keep this quote from Teddy Roosevelt nearby (it helps):
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Read, read, read, and read broadly. I was just talking about this with the poet Derek Mong. Basically we were agreeing that sometimes young writers just read first books in their genres. This can get to be stultifying. Yes, it's good to know what first books look like and how they're constructed, but if that's all you read, your work may end up sounding like everyone else's and one day it may also read as dated.
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