My friend Jane asked for some writing advice the other day and, in my usual style, I thought why use a spade when I can dish it with a shovel? So here are a few things I’ve learned thus far on my journey as a writer. Most of these were learned the hard way. And this list is by no means exhaustive. But this is what came to mind as I tried to answer Jane’s questions. I offer them from my humble perch, one rung up from rock bottom on the ladder. Enjoy.
1) Don’t give up.
Persistence plays a large role in reaching your goals. Keep moving forward, even when things look glum. The people who make it are the ones who keep trying. You learn something when you try, even when you fail. Wear your lessons like a cloak and just keep going.
2) Writing is both a process and an end product.
Trust the process, that you’ll get there if you jump on board. Sit down and write every day. Trust your imagination to take you somewhere. Everyone has something unique and interesting to say.
3) Writing is 10% talent and 90% commitment.
Potential without action equals a big fat zero. Give up TV. Enlist the help of friends and family. Write when it’s easy and when it’s hard. Just write.
4) Sit your butt down and write.
You can’t be a writer if you don’t actually write. Stop talking about it and do the work. Don’t wait around for inspiration, that lazy ne’er-do-well. Inspiration only shows up when you reach for it.
5) Be open to new ideas.
Try writing a poem if you usually write fiction. Write a play. Talk to other writers and listen to their experiences. Go to the mall or the airport and watch the crazy people around you. Everyone has a story. Watch someone and find it. Then, write it down.
6) You can learn from anyone.
Even non-writers can help us get better. Emulate your spouse’s professionalism, your grandmother’s patience. Being a successful writer takes more than just writing talent. It’s a package of affirming attitudes and qualities.
7) Sift through all feedback carefully, looking for hidden gems.
Even the stuff that seems way off base may make sense on closer examination. Try to understand where your critics are coming from. Mull it over a few days. Reread and try to see their point of view. Then use what works for you and forget the rest. Don’t change your style to please a critic.
8) Understand the rules before you break them.
Learn what conventions are, then break them with purpose. Only break a rule when it adds to your work, never when it detracts.
9) Humility goes a long way.
Don’t fall in love with your own voice. Authorial self-indulgence makes readers feel unnecessary. Step out of the way and let your writing be about your characters. If you must write about yourself, get a blog or do something interesting enough to sustain an autobiography.
10) Read everything you can get your hands on.
Learn what’s been done already, dream of ways to do it better. Learn from other people’s triumphs and mistakes. Read authors who inspire you to write. Avoid those who make you feel inadequate.
11) Write the stories only you can tell.
Write from your life experience, your unique point of view. Don’t be like anyone else. Above all, do your stories justice. Be honest, unapologetic and unflinching.
12) Revision is your friend.
The best writers are re-writers. Sharpen your sentences, tighten your dialogue. Remove as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.
13) When the going gets tough, get tougher.
The world is full of nay-sayers who want to see you fail. Prove them wrong. Keep at it no matter what. Believe you can learn. Steamroll through the tough stuff.
14) Develop a thick skin.
When you get hurtful feedback or a painful rejection, bitch about it to a friend you trust, then forget about it and keep moving forward. Don’t get hung up on what other people say, good or bad. Just keep your eyes on your writing and keep working.
15) Put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid.
Pass your work around to friends. Take a writing class. Join a workshop or online writing group. Enter contests. Submit your work. If you only want to write for yourself, then keep your writing hidden. But if you want to improve, solicit feedback.
16) Take yourself seriously and others will, too.
Tell people proudly that you’re a writer. Then write. Let them see how hard you work at it. Show everyone that you don’t give up. Make them respect your dedication.
17) Adopt only the best people for your writing friends.
A network of supportive friends and fellow writers is worth its weight in gold. Treat others like you want to be treated. Respect others’ voices. Be encouraging, kind, and honest. Set aside small-mindedness and petty jealousies. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Most importantly, do no harm.
And don’t be afraid to cast negative writing relationships adrift. As you move forward, let these slackers drift, bobbing in your wake. Don’t drag them along and let them drain your energy. Anyone who weighs you down doesn’t want you to succeed.
18) Learn to give quality feedback.
Analyzing writing makes us better writers. Frame your thoughts in concise language. Offer suggestions and opinions designed to help. Respect an author’s voice and his or her authority over her story. Don’t issue mandates or edicts.
19) Know when to step away.
Be honest with yourself. Walk away when a project doesn’t work. Think it over, then fix the fixable. Let the fundamentally flawed rest in peace on your hard drive. Don’t let undeserving stories drain your creative energy.
20) Writing is tough. Be tougher.
Don’t give up on a good concept. Recharge, then come back to it. Send it off to a different agent or publisher. Fight your way through sluggish middles. Learn to be ruthless in revision.
21) Trust your creative subconscious.
Push yourself harder. Trust your creativity to rise to the challenge. Step out of your creative comfort zone. Commit to NaNoWriMo. Don’t hold ideas in your ruthless control; let the best ideas assume their own unique shape.
22) Harvest stories at the proper time.
Let ideas ripen in the depths of your subconscious. Don’t force ideas like potted hyacinth bulbs. If something isn’t working, go weed the garden or read a book, then come back to try again later and even later again, if you have to. Keep a story ideas file. Pick through it when you’re looking for new projects. Realize half-finished projects aren’t failures, but are stories waiting for their season to bloom.
23) Always keep paper nearby.
Keep a notebook in your purse, in your nightstand, on the table next to your favorite chair. Write down every crazy idea, every stroke of creative genius, then add them to your story ideas file. Write down snippets of dialogue while they’re fresh and beguiling. You won’t remember them after you dry off from the shower.
24) No matter how much you know, it’s never enough.
Be a lifelong learner. Take a class. Attend a conference. Read a book on writing. Don’t become complacent. Don’t slip into the trap of thinking you know it all. Always strive to be better.
25) Don’t ever give up.
It bears saying again. Quitters don’t make it. Don’t be a quitter. A life of striving is more interesting than a life wallowing in regret. Plodding steps in a consistent direction eventually reach their destination.
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