There are no hard-and-fast rules for writing, and no secret tricks, because what works for one person doesn’t always work for another. Everybody is different. That’s the key to the whole business of writing—your individuality.
This one is for the dreamers. You know who you are. You keep a notebook handy and jot down bits of prose and poetry. Maybe you have a blog that no one knows about. Sometimes you might like to wander to a park and write down your thoughts, or try to capture the essence of a lazy, hazy afternoon. Somewhere in your desk, you have ideas for books—or maybe outlines and even several chapters.
There’s no denying it. You’re thinking of becoming a writer.
Whether it’s poetry, personal essays, journalism, short fiction, literary fiction, or even kids’ books, you feel like this could be a genuine career. Something you would love. Something you could spend the rest of your life doing. Or maybe you haven’t always wanted to write; recently it just sounds like something you might like to pursue. Or maybe you think it’s something that’s easy to master, and you’re the next John Irving, because how hard is it to write, anyway? (Hint: the easier you think it is, the less you probably know about it.)
Chances are good that at some point, someone planted the possibility in your head—a friend, a teacher, or even a family member—and that seed has grown. Now you’re wondering what it takes and how you can turn it into reality. And so for you, as you contemplate this tremendous leap, I present some of the very best and bluntly honest advice to aspiring writers I have ever received.
Incinerate your romantic ideals. Like, now.
There’s probably a movie montage in your head that plays something like this: You submit writing pieces to a teacher or prof and get some positive encouragement. You might be the best writer in your writing class, and in the evenings, you type madly into the night, lost in a world of characters, plots, and the magic of creation. Finally the book is finished. You give it to someone to read, who realizes that it’s incredible and—without telling you—submits it to an agent or publisher. They love your book, and it’s only a matter of time before you walk by a bookstore window to see your darling book holding its own against bestsellers. You are surrounded by creative types, and your life becomes an exciting whirlwind of book signings, tours, movie options, and cocktail parties with the literati. In this lovely vision, you’re a successful author, and all your dreams come true.
Now I want you to gather up that vision in your hands, and ensure you’ve tucked in all the loose strands. Hold it closely for a moment; cherish how it brought you to this point. Whisper tender things to it. Then chuck the lot of it into a roaring fire and send it to a fiery death. And don’t look back.
Most writers have, at least once, imagined a version of this dream. And for a very lucky few who manage to be in the right place at the right time with the right book, it might actually come true. But realistically, the idea of writing as you imagine it will only torment you going forward. It will inevitably create a series of unrealistic expectations, all of which are designed to break you over time as reality wars with that vision of success. So let it go.
Establish your goals without expectations.
After reading a portion of my second (unpublished) manuscript, my cousin—an excellent fellow who works for one of the Big Publishers—looked at me for a moment before giving me the best advice I think I have ever received.
“I want you to think about being at a football game,” he told me. “The people who are there and in the stands, buying drinks and eating hot dogs. Who are they? Because in all likelihood, those are the people who are buying books. So you need to ask yourself an important question: Do you want to get published … or do you want to make money?”
Here’s the thing: Writing is an art form. Selling books is a business. The two don't always intersect. Being an award-winning author won’t guarantee you wealth, and being a bestselling author of genre fiction may not necessarily bring you critical acclaim. Sometimes you have to choose, and that's OK.
Writing is a journey, and it’s going to challenge the hell out of you. You’re better off preparing with sturdy footwear, a rough idea of where you want to end up, and a sense of adventure. Because the destination you have in mind may not be where you end up.
Read all the books.
Reading is the best exercise for your writing brain. And like physical training, too much of one thing and not enough of another can make for an uneven brain workout. Challenge yourself by exploring different genres. Ask friends for recommendations. Because every author and every genre has something to teach you. Narrative nonfiction can teach you how authentic storytelling can be just as powerful (if not more so) than fantasy. A good mystery can show you how an intricate plot can turn the reader inside out.
More important, reading outside of your comfort zone can also keep you from accidentally mimicking your favorite authors or (egad!) comparing yourself to them and becoming discouraged. And the more you read, the more you will learn to differentiate good writing from bad writing.
Check your ego at the door.
The least successful writers I know are the ones who don’t want to listen or learn. They stop challenging themselves. They stop trying to make their writing better. Critical feedback from agents or editors is immediately dismissed as “they don’t understand me/I won’t compromise my art.”
One of the best skills you can develop as a writer is learning to consider and accept critical feedback. Of course it’s not always spot-on, but chances are good the publishing professional you are speaking with isn’t telling you things because they’re bored and just want to crush your soul. They want you to improve your writing and storytelling. Sometimes they are even telling you what you need in order to get published.
Do you need to accept revision suggestions every time? Absolutely not. But if someone has taken the time to critique your work, take some time to absorb it. It’s unlikely that you are the best writer in the world—so accept that being a writer requires you to constantly strive to improve, and this is one of the most effective (if briefly painful) methods. Sometimes you just need to feel outraged or weepy for a couple of hours or even a day or two. Once you have taken some space from the work, go back and look at the feedback objectively. When you can learn to do that, you are well on your way to becoming a better writer.
To self-publish or publish traditionally is NOT the question.
I was at a large birthday party over the summer when a friend’s college-age son approached me shyly to ask about writing and publishing. He asked thoughtful questions, one of which was asking whether I thought he should consider self-publishing or traditional publishing.
“That’s not a straightforward question,” I said. “To be honest, it really depends on what your goals are. But I have good news for you. You don’t have to worry about it right now.”
“I don’t?” he asked, looking perplexed.
“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “Here’s the best advice I can give you about publishing right now. Are you ready?”
“It doesn’t matter what you decide until you’ve finished writing a book. Start with getting the book written. Once you have a first draft, we’ll talk.”
The lesson? Don’t put the cart before the horse. Unless you're writing instructive or reference nonfiction (where agents and editors typically prefer a book proposal and sample chapters), finish writing the book before you worry about publishing it.
Accept that you are unlikely to be “discovered.”
To this day, I am still shocked when writerly friends announce they don’t plan on using social media. “I am writing a book; that’s enough” seems to be the prevailing sentiment. “Why should I use Twitter? I hate social media. I just want to sell books.”
Of course, this is the crux of the matter. If no one knows you’ve written a book, no one is going to buy it. This goes for any artistic venture or small business. Times have changed, and now more than ever, writers are expected to self-promote. You can’t assume that hordes of people will just stumble upon your book one day and it will change their life. You have to tell people who you are, what you are doing, and most important, why they should read your writing.
The more time you spend sitting and waiting to be recognized, the more opportunities will pass you by.
You can’t wait for greatness to find you. You must pursue it—and feed it blood, sweat, tears, and potentially a bribe of very good chocolate.
Keep writing … no matter what.
There are going to be good days. There are also going to be a lot of disproportionately bad days. But if you want to be a writer and succeed at it, all you can do is keep working on your craft. The one guaranteed way to finish your book is to keep writing it.
Your writing is not always going to be good. You are not going to love it every minute. Sometimes it’s going to be so hard, you’ll want to throw the manuscriptinto the paper shredder. But the only way to succeed is to never, ever give up.
“You write,” is author Neil Gaiman’s advice. “That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.”
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.