Reader Question: Advice to aspiring writers

(From the audiobook giveaway)

Whatโ€™s the best advice you can give aspiring writers?

I often get asked this in interviews, too, so it’s obviously a topic a lot of people are interested in. I think I’ve said most of what I’ll say today before, across various posts, so this may not sound all that new. But to put it all together…

1. Read. I took classes in creative writing, I’ve scoured books on writing craft, but honestly I think 9/10s of what I know about how to write fiction well, I learned from reading it. The more stories you read, the more you pick up the different rhythms of storytelling and figure out which feel best to you. You see what’s already been done, and what hasn’t, which helps you narrow your ideas down to the ones that will set you apart. You absorb models for structuring plot and character development and theme. You get inspired.

I highly recommend not just reading, but reading widely. Go beyond the sort of books you want to write, to what are considered the best works in all different genres. Different genres can teach you different things, and the more you learn, the more tools you have in your box when you sit down to write your own stories. It also helps you break out of the tropes and cliches that emerge in any genre and look at your plot and characters from fresh angles.

2. Write. Every skill requires practice. Someone or other once said that you need to write a million words of crap before you start producing anything worth reading. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it certainly can’t hurt. Just like practicing a musical instrument teaches your fingers how to respond to the notes instinctively, and practicing a martial art builds up your reflexes so you can block a blow without thinking, practicing writing allows the skills to become automatic, so you can focus on increasingly refined elements of the craft. How can you focus on making your dialogue sound realistic when you’re not quite sure yet how to place dialogue tags correctly? Well, once you’ve been writing dialogue for a while, you’ll have worked out the formatting so often you won’t have to think about it anymore. And a while after that, getting the dialogue to sound reasonably realistic will be something your mind just does automatically, and you can start considering how to make each character sound not just believable but distinct from the others. And so on.

(BTW, this is why I think it’s important when getting feedback on your writing, to mainly get it from people at about the same skill level as you. To continue the above example, people who haven’t yet figuring out their formatting may have trouble telling whether your dialogue is actually realistic. And people who’ve moved beyond that to focusing on distinct character voices may have trouble explaining to you why your dialogue in general isn’t realistic enough, because they no longer consciously think about how to do that in their own work.)

3. Try to write better. It’s not enough to just show up, throw some words on the page, and declare yourself done. If you’re not consciously trying to work on your skills, your writing practice isn’t going to be much different from sitting down at a piano and plunking random keys. Be aware of your goals for the story. Are you hoping to make your plotlines more clear? Your characters more sympathetic? The pacing more gripping? Pay attention to how you’re writing, and pause and consider now and then whether you think it’s working.

It’s hard for us to judge our own work, of course, because we know so much more about what we intend than any reader will. So part of writing better usually involves getting other people to read what you’ve written. Preferably people who take writing seriously and won’t be overwhelmingly impressed by the fact that you’ve finished a story at all, and people who won’t be afraid to give you real criticism. Because if they’re doing their job properly, there will be criticism. No story is perfect. Even multiply-published bestselling authors have editors telling them to drop that subplot and make this character more engaging. Hearing what’s wrong with your writing is hard, but take comfort in the fact that it’s a process everyone goes through to make their stories as good as they can be.

The most important part, though, whether you’re reading over your own story, or getting feedback on it from someone else, is then to go back and actually address the things you or they have noticed aren’t working as well as they could be. Revising doesn’t mean just fixing spelling and grammar errors — it means completely rewriting scenes, taking out material and putting new material in, rethinking plot points and character motivations — it can be as much work as writing the story in the first place! But I love this part of the process the most, because it’s the time when I don’t have to worry about whether I have a story at all. I can just focus on shaping it up from that rough draft until it’s as close as possible to the story I really wanted to tell.

(I have some more thoughts on learning to write better in this previous Reader Question post.)

4. Remember that there is no “right” way. Creativity works differently for different people. Sometimes you may hear authors you respect talk about their process as if there’s no possible way anyone could be successful at writing unless they did things the same way. This is not true. I have talked to dozens of writer friends about how they brainstorm/outline (or not)/get through a first draft/revise, and honestly, the only thing we all have in common is that at some point in there, we put words on the page, and at other points we change those words to try to improve them. Trying to follow a process that doesn’t jive with your creative style is a sure way to end up stalled and discouraged. The best way for you to write is the way that gets you excited about the writing and results in you finishing a story. Figure out what works for you, and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing.

(Note: It can be useful to find out how other writers work, and try out their processes to see if you might discover one that works even better for you than what you’re already doing. The important thing is not feeling like a failure if those other processes don’t work for you.)

5. Keep going. Writing is a tough career. It can take years to get that first story or novel published. But the one thing that’s always going to be true is you will never succeed if you stop trying. If you love writing, and you want it to be more than just a hobby, be patient. Read. Write. Work at writing better. Send your stories out there. If people don’t respond the way you’d like, remember you’re still learning, still practicing, and still improving. As long as you keep doing that, you’re well on your way to writing stories you can be proud of and others will be excited to read.

And good luck! Because that never hurts either. ๐Ÿ™‚


Reader Question: Advice to aspiring writers — 2 Comments

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