I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert on writing. But I’ve done a goodly amount of it (currently working on my 25th novel) with some degree of success. And lately a few aspiring authors have asked me for advice. So here’s my wisdom.
One thing to remember is that there is no One Right Way to be an author, no True Path to literary achievement. I know a lot of writers, and each one of them does things their own distinctive way. Some plot; some pants. Some write linearly; some skip around. Some keep to a strict daily schedule and word count; some write in fits and spurts. Some use fancy software. Some scribble in pencil in notebooks. I’d recommend new writers to experiment freely and see what fits them best. Plus, whatever works today, for this story, might not be the best fit tomorrow, for the next one.
Now, while there is no One Right Way to to write, there are many wrong ways. But you know what? If you find yourself lost on one of those rubble-strewn roads to nowhere that’s okay. The lovely thing about writing fiction is that no matter how badly you screw up–with some very few, highly implausible exceptions–nobody is going to die. The world won’t end. All you have to do is retrace your steps, maybe salvaging a few good words along the way, and head in a different direction.
Not only that, but every author strays down those wrong routes occasionally. I am positive that Shakespeare crossed stuff out now and then–or sometimes even threw his quill across the room and stomped on down to the pub. At least once, Jane Austen must have stared morosely at a blank page, convinced everything she wrote was awful and nobody would ever want to read it.
There are two lessons I hope you can draw from this. First, don’t try to write perfectly. You won’t. You can’t. What you do is write something–best if it’s something you love to write, something that feels good in your bones–and then edit it. Take that lump of linguistic clay you’ve created and twist and reshape it until it’s something beautiful. Some lumps need more of this than others. That’s okay. Get someone, or better yet several someones, to help you with this process. People you trust to treat your clay with frank honesty.
The second lesson is the more important one. I said there is no One Right Way to be an author, yet there is one thing you absolutely must do: Write. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write. Type into your word processor. Scrawl in ink in cute notebooks. Tap it into your phone with your thumbs. Calligraphate on parchment using the blood of thine enemies as ink. Whatever.
I estimate that I’ve written about 4 million words of fiction thus far. That’s… a lot. If someone pointed her finger at me and said, “You must go write 4 million words!” I would cry. I’d take a nap. I’d binge watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d sit down at my laptop and end up playing Solitaire or commenting on Facebook instead, because 4 million words is impossible. Yet I’ve written ’em–one damn word at a time. (While, I might add, working a full-time job, parenting two kids, and traveling often.) You can write 4 million words too.
I can give you other little nuggets of advice too. Such as cultivate friendships with other writers and read a lot in many genres and buy some good guides to writing. Maybe take some workshops. Maybe create little encouraging rituals or indulge in rewarding snacks. If you write genre fiction, consider attending cons. Find a writing buddy and make dates to sit at a coffeehouse and write; instruct your buddy to glare at you if you get distracted. Back up everything, often. Keep notebooks or files to jot down ideas that come to you while you’re standing in line at Target or sitting in a meeting. Keep the cat off your keyboard.
But those are optional nuggets. In the end, I have one word of rock-solid guidance for aspiring writers. WRITE.