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Advice on Writing

I’m frequently emailed with questions from developing writers, asking for advice that might help them bust through to the next level. So, partly to help cut down on that email, I’ve dashed down some of the lessons I’ve learned that helped me. They might work for you, might not. These come not just from my experience as a writer (published by a major house), but also as a small press book publisher and small press book distributor.

Other essays on this site relating to this topic:
My Basic Philosophy
How I Got Published
Do We All Have a Story?

You might also want to check out the page "My Most Innovative Work." There, I describe the unusual structures or voices or techniques in some of my work.

If you have a particular piece of writing you are working on, be it a novel, memoir or nonfiction book, or magazine article, or book proposal - I strongly recommend paying for professional editorial services to make it as good as it can be. This is true even if your book is going to be delivered to a publishing editor. I have used Ethan Watters for years. Here's his site.

So here's my advice on writing.

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It takes an average of ten years dedication before you can make a living writing creatively full time. Even those who succeed early are often rewarded with praise too early, trapping them in a yet-to-mature phase as they attempt to repeat their success. It all evens out over time. Finding a way to allow yourself the time, to buy time as you mature into your writing, is the biggest “how to.”

The writing life is lonely. Taking some of that loneliness out of it helps you to hang in there. Create a supportive environment that allows you to give it the kind of time it takes. Book clubs, workshops through bookstores, extended ed classes, graduate writing programs – they may not teach you to write, but they can support you and give you time.

Don’t be jealous of others’ success. Jealousy and envy are the enemy of genuine creativity. Wish others well and hope to join them someday.

Failure is part of it. You will be rejected dozens and dozens of times. The best way to prepare for it is to have something else in the works by the time the rejection letter arrives. Invest your hope in the next project. Learning to cope with rejection is a good trait to develop.

To be writing is good for the soul; it’s good for your character – to be observing, interpreting, producing (not just consuming). It’s good to share your work with others rather than be mindless. Pay attention to this. It’s very important. Success is not measured by bestseller lists. Certain types of great books sell very well; other types of great books don’t sell a lot. But they’re both great.

Don’t romanticize writing or think you’re cooler than other people. Don’t think you get special attention or have needs that are more special than anyone else’s needs. That manner of indulgent thinking inevitably leads to a bonfire, a flameout of selfishness. It borrows from the future in hopes that one can make it all pay off today. It’s unsustainable. Manage your responsibilities, take care of them, don’t borrow from the future.  

Allow for many paths to your goal. Do not fixate on one path, because then you are likely to give up when that path is blocked. 

Make sure your characters are worth spending ten hours with. That’s how long it takes to read a book. Reading a book is like being trapped in a room for ten hours with those characters. Think of your main characters as dinner guests. Would your friends want to spend ten hours with the characters you’ve created? Your characters can be loveable, or they can be evil, but they’d better be compelling. If not, your reader will be bored and leave.

Write from your whole self. If you have a sense of humor, make sure that flavor’s in your writing. If you like talking ideas, make sure there are ideas in your writing. Anything less will be unsustainable. You will get bored inside the narrative realm you’ve created, in the same way it’s boring to sit at a desk all day filing papers. The only way to last for the long haul it to avoid boredom, and to avoid boredom you need to let your whole self in. (Not to mention you’ll bore your readers).

Writers are often defined by what they do when they’re stuck, or blocked. Some ask what the character would do in that situation. Some look just for where the line wants to take them, where the style of the sentence wants to go – what reads well. Some, like me, try to remember our politics, remember what makes us angry – and let that inform what we should be writing.

When you’re considering how to shape a story, pay attention to how you talk out loud about it. When talking out loud, one often naturally self censors and starts with what’s most interesting or tantalizing. We are often natural storytellers with our mouths. Let that guide the shape of the written version. (But of course don’t just write down the out loud account.)

Write first. Worry about getting an agent or publisher later. Write it first. Prove you can do it and then others will listen. Tons of people talk about books they want to write. Far fewer are those who actually complete that vision. Don’t be a talker.

Can you write from other people’s point of view? Yes, if you’re empathic and willing to listen and care about others. If you care about your characters, readers will care. If you don’t like your characters, or your ideas, or your story, readers will smell a rat.

Readers are smart and intelligent. They are always able to spot my weak spots and quote back to me my very best writing. Appreciate this. Don’t write down to them, don’t assume that readers want something sleazy or simple. Don’t complain about “readers these days.” 

Articulate, don't insinuate. The writer who insinuates merely makes a hinting nod to a notion that you and he are vaguely aware of and presumably share, presumably in exactly the same way. The writer who articulates does not fear that putting something into words destroys that feeling or thought. Only putting the wrong words on it destroys it. The writer who articulates does not presume all people experience feelings in exactly the same way. 

When you're stuck, those aren't the worst parts, those are the best parts - they're your chance to be creative.

When you want to skip something because it's too confusing to explain, that's your chance to slow down and behold the truth that real life is complicated, real people are complicated. Skip for the sake of convenience and readers will sniff a fake.

Embrace subjectivity. Even the subjectivity of an omniscient narration. Only by embracing it, truly, can you take the gloves off and let your take fly.

Create outlines but don’t stick to them. Revise your outlines half way through and then shortly before the end. Never stick to them.  

Don't work up to your observations - don't save them for the last word. Start with them. Put your very best stuff first, and then force yourself to grow and synthesize and come up with more, more stuff to rival your best.

The best agents are the ones that are honest. Honesty is the basis of integrity. An agent wants a relationship for the long term, not just for a book. An agent (and an editor) are looking not just at your first book, but all your ideas, much of your future. Share your visions. Find compatibility.

Talk to your booksellers.

If you give yourself the time, you will not only get better as a writer. You’ll develop some correspondences with other writers, you’ll have met some in person at bookstores, other writers from your classes will get stories published here and there – slowly you will develop those elusive “connections” that seem so necessary to getting published. You’ll know some people. Not many people, but enough to carry a conversation. You'll have had so-an-so as a teacher. You'll get how it works. This wisdom just happens. Very rare is the writer who has written a great book and doesn’t have some connections yet. Focus on writing a great book. By the time you have, the rest will be there soon enough. I found my agent when I finally had a short story published in a literary journal. I asked the journal’s editor for a recommendation, and he sent me to the person who became my agent.

Mailing your work off into the ether is a necessary process but not a very viable one. Treat people professionally. Supplement the mail with a short phone call, don’t waste people’s time, don’t be too needy.

Agents and editors are besieged by “okay” manuscripts. Yet they still hunger for and pray for the rare, great manuscript. What does this mean to you? It’s better to write something that’s good and unique and fresh, than to write something that’s highly polished and accomplished but too similar to what an editor/agent/bookseller has seen many times over.

Do you need an agent? To be published by a major house, yes, almost always. To be published by a small press, often not. But it still helps to get how it works, to know a few people, et cetera.

Getting a book published is a great and rare event in a person’s life. But it also opens doors into a pitiless world where writers are measured by sales. You haven’t “made it.” Nobody’s ever “made it.” You never get to go on cruise control. This is good – life shouldn’t be wasted on cruise control. If you want a cushy life on cruise control, you are missing the point of life.

Find a few good role models. You only need a few, maybe only one. Let them inspire you. Art reacts to art. All good books are a work of art that is a creative reaction to other art.

Always tell a story. It grounds the reader in a shared experience.

Understand voice. Write the same sentence ten different ways by imitating the writing voices of ten different writers. 

Practice plots. Understand different ways to tell the same story – the difference between hiding a surprise and foreshadowing it, for instance. Starting a story in the middle versus its natural beginning, et cetera. Learn what creates suspense, forward lean, keeps the pages turning.

Journalism first or fiction first? (Grad school in Journalism or Grad school in Creative Writing?) There is no way to answer this. This is an artificial question. It reveals a thirst, a hope, that the journey can be shortened, that there is a shortcut. It can’t. Journalism (facts) or fiction (style)? Both. Both. Both. In no particular order.

Don’t be a snob. It’s good for people to read, so whatever they read, no matter what it is, be glad they're reading.  

No matter what your style or genre or form, even if it's journalism, read John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" very carefully and try some of the exercises. Realize that once you command these skills, you can break every rule he teaches, but these are the basic skills.

Work on your weaknesses. Find out what you’re hiding from.

Stop looking for shortcuts.

Q. What's my advice to someone looking for an agent?
A. Read the above again.

To write a longer work, such as a novel or book-length narrative nonfiction, it takes an almost inhuman level of concentration. Give yourself a chance by establishing a place and time free of distraction. You might have heard that I have always written my books inside a writing closet, or isolation chamber. This is true. My current closet is a proper closet, so it's relatively spacious. But my original closet was only two feet by three feet in dimension; I was literally pressed up against the walls. In fact, I recently found this videotape, recorded in 1993. It was made for my British publisher of my first novel, Bombardiers. They wanted to see me on tape, to decide whether to fly me over for a media tour. They were not expecting a video like this.