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,
Ive dashed down some of the lessons Ive 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.
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.
my advice on writing.
* * *
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.
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.
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; its good for your character to be observing,
interpreting, producing (not just consuming). Its good to share your work with
others rather than be mindless. Pay attention to this. Its very important. Success
is not measured by bestseller lists. Certain types of great books sell very well; other
types of great books dont sell a lot. But theyre both great.
romanticize writing or think youre cooler than other people. Dont think you
get special attention or have needs that are more special than anyone elses 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.
Its unsustainable. Manage your responsibilities, take care of them, dont
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
Make sure your
characters are worth spending ten hours with. Thats 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 youve created? Your characters can be loveable, or they can be
evil, but theyd 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 flavors 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 youve created, in the
same way its 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 youll bore your readers).
often defined by what they do when theyre 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.
youre 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 whats
most interesting or tantalizing. We are often natural storytellers with our mouths. Let
that guide the shape of the written version. (But of course dont just write down the
out loud account.)
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. Dont be a talker.
Can you write
from other peoples point of view? Yes, if youre empathic and willing to listen
and care about others. If you care about your characters, readers will care. If you
dont like your characters, or your ideas, or your story, readers will smell a rat.
smart and intelligent. They are always able to spot my weak spots and quote back to me my
very best writing. Appreciate this. Dont write down to them, dont assume that
readers want something sleazy or simple. Dont complain about readers these
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.
stuck, those aren't the worst parts, those are the best parts - they're your chance to be
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.
subjectivity. Even the subjectivity of an omniscient narration. Only by embracing it,
truly, can you take the gloves off and let your take fly.
but dont 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
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.
Talk to your
If you give
yourself the time, you will not only get better as a writer. Youll develop some
correspondences with other writers, youll 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. Youll 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 doesnt 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 journals editor for a recommendation, and he sent me
to the person who became my agent.
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, dont waste
peoples time, dont be too needy.
editors are besieged by okay manuscripts. Yet they still hunger for and pray
for the rare, great manuscript. What does this mean to you? Its better to write
something thats good and unique and fresh, than to write something thats
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 persons life. But it also opens doors into
a pitiless world where writers are measured by sales. You havent made
it. Nobodys ever made it. You never get to go on cruise control.
This is good life shouldnt 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.
voice. Write the same sentence ten different ways by imitating the writing voices of ten
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
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 cant.
Journalism (facts) or fiction (style)? Both. Both. Both. In no particular order.
Dont be a
snob. Its 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 youre hiding from.
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.