This is the best advice on writing we’ve read
Being a writer is hard. It’s not just about sitting down with a notebook and a pen, or in front of your laptop, and getting to work. Sure, that’s a part of it, but just showing up doesn’t get the work done, and as soon as your ideas hit the page they almost always seem imperfect. Frustration ensues, very often yelling or angry grunts, and then there’s the often maddening process of revisions. Whether you’re writing a paper, an essay, an article, a short story, a poem or even a novel, writing is hard even if you’re really great at it.
I should know. I’ve wanted to be a writer since before I knew it was even a career option. When I realized it was, I went to college and got a degree in it. A few years back I self-published my own book, and the writing process took forever. Now when I look back on that time, there are some lessons I wish I’d known that would have likely made the process easier.
Over the years, I’ve had some awesome opportunities through literary conferences and indie bookstore appearances to meet and talk to some of my favorite authors. (Okay, I may have gotten a little overexcited when I first got to see Chris Hardwick and then blushed something fierce when I sat fourth row during the Nerdist podcast last year at Comic-Con.) When that happens, I always ask them what their advice is for aspiring writers like me, on writing, getting published, and dealing with rejection. With it being National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short), I felt I should share their wisdom.
Map your work
Okay, I will totally admit to being in love with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, its spinoff The Heroes of Olympus, AND The Kane Chronicles. In addition to being great stories, they’re an awesome way to learn about Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology without even realizing it. Riordan rarely tours and when he does, he tries to keep the locations centralized so he can get back to work on another brick-sized novel. When he came around in early October, I flipped. He talked about his career as a teacher, how he began writing novels, and his process. His method, along with many other authors I’ve learned, is to create a map. By using the map, he is able to chart the beginning, middle, and the end of his stories with all of the key pit stops along the way. How they get to each part is a mystery of sorts, but it’s easier to have a map or outline of where you’re going so you don’t lose track of the end goal.
Commit to the world of your story
I made it my unintentional goal this year to read all of Jenny Han. I read almost all of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on a flight to London and unintentionally read two of the Summer I Turned Pretty books on an overnight train from Munich to Amsterdam. What? They were really good, okay? Anyway, her advice (which she shares on her site) is simple: once you’ve started in on your story, make sure to stay in your story and true to the world you’ve made. You’ve created a map and started to write it all down, but you have to commit to it. Pour all of the good, the bad, the big experiences, and the little things that make up a real life into your story.
This is super important. If your story doesn’t come across as grounded in reality, whether you’re writing fantasy, horror or romance, it’s not going to be believable. You want your readers to find themselves in and relate to your work. If they can see the cracks they’ll think the author was careless, and then they won’t care either.
Write, write, write
Neil Gaiman wrote the book my favorite movie of all time, Stardust, is based on. He brought us Coraline, American Gods, Neverwhere, and Anansi Boys. He also personified the Tardis, so you know, he’s kind of a big deal. He went on his final North American signing tour last year for his truly fantastic book The Ocean at the End of the Lane and after a reading he answered audience questions extensively. One of the questions was “What do you do about writer’s block?” He contemplated for a moment and said simply, “I don’t suffer from writer’s block. It’s not real. So long as you sit down and write something, you won’t suffer from writer’s block.”
If what you’re working on at the moment isn’t working, pick up something else. Write a short story or a poem. Attack a different idea that you’ve been playing with and see where that takes you. Don’t stop writing. Write until the solution to the problem you’re having with the main work comes to you. Distracting yourself with another project can give you ideas when you least expect it. Just keep writing!
Have trusted friends read your work
Justina Ireland is new on the scene. Her first book Promise of Shadows came out in March of this year. The story, a post-apocalyptic tale that relies heavily on Greek mythology, has been featured on numerous “Best of 2014” lists and has many readers pining that her next book land quickly as possible. While she works on that, she says that it’s important to have writers or critique groups that will beta read your work. This can give you insight into what’s working and what’s not.
When you’re starting to think that your work sucks, or you feel stuck, or like it’s not flowing properly, it’s good to have that tight group of trusted editors that you can send it to. This advice is great. If I didn’t run my work by a few of my friends, I would have scrapped half of my ideas by now. This is advice any writer should heed.
Have a support system
I rarely get nightmares from books, but I shot up in the middle of the night twice when I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Wintergirls. It’s truly haunting in its reality. Many of you are probably familiar with her book Speak, which was turned into a movie with Kristen Stewart. Last year at the NCTE conference in Boston, Anderson was doing multiple signings for different books and I hopped into a line to ask her advice for any aspiring writer. “It’s going to take some time to not only get published, but for your career to get off the ground. Don’t get discouraged if it takes the time. It could easily take 10 years for it to happen. Just make sure that you have someone who is going to be there for you and understands that it’s hard. You need someone to support you.”
I think this is my favorite piece of advice. When you’re a writer, you understand that it is going to take some time for your career to take off. Yes, there are quick ways to get your work out there (see: self-publishing) but that likely won’t get your book off the ground the way the traditional publishing route would. That takes time and it takes a lot of work. Editing your work alone is hard enough. You need someone who is going to remind you that this is exactly what you want to be doing and that you shouldn’t give up. You need support.
You don’t need connections, you need great writing
I am totally addicted to the work of A.S. King. She takes magical realism and makes it accessible. You can really see yourself in a lot of the unbelievable situations in her books (my favorite is Ask the Passengers). There’s an intense honesty about her work and you can’t put any of her books down. I saw her in line at NCTE last year when an event was winding down and I went and asked what her best advice was for someone looking to get published. It was my understanding that you had to know someone in order to get your book even looked at; like the literary world was some sort of subterranean club with a secret knock and a password. Very bluntly she said, “That’s not true. It doesn’t matter who you know. Send your work to 80 agents and then another 50. Send it to every agent that you find. Look for new agents. Not new agencies, but new agents. They’ll want to build their roster and the two of you can grow together. You absolutely don’t need to know anyone to get your work out there.”
Whew. What a weight off my shoulders. I always felt like the literary world was impenetrable and it would take a single stroke of luck to get someone to look at my manuscript. This is great advice. Make sure that the agency is credible and then seek out new agents that are looking to build their client list. It’ll be a learning experience for you both and you’ll form a great working relationship.
The query letter counts
I only discovered Chris Crutcher a few years ago in college when I was assigned Whale Talk in my adolescent fiction class. I ran into him in a lobby last year after he signed my copy of Deadline and asked him his advice when it came to publishing my work. He said that you need to write the best query letter you can. Make them want to read your book based on the small synopsis you provide them. You need to knock it out of the park and hook them right away. Before he walked away he said, “Just write the best damn book you can.”
Once you’ve finished your manuscript and found the agents you want to send it to, you’ll need to write a query letter. You need to create the best synopsis possible that conveys your story in as few sentences as possible. You want to draw them in and have them think, “I totally want to read this.”
Don’t quit your day job
I’m pretty sure that David Levithan just doesn’t sleep. Not only is he an editor at Scholastic for some truly fantastic books, but he is also an absurdly talented writer. He writes stunning books of his own (Every Day, Boy Meets Boy, Two Boys Kissing, The Lover’s Dictionary), as well as collaborating with other amazing writers like John Green for Will Grayson (great if you love John Hughes), Andrea Cremer for Invisibility. and a trio of books with Rachel Cohn that has yielded two movies, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and the upcoming Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List.
He had the best advice possible: Even when you get your first book published, do not quit your day job. You won’t become an overnight success and it won’t fully pay the bills yet. It might never fully pay the bills. Plus, your day job will give you something to write about.
So, there you have it! Writing is a stressful and tiring adventure, but it’s worth it. When you know that this is what you’re meant to do, you have to just go for it. Remember that it won’t be easy and it’s going to be hard, but it’ll be worth it. Now go write!
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