One thing a writer can not avoid is someone asking their opinion about writing or their advice for trying to make it in the field. Here, I must admit that I used to ask the same question all of the time to my writing professors or writers I would meet. It is like there is a great secret we all want in on, and the trick is finding someone that will teach you the magic handshake.
The truth of the matter is there is no magic handshake. Yet, there is a mountain of books that claim to know— everything from how to put a pen on the paper to how to get that elusive publishing deal. Personally, I’ve always found these how-to sections at bookstores overwhelming. A person could drown in those murky waters, struggling to find the right voice and advice that works for them.
Yet, when I am confronted by new writers who ask me about writing, my advice usually falls into the following ten points; they are ideas, suggestions, lessons, or hot air, in many ways whatever you want them to be or what works best for you.
1. If your idea can be compared…
We all do this, even though many times we don’t want to admit it. “My book is [something] meets [something].” Or, for an example: “It’s like Twilight but everyone loves aliens now.” Comparisons are fine to a certain degree for explaining your work to someone who doesn’t know, but it is a dangerous path to walk down. First off, your comparison may set expectations; second, it limits your writing. Try to avoid it when talking about your book with professionals. And, more importantly for the new writers, if you are doing this at the start of the writing process, you should really step back and question how original the idea is in the first place. Remember, many times the great books are the ones that defy an easy comparison.
2. Don’t talk about it.
This advice is for the new writer. Inspiration can be a funny thing and I’ve found that whenever I share an idea before I am ready the idea fades. See, that part of my mind that came up with the stories suddenly feels as if the tale has been told. Hold it in, wait on discussing it or sharing it until it is ready. Think of it is as new tomato plant that you have just planted in a fertile ground. You don’t want to go out harvesting right away; you want it to have time to grow. Ideas are the same thing. While getting a blockbuster idea is exciting, use that excitement to power the long writing process; for many ideas there’s just so much air in the balloon, use it sparingly.
3. Read a lot! Read the classics!
Can a painter be a great painter without visiting a museum at least once? Can a classical composer compose without hearing a symphony first? Writing is part of a great heritage; it is not something you have invented with your new idea, no matter how great it is. And, like genetics, what makes your story exist comes from the ancestors that came before. Also, I’ve found the classics to be inspirational to my own writing. Finally, remember, that classical writers were beginning writers as well, and in their own time were experimental in the field, only time has changed that perception. That musty smell of a well-worn library should feel like a home, a place to go to find friends; not something that is simply… old.
4. Influences can be everywhere.
While I believe a strong knowledge of the classics is a basic necessity to writing, our world is filled with influences that classical writers never had. They may have had theater, but we also have movies, TV, video games, radio, and the internet. Don’t brush off an idea that might fall your way from another medium. Inspiration is a gift horse… and what is that other part of the expression? Nevermind.
5. Remember this is an art.
Okay, like with my argument for the classics, I’m going to put on my snobby, artsy hat again. Literature has a rich history and it is one that should be understood even though you might not decide to draw from it. You might not need to have symbolism in your story, but I believe your writing would be richer if you at least know what symbolism is. So take some time to study this art form—you know, the one you wish to partake in. To return to my artist comparison from point number 3, it is like a painter learning about the different kinds of paints and brushes.
6. Write in a way that works for you.
Many times, a young writer can become muddled, not only from what he is reading but from others around him. They might try to influence their approach to storytelling down to their use of language. There are many writing professors and college programs that have rules for writing that they urge you to follow and may even argue for them aggressively. But I believe something of the natural artist can be strangled by that approach. To let your work grow, write how you write… deal with the other concerns in the editing. If anything this approach will help you create your own voice. And having a strong unique voice is one of the things that can make you standout from the everyday authors we see lining the genre aisles in bookstores.
7. Consider keeping a dream diary.
Inspiration does not come from a place of logic. It can’t truly be created through a seven-step process. It is a burst of lightning, a twisted sideways thought, or, as for me, a dream. In case a great idea comes to you in your dreams having that book by your bed will allow you to capture that thought before it is lost. Many creative writers draw from their dreams (Ray Bradbury, for example). Just try keeping this diary for a few months and see what you get, you might be surprised.
8. Don’t be afraid of an outline.
I’ve found that once an idea for a larger work has stuck to my brain, I sometimes need to breakdown the beats of the story. If you haven’t had a chance to read Joseph Campbell and his take on the hero’s journey I highly recommend his study. You might not realize it but your story will find its way onto that journey in some way or another. Taking your idea and creating an outline can also help in the actual story creation process of the first draft. You will be able to see in that outline your entire soon-to-be world and thanks to the outline, you can fill in the pieces when you want to, and in whatever order you want. Having an outline doesn’t mean you are losing the creativity to logic, it just means your creativity is being able to see the path ahead of it.
9. Contests, contests, contests.
You want to know if you are a good writer? You want to know if your story is publishable or worthwhile? You want to build up your resume? How about making some contacts in the writing world? One word: contests. Poets & Writers Magazine has a great listing for contests (http://www.pw.org/submission_calendar), but there are others as well out there that might be in a specific genre you are writing in or local to you; give it a Google search. That entry fee will be worth it if it helps your career.
10. Write for yourself.
I say this a lot, and I will probably continue to say it and write it until I die; but the only way you can have any guarantee of peace and happiness in this overly-congested writing world is to write for yourself. That way, anything that happens (contests, publishing deals, movie deals, readings, etc.) is all just a lovely bonus. In our world, it’s not always easy to believe that finding that internal happiness is possible, but there is a feeling of success on completing a first draft that I have yet to match. It might be the same for you.