ADVICE FOR NEW WRITERS
One question I am asked almost more than any other, apart from where I get my ideas and how my last name is pronounced, is what advice I would give to writers just starting out. I always give one of two answers, often both: (1) don’t listen to advice (2) just write. Both may sound a bit abrupt and callous, as though I just can’t be bothered to ponder the question or share any meaningful hints from my experience. The contrary is true, and I usually go on to explain what I mean—as I will do here.
I could just show the cartoon above, I suppose, and rest my case, but the burning question is—how does the book come out? One thing I have discovered through my encounters with numerous other writers down the years, some of them very successful, is that we are all different in almost every imaginable way. I like to get up early in the morning, for example, and tackle my writing immediately after breakfast while my energy level is high. I know at least one bestselling author who fritters away her time all day, finding any and all excuses to avoid her work in progress until finally, in the mid to late evening she sits down and writes well into the night. I am brain dead by then. She is in a brain fog in the morning. Which of us is right? We both are, of course, but I am right for me and she is right for her. There is no rule. It would be wrong to tell a new writer that this is the time of day when you must work if you want to achieve any sort of success. That could cause real and unnecessary frustration. Each writer has to find what works for her/him.
Here is another example. I am very organized and very disciplined. I write every day when I am working on a book, and I write two thousand words each day, except when I am doing revisions. I know another successful author who, despite all her intentions to the contrary, just cannot meet her deadlines. When one comes and goes and her editor is breathing down her neck, she is perhaps one-third of the way into the book. After fretting and procrastinating for another week or so, she finally writes the rest of the book in a frenzied burst of creative energy and does not come up for air night or day until she has finished. Which of us is right? Well, we both are. And there are numerous other ways to go about the writing process too, all of them right if they suit the author who uses them.
I know writers who plot out a book with meticulous care before they start writing it. It is important to them to have a story packed with action and suspense and those other ingredients that propel a story forward. I can’t plot to save my life. If I try it before I start a book, I contemplate an absolutely blank mind from somewhere outside it. Nothing, nada, no use. I can plot only as I am writing. It is because I write from deep within the point of view of my main characters, I think. They live in the present. They do not know the future. They create it as they go along. I create it along with them! Which type of plotter is right? Well, we both are. Each writer has to create in the way that comes naturally and not according to rules or a formula dictated by someone else, no matter how experienced or knowledgeable that someone else is.
There are no rules, in other words. No one can tell you how or when or how much to write. And if anyone tries, don’t listen! Avoid how-to books and how-to talks and seminars. All right, sorry—I am slipping into giving advice, aren’t I? So don’t listen to me. Read as many books as you like. But also WRITE!
What concerns me more than anything else about all the writing advice that is forever on offer for would-be writers is that it can impede the natural flow of creativity that is the writer’s motivating force. All writers of fiction have stories inside them—otherwise they wouldn’t be writers. And all writers knows how to tell a story—they have probably read thousands in the course of their lives and made up a hundred more in their heads. They just think they don’t know (we writers are such insecure people) and so seek out help on how to create everything from plot to character to suspense to pacing. They must read one more book or attend one more writers’ workshop. It is very possible they will end up either not knowing how to write at all or else producing cookie-cutter stories with paint-by-the-number characters. I have one friend who attended a workshop given by a famous expert, and then she tackled the workbook he had written on how to write fiction. There were something like thirty-six chapters, for each of which there was a writing exercise. She did it all quite conscientiously and was in deep distress by the time she finished. She admitted that she no longer had any idea how to write.
By far the writer’s most precious gift, and also the most fragile, is her/his voice. By voice I mean the writer’s unique view of life and way of expressing it. It is quite distinctive when you come across it in a well-written book. There are certain authors (and they tend to be my favorites) whom I can recognize by the way they tell a story even if I have a hard time explaining exactly what it is about the voice that is distinctive. It can be so very easily tampered with. I remember being at a conference with a lady who had two manuscripts on the go so that she could work on the second one while her critiquing group was going through the first. Then she would swap and work on their suggestions for the first while they had the second manuscript. This had been going on for a long time—this constant swap and revise. I was aghast. I wondered how much of her story or vision or voice remained in either of the constantly new-and-improved books she was working on? I would guess very little. I believe I told her that no one sees any of my books until they land on my editor’s desk after they are finished. I advised her, a bit hyperbolically, to shut herself into a room without phone or internet and not come out until she had finished her book.
If you are a writer, write. You don’t need to listen to the well-meaning advice of either experts or amateurs. You can do it yourself. Do it, then. I would expect that some of you will disagree. I have one writer friend who tells me with some exasperation every time I talk like this that it is all very well for me to tell writers simply to write. It comes naturally to me, she tells me. Other people need help. Perhaps. Even the very limited advice I am prepared to give may be the wrong advice! If it feels wrong for you, ignore it. I look forward to reading your comments, pro and con. Life would be very bland if we all agreed on every subject, wouldn’t it?
To one person who leaves a comment below by Monday, February 18, I will send an autographed copy of either IRRESISTIBLE or HEARTLESS (winner’s choice).[The winner is DEIDRE–I don’t know her last name yet. Congratulations to her and thank you for all your comments.]