Advice for New Writers
One question I get asked during interviews almost more than any other, apart from “Where do you get your ideas?” (Answer: I really don’t know) and “How do you pronounce your last name?” (Answer: It sort of rhymes with Kellogg) is “What advice would you give writers just starting out?” I always give one of two answers to this one, often both: (1) Don’t listen to advice (2) Just write. Those answers may not sound at all helpful. They may even sound a bit abrupt and callous, as though I just couldn’t be bothered to give the question much thought or resented sharing any really helpful hints from my own experience. The contrary is true, however, and I do usually go on to explain what I mean. I will do that here.
One interesting discovery I have made from numerous encounters with other writers over the years, some of them of bestseller fame, is that we are all vastly different from one another in almost every imaginable way. Here is one perhaps fairly trivial example. I like to get up early in the morning and tackle my writing immediately after breakfast while my energy level is high and my brain fresh. I know at least one bestselling author who fritters away the day, finding any and all excuses to avoid her work-in-progress, until finally, in the mid to late evening, she sits down at her computer and writes well into the night. I am brain dead by then, while she is in a brain fog in the morning. Which of us is doing it right? We both are. I do it right for me and she does it right for her. There is no rule, you see, for when you should write—except that it should be some time. It would be wrong of me to tell a new writer that this is the time of day you must work if you wants to achieve any sort of success. All writers have to find what works for them.
Here is another example. I am a very organized and disciplined person. When I am working on a book, I write every day, seven days a week. I have a goal of two thousand words each day, except when I am revising or making adjustments to what I have already written. It takes me on average four months to complete a book. I allow myself lots of time to finish before the contract deadline date. I know another bestselling author who, despite all intentions to the contrary, just cannot meet her deadlines. When one passes and her editor is breathing down her neck for the finished manuscript, she is perhaps one-third of the way into the book and panicking. 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 doing it right? Well, we both are. I could not stand the pressure of a looming (and passing) deadline while she seems to need the stress of impending disaster in order to get motivated.
These are just two examples of many more. There are, in fact, innumerable ways of going about the writing process, all of them right if they suit the author who uses them. There are no hard and fast rules. If anyone tries to tell you there are, please don’t believe them! If you feel you must read some instructional books or attend how-to seminars and workshops, try to keep a wide open mind. Never feel that you must write a certain way merely because such-and-such a book or writing expert tells you so. Whenever I give a talk to writers, I preface it with the advice that my audience not believe a word I say just because I say it. Once, when I said that, an audience member raised her hand and assured me that that was fine. All she really hoped for from any talk, she told me, was one “ah-ha” moment, something that resonated with her and got her excited about her own writing. I loved that comment.
What concerns me more than anything else about all the instructions and advice that are forever on offer for would-be writers is that they can impede the natural flow of creativity that is the writer’s motivating force. All authors of fiction have stories to tell—otherwise they wouldn’t be writers. And all writers know how to tell a story—they have probably read thousands in the course of their lives and made up hundreds more in their heads. They just fear they don’t know enough (we writers are such insecure people) and so seek out help from the experts on how to create everything from plot to character to suspense to pacing. They constantly feel 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 well-known authority and then tackled that same expert’s workbook on writing fiction. There were dozens of chapters and a written exercise at the end of each. She did it all diligently but was in deep distress by the time she had finished. She felt she no longer had any idea how to write or who she was as a writer.
By far the writer’s most precious gift—but also the most fragile—is her or his voice. By voice I mean the writer’s unique view of life and way of expressing it. It is indeed unique and quite distinctive when you come across it in a well-written book. There are certain authors I can recognize as soon as I start reading 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 woman who had two manuscripts on the go so that she could work on one while her critiquing group was going through the other. Then she would swap and work on their suggestions while they went through the other manuscript. This had been going on for a long time—this constant swap and rewrite. I really was aghast. I wondered how much of her story or vision or voice remained in either of those two manuscripts after a few go-arounds. I would guess very little. I told her that no one sees any of my books until they land in my editor’s computer after they are finished. However… Well, I do understand that some writers need the support and input of a trusted critiquing group. There really are no rules for everyone, you see. Perhaps that lady produced two masterpieces out of those manuscripts! Who am I to say do this or don’t do that? Do you see what I mean?
All I can say with any certainty is that in my opinion (to be ignored if you choose), if you are a writer, you must write. You don’t necessarily need to listen to the advice of either experts or amateurs–or Mary Balogh! You can do it yourself. Believe that and do it, then. I know some of you will disagree. I have one writer friend who tells me in some exasperation whenever I talk like this that it is all very well for me to tell writers simply to write. It comes naturally to me, she says. Other people need help. Some people need a lot of help. No doubt she is right. Even the very limited advice I am prepared to give may be wrong, after all! Or right for some and wrong for others. But please, please if you want to write, do it!
I wonder what you think on the topic. Do please let me know in the comment section below (which I fervently hope is working this week and not blocking you all as suspected bots! You may want to take the precaution of saving your comment before trying to post it). To one of you who leaves a comment here by Wednesday, February 10, I will send an autographed copy of either HEARTLESS or IRRESISTIBLE (winner’s choice).
[The winner is ALEXA SANTI. Congratulations to her and thank you to everyone else who left a comment. I always appreciate reading what you have to say.]