Brilliant Advice for Writers, from Peni
I don't know it all; I just talk as though I do! This is the page where I ramble on sharing such wisdom, or reasonable equivalent, as I have acquired. Stop here for Writing Advice, Lifestyle Advice, a run-down on Paying and Non-paying writing work, and what you should look for in a Significant Other. This is followed by the inevitable list of links to people who might be able to help you where I couldn't.
- Be honest.
- Be generous.
- Write daily.
- Read voraciously - and indiscriminately. Shakespeare, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, John Ciardi, Stan Lee, J.K. Rowling, and "Carolyn Keene" keep no secrets. Everything they do is right there on the page, where you can learn from it. Don't be fooled into reading only "quality" works. For one thing, you have to establish your own standard of quality. How do you know good from bad unless you've read both in bulk? For another, it's as important to understand the qualities of bad writing you need to avoid as it is to understand the qualities of good writing you want to develop.
- Don't be intimidated by big names. Reading indiscriminately, you will inevitably find some popular or even "great" author who is singularly deficient in something you do well. I bet you can write more interesting exposition scenes than Herman Melville, for example, or more convincing dialog than Isaac Asimov. This is good for your ego and gives you companionship among the stars of the profession, who had to write their manuscripts one word at a time just like you.
- Don't take yourself too seriously.
- Don't stop writing unless you know what the next sentence is. If you write everything you know today, you may not have a place to start tomorrow. If you find you have written yourself out, erase the last sentence you wrote.
- Pursue your interests, not the markets. This season's catalogs are a year or two behind the current market, anyway, and you'd rather be the groundbreaker than the trend-follower.
- Listen when other people talk to you. Don't hesitate to appropriate their lives for your work. Just make sure they change enough in the writing process that they don't recognize themselves!
- Daydream about your story and characters before you fall asleep.
- When you're writing well, you become who you write about. This is one of the places where the honesty and generosity come in.
- Don't lock yourself in. Just because you've grown up seeing yourself as a writer of bestselling thrillers doesn't mean that's actually where your talent lies. Experiment. Play with forms and genres.
- If you write something that sucks, no one but you ever has to know. That's why there are wastebaskets and delete keys.
- When you complete a manuscript, put it away for approximately the amount of time it took you to write it before you revise it.
- Have a goal in mind when you start to revise; if possible, based on a knowledge of your weaknesses. For instance, I write long (what my dad elegantly called "diarrhea of the pen"); so the first step in revision for me is a word count. I set an arbitrary goal for a number of words less than the word count, and start cutting.
- Each part of the story is only as good as the whole. If it doesn't belong in the story, leave it out, even if it's the most brilliant sentence you ever wrote.
- It's only half-written till it's read.
- Ignore any advice that doesn't work for you.
In which I reveal the size of the chip on my shoulder and the extent of my hang-ups. I'm not going to tell you which items on here I don't do.
- When you complete a manuscript, make a list of the markets you envision for it. When one rejection arrives, send it straight out to the next market on the list.
- Keep track of where you send each manuscript, who you sent it to, how long it took them to respond, etc. There's software for this, or you can keep extensive notes, whatever works for you.
- Join a professional organization, such as SCBWI, SFWA, or the Author's Guild, as soon as you qualify to do so. Put "Member of...." on the list of sample publications you enclose with your manuscripts, next to your address.
- Make friends with writers, booksellers, and librarians. When possible, attend conferences and events for these three all-important classes of people. Take care of them, and they will take care of you.
- Support your local bookstore.
- Learn to promote yourself, your books, and literature generally. In our culture, reading has been an elitist activity since the advent of television. It doesn't have to be that way. The age of the internet has also ushered in a generation, weaned on Goosebumps and foraging for Harry Potter, for whom reading is cool. Anything you can do to encourage this trend is good for the literary economy and, therefore, for you.
- Don't expect the publisher to promote your book. Sometimes they do, but most books in any given year are tossed out into the world to fly or fall on their own. Do anything you can to promote it yourself, and cooperate fully with anything the publisher does.
- Don't wait on anybody else to do your job! You can write a second story while shopping the first. You can submit to publishers while waiting to hear from agents. You can apply for a grant while working on your novel. You can start research while waiting to hear from the grant people. Nobody else will do this for you.
- Educate yourself about the marketing, distribution, and publicity habits of your publisher. Learn who to contact when you need something, and don't hesitate to call on them when you need them.
- Learn the economics of publication. If you don't, you're a sitting duck for exploitation from any publisher who assumes writers are fuzzy artist types who don't really need to be compensated for their labor. Never give up rights without fair compensation. If you're not sure what's fair compensation, check with other writers. (This is one of the benefits of joining the professional organizations mentioned above.)
- Keep special track of your royalties and call the accounting department with any questions or discrepancies. Most publishers pay twice a year, with a three-month time lag, and their accounting departments are notoriously inefficient. Every published author I know has a horror story, which we're afraid to tell in public because if there's one department you don't want to hack off, it's the one that cuts the checks.
- Learn to read contracts. I know, they're boring. They also contain sneaky clauses that can turn around and bite you on the backside, most of which the publisher won't mind Xing out if you tell him you don't want it.
- Don't hold it against your editor when the publishing company does something that makes you mad. Your editor has no more control over the accountants or contract department than you do, and is no more allowed to complain about them to you than you're allowed to complain about your boss to your customers or suppliers.
- Assert yourself in a reasonable and professional manner. You supply a unique commodity and most people are secretly envious of how smart and talented you are. That's why those bozos in elementary school treated you so badly - because they knew if they didn't stomp you down, you'd show them up for the losers they were. You're too old and competent to take that kind of guff anymore, so speak up - for more money, for your third-act turn, for a fifteen-minute break between presentations during school visits!
- If your day job won't let you take an unpaid day off now and then to do a school visit or otherwise support your real career, quit. I'm serious. Most employers are thrilled to have a Real Author on the payroll and will accomodate you if you approach them correctly. If they look on your writing career as a silly hobby, you deserve a better boss.
- Learn to manage depression. I have never known a writer who was not more or less depressive, though many of us are also more or less manic. Work is the only consistent solution I'm aware of. Allow yourself a maximum of three days to be paralyzed by any awful events in your life. After three days, you are officially wallowing and need to get off your butt and accomplish something. Once you accomplish something (it doesn't necessarily have to be a writing task, but they should be high on the priority list), you will automatically feel better. If not, you should consider getting professional help to find the method that works for you. If you had diabetes, you'd go to a doctor and take insulin, right? So why do you think you'd be a weenie if you went to a therapist?
- Marry a person prepared to be a writer's spouse, and treat that person well!
- Find out when your biological highs and lows occur during the day, and schedule your writing time as close to a high as possible.
- Learn to type and to use several kinds of word processing software, e-mail systems, etc. If you have a physical limitation, learn to take full advantage of the technologies available to make your words readily accessible. Inability to manipulate technology is an unnecessary speed bump on the road to success in the 21st Century.
- If you have poetic ambitions, learn an instrument. Songwriters are the only poets I know of who make money. If you don't care about the money, an academic career is the logical second choice for poets.
- Have your taxes done professionally.
- Pay estimated quarterly tax during the year, setting aside at least a quarter of every dollar you make by writing for the payments. If you get a windfall, set aside a third, in case you jumped a tax bracket. You don't want any surprises come April.
- Keep all your receipts. Deduct everything you can justify - including book purchases for market research.
You don't have to be published to be a writer. You only have to write. If the traditional writing life of scrambling after markets and living from hand-to-mouth doesn't appeal to you, you can still get amusement and ego satisfaction from other modes of writing, such as:
- Novels - may be subdivided into genres, such as Science Ficiton, Fantasy, Thriller, Mysteries, Romance; and into age groups, such as Chapter Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Adult.
- Picture Books
- Short Stories
- Comic Books
- Poetry - may be subdivided into Light Verse, Greeting Cards, Literary Verse, and Songwriting
- Screenwriting - for TV and Movies
- Games. Role-playing games such as Champions, Dungeons and Dragons, and Call of Cthulhu are text-heavy and generate supplemental text in the form of adventure modules, settings, and references translating real-world resources into game terms. Trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering must have clear rules-descriptions on the cards and original concepts to generate interest. Board games like Settlers of Catan need clearly-written rules and may generate spin-offs. Game design is an art in itself, but maybe you have a talent for it.
- Humor. Comedians, bumper stickers, greeting cards, joke books, magazines, and comic strips all need gag writers. Humorous columns are also needed by most newspapers and magazines, but good luck competing with the syndicates.
- Word Puzzles. Okay, you won't use your plotting and characterization skills writing anagrams or crosswords - but you will use the extensive vocabulary and non-linear thought processes that first made you consider the career.
- Informational books. Raw data has never been easier to find or harder to digest. The more lanes there are on the information highway, the more need there is for scenic routes - books and articles that isolate a single fascinating subject from all the other fascinating subjects bombarding us and organize the facts into a readily-accessible format. Science writers are particularly necessary in a world in which knowledge is increasingly fragmented and isolated from the other bits of knowledge that give it meaning. Histories need continual rewriting, since the past looks different from the perspective of each successive generation. Biographies will be necessary as long as people keep being born, living, and dying. Crime keeps happening and we keep trying to understand it better. Etc.
- Newspaper Journalism
- Magazine Journalism
- Analysis and Opinion - Criticism, Reviewing, Essays
- Technical Writing
- Summaries and Blurbs - How do you think the explanatory text gets on the signs at the Zoo?
- How-to Books. Cookbooks, gardening books, craft books, redecorating books, investment manuals - what do you know how to do that most people don't?
- Family history
- Diaries and journals. These are usually private, but some people keep these to share - with their children, for example.
- Letters - to friends, to the op/ed page of the newspaper, to your favorite magazine, to your congressman. Don't forget to write insightful, intelligent fan letters to your favorite authors before they die!
- Newsgroup and mailing list participation. This is where natural writers get their due from the general public at a personal level. Aren't there certain people whose posts you delete unread because they're so poorly written? And aren't there other people whose posts you read even when you aren't interested in the thread, because everything they say is interesting? And remember, that pond only looks small. For every regular, even an invitation-only e-mail list is apt to have five or ten lurkers.
- Community literature, such as for churches, neighborhood associations, political activist groups, or fan clubs. Most organizations ask for your money, but really need your time.
- Fan fiction. This is a problematical undertaking from a legal point of view. On the one hand, you don't own Captain Kirk or Agent Scully - they aren't your characters, and you haven't any right to tell them what to do. On the other hand, they have entered your imaginative universe. Why shouldn't you, instead of creating plots and characters from scratch, borrow a character to practice plotting or descriptive writing with? Isn't that what you have to do anyway, to write a script for an existing series? Fans of movies, books, and comics who write about their common interests often form supportive networks of friends who derive pleasure from reading each other's work. As a social activity and practice exercise, I see nothing fundamentally wrong with fan fiction that makes no attempt to profit from use of a copyrighted character and that does not affect the reputation of the copyrighted work. But if you're writing fanfic about any of my characters - please don't show it to me! I'd rather not know.
- Role-playing games. Playing a character uses many of the same creative muscles as writing a story; but it's less lonely. The same is true of creating and running RPG scenarios for your friend. In both cases, bear in mind the fundamental difference between writing a story and playing the game. When you write a story, everything in it comes through you. You don't always feel in control, but you are. When you play a role-playing game, either as DM or player, you are collaborating with your friends, and the game isn't successful if everyone doesn't have a good time.
Thanks to Damon for standing as a model! The following discussion is directed at the spouse, as the life partner we have most control over, but the most important relationships of some writers have been with parents, siblings, or children; apply this advice as appropriate. This aspect of lifeis neglected by the writing advice books, but examining the biographies of famous writers reveals how important the person you marry is - both to you, and to your spouse! Writers are high-maintenance partners. We can be deadly to those we marry, and those we marry can be deadly to us. Charlotte Brontė ceased writing when she married. George Eliot didn't hit her groove till she settled down with George Henry Lewes. Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and W.B. Yeats would make everyone's list of lousy husbands, but Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning made a classic team. Can we even imagine Virginia Woolf's career without Leonard, or Gertrude Stein's without Alice B. Toklas? E. Nesbit's husband treated her poorly, but she stuck with him and they made a life that had room for the work she wanted to do. I can't tell you who to marry, or how to deal with their faults (don't wait for perfection - you won't find it), but I can tell you what to look for.
The ideal writer's spouse:
In return, the writer must strive not to make life harder than necessary: should not refuse to seek employment in times of financial hardship; should not dump the entire burden of house- and childcare on the spouse; should make a point of taking time off from the writing routine periodically to accomodate the spouse's priorities; and should always, always, always, bear in mind that such treatment is a free gift, not an obligation. Most of all, if your family is making sacrifices in order for you to work - you'd better be working! It is not possible to deserve the kind of behavior writers need. It is fatally unwise, however, to settle for anything less.
What, you want more help? You don't pay me enough to read your manuscripts and give you specific advice. Besides, if you don't figure it out on your own, you won't really learn it. Here's some places to go for more help and support, though.
- Can take a lot of neglect. Writing is a solitary occupation, and in the modern economy the number of families that can survive on one traditional job supplemented by writing income is finite. This means you will probably both be at work during similar hours, and writing time must be carved out of time you could otherwise spend together. You will also be using vacation time to attend writing conferences, do school visits, and take research trips.
- Listens while you gripe and doesn't belittle your frustrations
- Rejoices when you rejoice. Families and friends usually don't understand the significance of a starred review in Kirkus and have a hard time getting worked up over your making a state reading list. Fellow writers understand - but if you find yourself achieving a triumph before the others in your writing group, they may be jealous. Spouses are not jealous and are happy to see you happy. They'll even learn, spontaneously, what matters and what doesn't as time goes on.
- Regards editors who reject you and reviewers who dis you as stupidheads, and doesn't hesitate to say so.
- Makes sacrifices for your career. Writing entails financial constraint, directs the allocation of resources, and prevents the completion of housework. A good spouse understands that you have to keep the lower-paying job because the higher-paying one would eat into your writing time; willingly spends a vacation viewing the site of your historical novel; and either doesn't notice dustbunnies, or cleans them up without remark. Most of the time.
- Respects your work space.
- Respects your work time.
- Listens intelligently while you talk out your literary problem, and comments on it. This doesn't mean it is necessary for a writer's spouse to have a literary bent. Nora Joyce didn't. Sometimes what you need is a non-writer's non-technical view of your difficulty.
- Never hands back a manuscript with the words: "It's interesting."
- Is competent to deal with the financial complications of the writing life - weird payment schedules, incomprehensible royalty statements, complex income tax statements, etc.
- Takes command when the computer is torturing you and you're at the end of your rope.
- Recognizes the psychological moment at which to bring you chocolate without being asked.
Writer's Digest Magazine
Poets and Writers Magazine
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators - The most awkward name for a union since the AFL-CIO; but who else is going to understand why it took you three years to write a 32-page book?
Science Fiction Writers of America - with good advice for writers of all genres
The Authors Guild - The champion of your rights! Also, full of resources for putting yourself on the web.
Writers Guild of America - If you're into screenwriting
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