Here’s the thing about writing, or more specifically, about being paid to write: it’s a job.
Of course, you could describe it in more romantic terms: it could be calling, or a vocation. Or perhaps your mind has a more prosaic bent; perhaps for you it’s an itch that needs to be scratched. There are reams and reams of twitter conversations on the topic of why writers choose to write; if you go looking for those I’m certain you’ll find one that matches how you feel. But if you’re actually getting paid to put your stories down on paper, then whatever else you might call it, one thing is certain: it’s a job. I admit that I may have a more businesslike approach to writing than most given that I also work part-time in fund management, but I truly don’t see why the principles that are relevant within a mainstream workplace wouldn’t apply also to writing. So on the principal that you have to fake it before you make it, here are my top three pieces of somewhat businesslike advice for the writer who wants their writing to be more than just a hobby.
- You have to go to work.
This is the most important one. Even if you aren’t (yet) being paid, you must believe that you deserve to be paid and act accordingly. If you have only certain hours in the week when you can write, ringfence those hours. Sit down and write in those hours, regardless of whether you feel like it or not — if I always waited until I felt like writing, I would still be writing The French Girl — and make sure the environment you do that in lacks other distractions. (For my part, I’m extraordinarily unproductive at home because sometimes even doing the laundry can seem more appealing than opening the laptop, so I usually write in cafés.) Don’t allow anything else to steal your writing time — after all, you wouldn’t accept an invitation to coffee at a time when you had to be in the office, or your boss might very well fire you. You are your boss now. You have to be tough, and you have to make yourself go to work.
- Create a polished product
For the content of your work to earn proper consideration, it has to look the part. Your manuscript might be the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the rough, but agents and publishers get thousands of submissions — why would they spend time on one that isn’t correctly formatted or lacks proper punctuation and grammar? All those things scream amateur, and nobody wants to waste their time with that. Find out what the submission guidelines are for the individual or organization to which you are submitting (which will almost certainly be on their website) and make absolutely sure you meet those requirements. Oh, and proofread your work. Very carefully.
- Know your market
You may have the most wonderful crossover chick-lit/gothic/cyberpunk novel ever written, and there might be a publisher out there willing to take a chance on it … but I wouldn’t stake my career on it, and you shouldn’t either. If a publisher isn’t sure how to market your book, or whether there’s even an audience for it at all, they won’t take a leap of faith on it. Have a clear idea of the genre you are writing within and what the readers of that genre expect. As my wonderful agent once told me: save the interesting genre-bending for book five, when you have a devoted readership who will follow you anywhere. (Clearly there are books, and writers, which have defied this last piece of advice and done astronomically well, but those are the exception rather than the rule.)
And that’s it, except to add that writing is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, but it’s also the most rewarding. I wish you the very best of luck. Now go to work!
Check out Lexie’s books here:
“How did you finish it?”
I’m asked some version of that question a lot, with “it” referring to my debut novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. The question about the finish is not a request for a spoiler that would reveal the book’s ending, but rather, it’s an inquiry about how one simply goes about getting the thing done. Every writer has his or her own process, so you’ll find that advice on this question is equally varied, but there is at least one universal writing truth: It’s not easy. For me, scheduling makes it less hard. I know, the topic of time management is not particularly sexy. A lot of us would much rather discuss craft, creativity, or the things that inspire us. But you won’t get far with those things if you don’t master the more laborious, workaday side of writing.
It’s true, it takes a certain compulsive drive to be a writer, but a lot of us still fall victim to procrastination or outright avoidance, particularly when the writing feels like a Sisyphean struggle — and in my experience, it feels like that a great deal of the time. It may be helpful to know that giving in to that urge to do anything other than writing in those moments is not entirely because of a lack of discipline. You may be able to put the blame on your brain. The New York Times recently reported on a study that found our brains can trick us into feeling an urgency to do less important, more immediately rewarding tasks like, perhaps, cleaning up that backlog of emails rather than taking on more difficult projects in which the finish is a long way off, as is the case with that novel that’s been languishing on your desk or knocking around in your head — hence the need for scheduling.
There is the element of ritual in a good schedule, which can be a comfort. Showing up at an appointed time to a familiar place and performing your task — there’s equilibrium in it. But don’t think your schedule has to be perfect or meet some writerly ideal. It just needs to be habitual and workable for you. If a two-hour block after putting the kids to bed is all you have, then go with it. Early mornings before rushing off to your day job? Set the alarm accordingly. Many of us are quite adaptable when we need to be. In my case, I prefer working early mornings, but I usually only have time in the late afternoons and on weekends, so that is when I write. I also prefer quiet but, having worked in busy newsrooms for my entire professional life, I can handle a bit of noise.
So, find the time and — crucially — keep it for yourself and your writing projects alone. You are more apt to do this if you think of writing as what it is: work. And whether your workplace is at an office desk, the kitchen table, or a counter in a coffeehouse, showing up there without fail or distractions must be a priority. That may mean skipping that impromptu party, missing that movie with your friends, leaving that email backlog to another day. Writing is part of your routine. Your daily ritual. Treat it that way.
And even on those days when you can’t get motivated (which will be more days than you might imagine), clock in. Keep writing, even when what you put on the page proves unusable or even shockingly inadequate (which will also happen more often than you might imagine). With every sentence, you’re finding your way. You’re working on craft. And even when you can’t come up with anything at all, stay with it. As you sit drumming your fingers on your forehead or staring off into the middle distance, puzzling over how to fill that blank page, you’re plumbing the depths of creativity. You’ll figure out what comes next. And if you don’t figure it out during that workday, then maybe you will on the next one. Or the next. And here, I should probably make a note of this important fact: Inspiration works on its own schedule. So keep yours. I promise, the two of you will meet up in due time.
Check out Anissa’s book here:
In-flight magazines are my weakness. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve brought with me to read or how much work I have to do, on a plane I always end up reading the in-flight magazine, at least for the first leg of the journey.
A few years ago, the article that caught my interest was one about making your own luck. I’m of Irish heritage so luck is a big deal for me. I pick up pennies, toss salt over my shoulder, have a horseshoe hanging in my house somewhere — you get the picture — so I was intrigued. The long and short of the article was that the people who are statistically luckier than the rest are the ones who are paying attention to the world around them. Hmm.
Fast forward a few months, I arrived in New York City to meet with my editor. I was there on other business but wanted to pop in and see where the magic behind the books happens. The visit was…peculiar. Offices were half packed, people were clearly moving around, and there was a sense of unease in the air the likes of which I had lived through once before during the recession as a librarian in Phoenix. In this case, my publisher had recently merged with another. It was clear that big changes were happening.
Normally, I would have been reassured by an “everything’s fine” and a smile, but this time I knew better because I was paying attention. When the opportunity presented itself, I asked my editor directly what else she thought I might write besides traditional mysteries, since I now feared they were going to go the way of the Dodo. She observed that if I took all of the dead bodies out of my mysteries what I really had going on was romantic comedy and that she would be delighted if I would give that a go. So I did.
Well, after thirty mysteries in five different series, I had a rhythm going with the whole dead body, red herrings, multiple suspects, and you turn yourself around sort of writing hokey pokey. A straight romantic comedy with no dead body? Huh. Come to find out those dead bodies really move a plot along.
I frequently hear people say that writing romance is easy. Yeah, no. I’m a child of the 80’s, one of the original latch key kids, who was raised on after school specials and sitcoms. I am incapable of having a problem that lasts longer than twenty-two and a half minutes because I run out of coping skills at the commercial break. Trying to write a one-hundred-thousand-word novel with legit conflicts between the hero and heroine that do not involve finding a dead body at any point? Oh, man, I had to dig deep. I had to raise my game. This was really hard!
Thankfully, the one mainstay I have is humor. Whether in life or in fiction, if I am not laughing I am tapping out — probably all of those sitcoms are to blame. Either way, I write the punch lines to the laugh track in my head, and I know it’s going well when I snort-laugh while writing. I’ve finished three romantic comedies now, and some commonalities have come to light in the fictional worlds, both mystery and romance, that I create. The characters are quirky, the settings cozy, the humor is on point, and the relationships are heartwarming, whether my characters are solving a crime or falling in love. When I stepped back and could see my voice working in both genres, it made me realize I could write successfully in any genre that caught my interest. Look out science fiction/ fantasy, here I come!
I’ll be doing a lot of flying in the next year and, believe me, I’m going to be reading the in-flight magazine and paying attention.
Check out Jenn’s books here:
There’s something enticingly ambiguous about characters who hover on the fringes of social groups. They’re not strangers — they have a perfectly legitimate reason for being there — but they’re excluded from the inner circle. They don’t quite belong, and this can lend them a certain invisibility.
The neighbor who smiles over the fence; the intern who arrives at work first and leaves last; the acquaintance who joins the camping trip to make up numbers… these characters are finely positioned to observe the action and make their plans without having to reveal their own flaws in return.
When we encounter one of these characters lurking on the social margins, delicious questions arise. Do they resent being overlooked, or are they revelling in the lack of scrutiny — even taking advantage of it? Does their position make them vulnerable, or powerful? Sometimes, as readers, it’s our desire to discover which of these outcomes will triumph that keeps us hooked.
If we’re sympathetic to our doesn’t-quite-belong character, we might worry about the illusion of safety. An observer is only one step away from being a witness. An inadvertent glimpse of something wrong, or an overheard revelation, might catapult our outsider into a moral dilemma or a life-threatening situation. Will they choose to become a whistle-blower, or an accomplice? Will they intervene despite great personal risk, or will they flee?
Yet, with a few subtle words from the writer, how easily our sympathy slides into suspicion. Is our interloper hiding a murky background, an ulterior motive? Do they plan to stroll, unremarked upon, amongst the main players, right up until the moment they drop their mask and show who really has the upper hand?
The suspense created by these questions has a unique flavor. This is not stranger danger, nor does it focus on close personal betrayal, but it combines elements of each into something all the more slippery and unpredictable.
The balance between vulnerability and power in these characters can push a plot along at a rapid pace. And how much more claustrophobic it becomes if they take up a role inside our homes. Literature is rich with butlers and governesses, cooks and housekeepers, all afforded a unique view of — and unique access to — their employers’ private lives.
Is there an ultimate position that one of these characters can inhabit? How about caring for our most precious ‘possessions’ — our children? A nanny is often the person who keeps the family’s life running smoothly, who holds the very family unit together. Almost, you might say, one of the family. Yet working under contract, of course, and subject to the whims of their employer, like anyone else.
I’d like to suggest that an au pair could claim an even more almost-integrated role whilst still hovering on the social fringes. The name itself comes from the French for on a par with, emphasizing their equal status within the host family. An au pair is there to help with light childcare and household duties, in return for a pocket money-level of payment and the chance to experience a different way of life. The employer-employee relationship is blurred into something more personal, more familial, more altruistic. For a character who doesn’t properly belong, this might be as close as they can get to pretending that they do.
In real life, of course, the relationship between au pairs and their host families is frequently a happy one. In fiction, however, we are instantly alert. Here is a seemingly defenseless character sleeping under a stranger-family’s roof. Here is a character pottering around that family’s home while the adults are busy elsewhere. Here is a character who hears the late-night quarrel, who sees the unguarded flash of emotion, who empties the trash can and closes the laptop and passes on the phone messages. Here is a character glimpsing — and hiding — secrets.
Here is a character both powerful and vulnerable, and we want to know how their story ends.
Check out Emma’s book here:
I frequently say that the most predictable part of my writing process is how unpredictable it is. As a writer, I’m a “pantser” — someone who drafts without plotting a great deal. Instead of utilizing an outline as I write, I favor following where the story takes me with a general idea of the book’s conclusion. The journey is different for each book I write, and I frequently find surprises along the way. However, as unpredictable as penning the first draft of my novel is, my revision process never varies, and that reliable system is a source of great comfort as I hone my novel.
Once I’ve finished the first draft of my manuscript, I implement my tried and true system. I always start with a revision pass on my computer. Since I often take months to write the initial draft, I read through the entire manuscript with the aim of getting a holistic view of the book. I’ll frequently discover that something I wrote when I started the book needs to be tweaked to fall in line with where the story took me later on. This revision pass helps me gain a better sense of how the overall story is working and whether any plot holes exist or character development is needed. I’m also fixing obvious flaws that jump out at me.
After I’ve reacquainted myself with the book and tweaked the plot and characters as necessary, I print out a hard copy and pull out my red pen. For me, this is where the magic happens. There’s something about editing your work in print that really helps you polish your writing. I spend a lot of time at this stage working on sentence structure, word choice, and adding layers and depth to the story.
When I’ve finished this second pass, I email the updated manuscript to my e-reader. I’ve found that I am much more likely to catch typos, mistakes, and awkward phrasing when I change the medium with which I view my book. If I’m used to looking at it a certain way, it’s easy to skip over things, but with variety, it feels fresh each time I revise. At this level, I’m mainly doing the never-ending typo search as well as cleaning up any awkward phrasing. I’ll also look for any formatting issues that jump out at me that make the manuscript less readable in a digital format, like unwieldy paragraphs.
Following these three revision passes, I usually take a step back and decide if I’m happy with the book, or if it needs more tweaking. The digital pass really informs that decision, because it’s the draft when I truly read the book as a reader would. If there are still things that are pulling me out of the story, or something isn’t working for me, I’ll restart the revision process and go through each step again. Some books only need three revision passes before I’m comfortable sending them to my editor (and then we start the editorial process); others need nine or more revision passes. The goal is to reach the point where I’m not making significant changes at the e-reader stage.
Because I often start writing a book with a skeleton of an idea and I love the freedom of being able to explore the direction in which my characters and plot take me, the structure of my revision process really works as a safety net. Whenever I feel stuck in the drafting process or realize something isn’t working in the book, I push through with the knowledge that the revision process will provide an opportunity to make the book shine. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser like me, I recommend taking the time to revise your work across different mediums. It offers a fresh perspective — and you’ll be surprised what you find!
Check out Chanel’s books here:
Every writer is asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Writers create people and worlds in a way that hints of magic, making things seemingly real that didn’t exist before. This mystery intrigues readers, who enjoy the final result but wonder how it came about.
I suspect every writer has his or her own pathway to creation. One of the best explanations I ever read, and the one that comes closest to what happens to me, was described by C.S. Forster (author of the Horatio Hornblower novels) in his autobiography Long Before Forty. He said various random ideas would come to him, some stronger than others. He would let them rest — he compared it to sinking a log into water and then pulling it up later to see if moss was growing on it. If there was, it was a viable idea.
A writer has many ideas but only a few take root and grow. For every one of my eight novels, I must have had ten other tentative novels that didn’t ‘grow.’
Readers, editors, and friends often make suggestions; those are treated to the ‘log submersion’ test; sometimes these bear fruit and sometimes not. My Nero novel came about from a casual question at dinner: “Have you ever thought about the emperor Nero?” My Henry VIII novel came from a trip I made to Hampton Court, where I was struck with the realization that everyone knew about Anne Boleyn but few knew about his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. My Helen of Troy novel came about because I wanted to see what it would be like to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Ideas and inspirations can come from all quarters; they come best when I am not actively searching for them.
Ray Bradbury said all writers should write a thousand words a day. That seems a little extreme to me — that’s about five pages. But I do think the better advice is ‘keep the pilot light lit.’ You should write something on your project every day just to sustain it in your mind, to keep it alive. Email and Facebook don’t count. If you really want to be superstitious about it, make sure to write at least a paragraph on your work on New Year’s Day because the folklore is that whatever you do on New Year’s Day you will continue to do all year long. Conversely, whatever you don’t do, you won’t do all year long.
It helps to keep a log of when you wrote and how much you wrote; otherwise you forget and in planning a new project, you tend to overestimate the amount you actually can do at a reasonable pace. I can normally do about twenty-five pages a week. That’s one hundred pages a month. Others, of course, can write more or less.
Drafts — ah, drafts! That’s such an individual choice. Some people write best what they write first, and subsequent drafts get paler and paler and dwindle away in power. Other people write sprawling first drafts that have to be corralled and pounded into shape. The only rule is, please know which category you are in!
Ideally some time should elapse before you start editing your work. Let it sit — this is sometimes called ‘the icebox method.’ Then you can read it in a more detached manner.
Some people — like me — have a hard time editing their own work. I see it from the beginning as if it is a fixed thing rather than still in progress. (Along the same line, I have trouble visualizing the furniture in a room in any other arrangement.) If you have this problem, enlist the help of a friend whose reading tastes are like yours.
The first feedback I get tends to make me nervous, but apparently even Stephen King suffers from this, as he awaits his wife’s first read-through. It is the first time anyone has seen our ‘darling’ besides us, and of course to us she is beautiful, but what if she isn’t to anyone else?
This is as good a time as any for me to say I have heard the advice ‘read through your manuscript and every time you see a phrase that is fine and lovely, strike it through.’ That seems silly to me — why shouldn’t it be fine and lovely? You are not writing a newspaper, but a work of art. Would you follow the advice to open your closet and take your most flattering clothes out, leaving only the dull ones?
Finally, the most useful advice I can give is to develop the ability to sit still and see a project through, and to ruthlessly avoid the distractions that can derail the project. It is hard — it feels like entering a monastery sometimes, but in the end you will thank yourself.
Check out Margaret’s books here:
This article was written by Francesca Hornak and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
This year, with the deadline for my second novel in sight, plotter’s block descended. Plotter’s block is different from writer’s block. Writer’s block, as I see it, is when you have a story but the words aren’t flowing or behaving. Plotter’s block is when you’re itching to write, perhaps you’re already writing — except you have no story. Nothing to reel your readers in. All you have is a jumble of settings, characters, conflicts, scenes. Nothing, in short, that is actually going to hold that blurb. The tricky thing is that actively searching for ideas can feel contrived, and paralyzing. So there’s definitely a case for putting everything on hold, while your subconscious chews things over. But if you’re as impatient as I am, you’ll want to help your subconscious out in the meantime. These, then, are the three places I look for stories (without telling myself I’m looking).
Read the local news
Unlike the global or national news, local papers are mines of small-scale human-interest stories. And these stories, the family feuds, the individual tragedies, the community uprisings and the everyday heroes, are exactly the material a novelist needs. It worked for me, anyway. The plot I’ve ended up with for my second novel is based on a story in my local rag about ‘Patient X’ — a mysterious man who had been lying unconscious and unidentified in hospital, for thirty days. The paper’s focus was on the man: Who was he, and how could someone go un-missed ‘in one of the most connected cities in the world’? My focus is going to be on the patient’s neighbors, who find him, call him an ambulance, and are then brought together by the puzzle he presents.
Conversations with strangers
Everyone has something for your novel, if you let them talk. Case in point: after I’d found Patient X, I met someone at a wedding who told me about a strange man in her very bourgeois street in West London. His house, which he has apparently lived in since birth, looks derelict with boarded up windows. He barely speaks to anyone (although you can faintly hear him playing the violin through those window boards). But every morning he goes to the local tube station, collects a load of free papers, and delivers one to every house on the street. Immediately I thought of Patient X, and what great details these would be for the local ‘loner’ — possibly even details the plot could twist or hinge on. Then there was the man I sat beside on a plane who told me how his mother, sick of making packed lunches every morning, hit on batch-freezing industrial quantities of sandwiches every few months instead. He and his siblings would then get these frozen sandwiches — usually only half defrosted — in their lunchboxes. Admittedly it didn’t spark a whole novel, but something in its muted, suburban madness really appealed to me. And unlike a friend or relative, a stranger is unlikely to find out you plundered their life. If they do, you’ve obviously written a bestseller.
If you’re really stuck, it’s worth considering any myths, parables, or fairy tales that caught your imagination as a child. I’ve always loved the story of The Prodigal Son — I like the way its themes of sibling rivalry and unconditional parental love are so enduring, and the fact that everyone behaves badly or rashly at some point. I used it to structure my first novel Seven Days of Us, because I knew I wanted to write a family story about one rebellious sister and one who was very attached to her parents. The key to making this method feel fresh and inspiring, I think, is to reverse one aspect of the existing story. In my case, the ‘errant’ sibling was off doing good deeds, rather than squandering her inheritance, while the stay-at-home sibling was very frivolous. I don’t see any shame in this tactic — apparently there are only about seven stories in the world anyway, so it’s no wonder we all get plotter’s block from time to time. Good luck.
Plotter’s Block / Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
This article was written by Karen White and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
I always get a little squirmy when I’m asked to give advice on writing. I mean, what makes me an authority on the subject? Sure, I’ve written a bunch of books, but the only “training” I’ve had in my chosen vocation is the thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime so far.
I’d like to think that despite not having a lot of experience or knowledge about the whole writing thing when I started, surely I’ve learned something along the way. And I have.
In that vein, here are a few nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my nearly twenty years of being a published author. No, I haven’t figured out the magic formula that will grant a writer instant success. But I have accumulated a nice list of what not to do if you’re planning on having a career as a writer.
Do not spend all your writing time making excuses as to why you can’t write instead of actually writing. Excuses will not write a book. Finding the perfect time to finally start a book is like choosing the right time to move to another country and start a new life. There will never be a perfect time, as there will always be reasons why the timing isn’t optimal. If you have a burning desire to write a book (or move to another country), make it a priority. The rest will fall into place, and you’ll be a lot happier with yourself.
Do not take to heart everyone else’s writing style/advice/methods before you’ve given yourself a chance to figure out your own. Writing is incredibly personal. There are as many writing techniques and styles as there are writers. It’s what gives us our individual writer’s voice. It’s precious and unique and you need to own it and not dilute it with external influences before you’ve given it a chance to sprout. If I’d listened to all the well-meaning advice when I started (don’t write in first person, never start a sentence with “and,” outline everything before you write the first sentence), I would never have written my first book.
Do not surround yourself with naysayers. For whatever reason, there will always be people in our lives who will attempt to discourage us from our pursuits. Either family members, friends, or other writers will have negative things to say about our talent (or lack thereof). Don’t listen to them. It’s always easier to be a critic than the warrior fighting the battle. Just remember that it’s not about them. Your writing is between you and the words on the page. And nobody else.
Do not wait until the muse strikes before you sit down to write.This one always makes me laugh. I would have written exactly three pages in my entire career if this were true. In my previous life in the business world, I don’t imagine I would have lasted in any job very long if my attitude had been that I’d only show up for work when I felt like it. There are usually about a million other things I’d rather be doing than gluing myself to my chair and getting to work. Since I consider writing my career and not just a hobby, I treat it with respect.
Do not say my family/job/life isn’t conducive to writing a book.News flash: unless you’re independently wealthy and your family is entirely self-sufficient, this will never change. I wrote my first books in my SUV at the football field and horse barn while my children practiced. My husband traveled about ninety percent of the time for his job so I was basically a single mom for most of the week. Instead of chatting with the other mothers, or reading a magazine, or napping, I used that time to write. There are pockets of time in each of our lives that we can prioritize as writing time. Expect to let go of a few things (binge watching on Netflix, hanging out on Facebook, sleeping in on weekends) to find the time. But the time is there if you’re willing to make your writing happen.
Do not expect that the hard work is over after you sell your first book. It’s only just beginning. To prepare yourself for your writing career, start thinking about your next book as soon as you send your first book proposal to prospective agents and editors. You’ve got momentum so make the most of it.
Writers write. It’s what we do. We turn off the negative voices, we create the time and the place, and we write. To borrow words from Nike, Just Do It.
Writing/Photo by Lubomyr Myronyuk on Unsplash
This article was written by Christina Dalcher and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
A quick Google search for ‘writing advice’ tells me there can’t be much left that hasn’t already been said. Nobel Prize winners offer tips. Forty experts tell beginners what to do. Bestselling authors give us insight into their creative processes. And so on, ad infinitum. Then there’s that perfect book, half craft, half writer’s memoir: Stephen King’s On Writing. If I could only have one how-to manual on my shelf, it would be that one.
Where does this leave us, then? What guidance can I, a debut novelist and writer of flash fiction, possibly offer the world, or the emerging writer? I’ve thought about it over and over, and finally came up with two words:
We know writing takes work, and skill, and talent, and perseverance. There’s the old ‘Butt-in-the-chair, honey!’ mandate (with its cute acronym) — a writer’s corollary to the athlete’s ‘Just Do It’ mantra. You want to run? Run. You want to write? Write. There’s something so plainly tautological about it all. And there can be beauty in tautologies.
But I think fearlessness is the single quality we as writers need to cultivate, and I mean this in multiple ways.
We need the bravery to pour our emotions out, spilling ink onto paper with a little of our own blood mixed in. That’s no small trick. We need the courage to send our words into the world, knowing that once we do, a part of us is gone, floating in the public sphere, no longer under our control. If one accepts Roland Barthes’ notion that the author is dead, we authors must embrace the concept that we’re killing some portion of ourselves the minute our work leaves us. And, of course, we need the self-esteem and thick, carapace-like skin to hang on and persist when the inevitable rejections hit our inboxes. Believe me, they will hit — hard. A bland form rejection from an agent or editor can carry all the pain of bludgeon to the face, a direct smack to our very soul. Everyone who writes, or who wants to write, requires a ring fighter’s determination, a Rocky-esque willingness to go the distance, and to keep going.
Being fearless also takes us in new directions, allowing us to experiment with previously unknown forms, new characters, and diverse points of view. One of my favorite things about writing flash fiction — tightly condensed stories often under 500 words — is exactly this: Within the space of a day, I can be a cranky old man on a front porch in Mississippi, a young housewife, or a sneaky feline. Fearlessness is a gift, a license to try something different and liberate ourselves from any habitual ruts. And it need not be limited to our writing lives. We can extend it to our whole lives: to our relationships with ourselves and others, to our careers (and the changing thereof), and to how we interact with the world.
Finally, we need to forge some armor of another sort — the kind that protects us from dissatisfied readers. It’s useful to remember that old John Lydgate saying about not being able to please everyone all of the time. Every once in a while, our words may not even reach the point of unpleasing, instead inspiring far less positive reactions. Still, they’re our words and our thoughts, and we have to steel ourselves against ugly feedback. (Hint: read your reviews, or not. Then go back to doing what you do.)
When I teach writing classes, the very first thing I tell my students is to prepare for rejection and failure. Both are going to happen, sometimes much more frequently than we’d wish. The rejection and failure aren’t the focus, though; it’s what we do afterwards that counts. And what we, as creators, should do afterwards is simple: get up and do it all over again.
Would I call myself fearless? Would I use that label? I don’t know; I haven’t walked through the world with a superhero cape on my back. I do know that others have said this about me, starting with my first professor in graduate school twenty years ago. That man is gone now, and I can’t pick up the phone and say, “Hey, guess what? I believe you.” So instead, I write, a little or a lot every day, and try to live up to the descriptor. I try to fear nothing, even when that seems impossible.
Maybe you were expecting a writer’s user manual. A list of do’s and don’ts full of perennial tips like ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘avoid adverbs.’ Something along those lines. But the best advice I can give, and — in my mind — the only advice worth its salt, is encapsulated in two words.
Then sit back and watch what happens. I have a feeling what happens will be good.
Be Fearless/Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash
This article was written by Elyssa Friedland and originally appeared on Signature Reads.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the difficult balance an author needs to strike between writing what we are familiar with, and therefore helping to unsure an authentic voice, and creating characters totally apart from ourselves in settings we may never have visited.
The former might seem easier and the safer route to go. “Write what you know;” it’s a familiar refrain and popular advice given to aspiring writers. But even that can be fraught with difficulty. In writing characters, places, and events from our own lives, we can all too easily fall into the trap of sharing too much detail. When setting a novel in New York City, where I live, it’s critical that I don’t mention every restaurant and boutique name that I frequent. When I find myself writing more of a guidebook to New York City than a novel, I ask myself: Is that extra detail propelling the story forward? If not, it should be cut. I certainly don’t want to limit the audience for my books to readers who live within a ten-mile radius of me looking for a great hat store.
On the other hand, there is value in sharing the nooks and crannies of a setting we know intimately well. It is the ultimate way to invite the reader to join us in the pages. Reading fiction is nothing if not an escape, and the more specificity provided, the more easily a reader can Photoshop themselves into the novel and feel the humid air, taste the freshly picked tomato, and smell the lavender — whatever atmosphere the writer is trying to suck the reader into comes alive the more detail we give.
A quick anecdote. In my latest novel, The Intermission, a critical scene takes place at a Chinese restaurant on First Avenue called Wa Jeal. This would be a case of providing too much in the minutia department. It didn’t matter that it was on First Avenue and it certainly didn’t matter what the restaurant was called. The only upshot of providing that detail were the numerous texts I got from local friends: Is Wa Jeal really good? What do you order there? Do they deliver? Yeah… you get the idea.
Setting is not the only trap where writing what you know can lead to extraneous detail. Too often we as writers like to share experiences from our former professions — probably because we are scarred by them. There are a lot of lawyers-turned-writers and much as we may want to tell our readers about the gloom and doom of law firm life, from the tedious document review at three A.M. to the hours spent waiting in the printing office for four-hundred page contracts to be bound, we need to remember: there’s a reason we switched gears. Being a lawyer was boring! And so is writing about it.
In The Intermission, I attempted to strike a nice balance between writing what I knew and writing what I wanted to know about. I refused to make either of my husband and wife pair attorneys. Instead, I made Jonathan a hedge funder — a world that is somewhat elusive to me but is prevalent in my hometown of New York City. For Cass, I decided to put her in the world of Broadway marketing. I love theater but knew very little about the behind-the-scenes making of a show. So I was able to bring my passion for the stage to the novel but also explain the mechanics of marketing a show in outsider-not-insider terms.
Likewise with the plot. Half the novel is set in New York, but half the story is in Los Angeles. I’ve visited LA many times but don’t know it nearly as well as my hometown. Having a split-setting kept my overflow details in check. I needed to make sure LA came alive just as much as New York did in the book.
Not overwriting what I know continues to be a struggle I face as a writer, but I’m certainly aware of the pitfalls. And I welcome reader feedback on the subject, as that is truly the test of whether I’m striking the proper balance.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash