Welcome to a very special Authors Answer! This is our 104th edition, which means it’s the end of our second year. And just like last year, we have some guest authors giving their answer to this very important question. I’d like to thank authors Mark Lawrence, Michael J. Sullivan, Django Wexler, and Andrew Rowe for agreeing to participate. They were very gracious when I asked them to participate. And thank you to Jacqueline Carey for her response. Unfortunately, she has her hands full at the moment, so was unable to participate. I love authors who take the time to respond when they can!
This week’s topic is an important one. Authors sometimes need a bit of help, so we’re talking about the best advice we have received in our quest for being published.
Question 104 – What is the most important piece of writing advice anyone has given you?
It’s been a very long time since someone has given me writing advice. I did seek some out more recently when I read Stephen King’s “On Writing” but all I remember from that were the excellent anecdotes and being urged to never use adverbs in dialogue tags. And whilst that is advice I agree with, it is also advice that JK Rowling wholly ignored whilst selling hundreds of millions of books.
I guess I would have to go back to the creative writing course I took at night school in my 30s to find actual advice that was given to me. The most useful piece handed out to me in those sessions concerned the use of pinpoint detail. Readers’ imaginations are straining at the leash to do the heavy lifting for a writer. So descriptions need not be exhaustive and laboured. You just need the right seeds and the reader will grow the rest. Just the odd detail here and there can bring a scene to life. A scattering of points, dots the reader will join. Don’t describe the whole garden. Describe the rusty catch on the gate, the smell of the heaped cuttings, the rustle of dead flowers in the autumn wind. Move on.
When I was starting out I didn’t know any authors, so I can’t say I had any personal advice from one. But there were writers who I followed online, and I was inspired by many of them. Joe Konrath said, “There’s a word for a writer who never gives up: published.” I think that kind of persistence was instrumental to my own success. There are so many options in today’s publishing environment that when one path doesn’t work, an author should try another. And above all, keep writing, improving, and perfecting their craft. If the first book isn’t a success, maybe the second will be. The only way to guarantee failure is to stop trying.
It’s more career advice than writing advice, honestly, but while I was in college a writing teacher told me: “Never write a sequel to a book you haven’t sold yet.”
I totally forget the context, since we didn’t usually talk about writing careers in class. On one level, it’s solid career advice. If for whatever reason your first book turns out to be unsellable, then if you write a sequel you’re just stuck with two unsellable books. That’s not really *writing* advice, though, and some people might say the business of being an author is a different thing entirely.
*But*, as I’ve thought about it in later years, I actually think there’s another piece to this. It encouraged me to think of myself as a *writer*, rather than *a person who writes a particular story*. In the decade or so since then, I’ve met many, many writers, some successful and some less so. One thing many (not all, there are exceptions to everything!) of the successful ones had in common was that they could start a project, *finish* that project, and then *move on*, so they had a string of completed pieces under their belts rather than a single, endlessly-tinkered-with magnum opus. This is obviously better career-wise, since you get more shots, but I think it has a lot to recommend it craft-wise as well. You learn things from finishing a story that can be hard to incorporate into that story, but only taken into account when you start up the *next* piece. Completing a work and calling it done has its own reward and its own lessons.
Is it true for everyone? Of course not, no writing advice is. (Process is personal, as I am quick to remind anyone.) But it came at a good time for me. I was high on fantasy epics like THE WHEEL OF TIME, A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN, and at one point I was plotting out a grandiose ten-book scheme covering the creation of the universe to the end of days. I ended up writing some more modest single-book projects, and I’m very glad I did, because my skill has (I hope) improved quite a bit since then. The book I finally sold was my eighth or ninth overall; it’s hard to imagine it would have done as well as Book 8 of a series.
If you love writing, don’t let anything discourage you from doing more of it.
If your beta readers don’t like your work, keep writing. Polish, improve, repeat.
If you query literary agents and they aren’t interested? Keep writing. Look at other agents. Look at other publishing options – self-publishing is getting more viable every year.
If you publish and your first book isn’t a hit? Keep writing. Focus on doing better next time. It might not even be your writing that’s the issue; sometimes it’s just bad timing or marketing.
This doesn’t mean to ignore constructive criticism; it’s great to get feedback that helps you improve. But never let the idea that you’re not perfect slow you down – no writer is going to appeal to every audience. Even the absolute top authors out there, the Tolkiens and the Martins of the world, have vast numbers of people who don’t enjoy their work.
Never let self-doubt keep you from doing what you love.
I can’t quote her exactly. But after my thirty-oddth rejection from a publisher, I wanted to quit, to give up on my dream of being a published author. When I said this to my best friend, she shouted at me (paraphrased for family-friendly fare), “Don’t you freaking DARE quit!!!”
So I’ll pass that on to anyone else who questions their role as a writer, who sees an end to their work, who is balancing the option of burying their dream among the dust of a mundane, safe routine: Don’t you freaking DARE quit. Don’t strangle that dream out of your soul and kill it. You’re a writer. You sweat blood to make people come to life on a page, to tell your story, to drag readers by the eyeballs into your world and make them live with you until the last word on the last page, and close the book with a wistful sigh.
Don’t. You. Freaking DARE. Quit.
I can’t give anyone credit for this because you hear it from just about everyone. It’s the only advice one really can give for getting words on the page and making them into stories of quality.
This applies to more than just writing, but “It’s never too late”.
Read. I think the most important thing that any author can do is read. Not just in the genre they are writing in, although that is necessary, but also other genres, just to get a feel for how the craft of writing is done. I have elements of thrillers and horror in my science fiction. I also spend a lot of time reading science journals. Keeping up with the latest advances.
Probably “write the crap first and polish the turd later.” Agonizing over what you’re going to write is ultimately a waste of time. Get something on the page and then FIX it later. Getting the thoughts going and words flowing is the only way to from start to finish.
The most important piece of advice I received is show not tell. I could tell you a character is shy or I could you show you. Showing you allows you to discover it on your own. Discovering it on your own pulls you into the story a bit further because you are getting to know the character as you would a friend.
That writing fiction is about contrast at every level. Contrast breeds tension.
I’ve been given my fair share of writing advice over the years, but I think the most important piece is the one that I have consistently failed to follow, and that is this: Just Write. Write as much and as often as you can. Write anything and everything. Just write, write, write. Everything else can come afterward. You can figure out the editing, revisions, publishing, and everything else as it comes, but first you have to write. If you don’t actually put pen to paper and write, the game is over before it even began.
I have a distinct memory of a particular critique from CC that allowed me to finally understand “Show, Don’t Tell.” I felt like my eyes had been opened to a whole new world. But here’s one of my favorite pieces of advice to give to new writers (I don’t remember who originally said it): Remember that the rough draft of a novel is just shoveling sand into a sandbox so later you can build sandcastles.
You’ll never publish anything if you don’t finish it and then submit it. This, as someone who had fussed over a single novel for twenty-some years, rather hit home in a big way. That novel, my third to be published (because I eventually followed this advice), will be out in the Spring of 2017.
Just keep doing it. Writing isn’t so much about inspiration as it is about work, and anything you practice at enough, you’ll get better at. There is no guarantee that you’ll get published, but if you only daydream about your stories and never write them, nothing can ever happen.
I think a common answer would be to just write, and keep writing. Never stop. However, I’d like to take this a bit further. One thing I’ve been told that I completely agree with is to write what you would like to read. If there’s a story idea that you keep thinking, “I wish someone wrote a book about this,” then write it! It’s your idea, so create that story. And if you like it, there’s a very good chance that there are other people who will like it. Don’t just sit there, either. Once you have that idea, flesh it out and write it. It may not be the best written book, but just get it written, then worry about editing later on to make it that book that you want to read.
How about you?
If you’re an author or aspiring author, what is the best piece of advice you’ve received? Let us know in the comments section below.