There’s a lot of advice out there for writers. Today we discuss what worked for us. The question:
“What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?”
Lawrence M. Schoen
This is an easy one because the advice is still as true today as it was when I first received it years and years ago. Credit where it’s due, and while the advice didn’t originate with her, I had it directly from Nebula-nominated (and former ROC editor) author Laura Anne Gilman, and I will forever be in her debet because of it. It even comes with a handy acroynm: A.I.C.
Ass. In. Chair.
That unpacks a little bit to mean that each day, every day, a writer puts his/her butt in the chair and writes. It doesn’t matter how much or how little, the point is that you do it every day. Weekdays. Weekends. Holidays. Vacation days. Days when you’re sick in bed. Days when you’re away working a convention. On your honeymoon. The day of a loved one’s funeral. The day when every other aspect of your life is exploding. The day when your book comes out, or your name shows up on an award list, or you get the best review you’ve ever seen. Every day, no exceptions.
You want to be a writer? Then write. Don’t just talk about writing. Don’t hang just out in the bar at cons with other authors and swap war stories. Put in the time. Each and every day. And it start by putting your ass in that chair.
The one bit of advice I heard that has stuck with me and turned out to be really useful is from Tobias Buckell who said that writers need to learn the difference between milestones (“things you’d like to have happen to you”) and goals (“things you can actually achieve”).
As writers, we have little influence over milestones—winning an award, getting a movie deal, selling a story to a prestigious magazine—so it makes no sense to obsess over them. Goals, on the other hand, are things we can control, and the most important goal of all is to “write more.” (And in that way, this bit of advice links up with Lawrence’s point.)
My favorite advice has always been to figure out what things you like best and put lots of them in. (Or, put another way: write exactly the story you want to read.)
I’ll go back to my 4th and 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Quist, at Lee Richmond Elementary in Hanford, California. Her advice: “write whatever you want.” My writing flourished during her writers’ workshop times. I drove my poor classmates nuts because I was so prolific, especially in 5th grade when I wrote my extremely long nonfiction account of my family’s disastrous trip to Sacramento.
I had Mr. Quist as my newspaper teacher in 7th and 8th grade; he passed away a few years ago. Like his wife, he encouraged us to write whatever we wanted. He wasn’t afraid of controversy–“it makes them read and talk,” he said.
I dedicated my next book, The Clockwork Crown, to Mrs. and Mr. Quist.
Your muse works for you. There are those who say they are “waiting for the muse” so they don’t write for long periods of time. I find that, when I show up for work, especially on a daily basis, my muse shows up, too. The “muse,” the drive to write and the enthusiasm to do so, are often linked to the writer’s exercising the creativity and craft of writing, not to some nebulous inspiration outside in the universe.
Three great pieces of advice, from various wise people:
1. “Don’t cheat on your book” – Chuck Wendig (ok, he said it slightly more colorfully, but you get the idea.
2. Vylar Kaftan’s super-cool magic short story formula (not exactly advice as much as it is a lovely way to kickstart creativity).
3. “That’s not a short story. That’s a novel.” ~ Numerous lovely people, including James D. Macdonald at the Viable Paradise workshop. (Spoiler: they were right.)
J. Kathleen Cheney
My favorite piece came from Steven Savile: When an editor asks you to do something, you say, “I can do that.” He actually meant that in terms of new projects, so that if an editor says they want a piece on dinosaurs with semi-automatic weapons, you should always accept the challenge. He wasn’t saying that we should slavishly follow editor’s tiniest tweak. But it’s good advice in general anyway.
The most useful advice I’ve received is something I’ve quoted often enough that I’ve now seen the line attributed to me. So just for the record, this isn’t me, this is Charles Brown, the late, great editor of Locus magazine: “One of three things is going to happen to you in this business: you quit, you die, or you get published.”
This fits in nicely with my personal motto, “Pessimism is the new optimism.” Brown was right: repeated rejections will make you want to quit. But if you refuse to quit, then it’s just a matter of time; either you’re going to keel over or you’re going to break through. (Actually, even that is a little too optimistic. You’re definitely going to keel over. The real question is whether you break through first.)
I know, I’m a ray of sunshine. But I do think this is good advice.
Most important advice: writers write. Everything else is secondary.
I’m not sure who told it to me, but “figure out what works for you” has been immensely helpful, too. Half of this sentiment is anti-advice — ignore stuff other people tell you. Sometimes it’s not helpful. For years, I believed other writers who claimed that no “good” writing could take place in a writing session less than four hours long. True for them? Certainly. But I’ve discovered I have a hard time drafting for such a long stretch (if I can find a chunk of time like that to begin with). Writing in little chunks gives me time to outline the next chapter in my head and write better scenes.
“Figure out what works for you” also encourages me to try new things. Like a story bible. Or outlining. Or writing from prompts. Or setting goals. Of course not everything actually works for me, but being willing to push myself in new directions has helped me discover better ways of working and writing that I would have missed if I were staying in my comfortable routine.
I’ve heard this so many times in so many contexts that I don’t know if I can attribute it to one person, but here’s my golden chestnut:
Listen to people.
It works on so many levels. Want to write better dialogue? Park yourself in a public place and listen to people. Want to do a better job of writing people who aren’t you? Get outside your advertising demographic, and go listen to people. (This probably should involve talking to them at some point, but the magic of the Internet means that we can smarten ourselves up with a whole pantload of listening before we ever open our mouths.) Want to improve your writing? Show it to other people, ask for their feedback, and listen to what they say.
Listening is more intimidating than we like to admit. Giving our attention to someone else, and especially to a relative stranger, means exposing ourselves to unpredictable, sometimes uncomfortable new information. But the act of writing fiction requires the ability to inhabit characters who are by definition *not us* – to empathize with another person’s point of view – and listening to real-life people is essential for learning how to speak through their fictional counterparts.
So there you have it: go forth joyfully, and expose yourself to as many people as possible…!