I tell people I’m not qualified to give writing advice, but no one ever seems to believe me. It’s the truth, I’m blundering along through this like everyone else, and if I do have any good advice it’s because I’m learning from my own bad decisions.
Or, I’ve gotten it from someone who does know what they’re doing.
Here are ten bits of advice I’ve gleaned from people who are awesome, and links to their stuff.
1. Don’t Start Writing Until You Can Say Your Story In Two Sentences Or Less
I got this one from my Dad, and it’s great advice. Until you can sum your story up in one quick hit you’ll amble all over the place trying to find a central through line (or at least that’s what happened to me). If you need an example this is how I’d describe the excellent Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman:
- An angel and a demon team up to save the world from armageddon. At the same time, the eleven year old AntiChrist is busy being a (almost) very normal eleven year old boy.
Does that give any idea of the story itself? No, not at all…but it does go right back to the core of the story which is Azipherale (an angel) and Crowley (a demon) trying to save the world from Adam (the AntiChrist) who is very almost a normal eleven year old boy (except he’s nicer).
It took me two years to get mine right.
2. Four Hundred Words A Day Even If You Feel Like Poo
I only met Sir Terry Pratchett the once and only for ten minutes, during which he took in the flowers, chocolates and wrapped present I was carrying for my then girlfriend* and yelled “WHAT DID YOU DO?!” by the time I’d stuttered through an explanation** I’d forgotten to ask him for any writing advice.
Just as well, since he’d already told everyone:
- Write 400 words per day, every day, even if you feel like poo.
400 words is insanely achievable, if you can touch type then you can hammer through it in about 15 minutes. Of course it;s not always that easy, but having a small daily goal is a great idea for everyone. Some days you’ll have to beat yourself half to death to get 400, and some days 400 will just whet you appetite for the wordsmithing.
3. Your Writing Doesn’t Suck Moist Open Ass
I got this one from Chuck Wendig author of a great many things and proprietor of Terrible Minds. This showed up at the end of this blog post 25 Lies Writers Tell (and start to believe). I’d warn you that Chuck’s site has some bad words on it but if the title of this bit of advice didn’t warn you about that then I don’t think anyone can help you.
I’ve been told this is varying degrees of gentleness over the years: “You’re not as bad as you think you are”, “Your writing isn’t that bad” etc. but this is the one that stuck with me. No matter how awful you think your writing is, it’s probably not that bad. if you are clued up enough to think critically about your own stuff, then it probably can’t be as bad as you think…and even if it is your next shot will be better.
4. Finish Things
From Neil Gaiman. If you take nothing else at all from this post, take this one. If you don’t finish things you will get nothing, literally nothing from your writing career.
If that doesn’t scare you then nothing will.
I’ve gotten this advice from so many different sources I don’t think I could pin-point exactly when I first heard it for you. Instead I’m going to attribute the advice that you need to edit even if you don’t think you need to edit to Mur Lafferty of I Should Be Writing.
I often say I’m not qualified to give most of the advice that I give…well Mur is qualified. Listen to her.
I first heard this (as far as my addled memory can remember) from the team over at Writing Excuses. Since then I’ve heard it from virtually every successful writer I’ve spoken to.
Read. Read widely. Read non-fiction. Read fiction in your genre. Read fiction outside your genre. Just freaking read because if you don’t read, you will start missing thingsin your own work that no matter how original you think they are…they’ve already been done.
7. Outlining Is Optional, Structure Is Not
Initially I got this advice from larry Brooks over on his blog Story Fix. In short, he covers the idea that every good story follows a particular structure and by knowing that structure you can save yourself, and your readers, a lot of time and a bucket of tears.
There are a VERY few exceptions to this, so few I can’t think of one that breaks all the rules of structure. There are plenty of writers that break one or two, but unless they are breaking those rules deliberately it tends to be a misstep on their part.
Larry specializes in structure, and thus he’s a lot better at explaining it than I am. If you want a quick rundown I’d suggest taking a look at this blog post How to Learn Story Structure in Two Minutes or Less.
This is a recent one that I got from Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine on their podcast The Shared Desk. In episode 13 they speak to agent Laurie McLean about Amazon and the possible future of self-publishing and e-books. You really should listen to the whole podcast if you can, but for the time poor here’s what I got out of it:
- Nothing is forever. If you have all of your eggs is one basket you are asking for that basket to turn into a ravening drooling eldritch abomination and eat your mind. In slightly less Lovecraftian terms I mean that there’s no saying that Amazon’s admittedly awesome 70/30 royalty split with authors is going to stay that way. Do you have a backup plan if Amazon switches that ratio around the other way? They might not…but you still need to have a plan just in case.
9. Be Awesome Somewhere People Can See You
This I learned from Julie Butcher just by watching. She’s generous, intelligent friendly and helpful and she does all of that on Twitter while at the same time being insanely an talented author (she’ll deny this). Julie has one of the best social media presences going because she’s so natural about it. She doesn’t shove products down people’s throats, I’ve never caught her being obnoxious.
I should probably say I count Julie among my friends, so maybe I’m biased, but I think every writer could learn an awful lot about how to conduct yourself on social media by following her on Twitter and just watching what she does.
If you’d like an example of someone who isn’t a one of my friends who does this well, take a look at John Scalzi’s blog Whatever.
10. If You Want This, Really Want This, You’re Going To Have To Work Harder Than You Think You Can
I can’t point you at specific blog post for this one, I just learned this by watching Krista D Ball do her thing. Krista is constantly working. She is always bringing out new products, promoting herself well online, working on new things and generally managing to do more in a day than I get done in a month.
She has an excellent blog here.
The blog isn’t the point though. The point is that Krista gets so much done because she puts the work in. She does this despite all of her other responsibilities. Clearly writing is what she wants to do and she gets out there and does it.
aaaand two from me, even though I’m sure you can find other people saying the same thing.
1. Have A Plan
I don’t mean a story plan. I mean a career plan. Do you know what you’ll do once you’re published? Do you know how you’ll handle you finances if you end up in the Amazon top 100? How are you going to handle your first really bad review?
How about what you’ll do when it comes time to write a sequel (or even if you will write one?)?
These are things you need to be planning for no matter what path you want to take with your career and there are many more besides. If you don’t plan for your future you risk making rushed decisions when these events occur and that leads to people doing stupid things like abusing the crap out of the person who gave them the bad review.
Plan for as much as you can in advance, then put the plan away and get back to writing. Once a month open the plan up and see if you need to make adjustments.
2. Do Your Homework
I’m actually avoiding doing my university homework right now, but that’s not what I mean. I mean the plan that I mentioned above will be as useful as a disgarded eyelash to you if you haven’t done your research.
The publishing world changes constantly, and that rate of change is going to speed up, not slow down. If you don’t know what’s going on you risk being caught off guard by changes you should have seen coming. I don’t have the same beef with big publishing a lot of authors seem to, but I can say with absolute certainty that they handled the advent of e-books badly and they’re now scrambling to fix that.
You need to know where you fit into the publishing world, and where you plan to be. You can’t do that if you don’t research it.
This might be my bit of advice but I’m going to give you a link anyway. Go and check out Robin Sullivan’s blog Write 2 Publish. It’s a great jumping off point and she delves out hard numbers and honest advice like she gets free candy every time she does it.
Who have I missed? Have I made a terrible error? Let me know in the comments.
* Now Wife
** I hadn’t done anything wrong, sometimes you just want to buy your SO goodies.