It’s tough being an aspiring writer. Getting yourself into a good position to make a career seems like an impossible task, and at every turn it seems like the world is yelling at you to give up on your foolish dream and take up recreational accountancy.
It’s easy to get discouraged, especially when you’re new to the game. I’m still aspiring, but I’m not a beginner anymore and I thought I’d share some of the things I learned over the last few years that I wish I’d known when I started out.
1. It’s going to be tough
Sometimes getting words out on the page feel like I’m trying to hack the story out of my skull with a blunt cleaver. I went through a few false starts when I first started writing because I almost couldn’t believe how difficult it was sometimes. Once I accepted that side of writing both the amount I produced and the quality got far better.
2. It’s going to be slow
I’ve been writing for *counts on fingers* uh…. A really long time. Or so it seems, and I’m just starting to see some real traction with the things I’ve written now. Recently Buzzymag printed a story of mine Forgotten Gifts and from the money I got from that paid the power bill that month. It’s also meant I can be nominated for a Campbell Award which is pretty cool**, but it has taken me years to get to this point.
Knowing it was going to take me this long to get to grips with writing wouldn’t have put me off, but it would have helped keep me from feeling like I was going nowhere.
3. Remember you are not alone
There is a whole world of writers out there on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. A huge number of them are awesome and will give you advice if you go looking for it. They will help support you when you’re low and give you a boost when things are going well. Yes there are some jerks out there but that’s what the “block” button is for.
Writing can be such a solitary pursuit that sometimes we have to be forcibly reminded that we aren’t alone in this.
4. You should be alone sometimes
I love Twitter. Love it. I love it so much that I’ve easily written an entire novel’s worth of words on there. It’s not entirely been waste of time; I’ve made some amazing friends on Twitter, however I wish I’d taken a more balanced approach to social media and spent some of the time I’ve spent on twitter writing a book.
5. Short stories are NOT a waste of time
Initially I thought that the only way I was going to make it as a writer was writing novels, and to a degree that’s true. To make a living as an author novels are the way to go, however that does not mean that writing short stories is a complete waste of your time.
For starters short fiction is a great way to get used to finishing projects. As a new writer finishing things is one of the hardest lessons to learn and by finishing short stories it gives you some of the tools you need to use to finish novels.
6. Finishing things is the most important thing
It doesn’t matter how awesome your writing is, how perfect your prose, how sex your vampire. If your story is unfinished then it won’t sell to anyone. I freely admit to having stolen this advice from Neil Gaiman, and again from Chuck Wendig, but I’m putting it here because it’s true. I spent literally years believing that as long as I was writing it didn’t matter if I finished things or not. Weirdly I persisted with this belief even while I was telling other people that they should finish their stories.
I’m not sure where I got this particular logical fallacy from but in my defense I have taken an awful lot of punches to the head in my life.
7. Write like your life depends on it
People who want to be writers are a weird lot. We’ve picked a profession that has only the slimmest chances of paying us a living wage let alone a really good wage. It’s also a profession that is in constant upheaval, with uncertainty about the future present in every decision.
Yet the writers I know can’t imagine doing anything else. Writing is what makes them happy and being a paid author is the goal no matter what’s in the way. It took me a long time to figure out that writing in some form or another was all I really wanted to do.
Considering this, if you’re one of the people that has the writing fever then you have to write, edit and promote like your life depends on it.
Because it does.
The life you want is dependant on you hunkering down and writing like hell, forgoing all the angst, apathy and procrastination that hide in the dark parts of your brain.
8. Learn the rules
I just did a post about this a few days ago, but here’s the short version: you have to learn the rules of writing before you break them. You have to know about grammar, layout and story structure so that your story makes. You also need to know them even if you want to do something that goes against those rules, otherwise it just looks like you couldn’t be bothered reading the manual.
9. You need to watch the industry
Right now publishing is going through the kind of upheaval normally associated with natural disasters. The big six are cannibalizing each other into becoming the big four. Smaller and more nimble publishing houses are coming out into the world and carving out their own piece of the pie.
Self publishing is rampaging across the publishing landscape scaring the livestock.
If you’re an aspiring author it’s important to know what’s going on in the industry you want to be a part of. You need to know who’s buying and what their desires are, you need to know how to self publish and how to promote.
Much as it’s tempting to assume that you’ll deal with all of this stuff when your book is finished I think you’ll be better served by knowing what’s going on now because you may have to jump on an opportunity quickly if it comes up.
10. You can’t obsess over the state of the industry
Much as it pays to keep an eye on publishing as a whole, you are still the most important person to your career. It’s easy to blow a lot of writing time researching publishing and then worrying about it. You waste even more time arguing about it online.
It isn’t worth it. Every person you try and convince of your point of view in a forum or on twitter is sucking up time you could be spending finishing a project.
Besides, people will always be wrong on the internet.
Speaking of which…
11. You don’t have to listen to everyone
If you put your work out there for people to read, someone is going to hate it. They are going to hate it so much they’ll declare you to be a terrible person, a lousy writer and the biggest waste of oxygen in your hemisphere. They’ll tell you to quit.
You don’t have to pay attention to these people. Ever.
This isn’t criticism you can use, so why stress yourself out by reading it? I’m not talking about a legit review that raises issues with your work. You can and should read those and take on board the advice they give even if you don’t use it.
12. You do have to listen to some people
Find some people you trust to read your work. People with similar tastes in stories and preferably aspiring writers themselves. These are your beta readers, they road test your story before you send it out into the world. If these people who you have specifically chosen for their taste in books say there’s something wrong with your story then you have to at least consider it.
In the end it is your story and your choice if you make a change or not, but if five out of five people say that your dragon/unicorn/werebear/male model hero is a little unbelievable they’re probably right.
13. At least try outlining
Some people are born outliners; some have outlining thrust upon them. I’m in the second basket. For a very long time I wrote by the seat of my pants, and I thought I was doing the right thing…
But I wasn’t. In the end without an outline my story never held together properly. Instead I seemed to end up with collections of cool scenes that just didn’t work in conjunction with each other.
14. Don’t be a dick (Wheaton’s law)
There are so many ways to be a dick as a writer. Refusing to edit, refusing criticism and deciding that rules about trousers only apply to other people. Ripping into reviewers who don’t like your stuff is another good one that seems to crop up again and again.
If you’re sitting there wondering “have I been a dick” then probably yes, you have been at some point. Usually if you’re yelling at someone over a slight to your writing, you’re being a dick.
Wil Wheaton said it best, and it applies everywhere human beings exist “don’t be a dick.”
15. You need a plan
If you want to write as your career then you’ll need a career plan. This isn’t optional, if you wait until things are happening in your career to try and plan for the future then you are leaving yourself wide open to being taken advantage of.
Don’t just plan for your writing. Think about health insurance, income insurance and mortgage payments. Plan for what you’ll do about film rights if you’re offered a deal. Even if all that’s written on your plan in each eventuality is “ask for help” you need to think about in advance.
16. If you want to be a professional in the future, act like one now
I got this one from observing Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary fame. Howard hasn’t missed an update, ever, despite having multiple projects on the go and a family. I use him as my model for professionalism, as he manages to be both professional and extremely likable at the same time (I’m basing this on interviews and his blog).
You can’t wait until you’re making money to treat writing like your business, because if you do then the chances of you making decent money writing drops to almost nil.
Carve out time to write, then do what you have to do to make sure that time is spent writing the same way you would with your day job. The only real difference is that if you don’t show up to your day job you’ll get fired. If you don’t show up for your writing job then you’ll never get to make writing your day job.
17. Dogma doesn’t help anyone
Do any research at all on publishing and you’ll find the people who are only too willing to tell you that traditional publishing is dead, all agents are evil and that you’re an idiot for even considering going through main stream publishing for your career.
On the flip side there are still some people about who can’t accept that anything that’s self published can be of good quality, or even readable. Such people will snarl and gnash their teeth at you if you even try to bring up a good self published title.
Both of these groups of people are wrong and if you follow them blindly then you could end up missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime.
Always keep your options open. Always get a second opinion and remember that the only good Dogma was the movie by Kevin Smith.
18. Your early writing will make you want to die
Sometimes I look back at the stuff I wrote when I first started out and I wonder why I don’t burst into flames from the sheer embarrassment of it. Plots are incoherent, characters one dimensional and apparently I’ve never met a grandiose metaphor I didn’t love.
To be fair the metaphor thing is still a problem.
It always takes me a moment to remember that those early failures were necessary steps towards getting better, and not something I should be ashamed of.
Accept that your early work is going to be bad and even if it isn’t your later work will probably be better. So move on once it’s finished and write something new.
19. You will probably need to hear the same advice over and over until it sticks
I don’t think anything I’m telling you in this article is anything new, and it’s all advice I’ve heard somewhere else, but the reason I’m saying it again is that none of this stuff stuck until I either heard it for the 100th time or I had to learn it the hard way. Some of them I’m still learning.
You will make mistakes. You will need to learn the same thing more than once. That’s okay; don’t beat yourself up about it.
20. Write your own book
Write the book you’d love to read, not the book you think will sell to the current market. Markets change and you can find yourself with a book that’s all but unsellable.
If you instead write the book that excites you then no matter what happens the love you have for the subject is going to shine through and make your book fun to read.
This advice also applies if someone tries to tell you to write a particular sort of book because they feel one genre or another is more worthy than the one you love. Screw them, that’s terrible advice. If you can’t feel passion for what you’re writing then how can anyone reading it.
You are going to have to edit your work. Some people are natural editors, some people aren’t. Either way if you want to write for a living not only will you have to go over your work again and again looking for mistakes, you’ll have to get someone else to take a look at it too.
Yes, there are some people who are able to edit as they go and don’t seem to make many mistakes. All I can tell you is that I’m not one of those people and you probably aren’t either. Editing is your friend, it’s what allows you to get your book finished and then make it better afterwards.
Good editing can be the difference between a successful book and a complete failure.
No matter how much you might hate it, editing is your friend.
22. At some point, stop researching and start writing
It’s easy to get caught in the research trap. Research is fun, and no one is going to judge you for doing it, but you got into this to be a writer not to spend all day on Wikipedia.
Do the research you need and then start writing. If it turns out you need to more research then you can do it then.
23. Someone, somewhere has done something similar
There are very few truly original ideas, and it’s easy to get discouraged when you see how many books out there might have a similar idea to the one you’re writing. Try not to worry too much about it, because it’s all in the delivery of the idea, not the idea itself.
Obviously don’t rip off other writers, they’re a nasty bunch of people with strange senses of humor when it comes to revenge, but if you think that you can’t write your idea for a book because it stars an occult detective…you don’t need to worry about it.
24. Keep learning
No writer is complete, not while they’re still breathing. Keep forcing yourself to learn new things. They don’t have to be related to writing, although that does help. Learn to fight, to shoot to scuba dive. Do something new and fun with your brain and it’ll reward you when you need it.
25. You still have to write a good book
No matter how good you get at the peripheral skills of writing like marketing, you’re still going to have to write a good book. Your book is where the majority of your time and energy should be going, so if you’re spending five hours a day on Twitter and half an hour on your book…something has gone wrong.
I can say this because for a long time that’s exactly what I did. I spent all day talking on Twitter and then rushed out the pages I’d intended to write that day when I’d all but run out of time.
* Your fantasies may vary.
** Not that I will be I don’t think, but it’s nice that it’s a possibility.
*** I think I may have found the name of John Scalzi’s next band