Advice to Struggling Writers

Here's a Lichtenstein which proves I went to art school and which is tangentially related to my post.

Here’s a Lichtenstein which proves I went to art school and which is tangentially related to my post.

So, in my How Not To Be a Writer series I explored, in depth, the process by which it took me twenty years to make my breakthrough series of sales. I wrote these pieces and this blog to some other version of myself, some younger incarnation, to try to help him or her past the stuff that slowed me down. I also write in the tradition of the wonderful autobiographical sketches by people like Asimov or James Thurber, bits which I often enjoyed as much, or more, than the stories that they surrounded in various anthologies. Not that I deserve such scrutiny. Still, it’s fun.

Who are writers? Where do the come from? Are they like me? What’s it like being a writer? There’s whole rafts of these books out there, it’s a fun sub-genre.

This isn’t that.

For once I’m going to try to be straightforward, to the point.


0. Read. Read for pleasure. Also, read higher on the food chain than you want to write and publish. If you want to write like Stephen King, read authors who have more literary fibre than Steven King; because that’s what Steven King does. Read stuff that wins awards and decide if you concur with that judgement. Read reviews and criticism, if only in your genre, but hopefully beyond it as well.

Oh, and read what is being written now, published now, what is winning awards now, what is being talked about now; not exclusively, but this should be a part of what you do, at least, in the beginning. You should read into the past too, but if you’re stuck, in a single era, a single genre, it’s going to be harder for you to get a real sense of what you’re doing.

Because the books you end up writing may not be the book you intended to write. Like it or not, you are a creature of your time and this moment and you cannot help but be informed by it.

1. Write. Write what you want to write. Actually write. Spend actual time writing. If not every day then every week. Measure what you write. Try to write more. Keep trying to write more, until you start spewing utterly useless crap; then write a little less than that. Until the useless crap comes out, though, you don’t know what your capacity really is. Figure this out. When do you dissolve into a shuddering wreck? 2k a day? 5k? 10k?

There’s writing and Being a Writer; being a writer is an identity; writing is an activity. Ideally, these two things line up; in practice, they often don’t. I’ve spoken of Kris Rusche’s Dare to be Bad challenge, of Dean Wesley Smith’s Race Score; if you haven’t read about these things, please do.

In short, don’t let being, or not being a Writer interfere with your writing practice. Write when you feel inspired, and write when you know you’re a fraud. Or perhaps, just edit when you know you’re a fraud.

2. Share what you write with people you have to look at. This can mean classes, face-to-face peer group workshops, graduate programs, internet based workshopping, Here’s a truth. Face to face is better than on-line. Because it’s harder. It’s harder to say sad or hard things to others faces, and it’s hard to hear these things; the whole process hurts much much more, and you can’t shut the pain off by discarding an email or a marked up Word file.

Telling the truth, the whole truth, the hard truth, to another writer is hard because it emboldens them to tell the truth about your writing to you. Learning how to be true without being mean, without being cruel, is difficult. You will screw up and say things you regret. You will be too mean sometimes and too nice other times. But keep trying.

Every workshop, every group of people develops its own internal logic, its own style and tenor; some of these can be damaging and toxic but the rewards, of even a toxic workshop, tend to outweigh the downside.

Honestly, this is a Darwinian environment. The person trashing your story at least read it and showed up to tell you and she thought about it. A lot. To say all those terrible, terrible things.

Professional editors simply do not have the time to do this for you.

They simply don’t. I can say, having had my little breakthrough, that it was form rejects and then acceptances with virtually nothing in between. You can be almost good enough, for years, and you’ll get forms, and then you’ll be good enough, and you’ll get checks. You can be very very close to breaking through and you won’t have a clue, if you don’t have a big, self created honest community giving you feedback.

3. Edit and revise what you write but do not let revisions stop you from writing new stuff. Rewriting doesn’t mean incorporating every suggestion someone gives you. This means hearing critiques and seeing new opportunities in a work; other people will give you permission to add stuff in you wanted to put in; this also means reducing reader confusion; if five, ten people all get the same mistaken impression from your story, the problem isn’t them; it’s your story.

Oh, and sometimes this means cutting, lots and lots of cutting.

There’s a lot of writing that you’ll discover is just you, in character, in deep POV, in the fictive dream, going from place to place in your story; there’s a lot of stuff that you write, that you need to know, that isn’t actually in your story. Other people can help you cut that stuff out.

4. Submit what you have edited. Struggle for publication and readership. I don’t care if you want to be the next Hugh Howy, or the next indypub sensation, still, write finish and submit and search this space. Use a service like Submission Grinder or Duotrope to track your submissions. Follow the rules scrupulously. Stack up rejections. 

Seriously. Stack those things up.

It’s humbling and humiliating and enervating and nauseating. And exhilarating. Because it’s a hard thing to do. It’s hard because nobody can really tell you exactly how to succeed.

You can go to school, and work hard, and go to law school and pass the bar and get a job at a firm and become a lawyer. Making partner of course, is super hard, but the other stuff had rules. Clearly defined rules. On How to Succeed. Tests and courses and content and classes and everything parceled out in bits and bites.

As the rejections pile up, you realize that, in writing, after gaining a modicum of craft and developing a voice, there are no rules, there is no guarantee, you may never make it, all the work might be for naught. and then, you keep doing it some more. And yeah, you console yourself with all the stories of the days of early bitter struggle by the Real Writers you idolize, but honestly, you might not be them. And you know that. You might just suck.

Then you keep doing it anyway.

It will build your character or destroy you; or perhaps just remake you. Because you know what going through something like this is, don’t you? It’s goddamn mythic. It’s heroic. It’s poetic. It will make you into something more than you were before.

I guarantee it.

Posted in Making a Writing Life

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