Eight things I wish a pro had told me

This is the kind of post that every author gets around to writing sooner or later. I collect these when I can find them, because they’re often the very best advice that experienced writers can offer.

It’s a hard post to write because we have to admit we didn’t know these things when we needed to. Sometimes a post like this is written when we’re in a funk or, alternatively, in an exceptionally good mood, and our screw-ups don’t seem so damn dumb.

1. Don’t major in English. Don’t enroll in graduate writing courses. As an English major you will study a lot of fine older work, which you could in all honesty read by yourself. College writing courses are usually taught by people who haven’t published much, and inevitably, they will teach you how to write things like that. Sometimes a school lucks out and lands real working authors. But not often.

2. Set an ambitious weekly goal of new pages and stick to it. Rewriting and research–all necessary–shouldn’t count toward the new pages goal. This advice should really be #1. If you lavish too much time on related writing work you may never write swiftly enough to build and sustain a loyal readership.

3. Rigorously question your story premise. Before you get started on your next project ask whether this one is strong enough. Many books fail for lack of a memorable premise. Is your premise clear to you? Is it too complicated? Questions like these are legitimate and crucial.

4. Lighten up. Don’t let the novel take itself too seriously. Let us have a bit of fun in the story, moments of pure enjoyment. The world is full of sadness and worry. Why do we need more?

5. Learn to turn off the Voice in your head. The one that says “this is a piece of crap,”  “you’ll never sell a novel,” “Nobody loves me,” (I thought I’d throw that in) and “other writers get all the breaks.” This Voice is not really you. It is a strain of negativity that will undermine your writing life. Talk back. Make contrary statements. If you think you don’t have this Voice, that’s the Voice whispering below the level of detection. In this business, we all have the Voice.

6. Take feedback, but take control. Don’t rely on others for conclusions about your manuscript. Everyone has an opinion, but the author’s is the one that counts. Repeat this last sentence until memorized. Know what you want to write, how you want the reader to feel, and the type of reading experience you mean to convey. Then decide what and how to change things. You can’t give away this responsibility. I know. I’ve tried.

7. Learn from the marketplace. You have stories you must write, fine. Write them. Just understand they might not have a readership; they might not find a print publisher. Read widely. Know your competition. If you do want a wide readership, write what people want to read. Do so in your inimitable voice, with a distinctive twist. But do write stories that can survive and thrive in the marketplace.

8. Don’t shred. It takes a long time to tear up 400 page manuscripts. Dump them in their pristine white glory into the recycle and get back to the keyboard. No one will rummage and find your story. Promise!

10 Responses

  1. Sam X says:

    A lot of this is great advice. I broke half of rule 1, in that I majored in creative writing–but I’ve avoided the graduate school aspect so far. I realized the biggest benefit of those is that they give you time to write, and instead I just drove myself to write as much as possible in my free time.

    Tips 6 and 7 inform each other, as in, take feedback (from the marketplace) but take control (from the marketplace). Write stories people want to read, but know that what sells today may not sell tomorrow. Similarly, take control from the marketplace by determining your personal definition of success. Being “read as widely as possible” is undefinable, so set harder goals. 2,000 sales? 10,000? 10? That can help a writer understand exactly what freedom they’re allowed as they work.

  2. Kay says:

    Interesting idea, that last one: Set a goal of sales… but it would be good to understand that anything less than about 15,000 sales (in paper) gives you an iffy position with your publisher. But your point still holds, it’s just that I would say do you want 15-30K sales 30-50, etc. It would help a writer define how commercial the story must be. The numbers are just ball-park; and we’ve all heard of the exceptions, of course. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. This was fabulous. I especially love #5. The voice in my head has been particularly outspoken these past few weeks, and it’s wonderful to be reminded of the points you make above.

  4. Kay says:

    The Voice is something I’ve battled always during my career. I think one reason it grows so strong is that we think it’s a small nag, and we just ignore it consciously, but subconsciously (not to get all freudian or anything) we are actually giving it huge credibility. Maybe I should have That one first!

  5. […] Eight things I wish a pro had told me […]

  6. […] Eight things I wish a pro had told me […]

  7. How about Mark Twain? “Pick a worthy subject. Stick to that subject, and say what you have to say in as few words as possible.”

    ‘Course, he was Mark Twain and we’re not. But, it’s good advice anyway.

  8. Jay Noel says:

    Great stuff, Kay, as always.

    I especially think many of us need to heed #4. We’re artists, and we have artistic temperaments. We need to learn to relax a little bit and have fun with our work.

  9. Kay says:

    I should have made that #9: Relax and have some fun.
    I think I forgot to have fun! 🙂

  10. […] Kenyon recently published an excellent post on her blog titled Eight things I wish a pro had told me. It’s well worth reading. The suggestion that stood out the most to me was number 3: […]

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