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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!


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