In my last blog post, I made reference to one of the most important things I’ve learned about writing fiction as a career. (Back in my TV news days, we’d have called that a “tease.”) You may have heard this before, but it’s always worth another look.
First, a caveat: EVERY WRITER IS DIFFERENT – you know, the whole “your mileage may vary” thing.
But I have some excellent mentors in this field, and having attended some intense professional workshops and maintaining a strong online working relationship through some pro writing groups, here is some info on what works for *most* long-term professional writers.
Again, a caveat: these are tips that apply to those who actually want to make a living writing fiction, not just the casual dreamer-writer. Most dreamer-writers don’t even start their novel, a small percentage start but never finish, a smaller percentage actually publish; and a smaller percentage than that actually end up making a career out of it.
And for the career writer, there are a few rules that can really help. These are known as “Heinlein’s Rules” (after science fiction master Robert A. Heinlein).
1) You must write (amazing how many people call themselves writers who don’t actually do much writing).
2) You must finish what you write (you can’t very well sell an unfinished product)
3) You must never rewrite except to editorial demand (and only if you agree)
4) You must send out what you write to someone who can buy it (meaning, an editor at a publishing house – not an agent)
5) You must keep it sent out until it sells (meaning, when you get rejected, you must immediately turn around and send it to another editor – keeping it in circulation until it sells)
Take those five rules, print them out (minus my parenthetical remarks), post them on the wall by your computer, memorize them, and live them. (Note: rules 4 & 5 are specific to pursuing traditional publishing and aren’t applicable to independent publishing.)
About #1: the project will not happen if you keep putting it off. If you can carve out 30 minutes a day, during which you write 500 words, you will have over 150,000 words written in a year (if, like me, you don’t work Sundays). That is two average-length novels. Set your priorities and go for it.
About #2: Same as #1, but I would add that if you’re like many writers, you will reach a point, about one-third of the way through writing the novel, that you will think the whole thing is crud and want to stop. DON’T. Push through that and finish it. I don’t know exactly why it happens, but that critical, defeatist voice rears its ugly head about 25-30k words into a novel. You just have to ignore it and move forward. It will be worth it, I promise.
About #3: The idea that you should rewrite your stuff (or “revise” or “polish” or “fine-tune” or whatever you want to call it) is one of the biggest myths of fiction writing. Fact is, when the words first flowed from you – in the creative burst – that’s when the material has voice and uniqueness and quality. When you “edit” your stuff, you begin to remove that voice and that quality because you are now using the critical part of your brain. Sure, you should run a spell-check when you’re done, and make sure there are no huge plot holes (this is where a trusted “first reader” comes in handy), but other than that, trust your creative side. If there is a gun in Act Three, and you forgot to set it up, go place the gun in Act One with a brief sentence or two, but don’t re-write the whole darn thing.
About #4: Unless you are publishing independently, the book will not reach readers if you don’t get it in front of the decision-makers in the publishing industry. Remember, agents do not buy books. They also do not help you write or improve your book. If an agent was a good writer, he or she would be writing books and making 85% of the cut, instead of taking 15% of the writer’s cut. There are lots of agent myths out there; you can witness the shattering of those myths here (see all the posts regarding agents). And remember the important fiction career corollary – “money always flows TO the writer.” Thus, no “book doctors.”
About #5: Persistence is absolutely required. You cannot be a writer and have a thin skin or have trouble with rejection. This business is all about rejection, with occasional acceptances. Never give up, never give in!
Remember: everyone’s methods are so different. For me, I just sit down and write. I don’t usually start with an outline; I am what’s called an “exploratory drafter” and I just keep writing and then start to see where it is going and then start to sketch out some structure later. A lot of times I suddenly see how it ends, and have to restrain myself from rushing to the end too fast.
I see the story like a movie in my head – one that I haven’t seen before – and enjoy the process of discovery as I write the story. It makes it fun. (And thanks to my extensive training and experience as a TV news writer, I write very clean first drafts that need very little touch-up afterward.)
Advice from the pros is that to write well, you should read a lot of fiction from various genres. I do love to read, but need to somehow set aside more time for it than I currently do.
Writing is my passion. And as my wife will tell you, talking about writing is another of my passions! She often has to remind me, in social situations, to shut up and listen to other people and not just dominate the conversation with the stuff you see above.
If you want to be a fiction writer for your career, start now! Seek advice from long-term professionals (such as those found on my blog roll) , attend conferences, and WRITE EVERY DAY.
And good luck!