Are you a writer still looking for that first sale? Or maybe to move up another step in your career?
Excellent. You’ve come to the right place. Prepare to hear some hard truths.
If you’ve really done your homework, you’ll have been inundated with the following gems:
– Cross out all your adjectives
– The secret to writing is RE-writing
– Adverbs are from the devil
– The passive voice is unacceptable
– Use simple words
– If you don’t have several beta-readers you’ll never sell a word
Now, all of these are well-intentioned and there’s a reason each of these is posted a billion times online. Mainly, that reason is that a lot of bad writing is bad precisely because writers overwrite or miss an editing pass and agents and purchasing editors are tearing their hair out over it, so they pretty much convince themselves that if they see another adverb, they’ll track down the writer and shoot him.
But that’s only a part of the story. A lot of excellent writing is heavy with adjectives, written in the passive voice or even, shudder, in the second person. And the writing advice you’ll find online will be very discouraging if that’s your style.
So these are good for beginning writers, except for that one about the secret to writing being re-writing. I secretly suspect that that one was created by some successful writer who wants to keep newcomers out of the field by making the act of writing seem like torture. Because that is what excessive rewriting is… torture (you’ll need some rewrites to whatever you do, but knowingly writing a terrible first draft is just silly. Get it as good as you can and then polish as necessary, don’t relish the rewrite). I like Heinlein’s mandate to rewrite only to editorial command.
So throw all of them away. Here’s my take on how to become a writer:
- Be a reader. Preferably from the age of four (get a time machine and go back if necessary). If you can’t swing starting at the age of four, then start right now. Drop whatever you’re doing and grab the nearest book. Read to the end and grab the next nearest. Only once you’ve read everything you can reach without getting up are you allowed to leave your chair. And then, only to go to the bookcase and continue the process. Read in your target genre and out of it. Read magazines and theater. Read poetry (you can yell at me in the comments, but read it anyway). You’ll be surprised at how much your sense of what sounds right will take a quantum leap forward… a lot of writing is unconscious, and if the raw material isn’t there, the writing will be flat. This is the most important writing advice you’ll ever hear. An added benefit is that if you’re a voracious reader, you won’t have to study Strunk and White because you’ll absorb it from authors who already know it. If you try to write without being a voracious reader, you will suck, and you won’t even know it. Let me spell that out for you again: if you’ve ever said “I don’t have time to read,” you are a crap writer. Period. MAKE time.
- Write every day. Have writer’s block? Cool, force yourself to write a thousand words. Not inspired? Awesome, now, ass in chair and give me a thousand. Tired? Yeah, that sucks, especially since you are going to be writing a thousand words with your eyelids at half-mast. I think you get the point. Writers are people who write.
- Finish and submit your work. No excuses. Get it done, get it polished and get it subbed. It’s worthless on your hard drive and if an editor or an agent hates it, they’ll hate it. Fortunately, since you are forced to write every day, you’ll be thinking about your next piece when the rejection comes in. And once it does, you send it back out immediately. If you’re any good, it will eventually sell (or place in a 4-the-Luv publication). If you aren’t, you need to go back to step 1, above – remember that not everyone is born with Oscar Wilde’s pure talent… but everyone can learn to hear the rhythm of a sentence in their head and turn out publishable prose. I know one particular genre writer who has zero natural talent, but whose workmanlike writing is readable enough to have gotten him onto the NYT bestseller list and writing for at least two wonderful SF properties. I respect that.
- Do NOT worry about rejections. There are tens of millions of writers out there. If you’re doing 1-3, you’re already ahead of most of them. Now it’s just a a case of beating the millions that still remain onto a table of contents or a publisher’s release timetable. So getting rejections just means you’re one step closer to seeing that piece in print. Also, if you’re doing steps 1-3, the act of writing, reading and getting your rejected pieces back out there will restore that spark of hope.
So that’s my advice. Note that I’m not prescribing how to tell your stories. Your voice is yours, and if it’s good enough, you will be published. If it’s not good enough, keep reading until you can recognize a good sentence just by how it looks on the page.
It’s hard work, but then being a writer is very cool… and very competitive.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His latest book is a monster book (well, we did warn you) entitled Test Site Horror. It’s an action adventure piece set in the Ural Mountains where genetically-modified dinosaurs and Russian special forces troops battle it out to see who the apex predator actually is. You can check it out here.