I recently started a new day job. While there, I’ve met a coworker who’s expressed a lot of curiosity about my writing career and shown some interest in doing some writing of her own. I’ve never before been in a situation where I’ve been asked for help or advice by anyone trying to get started writing. At first, I wasn’t sure how to react. For one thing, writing is an intensely personal and individual thing. Good writing comes from the writer’s unique personality and set of experiences, and I felt that maybe I didn’t have the right to advise anyone else on such matters, even if asked. Another thing is that I don’t often think of myself as a successful writer. This is simply because I want more: more money coming in from the work, higher profile writing jobs, more reviews, and higher sales. Of course I want those things. It’s not greed, but ambition. No matter what I do, I can always do better. I suppose I feel that the moment I get comfortable with what I’ve done so far, I’ll risk losing some of my drive to do more and more. It’s good to be motivated. In some ways, I felt that if I’m not more successful than I am, why should anyone else want help or advice from me?
But then I started thinking about it a little more and came to realize that in many ways, I am successful with this writing thing! No, I can’t support myself solely on my royalty checks, but I get royalties, which is more than many writers can say. I’ve had 32 stories published, with a few more to come out this year. I have four publishers who are always willing to read something new from me. I’ve been given opportunities to write some of my favorite fictional characters, including Sherlock Holmes! I get to create my own characters too. The vast majority of reviews of my work have been good (and only one story was ever called “a real stinker!”), and there are several readers who seem eager to know when my next vampire or spy novel is coming out. And, just as important as the money and reviews, I’ve made more friends than I can count over the past 5 years, all because of writing. Readers, editors, publishers, artists, and others: all of whom I met through my literary endeavors and the networking that goes with it. Taking all that into consideration, I suppose I am a successful writer in many respects. There’s always room to move up, but I’ve come a long way. Perhaps, then, I am in a position to offer advice to someone who wants to take some steps down the road of words and stories. If I can help at all, I’m glad to do so. Anyway, we writers love to talk about what we do, even if we won’t usually admit it!
So this blog entry is an open letter to a friend, in which I’m about to speak very honestly about some of my thoughts on the subject of writing. Most of what I say isn’t going to be right or wrong, but will consist of my opinions. When my fellow writers read this, they may nod in agreement with some of what I say and shake their heads (or fists!) in vehement opposition to other statements. That’s what makes writing so great. Every writer is different, and so we end up with a beautiful variety of stories in the world.
Anyway, to the person who started me down this road of thought (and anyone else who wants to listen to my rant), I’ll tell you this:
Today at work, I overheard your little explosion over certain comments people had been making to you or about you. It’s not my business, but the back room is tight and it’s hard to not hear everything that gets said (and just for the record, don’t let their bullshit get to you), and I liked what I was hearing. Do you remember how it felt when you let out that long string of words, shoved all that frustration into the air and let everything that was on your mind flow out with no hesitation? There was good stuff in there, clever stuff. You were in a state of mind where you just had to get those thoughts out and give them life by turning them into words. You probably felt like you’d explode if you didn’t say those things. You had no choice. If you can find that feeling, that zone, again when you try to write, you’ll be just fine! And that doesn’t mean the writing has to be guided by anger or any other negative emotion, but it has to feel like it needs to come out. You’ll know when it happens, and you’ll love it.
And once you find that feeling, you’ll want to make it continue, maybe even need to make it continue. That’s where what we talked about in person today comes into the equation. You asked me about discipline, about how I manage to get the work done. I’ll repeat here what I said to you this morning: set a goal and stick with it. Personally, I write a minimum of 1,000 words a day, unless I’m editing a major project, in which case I put the story I’m currently writing on hold just for a little while. Other than those editing pauses, my thousand words are non-negotiable. It’s not what I do when I feel like writing. It’s what I must do to keep the guilt from hitting me too hard. I don’t feel like a real writer if I don’t produce material. If I feel great, I write a thousand (and more sometimes). If I feel like crap, I write a thousand. If I have a headache, I write a thousand. If I’m joyful or depressed or confused or exhausted or sentimental or angry or horny or hungry or not even sure how I feel at the time, I write a thousand. That doesn’t mean you have to write 1,000 words a day. It might be 500 or 1,500 or even just a few paragraphs, but what you have to do is set a goal and stick to it no matter what.
And it’s not easy. It only looks easy in the movies. Writing, if you really take it seriously, is not a leisure activity. Sure, you’re sitting in a chair at a desk and maybe the only thing anybody else sees moving are your fingers, but don’t make the mistake of thinking writing isn’t work. It is work, and it will have its effects on both your mind and your body. It will give you a glorious mental workout, it will make you tired at times, might cause you to literally break a sweat (remember Sean Connery in Finding Forrester telling his young student to “Punch the keys!” I wish I could type in his accent), will cause an occasional headache, cost you some sleep, and maybe even give you nightmares from time to time. Yes, writing is work, and it’s worth it if that’s what you really want to do. If that’s what you really need to do!
But what if you can’t make it happen? What if you get Writer’s Block?
I’ll tell you a secret. There’s no such thing as Writer’s Block. It’s an excuse. Either a person can write or they can’t. If your thoughts turn into stories and you feel the urge to express them in words, that’s a trait that doesn’t just stop. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be easy. There will be times when you get stuck. My solution to that has always been to have two projects going at once. If you get hung up on a detail of one story and don’t know where to go next, switch channels and work on something else for a while. Don’t worry. The wheels will begin to turn again soon enough. Don’t ever give up. Inspiration strikes like lightning and you can never really predict when it will happen or what form it will take. For that matter, keep a pen and something to write on near you at all times (or your smart phone if you want to take notes that way), so you’ll be able to grab the gold before it slips through your fingers.
And speaking of inspiration, I have no definite answer about where it comes from. I can tell you all about the things that might intentionally bring it about, things like reading great books, watching great movies, or using your own memories as fuel for your work, but what nobody can ever anticipate are the little events in life that cause those wonderful bursts of sudden inspiration. Ideas explode like popcorn at the oddest times. A sentence in a news article can make you speculate about what the world would be like if events happened slightly differently and soon you have a science fiction story on your hands. A stray bit of conversation between strangers at the next table in a restaurant might have you making up entire life histories for characters who didn’t exist a moment ago (that’s how my detective character, Picard, came to be). My point is that anything you see or hear or feel might spark your next big idea, so keep your senses absorbing the world around you.
I mentioned reading great books a moment ago. By all means, read the bad ones too. Read as much as you can. Read the books you can’t live without reading and read some you think you’ll hate. I read a lot of horror and mystery because those are the genres I write most often, but sometimes I’ll scan through something I’m not the least bit interested in because it exposes me to different styles and subjects. I might even occasionally glance through a cheap romance novel (how many ways can they come up with to use the word “throbbing” anyway?) or a children’s book or revisit something I tried to read years ago but didn’t enjoy at the time. Words are our tools, so we need to see many different ways to use them.
Concerning those tools, the best way to learn to use them…is to use them! There are no shortcuts. Write a lot and you will get better. There’s no way around the fact that the more you cut with that sword, the sharper it becomes.
And please, don’t let worrying about writing get in the way of writing. Don’t over think it, and don’t make concrete rules that don’t have to be there at the beginning. If you look around the various writers’ forums on the internet, you’ll see a lot of experienced writers saying a lot of smart things, but you’ll also see a lot of inexperienced writers who aren’t getting any experience because they’re too busy worrying about how to do it right, which keeps them from doing it at all. You’ll get more out of writing 10,000 clumsy, fumbling words than you will out of spending a month planning how to write and fine-tuning your approach and memorizing some silly list of do’s and don’ts before you type the opening line.
You can have all the self-imposed rules you want, but the rules are yours to follow as you see fit, not limits with which you should restrict yourself from doing what’s best for the story.
On that note, I’m going to share the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever been given. Several years ago, I was working with a certain publisher for the first time. My first vampire novel was in the editing phase and the editor sent me an email that was one of the hardest to accept messages I’ve ever read. Basically, she felt that my storyline was excellent, but the way I’d written the book needed some major cutting and tightening and a lot of changes. It was a damn good spanking. For about an hour, I sat there in sadness. I was insulted. I loved that story, I was proud of it. Part of me wanted to tell that editor exactly where to stick her suggestions. Then I came to my senses. I really wanted that book to come out. But I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. How could I adjust my point of view and edit so much of that story that it would feel like I was a doctor about to operate on his own child? Could I really cut that deeply and show so little mercy for the book I’d worked so hard to write in the first place? I needed advice. I contacted Ron Fortier, my first editor and a very good friend. Ron’s advice to me was so simple, but it made so much sense. He said, “Love the story, not the words.”
That was it. My whole mood lifted and everything was all right. I followed the other editor’s suggestions, reworked much of the book, and eliminated a lot of stylistic clutter. In the end, the finished product was far better than the original manuscript and the essence of the story I had set out to tell was still intact. “Love the story, not the words.”
Okay, so I’ve now been rambling on for several pages about the process of writing. But how, you might be wondering, do you know if it’s working properly? If you’re writing something that’s good or could eventually be good? I’m sure it’s different for every writer, but here’s how I know I’m on to something promising:
When it affects you as much as you hope it affects the reader. When your characters become as real to you as the people who live next door, when you can hear their voices and see the expressions on their faces and share their sorrows and joys. When they suddenly do things you’d never expect them to do, as if they’ve taken on a life of their own. When you feel remorse for the hellish things you put them through. When you nearly make yourself sick with just how twisted you can make a horror scene. When you write a sex scene so candidly that it turns you on and you’d be embarrassed if your mother read it. When you have to force yourself to kill off a character because you feel like you just can’t do that to them and it seems to you, at that moment, that it’s not just words on a page but a real life or death situation. That’s when I know I’m on the right track.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve made myself cry while writing. I’ve also made myself laugh out loud and scream in anger and pump my fist in victory. That’s when I know it’s working.
But guess what? I just lied. The truth is I am embarrassed by what I just admitted. And that’s a good thing. Writing should be embarrassing sometimes, because a part of it is being honest in the lies we tell. We make stuff up for a living, but we also use those stories to reflect what we really feel and think and how we react to ideas and events. If something gets to us, makes us cry or scream or smile or laugh or shake in fear or fall in love, we owe it to our readers to use it to make our stories stronger, because if those things bring out those emotions in us, chances are they’ll do it to the readers too.
Writing is a wonderful and terrible thing at the same time. It can be magnificently rewarding or dreadfully disappointing. One day it will lift your spirit above the highest cloud and the next it will break your heart and stomp the pieces into the dirt. Is it worth it? I think it is, but I can’t make that decision for anybody else.
Not everyone can write, but some of those who can have no choice. Some of us have to do it. If you’ve managed to read everything I just wrote about the good and the bad of writing and you still want to try to do it, you’re in for quite an experience and I’ll be happy to help if I can.
See what happens when you ask me to talk about my work?