If I could give ten pieces of writing advice (to someone who likes writing- not most of my students, to whom my advice would be substantially different, and who would ignore it anyway), this is what I would say:
1. Write every day.
And yes, I am always on about that one, because I hear it maligned as bad advice, and I don’t think it is. I think most people could do it. The usual idea is that the person has a job/homework/a family/hobbies/a life, and it’s hard to find time for writing in the middle of all that.
Well, maybe my experience isn’t typical, but it’s absolutely amazing how many “busy” people I know- including people with full-time jobs and fellow graduate students- who still manage to find time to go out to movies, play computer games, and watch hours and hours of TV. They find time in their days for things they enjoy doing. If they enjoy writing, shouldn’t they be able to find time for it?
(And that’s even without my personal opinion that many people would be better off writing than watching a rerun they’ve already seen ten times).
2. Demystify the idea.
One reason I dislike the concept of muses and plot bunnies is because it promotes the idea that “inspiration” is a god-like force on high, only dropping on the writer when it feels like doing so. Not true, and I would bet that that’s not true all the time even for people who think it is. People can be “uninspired” and still write well when they know they’ll fail a class if they don’t, or when they promised something to someone else. No professor I’ve ever known would accept “But I don’t feel inspired!” as an excuse on an essay exam. So unless the god-like force is unusually responsive to deadlines, then I think the idea that it’s completely outside the writer’s control is a misconception at best.
So write when you can. If you really want to write one day and you know you’ll only have an hour to do so because of meetings and classes and so on, then get ready to write in that one hour.
3. Realize it takes time.
I’ve had several friends who wrote for a few weeks or months and then gave up. They wanted to be good right away.
I don’t know why so many people resent the notion of “time” to become good with writing, when they don’t expect to be able to just pick up a brush and paint like Van Gogh right away. Yet they resent it when they can’t write like Virginia Woolf on their first try.
I like to think I’m a good writer. But counting from the time I actually finished a novel-length story, I’ve been at this for ten years and more. It pays off, but it certainly didn’t come right away.
Time and hard work. Why do so many people think those don’t apply to writing?
4. Collect ideas all the time.
I get ideas from lines in songs, random things that people say, ideas in books I think could have worked better, misreading a line in a poem, or creating hypothetical situations in my mind. This is a kind of free play for my mind, but it’s where stories spring from for me. I think that if the number of ideas is the problem- or sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike like a thunderbolt from the heavens- this is the best way that a writer can do it. Don’t be a passive vessel. Actively go playing.
5. Realize you’re not going to like everything you write.
There are at least two books I’ve written that I loathe with a passion, and others that I don’t like that much. That doesn’t compel me to throw them out. I’ve managed to cannibalize a few ideas from them, and even if they don’t provide me with much that’s good, at least they were practice.
Taking either the view that everything you write has to be perfect and you should destroy everything that’s not, or that you can’t possibly write something if you’re not passionately interested in every line, is self-destructive and not worth your time.
6. Realize that some of it is purely mechanical.
Even if you are someone who manages to run on pure “inspiration,” there’s going to come a point in the story (particularly if it’s novel-length), where that impulse plays out, and you’re left with what feel like clunky characters and plot twists. Yes, that happens. No, I don’t think any book ever rides the same pure impulse all the way through, unless the writer is very lucky and the book is very short.
Because of that view I mentioned above, that the writer should always be interested in every line of the story, people are too apt to abandon a story when it doesn’t work out just the way they wanted, or feel they aren’t “real writers.” Well, I think real writers are people who write, and whether they do it because of dragging the story along when it wants to collapse under its own weight or because they’re dancing along on this (mythical, I suspect) inspiration, they’re still better than someone who thinks every line she writes has to be “inspired,” and gives up the moment they’re not.
7. Learn to type.
Yeah, simple, but when you know how to type fast and well, without having to hunt and peck all over your keyboard, the amount of time it saves is enormous. And you don’t have to take typing classes. This is another thing that time and constant practice will do for you. Says me, drawing from personal experience.
8. Be honest with yourself about distractions.
Do you really have to go clean up the mess you’ve left sitting for hours already? Do you really only have an hour left before you have to leave for class, and therefore can’t write? Inventing excuses to keep from writing is perfectly normal, but unless you learn to recognize them and put writing above things you value mostly as distractions from it, then your work will most likely not advance.
9. Develop a sense of goals.
I have a naggy conscience that wants me to write a certain amount each day, and prioritizes stories from most to least important. It doesn’t get upset with me if I don’t manage to do as much work on the least important one; it ambushes me if I don’t get started on the one that stands first. Yes, many times it’s not very much fun, being worried about how much I’ll be able to accomplish and carefully manipulating my writing to avoid banging into other obligations I have. But there’s no one standing over me with a whip and telling me to write, which means I have to internalize the whip. I never, or at least very rarely, match what my conscience wants me to do, but I do far more than I would if I only dreamed about goals and didn’t set them.
10. Love writing, itself.
Another obvious one, but one that many people don’t get. They dream about seeing their name in print, or about the movie deals, or about how much people will love a certain character, or about what a book will be like when they finish it. They don’t love the actual work. That strikes me as the absolute most pitiful lack that someone who wants to be a writer can have. Yes, as I noted, a lot of it is mechanics and discipline, but that doesn’t mean that something doesn’t surprise you in the middle of the book and make you laugh out loud or start crying. And dreams, lovely as they are, are nothing to seeing the words emerge from your fingers.
Yes, sufficiently declamatory, I think.