This blog covers all authorly things—from writing’s nuts and bolts, whether novel writing tips or those for nonfiction, to the world of publishing, and even how to weather the emotional storms with tips from famous authors.
As a book editor who’s been in the trenches for decades, I’ve worked with my writers on all of the above. But sometimes it’s fun to hear what other famous authors have to say.
So, let’s play a little!
I’ve always loved this from Ernest Hemingway:
“The first draft of everything is shit.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself J Because that’s the truth of the matter. The first draft isn’t really even a draft—it’s an exercise to find your characters and their stories. The real work of course comes next.
And then you find yourself slogging in the middle of your story, and fear paralyzes your breath. Sarah Waters has great advice for this:
“Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however has always got me there in the end . . .”
The point being, of course, that even in the midst of novel-writing terror, keep going.
Because as Jonathan Franzen said:
“Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”
Now, writing for money isn’t a bad thing. But if that’s your primary focus, you will be sorely disappointed. At least for a long time . . .
Although I will say, Maya Angelou says this a bit more softly:
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
If the love of writing doesn’t propel you, you’ll never keep swimming through these roiling seas.
George Orwell explains this well:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Dismal, but, well, pretty much hammers in the nail.
Writing, and the business of it, will humble you to your knees.
Because it takes a long time to find your voice, your own style, in order to convey the world you see and create it on the page.
As Raymond Carver said:
“Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications. It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”
This is one of my favorite novel writing tips, because I’ve found especially one part of it to be irrevocably true: I’ve worked with writers with enormous talent, who weren’t willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to make a book publishable. Conversely, I’ve worked with those with thimblefuls of talent, who dug in and learned the craft, and went on to publish and publish well.
Going from writer to published author is quite the journey!
You can learn this. You just have to truly want to and do it.
Because as William Zinsser said:
“If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do.”
Simple enough statement, no? But as a book editor, it’s one of the things I stress. Or, as I often open with when speaking at literary conferences: “Writing well really IS rocket science.”
And, we can often trick ourselves into thinking we’re doing our best, writing the truth as we know it. But Margaret Atwood had a great take on this:
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”
I’ll never forget when my first novel was about to be published, the galleys corrected and back to the publisher, and waking up in the middle of the night in terror, thinking, my mother’s friends are going to read this!
Yes. But as novelists, we are charged with writing the truth as we know it.
Might be a good time for some humor here! One of my favorite authors always captures that well. As Dorothy Parker said:
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
I’m always amazed at how many wanna-be novelists tell me they don’t read. It’s one of the 3 keys to becoming an author. As Stephen King said:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.”
Or, as Isabel Allende put it:
“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
And finally, my favorite of all novel writing tips ever (even though it referred to poetry!), is from Rainer Marie Rilke:
“Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, ‘I must,’ then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity . . .”