Nobody Gets Out Alive: Writing Advice from the Cheap Seats

Nobody Gets Out Alive: Writing Advice from the Cheap Seats

WritingBefore I was published, I read a lot of articles and books about writing, hoping to improve my craft. As I progressed, it became more difficult to find sage advice, because so much was slanted toward the novice writer just starting their first steps on the path. What I’d like to do today is pass along some tips for the intermediate writers out there — those who have been honing their work for a couple years with the goal of getting published.

One of the biggest hurdles I faced when coming up was in my head. When I first started, I wrote in my spare time. Just whenever I felt the urge, and not with any consistency. Even when I decided during my college years to switch my major to English with the goal of becoming a career novelist, I was still treating it like a hobby. I think I was more intrigued by the idea of being a writer than the reality, which sounded like a lot of work.

Taking that next step toward being a “professional” writer meant changing my habits, and my state of mind.

1. Write every day

Everyone has school or a job, family obligations, friendships that require nurturing, and so on. But putting your butt in the chair and writing for a specific amount of time every day builds a habit, and that habit will see you through some tough spots down the road. You won’t always feel like being creative, but you still need to put in the time. Think of it as an investment in your career. You have to put in the work, day after day, for months and years on end. Treat writing like a profession, and others will start to see you as a professional.

One thing that helps you stick to a schedule is to have a specific place to write. It can be your bedroom, basement, a den, or even your local coffee shop. It doesn’t matter where it is, as long as you can relax and write. It also helps your family and friends understand what you’re doing. They may be wonderfully supportive of your goals, but they may not understand that these stories don’t just write themselves. Spending hours alone locked in a room looks pretty weird to outsiders. They may good-naturedly try to pry you out of your workspace “for your own good.” It’s not easy to put your foot down and risk hurting their feelings. Look, you live your life however you want, but I know from experience that one missed writing day can turn into two, and so on. Before you know it, you’re looking back and counting all the pages you could have written, except you bent your schedule to fit other people. Am I suggesting that your writing career should be more important than your family? I don’t know. But when you’re wondering why other people are churning out buckets of books while you’re still spinning your wheels on your first manuscript with no end in sight… Well, you get the picture. If you don’t make your career a priority, don’t expect anyone else to care about it either.

2. The first draft is going to suck. That’s why we revise

FrustratedUnless you’re some uber-genius prodigy, you’re first draft is probably going to resemble a pile of dog shit. Of course, you’ll love it anyway. It’s your baby, after all! And your mother/spouse/significant-other will no doubt love it as well. Don’t believe your own hype. The first draft is important because it allows you to get all your thoughts down in a semi-coherent form, but revision is where it becomes a novel. I think of the first draft a chunk of raw marble, and my job during revision is to chip away at it until the sculpture emerges.

Be prepared to throw out anything that doesn’t fit your vision of the story, including entire scenes and characters. Laugh as you kill your darlings! Writing is a bloody business. Enlist readers who are willing to tear your baby apart, and then thank them profusely afterward because their time is valuable, too.

3. Submission

These days writers have more choices. There are people making quite a good living by self-publishing their work. I’ll admit that I don’t know too much about that world. For me, the goal was always to be published by a “traditional” press. And that meant submitting my work.

Some writers get freaked out about the submission process, but it’s just part of the job. When your manuscript is as polished and ready as you can make it, you send it to either agents or publishers directly, or both. Sometimes they want a query letter first. I highly suggest you check out the submission guidelines on their website.

I’m not going to dwell on the nuts and bolts of the submission process. You can find all that online or in a reference book. I want to talk about the odds. There are roughly ten gajillion writers in the world, all trying to get their work published. So what makes you so special that you think you’re going to nab a contract? Talent helps, of course, but that’s subjective. Writing is art, and therefore its beauty is in the mind of the reader. I’m not going to lie. The odds are against you. But I do have one silver bullet in my gun.

I’m too stupid to give up.

That was my ticket. Over the better part of twenty years I wrote more than a million words — including three full-length novels, half a dozen partial novels, many short stories, and enough crappy poems to choke a T-Rex — before I sold my first story. I just refused to give up. And even when I felt like throwing in the towel, my wife wouldn’t let me. She reminded me that this was my dream and I couldn’t give up.

The good news is that most people give up too early. (Good news for you, not for them.) If you’re one of the stubborn ones, too dense to give up no matter how badly the deck is stacked against you, then you have a chance. I firmly believe that if you keep submitting good manuscripts for long enough, eventually someone is going to bite.

A word about publishers. The big ones are great, but don’t forget there are a lot of medium and small presses that put out quality books every year. Not all of them offer an advance, but often you’ll find other benefits to working with them, including more control over your product and a closer relationship to the people putting your work in print.

4. Develop a thick skin

Frustrated 2Here’s the ugly truth. If you submit your manuscript, you are likely going to be rejected. Very few people are published right out of the gate. (And I kinda feel bad for those who are.) Rejection will either crush you or make you stronger. Some people crumble and give up, while others get energized to “prove those bastards wrong.” If you are easily discouraged by difficult endeavors, find another hobby.

And rejection doesn’t stop after you’re published. Once your story goes out into the world, some people will love it. Yet, others will invariably hate it, and they’ll have no problem saying so on the internet. There’s an old adage that comes to mind, about pleasing everyone all the time…

I’m telling you now; a thick skin will make your life easier. (Alcohol helps, too.) Some writers say they never read their reviews, but I suspect most of them are lying. When my first book was published, I was obsessed with combing the net for every review, blurb, and comment about it. Every time I got a negative comment, even if it was surrounded by compliments, I felt horrible. I wanted everyone to love my work. Who doesn’t, right?

Well, that attitude didn’t serve me well for a couple of heart-twisting months, and it won’t do you any good either. Get it through your head that a certain portion of readers are not going to appreciate your work. Want to see proof? Go to Goodreads or some other site that allows readers to rate books. Find your absolute favorite novel, the one you think is beyond reproach. Now check out how many people gave it one star. It makes you think.

Here’s the opposite approach: be grateful that anyone likes your work. When you realize how many books are available in the 21st century, how many movies and television shows and plays, add in video games and music, it’s really humbling to think that anyone would take the time to read something I wrote. And just like 1-star reviews on Amazon don’t tarnish a great book, neither do 5-star reviews make a book any good. So don’t get too upset about the bad reviews, nor too giddy about the good ones. Take them all in stride and keep your mind focused on what’s really important: finishing that next book, making it as good as it can be, and sending it out into the world.

I wish you all the best.

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[…] Second, Jon Sprunk penned a nice “things you ought to know if you’re going to succeed at writing” piece for Black Gate this week. Go take a look. […]

Ken Lizzi

Nice post. It rings true.

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