Almost every time I am interviewed I am asked what advice I would give to a writer just starting out. I always answer in one of two ways, often both–(1) don’t listen to advice, and (2) just write. Being a writer, of course, I am not going to leave it at that. I am going to explain what I mean.
I could just show this cartoon, I suppose, and rest my case, but the burning question is–how does the book come out? One thing I have discovered since I started meeting other writers long after my first book was written and published is that we are all different in every imaginable way. I like to get up early in the morning, for example, and tackle my writing immediately after breakfast while my energy level is high. I know a very successful author who frits away her time all day, finding any and all excuses to stay away from her computer until finally, in the mid to late evening she sits down and writes well into the night. I am brain dead by then. Who is right? Both of us are, but I am right for me and she is right for her. There is no rule, in fact. Each writer has to find what works for her/him.
I am very organized and very disciplined. I write every day when I am working on a book, and I write a set number of words a day, except when I am revising–2000 words. I know another successful author who, despite intentions to the contrary, just cannot meet her deadlines. When the deadline comes and goes, she is maybe one-third the way into the book. After fretting for another week or two, she finally writes the rest of the book in a marathon burst of creative energy and does not come up for air night or day until she has finished. Who is right?
Those are both relatively trivial points, but I have seen how-to books and listened to speakers who will tell writers that this is when they must write and this is how much they must write per day. Don’t listen!
What concerns me most, though, about the writing “help” that is offered writers–and there is a lot of it out there–is that is can impede the natural flow of creativity that is the writer’s gift. All writers of fiction have stories inside them–otherwise they wouldn’t be writers. And all writers knows how to tell a story–they have probably read thousands in the course of their lives and made up a hundred more in their heads. They just think they don’t know (we writers are such insecure people) and so seek out help on how to create everything from plot to character to suspense to sexual tension. And chances are they will end up either not knowing how to write at all or else producing cookie-cutter stories with paint-by-the-number characters.
A writer’s most precious asset, and also the most fragile, is her/his voice. I don’t mean the physical thing that produces sound and might read a story aloud. I mean the writer’s view of life and way of expressing it. It is quite distinctive when you come across it in a well-written book, But it can be so very easily tampered with. I remember speaking at a conference with a lady who had two manuscripts going so that she could work on one while her critiquing group was going through the other. Then she would swap and work on their suggestions while they had the other manuscript. This had been going on for a long time. I was aghast. And I wondered how much of her vision or voice remained in either of the constantly new-and-improved stories she was working on. I did give her some advice–the one I gave at the start of this little essay. I told her to shut herself into a room and not come out until she had finished a whole book.
If you are a writer, you will write. If you are a writer, you can write, even if you can never remember the difference between who and whom and don’t have the foggiest idea when it is appropriate to use the semicolon. You don’t need to listen to the well-meaning advice of experts or amateurs. You can do it yourself. Do it. And that is my advice to you today. I know many of you will disagree, and I look forward to hearing from you. Life would be so bland if we all agreed on every subject!
To one randomly-chosen person who leaves a comment below before the end of next Tuesday, July 16, I will send an autographed advance reading copy of THE ARRANGEMENT, due out at the end of August, and the last one I have available. Last week’s winner of the same book was Diane (last name not known yet) of somewhere in Canada.