Every couple of months or so I get a message from someone asking for advice about writing or publishing – sometimes it’s about how to get published, more often just the general meat and potatoes of writing itself. I’m not sure why anyone thinks I am the right person to ask – given my general avoidance of responsibility and fascination with mead I’m hardly a good role model – but I usually attempt to give what advice I can, normally in a rambling, wordy email that causes the person asking to a) not reply and b) never speak to me again.
At the moment, as I wade through the steaming bogs of editing book 2, I have even less time than usual and replying to such messages has fallen down the back of the priority sofa, so I thought it might be useful to chuck any advice I might give into the one blog post, and then I can just point anyone who asks towards that.
This is that post. The thing to remember here is that writing advice is wildly subjective anyway, so what worked for me may not work for other people, and I certainly wouldn’t present the following nonsense as THE RULEZ because in the end we all have to find our own path. Also claiming I know enough about this process to be able to proclaim a set of RULEZ would be exceptionally silly. I’m still learning here.
Some questions I have had in the past:
How do I start writing?
Just start. Seriously, don’t agonise over it. If you have a story you want to tell, or even a scene you want to sketch out, just start writing and see what happens. The key thing here I think, and it can be surprisingly difficult to grasp, is that no one has to see what you’re writing, and it doesn’t matter if it’s crap. More than likely it will be crap, but it doesn’t matter because at the moment it’s just yours to play with. The important thing is to start, because once you start playing with the words and chucking them together, you are officially a billion percent closer to having written something you really like (look, I do writing advice, not maths).
I never have time to write. How can I finish anything?
I am a calm and tolerant person*. I am full of rainbows and kitten-wishes and love, but every now and then someone will say something to me that makes me twitch a little bit. That thing is normally: “I would love to be a writer but I don’t have the time.”
It makes me twitch because it sort of assumes that I have loads of free time somehow, that perhaps I roll out of bed in the morning, slip into a dressing gown and spend a couple of hours meditating on the day’s words… which is not the case. I have a day job and a social life like everyone else, and the horrible, sleep-destroying truth is that my books were written around the edges of everyday life. When I was writing The Copper Promise I got up earlier than I needed to and wrote before work, and now that my hours have changed slightly, I come home from work, feed the cat, wash up, and then squeeze in writing before dinner. Part of me would rather come home, feed the cat, ignore the washing up, and sit grinning at Tumblr for hours, but in the end, writing is my first priority. Apart from the cat. The fact is, you don’t get allocated extra-special-magical time because you decide to write. You have to find the time within your schedule, which normally means giving something up. Painful, but true.
How often should I write?
Ooo, this is a thorny one. The mantra we all hear of course is WRITERS WRITE EVERY DAY, and there are all sorts of issues sprouting off from that, concerning what makes you a real writer and how you even start to define that. I’m not going to touch any of that with a barge pole, but I do suspect that the more often you write the easier it is to continue writing. If you write for a couple of days, and then leave it for a couple of months, getting back into that rhythm may well be difficult, whereas if you sit down with your story every day, you won’t have to search too hard to find the door back into that world.
Having said that, not everyone is able to write every day. As much as I talked about making time for it, sometimes life just rudely elbows you aside and you don’t always have a choice; in the end, if you really want to tell a story, it will come out in fits and starts – writing is a bit like eating in that you can get away with not doing it for a little while, but in the end you have to. And once you have deadlines and contracts, it’s fairly likely you will have to find a way to write every day anyway.
Can you read this prologue I’ve just written and tell me if it’s okay?
Nooooooo. This is a very subjective piece of writing advice, so feel free to ignore it entirely, but for me personally I find the privacy of the first draft incredibly important. It’s the place where I can get everything hopelessly wrong, make huge embarrassing mistakes, and fart out great big wads of terrible writing and it doesn’t matter because no one will see it. That freedom is essential, because it gives me the space to try new things and pursue different tangents without the influence of someone else’s eyeballs on the manuscript. No one but me ever sees a first draft of my work, and I revel in that fact.
Similarly, I don’t give people bits and pieces of a book to read, particularly the opening section, until the whole thing is finished. This is because what makes sense as an opening chapter at the beginning of the writing process might have changed completely by the time you type the words “THE END”, and any advice you get on that prologue will be totally useless. Books change enormously in the writing, because they are tricksy weasel bastards.
(Now, some people I understand go to writing groups and they share writing when it’s in its early stages, which is both cool and something that wouldn’t work for me at all. A different path for everyone and all that!)
Being published looks awesome. How do you do that?
It is awesome!
It also tends to be slightly different for everyone. I self-published a novella, which got enough positive attention that I expanded it into a novel and submitted it to an agent who happened to be looking for Epic Fantasy at the time. She also just happened to be the Greatest Agent in the Known ‘Verse, and she loved the book, helped me to make it better, and then sold it to Headline. Pretty bloody lucky all round really, but I wouldn’t have got there at all if I didn’t have a finished book at the heart of it. When you talk to writers you often get odd stories like this, because the path to publishing tends to be a strange and scenic route. In general though, there is a tried and tested method that you can read about in a zillion places, most notably in a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. The simple version being:
Write a book, edit the shit out of it, query agents. Query agents until you find one you like who likes you. Get out on submission, baby. BAM.
Some bits of advice I would have about this process:
Really edit the shit out of that book. It can be easy to give it the once over and think, “Yeah, I’m okay with that,” because let’s face it, reading the same book over and over again can drive you loopy, but it is incredibly necessary. One of the biggest and most surprising things I’ve learned while working on The Copper Promise for publication was just how much of writing the book is actually re-writing the book. At the end of the first draft, you’re probably about 10% done. If that. Ouch. So edit the thing until your eyes bleed, and then have a read through and ask yourself if it reads like a book you would buy from your local Waterstones. And then just for luck, edit it again.
Get involved in the community, talk to people, and go to conventions. When I first heard this advice at the usual “How to get published” panel, my immediate thought was, “Well, I’m fucked then.” Because I’m shy and not very good at talking to people I haven’t met before, and conventions were full of strangers who all knew each other, and I was a dweeb. I am still a dweeb, but I made myself attend, and the good news is it gets easier with time. Also, as someone who often finds typing easier than talking, it’s definitely worth getting involved in the lively online community, and thanks to twitter I am now glad to be part of a sprawling network of writers, publishers, readers and bloggers. In terms of support, advice and inspiration, this is invaluable.
If things don’t go your way immediately, or even if the process is frustrating and slow, don’t get angry. Anger leads to the Dark Side, and they will make you wear a stupid helmet… Well, actually, getting angry is fine, anger is natural and healthy, but try not to get bitter about it, and try not to take it out on other people. It might be tempting to vent on the editor who rejected your story or to have a strop at the agent who wasn’t interested, but believe me they will remember, and that does you no good at all.
Never give up, never surrender! Writing is basically the best job ever. In a couple of hours time I will be wandering down to a bookshop to sign some copies of my book, and there’s no part of me that isn’t still stunned that this is a reality. All the work and the doubt and the missed Tumblr posts were worth it, because The Copper Promise is out in the world, and people keep sending me messages about which characters they think should have sex. I love it!
*stop laughing at the back.