Three Things I Wish New Writers Knew

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Well, it’s Friday again. I don’t have a lot of time today–a short story came back with revisions I’ve got to eyeball and the new Watcher novel is heating up. So, I’m going to give you three things I wish new writers knew.

When I say “new writer” I don’t necessarily mean teenager/young person. I mean someone new to writing every day, someone just starting out. John Scalzi did his 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know, which I by and large agree with. (And I won’t lie, I always get a slight sense of gratification reading where he says one should write every day.) But the “new” writer is not necessarily, well, young.

I am not sure whether it’s better to come to writing while you’re young and you think you know everything, or when you’re older and you’ve had the sh!t kicked out of you a few times and you think you know How Life Works, which is just about the same mental reflex. (Though vastly more useful.) There’s something to be said for pure exuberant youth, and there’s something to be said for the calluses of experience on the bum of maturity. (Or something.) But whether you’re young or old, there’s things I think every new writer could benefit from.

* Accept that your stuff is going to suck. Everyone’s stuff sucks when they first start out no matter how old they are. Just because you’re verbally fast or fluent doesn’t mean you’ll be fast and fluent on the page; you will not be automatically fresh and iconoclastic when you’re young any more than you will be automatically experienced as an old hack when you’re older. Every writer starts out sucking. It’s our gods-given gift.

With young folk starting out writing, I see a lot of, “I’m new and SPECIAL and you just don’t understand!” With older writers, I see a lot of “How hard can this be? I’ve been a success at other things!” Both are…well, not true. New does not equal better, I understand because I was new and speshul once too. And there is a special circle of professional hell reserved for people who think this job is so easy you can just sit down and squeeze out a novel like squeezing a pimple. It is not simple. This is a complex task, and like any complex task, IT TAKES TIME TO MASTER.

When you’re just starting out learning any complex skill set, you’re going to suck. Relax and take the suck for what it is–a gift. That’s right, it’s a bloody gift. Once you accept that your work will suck at first, you have automatically created the necessary precondition for it getting better. If you refuse to accept that new writing, zero drafts, etc., are going to be an unholy mess, there is no reason for you to think about ways to make anything better and the work will remain in stasis…as an unholy mess. That’s not good if you want to make a living at writing, or even if you want to get published consistently.

* Common sense and business sense are your best friends. They are also surprisingly similar. Yog’s Law and basic common and business sense will help you have a career instead of a boondoggle. With a plethora of author’s weblogs, publisher’s weblogs, and several other sites available to the public online, as well as the Writer’s Market and places like Preditors & Editors, basic business/common sense about writing has never been so accessible. You can learn from other people’s mistakes all over the Internet–and not just about writing either. I can tell you several fandom and internet wanks have made me very wary, providing amusement as well as the lesson of “Jesus Christ, I don’t ever want to be in that position…”

Treat writing like a job with professional consequences and perks, and you will be in demand among editors. Given a choice between a prima donna with incandescent prose and an easy-to-work-with professional with a solid product that is not so incandescent, editors will largely choose the professional even if the story is less of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Editors are people too, and they like dealing with reasonable people instead of flakes and fruits. Be reasonable, professional, and consistent, and thou shalt reap the rewards tenfold.

I have to note here that the proportion of new writers on the young and old sides of the spectrum who violate this rule is roughly the same. X amount of new young writers implode/never get published because it’s not about the writing, for them–it’s about some kind of weird, twisted emotional jolt or need in another area of their life. X amount of new old writers do the same thing. You learn to spot them a mile away at conventions or critique group meetings.

Don’t be them.

* Read, read, read. I am amazed by new writers who confide in me that they “don’t read” but they expect to produce a readable work. Omnivorous reading provides grist for your artistic mill and a thousand little tiny lessons you just can’t get any other way. Lessons about pacing, voice, word choice, structure, what works and what doesn’t on the page. Reading gives you a range of fine gradations to your basic tools of grammar and structure.

Reading a lot will initially set you on fire with trying to write in someone else’s voice. Books that affect you strongly will have an effect on your own writing. This is a phase every new writer goes through, and there is only one cure: writing and reading more. Get it out of your system before you start submitting. Your editors will thank you, and when they do, that is a good sign.

Don’t worry about your work always sounding like someone else’s. Sooner (if you keep writing on a consistent schedule) or later (if you lay about and don’t write as much) you will discover your own voice naturally, and things you read will no longer affect it as much. The period of imitation is necessary and natural for developing your own creative style. Don’t try to avoid it, and don’t get stuck in it. Just recognize it as a normal phase and enjoy it while it lasts. And when it goes, enjoy finding your own voice.

I could go on and on, but I’ve got actual work to do today. No rest for the weary and wicked, eh? Still, I love this job. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Peace out.