In my last writing post, I talked about some myths — some advice about writing that may or may not be true. Today I’ll give some advice that I think it’s safe to say is absolutely true.
If you want to write, you need to read. If you don’t enjoy reading, then you probably won’t enjoy writing. Reading fuels writing, and loving to read is how most writers are first inspired to want to write. By reading, you internalize all the lessons about story structure, characterization, etc. In fact, I would bet that you’d get more benefit from reading a lot and never looking at how-to books or taking writing seminars than you’d get from studying writing without actually reading a lot.
What should you read? Read widely in the genre you’re writing. Read the classics in that genre so you know the foundations. Read the latest releases, bestsellers, and books by new authors so you know what’s selling now. Read the award winners so you know what’s considered good. Read outside your genre. You can learn a lot about plotting by reading mysteries, a lot about pacing by reading thrillers, a lot about emotions from reading romance, a lot about language by reading poetry. Take another look at the classics you were forced to read in school and try reading them without having to write essays or take tests about them. Read the latest thing burning up the bestseller list. Read non-fiction so you learn about the world and about people.
I may argue with the “write every day” advice, but it’s hard to be much of a writer if you aren’t writing often and regularly. Yes, it’s important to read and study and research, but at some point, in order to be a writer, you have to write something. You have to write a lot. There are some people who are fortunate and talented who sell the first thing they write, but most writers spend a lot of time writing and write a lot of things before they actually get good at it. You wouldn’t expect to be able to play Beethoven sonatas the first time you sit down at a piano, so don’t expect to produce a publishable novel the first time you try to write. There certainly are cases of the industry not recognizing genius, but for the most part, if you’re failing it’s because you’re not good enough yet, and the best way to get better is to write more. Think of it as your practice sessions so that you learn and get good enough to perform in public.
While it is important to write instead of deluding yourself into equating writing-related work with actual writing, it is important to learn about what you’re doing, especially when you start considering publication. I’m constantly surprised and appalled by how many people I talk to who claim to be writing seriously who seem to have absolutely no clue as to how the business works. I was recently at a party and ended up in conversation with an aspiring writer who didn’t realize when I said I was a writer that I truly was a career novelist, and she was boasting about the three books she’d written, but said she didn’t have them published because she couldn’t afford that. She didn’t understand that a publisher pays the writer. I tried to gently educate her about the difference between publishing, vanity press, and self-publishing. If you’re trying to do this, you need to know these things, and it’s ridiculously easy to learn, if you make any effort. Most libraries have a section of books on how to write and how to get published. There are writing organizations like Romance Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America that help educate writers. There are writing conferences and conventions. There’s a wealth of information online for aspiring writers. Many editors and agents have web sites and blogs with advice on publishing. There is no excuse for being uniformed about the industry you’re trying to participate in.
This ties into the “write” advice above, in that it may take you some time and a lot of effort before you see success. You’ll get rejections. You’ll get criticism. You have to decide for yourself whether you can handle this. It’s okay to decide that maybe writing isn’t for you, that it’s not as much fun as it seems, that you don’t want to spend the time it takes to be able to succeed. But you have to be honest with yourself about what’s going on. If you really, truly want it, you have to keep going. You have to carry on and finish that book even though the middle is hard and you just got this other new idea. You have to slog through revisions that aren’t as much fun as the first draft. You have to take rejections and decide to try again and write something new. There’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed if you keep on, but it’s absolutely guaranteed that you won’t succeed if you give up — if you don’t finish something, don’t revise and polish it, don’t keep submitting, don’t write anything else.
So, that’s the quick (well, maybe not so quick) and easy (except not) formula for writing success: Read, write, study, persist.