There are a lot of people out there giving a lot of writing advice. Some is great, some is garbage, and some can even be rage-inspiring. (See my post The Piece of Writing Advice That Really Pisses Me Off.) And then there are the unpleasant pearls in this list: really good advice, even though you might wish otherwise.
The writing advice that follows is for people who are trying to write a full-length book and get it published. If you’re writing for yourself or your family/friends, go do your thing! But if you’re hoping to one day be a published author, read on…
#1 You may have to write a practice novel (or several) before you get it right.
For those of you who are working on your first novel, this is probably disheartening. It may not be true for you, but I think it is for most people. Writing a novel is really hard, and like with anything, you get better with practice.
Agent Janet Reid says you shouldn’t query your first novel at all. “Write a second novel before you query on the first one,” she suggests.
I wrote four complete novels that will probably never see the light of day. It wasn’t until my fifth attempt that I wrote something good enough to land me an agent, and even with that novel I thought, you know what, I can do better. It wasn’t until I wrote my seventh novel that I felt like I had actually written something good.
You may not have to write as many practice novels as me, but keep in mind that this is a learning process, and it takes time to figure out what you’re doing.
#2 Give yourself a deadline and stick to it
Setting a deadline can be scary – you might worry you’re setting yourself up for failure. But actually, giving yourself a strict deadline and announcing it is often the push you need to succeed in finishing a writing project.
I had this YA mystery novel I’d been kicking around for a while, and when I got pregnant with my second child, I decided I really wanted/needed to finish the first draft before the baby was born. I announced my goal to Facebook, to my email list, to anyone who would listen. As my due date approached, my productivity soared. I finished my draft at 36 weeks pregnant, and I think it’s pretty good. There’s no way I would have written so quickly if I hadn’t had a looming and unavoidable deadline.
Choose your deadline wisely (enough time to succeed but not so much time that it doesn’t light a fire). You may also want to give yourself multiple deadlines. For example: a complete outline by the end of the month, first 25,000 pages by the end of next month, etc.
Then, and this is the important part, hold yourself accountable to your goal by announcing it, tweeting your progress, checking in with a friend, etc.
Free ways to hold yourself accountable to a deadline:
–NaNoWriMo: November is National Novel Writing Month, and with the help of the NaNoWriMo website, you can “track your progress, set milestones, connect with other writers in a vast community, and participate in events that are designed to make sure you finish your novel.”
-Join a writing group on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and connect with other writers. Check in with each other to track progress and give encouragement.
–Hire me as your accountability coach. I have successfully helped several writers to reach their goals with my kind-but-stern methods.
-If all else fails, find a friend and tell them “I will be sending you x-number of pages every week/month. You don’t have to read them, but if I don’t send them to you, get on my case about it, please.”
#3 You can’t always wait for the muse to strike
When I was in my early twenties I used to think I could just sit down at my computer and have a novel flow out of me, fully formed and brilliant. Sometimes I did get lucky and the muse visited. When she did, I might write a poem, a short story, or even the first fifty pages of a novel. But the muse never stuck by my side to see a novel to completion.
Muses spark ideas, but they’re not going to put in the hard work to see those ideas to fruition. That’s up to us.
What I’m saying is, if you only write when you feel like it, or when you feel inspired, you’ll probably never finish a novel. Some writing sessions feel amazing, and some feel like WORK. Writing a novel is really hard; sometimes you have to push through the frustration and keep going, even when it isn’t fun or easy or inspirational.
#4 Resist the urge to go back to the beginning
I have a really hard time following this writing advice. There are so many ways I can justify going back and revising beginning chapters: I need to make changes, I need to “get back into” the novel, I’m stuck in the middle and think going back to the beginning might spark an idea, etc. But usually I’m just making excuses.
If you need to make MAJOR revisions to the beginning chapters that are going to totally change everything that follows, then yes, okay, go back to the beginning and rewrite. But more often than not, reworking what you’ve already written is a stalling tactic. It’s easier than pushing on and writing new scenes, which is why many of us so desperately want to do it.
Unless it’s been an eternity since you worked on your novel, don’t start a writing session by looking at it from the beginning. Instead, every time you sit down to work on your novel, read the last few pages to get you back into it, then keep going – write new stuff!!
If you realize there are things you need to change in the beginning, make note of them, but don’t go back and make the changes. Wait until you’ve finished your draft.
I like this piece of writing advice from Hemingway: “always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.” I often use this trick: at the end of a writing session I jot down a note to myself about what scene to write next or even just a snippet of dialogue that I want to use next time. I find this helps me push forward and resist the temptation to go back.
#5 Rethink your memoir or autobiographical novel
There are two types of people who find publishing success with memoirs: #1 celebrities, #2 people who have super unique/fascinating/horrifying life stories and can tell their stories well.
Now, I’m not saying your life isn’t interesting. Everyone has interesting life stories (I should hope!) But are your life stories unique enough to justify writing a memoir?
How about this instead: write a novel inspired by an intriguing event or interesting time in your life. That way, you have the liberty to shape the book into a satisfying and fascinating story without having to stick to what actually happened. You can add tension and get rid of anything that doesn’t serve the story. And as you write (and I cannot emphasize this enough) let go of what actually happened. Use your memories as a jumping off point to tell a good story.
And, if you’re hell-bent on sticking to the actual events and writing a memoir, take a memoir-writing class and read some books on how to write memoir. Creative nonfiction is incredibly tricky. You need to bring your memories to life through dialogue and scene without crossing the hard-to-define line into fiction. Again, might I suggest fictionalizing things instead?!?!
For more tips, see my post The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Autobiographical Fiction.
#6 Read more
If you want to be a writer, read as much as you can. Obvious writing advice. But when I teach classes on writing YA and Middle Grade fiction, it always surprises me how many people haven’t read much YA or Middle Grade fiction – the very stuff they’re trying to write! Or, they haven’t read any YA or MG books that have been published in the last ten years.
#1 Read more in general
#2 Read in the genre you want to publish in, and read stuff that was published recently.
#3 Read like a writer and notice how the author crafts the story.
As obvious as this writing advice is, I have trouble following it myself. I’m so tired at night it often feels easier to watch a show on Netflix than read a book. (Usually I end up doing a little of both, and I tell myself that at least watching a show exposes me to story-telling!)
I always feel like I should be reading more than I do, and, since I’m writing YA, I should be reading more YA. One thing that helps me read more is to abandon books and not feel bad about it. If I’ve given a book a fair chance and I’m not enjoying it, I don’t finish it. There are so many books out there; I’d rather spend my reading time on something I’m enjoying than trying to slog through something I’m not. If I’m truly enjoying a book, Netflix doesn’t have quite as much appeal.
#7 Don’t query agents right away
I’ve already written about this piece of writing advice in my post The Number One Mistake Writers Make When Querying Agents. But the short version is this: you only get one chance to query an agent with your book, so make sure your manuscript is the VERY BEST it can be before you query.
When you finish a draft, let it rest for a while (I suggest three months) before going back to it with fresh eyes. Get feedback and make changes. Revise, then revise again. Consider a manuscript consultant who can give big picture feedback, or someone who can line edit if you’re not the best with grammar and punctuation. (I can do both of these things for you — check me out!)
The revision process might take longer than the drafting process. In fact, it probably should. You may need to make several major revisions. When the manuscript is as good as it can get, spend ample time drafting your query letter. Get feedback on your query letter, too!
I know you might be excited to get your book out into the world. I know you might be eager to get published and prove to everyone that you’re a “real” writer. But trust me: don’t rush the querying step. The key to getting traditionally published is finding a good literary agent, and an agent isn’t going to want to represent a novel that still needs work.
I know this writing advice might seem like a drag. For many years I resisted following much of it. In fact, this list reads as a list of things I wish I’d done in my early twenties when I first started trying to write novels. It wasn’t like I hadn’t heard this advice; it was that I thought it didn’t apply to me. But guess what: it does.
What about you? What writing advice do you find unpleasant but know you should probably follow?