Things I’ve Learned

SEVENTEEN IMPORTANT THINGS I’VE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING or: The Distilled Wisdom of 25+ Years Since I First Became Truly Serious About My Own Writing.
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Before you read this, some words of caution: although I sincerely hope that there are things in this article that will empower you, its purpose is neither to reassure you nor to make you feel better about your own writing. If you are looking for short-cuts or excuses, you will have to find them elsewhere, although I will try to help you avoid some of the wrong turns that so many aspiring writers make, and I will try to explain some things that may seem mysterious to you. And while you can easily find people willing to tell you “keep on going” and “never give up” — or the reverse, people who will tell you that the whole publishing business is corrupt and you haven’t a chance — I’m not going to do either of those things. I think that whether or not you continue is an intensely personal decision, and I’m not qualified to make it for you. Nobody is. Only you know how much time and effort you are willing to give to your writing aspirations, what those aspirations are, whether or not you could ever bear to be anything but a writer (some of us can’t, but I won’t be projecting my own feelings about that on to you), or if the time has come for you to move on to other activities which might make you happier and could be more rewarding. But if you are interested in the honest opinions and conclusions of someone who has been writing for publication for a good many years — having known some successes and some failures, meanwhile making her share of mistakes along the way — you might want to read on. Then apply your own common sense in deciding how much of this applies to you, and how much of it is likely to prove useful in terms of your own aspirations.

#1
Books should not be written by committee.

It’s not a good practice to be constantly asking other people: Do you like the name of my main character? What do you think of this idea for a plot? How should I end my story?

In fiction, context is everything. Without context, it’s very hard for other people to tell whether your story is good or not, whether your characters are believable or not, whether your ending supplies a satisfying resolution or not. Industry professionals are trained to evaluate books in this way and most of them are very good at it, but even they are not infallible — how much less competent, then, will your friends or chance-met strangers on the internet be? Aspiring writers frequently complain that editors and agents make snap decisions based on short excerpts, but they will happily accept advice (and praise) under the same sort of conditions from other inexperienced writers. Now, honestly, does this make sense?

Write the story. Write a large chunk of the story before you show it to anyone and ask for their advice. That way, they will be able to see how it all fits together. They will be able to spot your strengths and weaknesses. They will be able to get the big picture and comment on that, instead of little niggling details like the spelling and punctuation (which, by the way, you should learn to fix for yourself.)

A quick synopis will not tell them what they need to know in order to give you the most constructive advice. The first few chapters will not tell them either, not unless there are a great many more chapters already written and polished. And it is seldom a good idea to show your first drafts to anyone. Why? Because early in the writing process most of the context is still in your mind, and very little of it has found its way into the actual writing. Allow your vision of the story to solidify before you allow other people to put their hands on it. If it’s still too malleable they’re likely to distort it — or worse, try to fit it into their own mold. You need to develop your own individual style, your own unique voice, you need to learn how to tell the story that only you can tell, and how can you do any of this if you are relying on other people to tell you what to say and how to say it every single step of the way?

And there is a thing that often happens when you ask others to critique something that is still in the early stages of creation. They pick up on any ideas that they like and start imagining the story they would write from that point on. They wax enthusiastic; they tell you that you have the beginnings of a great story; but it is not your story they are talking about, it is the story playing out in their own minds. And/or the opposite happens: they pick up on the ideas they don’t like, decide they know exactly where your story is going — and it isn’t anywhere good — and they try to fix it accordingly. Soon, you are getting so much conflicting advice you don’t know who or what to believe. Little wonder if you are confused: the people doing the critiquing are all talking about different (imaginary) books.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t keep your eventual readers in mind as you write. If you mean your story to be read by other people — and certainly if you hope to be published — you do need to give some thought to the reactions of your readers, and one of the best ways to find out what those reactions will be is to show it to other people and ask for their comments. But first you need to put every effort into communicating your own vision as completely, as compellingly, and as confidently as possible. Then when other people read it and give their advice, it will at least be based on your story, not what they think your story is going to be, or ought to be, or the story they would write in your place.

#2
Agents and the editors at publishing houses are not in the business of teaching you how to write. Do not depend on them to tell you what needs fixing or how to fix it. (Although if they do give you advice, consider it very carefully.)

Agents and editors at established agencies and publishing houses receive an enormous number of submissions. They do not have the time to read all of these submissions AND comment on them AND still do the other work for which they get paid. Look at this way: if an editor or an agent sits down and writes detailed comments on one rejected manuscript, other manuscripts are languishing unread. Response times are long enough as it is. And if every manuscript read received a detailed critique, there wouldn’t be enough time to give even a cursory glance to a large portion of the manuscripts received. Your manuscript might be one of those that was never even glanced at because the agent or the editor took the time to give writing lessons to somebody else.

“But,” I hear you protesting, “I only want a few words on why my manuscript was rejected. A few suggestions on how to make it better. How long would that take?” Well, quite a long time, actually, if you multiply it by several hundred manuscripts. Particularly if the agent/editor took additional time to frame those comments in the most tactful and constructive way possible.

I can tell you for a fact that on many occasions when an editor does give specific comments the aspiring author is far from grateful. Either the author is confused (the editor seems to be saying just the opposite of what previous readers have said), or offended, or convinced that the editor is a complete idiot who doesn’t know his or her business. The sort of terse criticism, baldly stated, that you would probably receive under the “how long would it take” principle is unlikely to be tactful, or encouraging, or specific and detailed enough to be particularly helpful. Without a layer of sugar-coating, even the mildest criticism can be hard to take — many aspiring writers won’t take it. Editors soon learn this through bitter experience (yes, irate writers do sometimes write back to tell them what they can do with their ^&%$# advice ) and after that they are far less willing to offer comments.

So if and when you receive any kind of comment from an agent or editor, don’t be put off by its brevity or lack of tact. It may be inadequately explained, but someone has noticed an area where your story could stand to be improved, and they have taken the trouble to tell you about it. You have two choices: You can interpret what has been said in such a way as to make the agent or editor look a fool (soothing to your injured pride, but of little use constructively). Or you can try to figure out what they really saw and what they really meant. After you’ve done that, you may still wish to reject their advice, but you’ve used it to take a good hard look at your writing from another perspective — and that is rarely a bad thing.

#3
There is only one good reason to become a fiction writer, and that is if you have stories and characters inside of you clamoring to get out.

If you don’t, wait until you do. Your first stories need not be good, original, or even complete, but they need to be yours. Asking other people for story ideas, or how to come up with interesting characters is pretty much useless. Characters should not originate in some conscious process, they should be born somewhere in the deep recesses of your brain. If you produce them mechanically, they will never be anything more than machines. (Learning about character development is another matter entirely.) As for how to start: you begin with the seed of a story that you, personally, are eager to write, and from that point on it can grow in either or both directions. You need not worry about the hook, or whether or not to include a prologue, or any of that until the story is more developed.

Fiction writers are, first and foremost, storytellers. If you don’t have stories to tell, and you really want to write, consider nonfiction. Also consider that there are people who love the idea of being a writer more than they love the act of writing, and you may be one of them. (And if you are more interested in what you imagine are the worldly rewards of being a writer — the fame, the fortune, the prestige — you should know that you are more likely to get them writing nonfiction.)

#4
Most writers give up far too soon.

It’s true that the vast majority of aspiring writers will never see publication (unless they publish themselves).
But:
It is also true that most of these will never finish what they begin, much less send it out to editors and agents.
Of those who do, most of those will give up after a few rejections.
Of those who do submit a book again and again before they give up on it, many will never complete a second book.
If you have leaped all three of these hurdles, you are already in a much more select group. One for whom the chances of publication are considerably higher.

Nevertheless, the truth is that most of the manuscripts that are never published shouldn’t get published. The writing is flat, awkward, unoriginal, poorly plotted. There may be the beginnings of a great story there but it hasn’t been sufficiently thought out. Dialogue fluctuates back and forth between the stiff and the melodramatic. (Sometimes it’s both.) Many writers can’t even spell or punctuate.

Now somewhere I hear someone saying, “But think of all the garbage that does get published. You can’t tell me that my manuscript isn’t far superior to that!” Yes, books of the most mediocre and pedestrian literary quality do get published sometimes, and sometimes they are even successful. But what these books have in common (and what all the bad and — even some of the good — books that don’t get published do not have) is a spark, something that ignites the imagination and emotions of a great many readers. But you can’t plan on that spark, you can’t quantify it, and you can’t learn it.

On the other hand, it may actually be that these books — no matter how stale their premises, or stereotypical their characters — are more skillfully written than yours. A lot of aspiring writers judge the quality of their own writing by how much work they think they’ve put into it; they feel that after they’ve spent a year writing a first novel it represents their best efforts and is incapable of further improvement. But the truth is, it takes a lot more time and effort to write even a mediocre book than many people think. In most cases, you will need to write somewhere between 500,000 and a million words (including major revisions) before you write something publishable.

Also consider the possibility that the story and characters you think are so wonderfully original aren’t. There are tens of thousands of books published each year; no one person could read even a fraction of them. There might have been five or six books published in the last ten years with plots similar to yours — how would you know? Besides that, there are certain plots that agents and editors see again and again, but you and I don’t see them because the books are rejected. Even if we do a lot of critiquing, we aren’t looking at proposals for hundreds of unpublished manuscripts every month.

And it doesn’t matter that your family, friends, co-workers, or the chance-met strangers to whom you have shown your work all say they love it. None of them have been asked to spend money on your book; they can afford to be generous in their assessment. Additionally, people who don’t write themselves can be so thrilled at being let in on the process of creation, they can become as proprietary about your work as you are — and as prejudiced in its favor.

But here is the good news: if your writing is bad, you can always make it better. This is something entirely within your control. It may offer a prickly kind of comfort to think the odds are simply against you, but that’s something you can’t fix. The weak points in your own writing you can. However, it’s entirely up to you whether you want to spend a million words and several years of your life working toward that goal. Only you know whether you want it that much, or whether it’s worth it.

#5
When preparing to submit a book manuscript, learn to think past the moment when an agent or editor first reads it to a time when it might actually go into production.

I’ve often heard beginning writers say, “Why do editors and agents worry about unimportant things like spelling and punctuation, when it’s the story that counts.” Skipping right over the fact that for many readers things like poor spelling and punctuation can be a major distraction — if you don’t understand or believe this already, nothing I say now is going to convince you — I’m going to assume that you do know that no reputable publisher is going to have a book printed up with all of those errors uncorrected. If you haven’t fixed those things already, someone is going to have to do it for you — most probably a freelance copy-editor who is not going to want to be doing all of that extra work without sufficient compensation. Therefore, publishing your book is going to cost more time and money — not a good idea to put into an editor’s mind when he or she first picks up your manuscript. Especially because most first novels barely break even as it is, and many of them actually lose money for the publisher.

There is also the fact that the kind of carelessness that leads to multiple errors in grammar, etc. usually comes out in other ways: poor plotting, poor characterization, and so forth. So again, these mistakes tell an editor or an agent that producing your manuscript is likely to be more time-consuming — and that working with you is not going to be an agreeable process, since you are either too ignorant, too lazy, or too arrogant to take care of these things yourself and expect other people to do your work for you.

And now we come to the matter of manuscript format. You may want to know why editors are so picky about things like the size of your margins, or whether a manuscript is double-spaced or not, or what font you use. You may even think that they are making you jump through hoops merely for their own satisfaction. But there are reasons for all of these rules, based on what happens when a manuscript goes into production. As more and more publishers handle more and more of the process electronically some of these rules are becoming out-dated — but they were never arbitrary and some of them are still there for a very good reason. Many large publishing houses still have the copy-editor mark up the hard copy by hand, and those large margins and that double spacing gives the copy-editor room to work. (And it doesn’t matter how clean your manuscript is and how few errors there are to correct, some of these marks are there to make sure the final book is properly typeset and formatted — so that your italics are actually italicized and your dashes are dashes instead of hyphens.) And the font you choose? Believe it or not, that can make a difference in the way the production department figures out the final word and page count.

Again, there are reasons for these rules, and if you don’t follow them, the moment any agent or editor picks up your manuscript he or she knows: this book is going to require more work during the production process. That is not a good way to entice them to read further.

Which brings us to:

#6
Learn as much as you can about how the publishing business really works.

Many writers spoil their chances by deciding in advance how the publishing business must work — by convincing themselves that it’s just like the movie business, or the music business, or like selling brand-name products at the grocery store — or how it ought to work — to make life easier for first-time authors — and proceeding accordingly. When this doesn’t work out, rather than change their approach, they decide that getting published is impossible, or that the system is corrupt (oddly enough, people are most likely to reach this conclusion when they themselves have tried a little influence-peddling and failed), or some other excuse rather than the real one, which is that they went about things in the wrong way and increased their chances of rejection many times over.

Do not let this happen to you. Find out how the industry really works, and proceed from a position of knowledge and power. It’s true that your book may still be rejected, but at least it won’t be because of a mistake you didn’t have to make.

Also, do get your information from people within the industry if at all possible. There are a great many things that people believe simply because they’ve heard them said over and over, without considering — often without even knowing — the original source. And the very people who have done the most to spoil their own chances are often the most eager to spread around their misconceptions. Oh, they’re sincere enough, and it really would be unfair to accuse them of jealousy or sour grapes . Let’s just say that their personal conviction that they know better than the entire publishing industry makes them particularly inclined to share their views.

#7
The purpose of a critique is not to encourage you or to make you feel good about your writing. (Neither is it to discourage you or make you feel wretched.) Its sole purpose is to help you improve.

Which may, yes, include telling you what it is you are doing particularly well, so that you can continue doing it, but it should never include false praise. It is possible to be tactful and still be honest; it is possible to be gentle and still be honest. Unfortunately, as I said in the section on agents and editors, it takes time to frame criticism that accomplishes all this, and it’s far easier to just say, “Great. I love it. Keep on going.” No one’s ego gets bruised, everyone comes away from the experience happy, but in the long run it’s far less constructive than telling the truth.

If you have just started writing and you are getting a great many compliments, you need to find a more honest (or a more experienced) group of readers. Because, honestly, your first efforts are not going to be that good. You may have talent, you may have wonderful, fresh ideas, but learning to write well takes time. Those early drafts of your first stories, no matter how much promise they show, are going to have serious flaws. You need people who are going to be able to show you what those flaws are — particularly if you are a great talent — so that you can reach your full potential.

Even when you have been writing for a while, there are two things you need to ask yourself in considering the value of any overwhelmingly favorable critique: How much is this person invested in helping me produce my best possible work? (A lot of the time the answer to this question is going to be: Not much.) To what extent is this person invested in making me happy/getting along with me/appearing like a nice person to the rest of the group? Then you weigh the two answers against each other.

But how about the really cruel critiques (and by cruel I don’t mean the critiques that are the most exacting, but the ones that include large amounts of sarcasm, or any variation on the phrase, “this story is a piece of %%^%^”)? Those you throw away, preferably before reading very far. They may, in fact, include some good advice along with the parts you would do well to ignore, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth to winnow out what is valuable from all that spite and malice. Besides, critiques of this sort may actually do more harm than good, by setting up a bias against the same advice when you hear it elsewhere. If you find yourself in a group where such critiques are common practice, find another group.

But another kind of critique you should avoid is the kind where somebody else (usually a perfectly well-meaning somebody else), tries to do too much of the writing for you by making numerous corrections and alterations. It’s fine if someone does this once or twice to show you that your spelling, punctuation, etc. need vast improvement — so long as you use these critiques to inspire you to brush up your grammar or whatever else it is you need to work on. But do not allow yourself to grow dependent on other people to find and fix such mistakes for you, not if you have serious aspirations. You need to learn these things yourself, and the sooner the better.

On the other hand, if you know that your writing mechanics are good — your spelling, punctuation, grammar, are fine except for the occasional typo or other slip-up — and people are still going through your writing and changing sentence after sentence, you need to consider whether you are dealing with individuals who have lost sight of the difference between editing and collaborating. Because even if they are right, which they very well may be — your sentence structure is awkward, your prose is over-written, your word choices are inappropriate– a truly constructive critique would simply point these things out, give you a few examples of how to correct them, and leave you to fix them on your own. You’ll never learn how to revise while other people are doing the revising for you.

But there is also the possibility that someone is trying to fix your style by making it more like their style. Some writers favor a style that is absolutely transparent, others one that is more ornate. Some choose one that is terse and modern; some choose a style that is quirky and idiosyncratic. There are both good and bad examples of these various approaches. Whichever you choose, you need to find readers who understand and appreciate what you are trying to do — while still remaining critical enough to tell you when it isn’t working.

And now for some more specific advice:

#8
Beware the passive voice (and passive verbs in general).

Over-use of the passive voice is a problem that crops up again and again in stories by inexperienced writers. The effect is subtle, but sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph it adds up. But what is the passive voice? For our purposes as fiction writers, a simplified explanation is that it’s every time you choose to make what could be the subject of a sentence into the object — the person or thing that ought to be the actor becomes the one acted upon instead. To put it even more simply, if you find that you are frequently describing what a character has done to them, rather than what they do, you are probably over-using the passive voice, or at least treading awfully close. The verb “to be” has a way of popping up in these sentences, and if you see too much of it on a page or in a passage you should be on the alert, because over-use of that verb can be a problem in itself.

The above paragraph is bristling with passive verbs and passive sounding sentences. People use these a lot in explaining something or giving instructions. Why? Because they are bland, they are inoffensive. No one feels like you are barking orders at them. But that very blandness counts against you in fiction writing. It fails to produce the same sort of vivid effect as more active verbs. It often causes sentences to be more wordy and convoluted. (Don’t use the passive voice is obviously shorter and clearer than the passive voice is something that should never be used.)

Now obviously there are instances when you will want to use the verb “to be” in one of its many variations. Sometimes you most certainly do want to describe what something is, or what someone experiences or is subjected to rather than what they do — and turning all your passive verbs into active ones would not only create an artificial effect, it can also tie your sentences (and your mind!) into knots. Again, the problem lies in using such sentences too much. I’ve critiqued manuscripts where the verb “to be” turned up fifteen or sixteen times on a single page, and where, in most of these instances, a more active verb or a simpler sentence structure would work more effectively. Readers will not notice this sort of thing consciously unless they’ve been taught to look for it, but they will feel the effect, and become less engaged with your writing without being able to tell you why. Yet simply by going through and fixing this one problem you can increase their interest. The difference may not be evident in a single paragraph or a single page, but as I said in the beginning, it does add up.

(But don’t obsess over this too much in the early stages of a project, because that can lead to stilted writing. Just consider this a tip you can use to polish your writing before you send it out.)

#9
You can’t fix plot holes by patching them, but by weaving loose threads back in.

Or to put it another way: A plot hole occurs when there is something you haven’t thought out sufficiently, usually something much earlier in the story. Patching on new characters or situations to fix it rarely works, as the hole in the fabric of the story remains under the patch, and discerning readers will detect it despite your best efforts at disguise. It’s better to take a hard look at your story, pinpoint the exact place where things went wrong, fix the problem at its source rather than at the point where you first became aware of it, and rewrite everything that comes between. This may seem like a lot of work, but in the long run it may actually be less work because it fixes the problem for good. Otherwise, the loose threads may continue to unravel, requiring more and more patches. Whenever possible, look for a solution within the story. Very often it’s already there, you just haven’t seen it yet.

Which is closely related to:

#10
When you can’t go forward, go back.

Momentum is a wonderful thing; while you have it keep on writing. But for most of us there comes a time when the writing stalls. It’s impossible to go forward, or at least any forward progress comes at a painful crawl, when before it was a glorious sprint. You feel there is something seriously wrong with the scene or the chapter you are working on at the moment, but you can’t figure out what that something is. Or you think you figure it out, but a page or two later you’re stalled again.

Rather than continuing to crawl — or worse still, sit there staring at a blank computer screen until you’re beginning to weigh the comparative advantages of seasoning your food with rat poisoning or finely ground glass — try taking another look at what you have written already. You may have to go back to the previous scene or chapter, or you may have to go back much further, perhaps even all the way to the beginning. Sometimes the block is there because your subconscious mind had detected a major plot hole that needs fixing. Or maybe its simply that a number of small errors have accumulated until their combined weight finally became enough to slow you down. Or maybe it’s that you have bypassed some marvelous opportunity, some character or situation with wonderful potential (far more interesting than what you’ve actually been writing about), and your subconscious mind has recognized this while the rest of you was concentrating on other things.

Of course, sometimes the problem is something completely unrelated to your story: some area of real-life stress, a bad relationship, a job you hate, a health problem you’ve neglected too long. In which case, go out and fix that instead. But if there is nothing like that — or nothing so bad that it should affect your writing — try looking backwards at what you have already written, and see if that helps.

#11
Revise.

This is not the same thing as editing. Editing is minute and specific, while revision applies to more sweeping changes. You will need to learn how to tell which of the two is appropriate in any given instance — something which, unfortunately,you can only learn by trial and error. When you are first starting out, you will almost certainly need to do both of these things often. Later on, you will need less, but that doesn’t mean that your writing wouldn’t benefit from more.

And outlines are a wonderful thing when it comes to generating ideas, but don’t be ruled by them, because sometimes your first ideas aren’t your best. Be flexible, and make changes as needed. Sometimes, once you steel yourself to make changes, you will see that you have already, in fact, prepared the way for them: what you are putting in fits far better with the rest of the story than what you are taking out.

#12
Take some time off from the actual writing to let the story germinate.

Many people will say put the book away for a few months between drafts, and work on something else. I have never done this (my mind doesn’t seem to work that way) so I can’t say whether this is beneficial or not, but I’m going to recommend something different. Spend those months when you are not actually writing the book thinking about it. Spend time living with the characters and their situation and see what new aspects you can discover when you’re not distracted by the task of putting the words on paper. (Do, of course, take notes, so that you don’t lose any of these great inspirations.) This, by the way, is the time when you might discover some of those loose ends that you can pick up to repair the plot holes — solutions that were staring you in the face all along, but you couldn’t see them because you were trying too hard to invent a solution. Explore alternate scenarios; you may come up with something that is better than what you originally planned. Listen in on conversations between your characters — things they say to each other between the actual scenes of the book — because in these quieter moments they may find the time to tell you important things about themselves. Fantasize about all those things you would like your characters to do but which have no real place in the story. (That way you get them out of your system, and they don’t end up on the page, where they don’t belong.)

#13
No plot should depend too much on misunderstandings between the characters, or on smart people doing stupid things, or on people keeping secrets or withholding information they would be certain to blurt out immediately in real life.

Unless you are intentionally writing soap-opera. In certain kinds of writing there is an unwritten contract that this sort of thing will constantly happen, and that it will be forgiven for the sake of a racier story. Without that tacit contract, you will insult the reader’s intelligence by using these devices too much.

#14
Stories that exist only for the sake of twists at the end are seldom very good.

Somewhere along the line, probably in school, many people get the idea that such stories are inherently clever. There are, of course, classic stories of this sort, but the classics always have far more going for them than the last few lines; the twist is simply a little something extra at the end. Too many aspiring writers latch on to the ending as the great thing and forget about the rest. It’s like the first grader who hears his first knock-knock joke and instantly concludes that anything beginning with the words “knock, knock” is automatically side-splittingly funny — except that this particular delusion lasts into adulthood. A well-written story will stand on its own with or without the twist, but even the most clever ending will not make up for a lame plot or generally poor writing.

Besides leading to contrived plotting and causing the writer to concentrate too much on the ending — and not enough on the beginning and middle parts of a story– there are two other pitfalls with the twist-ending story. The first one is that the set-up will telegraph the ending — because once the reader senses that a twist is coming it’s usually easy to guess what it will be. The second is that the writer will be tempted to lie to the reader. Readers like to be surprised, but only if they feel the surprise has been “earned”, and they are far more likely to think that it has been earned if the writer has achieved this by way of misdirection rather than outright deceit. (The author, after all, has complete power, choosing what to show and what to conceal, what to shine a light on and what to simply hint at as it lurks in the shadows. In general, readers are not happy when they believe that power has been abused.)

And closely related to the above:

#15
Surprise is often over-rated.

You can achieve as much suspense by creating a sense of anticipation as you can by being artfully mysterious. Ideally, you should be able to maintain suspense by a mixture of both.

#16
Avoid cheap melodramatics.

By this I mean arguments, tantrums, and other emotional explosions that do nothing to advance the plot or to reveal anything useful about the characters, but are merely there to spice up the story when nothing else particularly exciting is happening. These tactics get old fast, and can cause readers to lose sympathy for otherwise appealing characters. They can also dilute moments of genuine drama — if your characters are hyperventilating and striking poses on practically every page, how can you expect readers to be impressed by the same behaviors when the real action begins? Save them for the big moments, when they’ll have more impact.

And finally:

#17
Believe in yourself.

I said I wasn’t going to tell you to “stick with it” or “keep on going,” didn’t I? Well, I’m not telling you that now. But if you feel that you must stick with and you must keep on going:

Believe in yourself enough that you make the time to write. It can be hard, when you haven’t sold anything yet, to justify any time that you take away from other things in order to give it to your writing. (Actually, it can be hard even when you’re writing something under contract. You feel guilty if you ignore those dirty dishes and unmade beds — and equally guilty if you spend the day on housework instead of writing.) Don’t waste time trying to justify it, because you’ve already answered that question — and the answer was that you need to write — now go and do it.

Believe in yourself enough that you take time to read. Hooray! What was once recreation now becomes something you must do. Ignore those people who make snide remarks about always having your nose in a book. You can justifiably regard reading as fuel for your writing aspirations. You have to put words in to keep your literary engine going. The yardwork can wait. (Well, okay, plants can be notoriously impatient and will probably die if you don’t water them. You may have to do that much. But the weeds aren’t going anywhere, and if members of your household get cranky when the grass gets shaggy, show them where you keep the lawn-mower.)

Believe in yourself enough that you take the time to revise, to research — to do whatever it takes to make your writing the best it can possibly be. There will probably never be enough good books ; there can never be too many of them. Those who add to their number are public benefactors.

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