Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Tips on How to Be a Writer (from Rebecca Solnit)

  1. Write.

There is no substitute. Start small, write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming of writing the great American novel. That’s not what writing’s all about and it’s not how you get there from here. The road to great writing is made of words and not all of them are great, well-arranged words.

  1. Writing is not typing.

Writing is thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, maybe with some typing, then revisions, deletions, additions, and setting the project aside and returning afresh; typing is just a minor transaction in between two vast thought processes.

  1. Read. And Don’t Read.

Read good writing and don’t restrict yourself to the present. Literature is not high school and it isn’t necessary to know what everyone else around you is doing. Worse, being greatly influenced by people who are currently being published can make you look just like them, which isn’t often a good thing. Originality is your gold standard. Write from the universal human experience. Write a true human story and write it well; it won’t matter what genre it may take place it.

  1. Find a Vocation.

Talent is overrated and is often mistaken for style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are much more rare, and they will smooth out the rough spots when your talent will not give you a reason to get out of bed and stare at that problem manuscript for the hundredth day in a row. If you aren’t passionate about writing and the world and the things you’re writing about, why bother? It begins with passion even before it begins with words.

  1. Time.

It takes time. This means you have to find the time in your life. Don’t be too social. Live below your means. You probably have to do something else for living, but don’t let your job (or your bills) grow so much that they squeeze out time for your writing.

  1. Facts.

Always get them right. No one will trust you if you get them wrong and any author is doomed if the reading public can trust him. No matter what you’re writing about, whether it’s nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, you have an obligation to get it right, for the characters you’re writing about, for the readers, and for the record.

  1. Joy.

Writing is facing your deepest fears and all your failures, including how hard it is to write a lot of the time and how much you detest what you’ve just written and that you’re the person who just created all those flawed sentences. When it totally sucks (and it will), pause, look out the window, and tell yourself you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing. You are hanging out with the language. I am following in the footsteps of Shakespeare and Flaubert. Find pleasure and joy. Find joy in the work, just as a master carpenter does theirs. Enjoy the process.

  1. Success is very nice and comes with lovely byproducts (like money), but success is not love.

At best, it is the love of the work, not love of you. The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning, rather than a consumer of meanings. And, if you are writing to gain the acclaim of a fickle public, you run the risk of pandering to what you think will be popular. That will often end up seeming shallow and artificial. Instead, write truth. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Write one true sentence. Then write another.” If you write the truth of the human condition, the rest will take care of itself.

Writing advice

Word Counts As Writing Goals

At a reading last summer, while I was introducing the world to Deception Island, one of the people attending asked me whether I give myself a quota, a writing goal for each day. I answered him honestly: not in the traditional way most people think of it.

When most people think of writing goals, they are thinking of a word count: 500, 1000, 2000 written, unedited words per day are probably the most common goals. There are many very good reason to set writing goals such as these. They provide a (relatively) achievable goal to shoot for. Having a set word count every can force the reluctant writer to do the most important exercise of all: write something every day. Having a set word count coal can also help the writer deactivate that nasty self-editor that ruins so much of our writing before it ever really gets going. It is also a great method for brainstorming new ideas, (if your method of generating your writing goal involves some form of free writing).

I will never, ever, discourage anyone from setting writing goals for themselves, as long as they are realistic. (A woman who can only find real time to write in the hour between when the kids go to bed and when she needs to, cannot realistically expect to generate 5000 words a day consistently. While certainly ambitious, it is more likely just a recipe for failure. There is enough failure coming our way in the writing life without doing it to ourselves.)

Realistic writing goals are a legitimate tool to get us into the habit of writing. The habit of writing gets us to think like writers and observe the world around us like writers. It makes us better writers.

But everybody is not motivated by the same things, just as one writer feels inspired by a gorgeous sunset and another just shrugs his shoulders. Every writer—and figuring out what works for you in part of the process—needs to discover what motivates her and what will make her sit down and actually write.

I tried working toward writing goals. I did four years of college and earned a degree in English Literature, after all, so I have a lot of experience writing within length goals and temporal deadlines.

I always found the deadline—as in your term paper is due at 10:00am tomorrow morning—was a fantastic motivator. It kept me up writing all night on more than one occasion. But even then, I was more concerned with content than an arbitrary length. To my recollection, I was never graded down because my four page composition on the use of pathetic fallacy in Shakespeare’s The Tempest was supposed to be five pages.

Which is one of my major problems with a numerical writing goal: writing to the word count, not the content. As writers, we are constantly told to be as brief as possible, succinct. Avoid using five words to state an idea if it can be stated in three. The goal of writing a thousand words a day seems to fight that idea. Instead it encourages us to be as wordy as possible.

Granted, the goal is only really applicable to rough drafts, primal writing if you will. The concise, polished prose (or poetry) we are trying to create is the product of primal writing, filtered by re-writing, revision, and editing. Still, our goal as writers is to create, even in our first drafts, work that is as close to a polished, final product as possible.

Working toward a word count feels counterproductive.

Back to me.

I do write almost every day, especially when I’m working on large project, such as the novel I’m working on now. If I am working on a project, my goals tend to be more concrete, such as finishing a particular scene, or solving a particular problem. Sometimes this involves writing just a few hundred words. Sometimes it involves thousands of words spread over several days. As long as I continue to make progress, I am satisfied.

It’s different when I’m between projects, or trying to begin a new one. Then I’m not so much building on top of a foundation I’ve laid in the previous days. It is much more like free writing. But I’m still more concerned with dramatic segments than word count. I want to write a scene, not a thousand words.

In short, do whatever works for you. Either set a realistic word count and try to write that many every day. Every single day. Or do like I do and concentrate, instead, on writing scenes, descriptions, etc. and let the word count take care of itself.

As long as it helps you toward your goals, it’s all good.


Holiday Season and Goals For Next Year

As the year winds down, it is traditional to reflect back on our accomplishments of the previous year and begin setting goals for the next. Like most people, I have many accomplishments of which I am proud: I published Deception Island, which has generated exceptional reviews (though sales are mediocre); I have also published a handful of flash fiction in various magazines; I have made significant progress in a new novel, a sequel to Deception Island. Most important, my efforts have earned a measure of respect from my fellow writers and literati.

That is invaluable. (There is nothing quite like having someone you admire say they admire you.)

As a tangent to my writing, I have read fifty-two books this calendar year, most of them fiction, most of the fiction in the mystery/thriller drama. Some have been exceptional, some mediocre, but I have learned from each and every one of them.

Now it is time to turn my attention to the coming year and the goals I would like to accomplish. (I dislike the term “New Year’s resolution” because I believe they are designed to set ourselves up for failure. I prefer to set goals). They are targets only, not promises. Not reaching my goals will in no way mean I have failed; it will just mean the goal was set too high, too optimistic. For instance, becoming a #1 New York Times bestselling author. While it is certainly possible (and I sure wouldn’t turn it down) there are just too many factors involved that I have no control over. Instead, I will set my goal at finishing the project I am working on now and making it better than anything else I have ever written. That is something I have control over.

I would also like to create more short works—poetry, fiction, and essay—while I am working on the longer, more complex novel. I just haven’t settle on a realistic number yet.

My reading goals are a bit more complex. The numbers are not that important. I proved to myself this year that I can read an average of a book a week without any strain to the rest of my life. The question I am struggling with is what, exactly, should I be reading?

In a previous post, I mentioned how much I liked the idea of reading more classic literature. If we truly wish to improve our writing we should be learning from the best, right? Virtually all the books I read over the last year were modern, so I need to add some classic lit. But how much? Every other book? Every third? One a month? I haven’t decided.

Another trend I noticed looking back over this year’s reading material is that about ninety percent of the authors were white American men (the rest were either English or women). So I would like to read from a better variety this coming year. There are very good authors, who happened to be born in Africa, India, the Caribbean, and elsewhere who write in the English language. There are also African-American authors, Hispanic-American authors, Asian-American and Native American author, all talented, all with stories worth reading.

And that isn’t counting translations.

I want—I need—to include some of these authors into my reading next year. I just haven’t yet figured how many and who.

That’s where I am right now, trying to figure out what I will be doing this coming year. Once I do, I will let you know.

Until the New Year, have a safe, peaceful, and happy holiday week. Merry Christmas and wishes of Peace on Earth.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Five Productivity Tips For Writers

I freely admit that for as many years as I’ve been seriously writing I have greatly admired those writers who are able to crank out work after work with god-like speed. (Okay, that admiration is tempered with a generous portion of detestation). Authors like Stephen King and Dean Koontz (I’m sure you can name many others) produce a novel each year, year after year, like machines. Some years they produce two or three. It’s called productivity and be comparison I have never been a terribly productive writer.

I’m working on it. I’ve been working on it for years. I’m better than I have been in the past, but still don’t consider myself very productive.

The biggest hindrance, in my humble opinion, to my quest for productivity is the balance between quality and quantity. What is the point of writing four novels this year if they’re all garbage? (I mean more garbage-like than my work already is). I have been writing and re-writing my current novel for about two years now because I’m trying to make it as good as I possibly can. If I had stopped after one year and begun another novel, I don’t think the finished product would be as good. (And I have trouble writing two projects at the same time without having both ending up virtually the same).

In this quest for productivity, however, I have learned a few tricks that do help me get words on paper. Without these tricks, the two years I’ve spent on this novel, could easily have been three or four. Perhaps they can help you increase your productivity.

1. Set aside a particular time reserved for writing.

Find a time in your schedule that you can devote exclusively to writing. It doesn’t matter when it is, or how long it is. What does matter is that it can be a time for you and your writing. Some people take some time before the rest of their family gets up in the morning. Others after everyone else goes to bed, or during their lunch break at work. It doesn’t matter when it is, or even how long. What matters is that it is your reserved writing time. Treat it as you would a job, or a business appointment. You go even if you don’t particularly feel like it. You go even though there is a good movie on television. As a wise person once said, half of success is just showing up.

2. Get rid of all distractions.

Turn off the cell phone, disable the social media accounts, turn off the television (or find a place without one), establish to your friends and family that nothing short of a life-or-death emergency is important enough that it can’t wait until you’ve finished writing. One of the key elements of the creative process is being able to focus and it is hard to focus if you keep getting interrupted. They can survive without you for an hour.

3. Create a realistic writing goal for each day.

One of the basic rules of productivity is to set yourself goals. However, it is important that your goals be realistic and short term enough that you can meet them on a daily basis. Say your overall goal is to write a novel this year. You aren’t going to achieve that goal tonight, or even this week. Keep the year-end goal of a new novel, but break it up into smaller goals. For instance, if you write five days a weeks, fifty weeks a year (with two weeks off for a well-deserved vacation) a daily production of 350-400 words will give you a novel in one year. A goal of 350-400 words a day is something you could actually accomplish.

4. Turn off your self-editor.

Nothing is better at killing the creative process as much as our nagging self-editor. It’s human nature to want to be creating something earth-shattering as we create it, but that isn’t how it usually works. There’s a reason it’s called a “rough draft.” It’s your initial attempt. Resist the urge to judge your work as you first write it. Editing and re-writing can be done later to clean up and polish the draft. But you can’t edit anything if nothing ever gets put on paper.

5. Reward yourself for meeting your writing goals.

We all spend a lot of time and energy beating ourselves up when we don’t perform as well as we think we should. It’s human nature. (Except for sociopaths. They don’t give a flip.) But how often do we reward ourselves for doing well? Not nearly enough. It’s positive reinforcement and it is very effective, even with ourselves. So when you meet or exceed your writing goals, treat yourself to something: a bowl of ice cream, a hot bath, a gold star on the calendar. Believe it or not, our subconscious will react to the reward and begin to perform.

Those are my tricks to get myself to be more productive. I hope they might be able to help you do the same. If you have your own tricks please tell me about them in the comments.