1 – A good habit
Read a lot. If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. This comes from Mr Stephen King, a guy who should know a thing or two about writing…
2 – Omnivorous reading habits are better
Read books pertaining to many different genres. And if you think it’s a waste of time, go read Range by David Epstein. It’s a very well-written book. Above all, it can be an eyeopener. However for those who are in a time crunch, the book is about the importance that knowing a bit from many different domains can have. In fact, this wide but relatively superficial knowledge works like a sort of cross-fertilization. Indeed, with this approach it is often possible to solve very technical problems. Problems that no specialists cracked.
3 – Classics are such for a reason…
Read the Classics, though not necessarily all of them — truth be told some are a real pain in the ass.
However, the Classics will expose you to sparkling prose. Besides reading them, you’ll free your creative juices. In fact you’ll understand it’s been a while original ideas have all been used up, and that what matters most is your personal angle. Your perspective.
4 – Study, especially structure
Study the books you read. Above all study how they are structured. Study the way different writers organize paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and then even their entire books. A sure understanding of structure is essential because, putting them in context, it illuminates many other “rules” of writing.
For example, studying structure you can understand how really a hook should work. I mean, how it relates to the rest of the book and how it can give you time to build up tension in the first act without having to resort to instant pyrotechnics.
5 – Live
Irrespective of how good you think you are, have a life. In fact, just like art is an answer to life experiences, life experiences are an answer to art. If you keep adding to both life experiences and art your feedback cycle will keep growing and gaining depth, and this is a good thing both for life and art.
6 -Creating and selling
Remember the difference between making art and selling it. Remember also that having abysmal sale numbers is more often than not the result of failing at some essential step in either the production or the commercialization of your book. That step can certainly have to do with marketing, but it also may not.
7 – Incremental creativity
Remember that to sell millions of copies you can’t come up with something too innovative. Creativity to be acknowledged needs to push the public’s understanding on a subject just a little bit. It’s like with training. You can run a marathon. But to do so you have to build your endurance gradually. So consider your potential readership as a muscle. A muscle that you can train for endurance. But inevitably the more you train it, the leaner it becomes.
8 – Your best friend — yourself
Be yourself. Not just when it comes to voice, but in general. In fact, if you learn to be yourself and stop apologizing all the time for just you being you, you’ll see your stress level go down. Of course, if you really are an insufferable jerk or a psychopath this kind of advice could be extremely problematic. But jerks and psychopaths operate under very different assumptions than most of other people do.
9 – Dulce et decorum — Old lies
No pain no gain. This is what they believed in training. This is what some still believe. But it’s just bullshit. Training needs to be consistent and smart, not the modern version of a labor camp. Similarly, writers don’t need to be constantly melancholic and sad and besieged by existential problems.
Of course, as a bunch, writers are more introspective and observant than the average Joe, and that’s what helps them write about fictional characters in fictional worlds, but that’s it. Too much pain, no matter whether physical or existential, isn’t any good. Not for your art and not for your well-being. So strive to cultivate — yes I’ve written cultivate — a sunny disposition.
10 – Holy grammar!
Grammar is important. Don’t fool yourself into believing it isn’t. After all, even when you think, it’s thanks to grammar that you can do that.
And then you have to use grammar also to ferry your thoughts down on the page in a well-formed and easily understandable manner.
Of course, you can bend grammar rules. But to bend or break them effectively you have first to know how they work. It’s like with brain surgery. You can open the skull of your friend and mess with their brain. But what are the chances of you doing any good? Instead, a brain surgeon does this every day, and is infinitely more successfull. So, put in the work and become a surgeon in “physiology of grammar”.
11 – On winging it
All the above is important. But there are times when, prepared or not, you feel you have to try something new — times when you feel like your brain is on fire. In such cases, go for it. Follow your instinct. Just be aware yours is a wager. It could pay off nicely. It could also lead nowhere. In either case, be prepared and learn your lessons.
12 – Procrastination
About procrastination, this long-winded word many beginning writers know so intimately, there are gazillions of articles and books around. And their quality range from sheer bullshit to invaluable insights. Unfortunately, however, how useful you can find any piece of advice depends on you, on your personality. However, here’s my two cents about the subject.
Once upon a time, I had a friend who wanted to become a writer. But instead of sitting down at his desk and write, day after day he grabbed his electric guitar and began strumming it. At first idly, and then with more and more gusto. He went on for hours like that. Doing scales. Playing covers. Trying out some ideas of his.
Then night after night at the bar he complained with me he hadn’t written a thing. That all his ideas were still bottled up in his head. Luckily one day he saw the light. He realized writing wasn’t for him. In fact, writing a book was all about what he thought he should have done to appear cool and intellectual. Instead, playing the guitar was what he liked and what he was really good at.
This is just a little story, but I believe it makes an important point. That’s to say that procrastination can have many causes. So, at the very least, you should make sure it’s not the way your unconscious is telling you you’re trying to do the wrong thing.
Okay. It’s almost noon. Time to go and have a bite. Hope you can find this list useful. And if you have something to add, just tell me!