In the past year I’ve observed there are people who come to writing for life and people who come to writing for a moment in their lives. Neither are wrong but when the latter occurs I find myself unsettled. Is writing something that falls away after a period? Perhaps it’s the natural fear of any creator: Will my well dry up? Will I one day not love this anymore? How could they move on?
Seemingly there’s an uncanny place as a writer where you start to realize you have to give yourself goals, deadlines, and edicts in order to keep going. For a while as a new writer you meander through stories, having stops and starts. You throw things out, only to retrieve them from the trash the next day. You get a few acceptances but then a wasteland of rejections and you get a bit disgruntled with the world. A friend decides writing isn’t the career they thought they wanted. Another celebrity publishes a bestselling novel, and you wonder whether you’ll ever make this writing thing work. This is the stage where some people move on. But for others, they learn to write better, to goal better, to plan better.
When I get a bit baffled as to my next steps, I reexamine the following rules for my writing. This is a list I drew up when I started to realize I wanted to be a writer-for-life recruit. When one doesn’t help, I move on to the next one on the list. So what are your commandments?
1. Write More
“And I have this little litany of things they can do. And the first one, of course, is to write – every day, no excuses. It’s so easy to make excuses. Even professional writers have days when they’d rather clean the toilet than do the writing.” --Octavia Butler
"If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive." --Margaret Atwood
"I want to write short stories even when I don’t like writing them. I don’t actually like writing. But I want (and wanted) to write short stories enough that it seemed worth doing despite how awful and difficult and uncomfortable it can be, figuring out how to make a short story work." --Kelly Link
I think this might be my favorite piece of writing advice. It applies to all avenues of writing. Revising a story that doesn’t work? Write more, don’t cut. Having a hard time thinking through an idea? Write an outline. Writer’s block? Do a free write. That word “free” seems essential to this rule. Writers develop all kinds of methods, from laying down on their couch with a kitty on their feet, to heading to the local coffee shop, to writing on bar napkins. Some writers daily. Some write months at a time. None of these matter. What matters is getting the words on paper. I know what you’re thinking. “But friend, I don’t have time to write more.” The honest truth is you probably do, you just aren’t allowing time in. Or, a concealed kernel of resistance is inside you. I’ve learned I will write if you give me a prompt. I’ve written in the bathroom, on buses, while driving, before bed. I have preferred places/times, but they change, and that’s okay. If you are currently reading this at 2 a.m. in order to avoid writing, please stop reading and go write. You can sleep when you’re dead.
2. Read More
"For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading." --Eudora Welty
"Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You'll find what you need to find. Just read." --Neil Gaiman
I’m encouraged by the authors and stories I read. During my morning writing sessions I sit and read until an idea strikes me. My to-be-read pile is constantly threatening to bury me in my office. But it’s not just about reading and learning from the authors you love. It’s also about reading things you don’t like—because those teach you what not to do. Literary journals, poetry, YA, romance, magazines, newspapers, all of these are fodder for your brain. You don’t even have to read classics (although I say why not?). The beautiful thing about reading as a writer is that it counts towards writing time! That’s right, what you are doing in reading IS writing.
3. Edit More
"I love that part; that’s the best part, revision. I do it even after the books are bound! Thinking about it before you write it is delicious. Writing it all out for the first time is painful because so much of the writing isn’t very good. I didn’t know in the beginning that I could go back and make it better; so I minded very much writing badly. But now I don’t mind at all because there’s that wonderful time in the future when I will make it better, when I can see better what I should have said and how to change it. I love that part!" --Tony Morrison
There was a time not too long ago when I thought my writing didn’t need a lot of revision. So much of the revision techniques I was taught in school were entirely useless to me as a writer. And my processes varied too—I found I was hand-writing my poems to revise them versus scrolling and rereading stories to revise them. Lately I’ve changed my tune and have begun researching more involved methods of editing. While it may or may not have changed very much of my writing process, the act of looking at different ways writers revise in itself is useful. Isn’t it crazy how we pin down our minds into boxes? When you realize editing is writing too, it’s a whole new world.
4. Research More
"I spend a lot of time planning. I’m quite a deliberate writer in that way. A lot of writers I know just work with kind of a blank canvas. They feel it out and improvise on it and then they look to see what kind of material they’ve got. I’ve never been able to do that. Even at the start of my career, when maybe I would have been a little more reckless. I’ve always needed to know quite a lot about the story before I start to write the actual prose." --Kazuo Ishiguro
"I also wrote about a hundred pages of the Olondrian sacred text, the Vallafarsi, before I started the novel — origin myths and so on. I made charts of Olondrian deities and a family tree showing generations of kings and queens. All of these reference materials became resources I could draw on while writing. I probably spent about six months doing this kind of world-building work before starting the book." --Sofia Samatar
"I do a lot of research any time I write a book, and often the research takes me into difficult places." --Karen Joy Fowler
Wikipedia is my new best friend. Twitter is a resource made of real people. Books have things called facts in them. The writing world is justifiably concerned with authenticity right now. It’s very easy to go off track, forget to look up a nagging question in your story or novel, and end up offending an entire group of people. I’m learning research translates to details—sure, I may write about whales, but did you know they communicate as a group and hear individual voices? Your google search history should look like a crazy person lives in it. Because that’s the truth: telling other people about a thing you know nothing about is crazy.
5. Find Your Voice
"You do you." --Chuck Wendig
"I suspect that for most writers, the first reader one tries to please is oneself. I think it’s inevitable that the ideal reader you have in mind is pretty much like yourself in terms of knowledge base, experiences, and so on." --Ken Liu
"When I first started to write people started telling me you have to choose, you have to do one thing or the other. Or this story has to be one thing or the other. I knew that no, in fact, I could do whatever I wanted. Maybe no one would buy it, there was always that possibility, but that didn't mean I couldn't do it." --Karen Joy Fowler
Not sure if I’ve figured this out yet. I think there’s a tendency to tell new writers they have to write one thing—poetry OR fiction, literary fiction OR genre, etc. In reality, there are no boundaries to your writing, just that it be yours, your voice, your story. And that doesn’t need to mean the old adage of “write what you know.” I often write stories that end up in-between, and I’m starting to realize that in itself is a voice. I think this applies to living as a writer, too. Sure, that friend of yours seems to be rolling in the acceptances and gee, did they really write that prize-winning story in an hour? That person is not you. You do you.
6. Get Feedback
"A workshop is a way of renting an audience, and making sure you're communicating what you think you're communicating. It's so easy as a young writer to think you're been very clear when in fact you haven't." --Octavia Butler
"You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up." --Margaret Atwood
Feedback is essential for me as a writer. As I’m learning my voice, I’m discovering how what I hear on the page is not what others hear. My process involves making my husband read me a story so I hear it in his voice. Then I send it on to other writers and get their thoughts on it too. I’ve been lucky to find a group of writers who are working in the same vein as me who I can share work with, but I’m always looking for new partners. I get a strange joy out of reading other writers work-in-progress, especially when they revise it and it gets better.
7. Find a Community
"I don’t write on a daily basis. I don’t have enough stick-to-it-iveness. But I am often hanging out, on a daily basis, with people who manage to get a great deal of writing done day in and day out." --Kelly Link
I feel like the above quote from Kelly Link sums up the importance of having a writing group or community. Yes, you have access to critiques and readers, but more importantly you get to see what other writers do, how they work. Being around a diverse group of writers opens your eyes to how your way is not the only way. I’m learning community means different things to different writers. To me, it’s the rich literary atmosphere of Houston, Texas. To others, it’s the intersection of voices on Twitter.
8. Submit More
"The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story." --Ursula Leguin
So far this year I submitted 330 poems, short stories, and flashes to markets. I’m fine-tuning my submissions process to target places I love. I’m reading more journals so I know where to send work. My goal is to double that number next year. When I say publishing is a numbers game, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone, but to all you new writers out there: I’m 100% certain you’re not submitting enough. Submit more. Now. Go do it now.
9. Accept Failure
"The rejection letters I’ve collected over the years can probably make a book of their own. Learning to deal with rejection (and to know when to change course) is one of the hardest lessons about being a writer." --Ken Liu
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” --Stephen King
Wait, didn’t Ijust say submit more? That’s right friends, submitting is a double-edged sword that wants to poke out your innards and wear them as a hat. The saying “guts for garters” comes to mind, because the rejectomancy in submitting more often feels like literary journals merely exist for that purpose alone. Trust me, they don’t. That doesn’t make it any better though. You will obsess. You will get a rejection that stings on the story you thought was perfect for that venue. You will receive many “Maybe, but no” rejections and more “Thanks, no thanks” rejections. You’ll cling to each and every “In the future please send us more of your work,” and when a nice comment comes from an editor, however how small, you will tattoo it on your eyeballs for when you close your eyes to sleep at night. You will not, however, by God, give up. You will not stop writing. You will write more. You will edit more. You will email me when you are feeling like this writing thing is just you crying for attention and I will tell you to go write more, now.
10. Hold On To The Magic
“There’s no way of knowing in advance what will get into your work. One collects all the shiny objects that catch the fancy — a great array of them. Some of them you think are utterly useless. I have a large collection of curios of that kind, and every once in a while I need one of them. They’re in my head, but who knows where! It’s such a jumble in there. It’s hard to find anything.” --Margaret Atwood
"Some parts of [writing] really are so mysterious, like the forensics of how a story came to be. It’s just such a funny labor. I feel like I understand sentences sometimes in a way that’s more intuitive. I’m finicky about them." --Karen Russell
I’ve saved the hardest for last. We need goals as writers, and deadlines, and all those strict rules, but we also need to love writing. I’m learning how to hold onto the magic. I’m building up a thick skin. I’m letting myself play around, try new genres, experiment with structure, read new authors, take risks. I will not self-reject myself. I’m cultivating joy. I’m poeming the mysterious. I’m putting things in words that don’t make sense, but that’s okay, they will.
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Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor and author of poetry, flash fiction, and short fiction. Find her on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath
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