Lately, I’ve thought a lot about writerly advice. Not many people ask me for advice. I sometimes get questions about the writing life like how I stay motivated or where I come up with my ideas. Those are pretty basic.
But I’ve been writing for several years now, and if I could go back in time, there are some things I’d say to my younger self.
When I was an undergrad, I knew a guy named Sam who was easily the most talent student in the English department. Man, that guy could write! We had a class on Shakespeare and I learned that he was already published. I thought that was ballsy at the time. To me, writing was like any other profession with a formal learning. My plan was to get my English degree, then go on to a creative writing program, and then start my career. Turns out that I was the dumbass. The truth is that creative writing programs simply give you options for craft and introduce you to a lot of peers and colleagues. That’s fine, but I didn’t get my first publication until I was in grad school. Had I followed Sam’s example, I’d be a solid four or five years ahead of myself right now.
Forget about that Great American Novel!
The novel I was working on since New Years crashed…again. It lost that special spark, my interest in it waned, and I dropped it entirely. I’ve decided to give up on the novel. That is to say I’ve given up the ambition of the novel. I think a lot of young writers put the novel on a pedestal like it’s some sort of holy relic, and I was one of them. Honestly, I think the reason I was so stubborn about it was because I didn’t want to look like a failure, or like someone who’d abandoned his dreams. Stephen King once said that a lot of young writers try tackling novels before they’re ready. I think I’m one of them. He also said that there have been times when a good short story idea expands itself into a novel. I’m finishing up one short story, but I’m also plotting out another. I started a first draft and wanted to make sure all my beats were lined up, but more importantly, I noticed that draft was quickly growing out of the short story range and into a novella. And I actually like that because there’s no burden of the novel as a monolithic entity. It’s just a short story, but if it takes off, so be it. So to my younger self (and you youngsters reading this): focus just on the story, and don’t obsess over the size of the thing.
I’ve taken to heart Stephen King’s advice in On Writing, as well as Chuck Wendig’s wisdom on his Terrible Minds blog. I’ve praised John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story where he talks about how artificial the three-act structure is, but having gone through my story analysis course at UCLA last year, I can also say that there are certain benefits to the three-act structure. And I’ve got a few other how-to books on writing from which I can point out pearls of wisdom. All of these people are right. There’s no specific way to write a story. John Irving says he has to know the last sentence of a story before he can tell it. Stephen King thinks that spoils the fun and mystery. Keep your mind open to any and all tactics, build up a toolbox, and then decide which works best for you. If you end up having one specific way suited for how your mind works, that’s fine. If you decide to revamp your approach with each story, that works just as well. Know thyself.
Focus on what’s in front of you.
If you think you’ve got a story idea on the horizon, ignore it. Seriously. I don’t care if you think it is going to blow Hemingway and Fitzgerald out of the water. Don’t write it down either. If it’s worth writing, your mind will subconsciously hold on to it. You’ve got a story in front of you right now. It needs your attention. You owe it (and you owe it to yourself) to see it through to the end. My recommendation is to work on no more than two stories at any given time. If you have one story, then you can focus all your energy on it. But in my experience, I’ve found that working on three or more pieces stretches my mind too thing and I have trouble keeping track of all my projects. This is just for fiction, by the way. I also do nonfiction on the side, but even then, I don’t do more than one article at a time. It just get to be too overwhelming for me.
Remind people who the real bastard is.
You’re going to fuck up. A lot. That’s part of how you learn, but when you’re writing hoping to get even a small paycheck, those mistakes can also crush your self-esteem. So when someone tells you you’ll never make money writing, or asks you what you really do, tell them, “Listen, asshole. I know how tough this shit is. I don’t need you to rub it in.” Say it kindly, or say it bluntly. I leave the choice to you.