This is the sixth and final installment of the six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writers’ Association. NIWA serves Pacific Northwest writers working to achieve professional standards in independent writing, publishing and marketing.
Advice to New Writers: Run Away Screaming, by Joyce Reynolds-Ward
So you want to be a writer? You have dreams of hitting the New York Times bestseller list, of being mobbed on book tours, of scoring large amounts of money and fame?
Here’s a hint: run away. Now. Set yourself up with a YouTube channel. Become an Instagram influencer. If money and fame are your priorities, then you really don’t want to talk to me or to a lot of other writers. Money and fame do not necessarily devolve on writers. Most of us labor in private and beg to be recognized. So run away. Find that streaming dream, because the reality is that you are more likely to go viral and make the big bucks doing that than you are as a writer.
Run away if you’re all about fame and profit. You aren’t going to find that here.
Okay. Now that we’ve cleared the room, it’s time to talk. Are you possessed with the desire to tell tales? Burning to tell the stories of characters you daydream about? Good, because that’s who I really want to talk to. Those of us who would die small deaths if we can’t write our stories. Those of us for whom those tales are almost more real than the lives we live.
The first thing you need to realize as a new writer is simply this: writers write. Perhaps you don’t write every single day, but you write several times a week. Whether you write by hand, on an AlphaSmart, a Chromebook, or a computer, you write.
This discipline is especially crucial for you as a new writer. New writers need to keep journals—not to record your daily life, in particular, but to play with words. You need to let yourself speculate. Record incidents, phrases, oddities of life. Spend time observing people and places and write down what sticks with you. Learn to observe the world around you and record those observations. Acquiring and developing this habit gives you resources to add depth to your work. It’s the details of a setting or of a character that breathes life into them and makes your story real to a reader. This is the foundation of your later writing life, when you will use notes like this as a part of your brainstorming processes to create realistic characters, settings, and plot situations (yes, even if you write science fiction and fantasy!).
Next, writers finish what they write and move on to the next story. One of the saddest situations I encounter when talking to a new writer is the degree to which they may cling to a much-loved early work. They often worry the story to death because it’s their darling, their baby, their dream and they don’t dare let it go.
No. You need to finish that work and move on. Writing growth comes from creating new work, not endlessly revising old work. The reality is that as much as you love that early work, it is most likely not going to be the one that sells (yes, yes, I can hear the mutterings about the exceptions to this rule. What you don’t hear about are the discards and the early projects of those exceptions).
Another point. It takes time and consistent, mindful effort to become an accomplished writer. One of my writing mentors, the late Jay Lake, used to say that it takes ten years to become an “overnight success.” Now I don’t know if Jay originated that saying or not, but whatever. It’s true. You have to write a lot of words to develop the craft of writing. Some say it’s over a million words. But a million words without the focus to figure out what does and doesn’t work about your writing, your characters, your plots doesn’t take you anywhere. You need to be mindful about what does and doesn’t work about your writing. You need to wrestle with it.
And then, one day, you’ll realize that you automatically know what should be happening at 30,000 words in the book. 60,000 words. 90,000 words. You can predict the approximate word count of the first draft of the novel you’re writing. When you go back to revise it, you can find the plot holes yourself, or, even better, see them as you work and fix them in process.
Trust me. If you work at your craft, if you keep writing every day and finish what you write, if you ruthlessly analyze what does and doesn’t work in what you’re doing—you will reach this point.
Develop a thick skin about criticism. This piece is absolutely critical to your survival as a writer. Sooner or later you will encounter both tough and toxic criticisms. A good tough critique that points out what is both good and bad about your work is useful, even if it makes you cry (and yes, this will happen). The hallmark of a tough critique as opposed to a toxic one is that it helps you grow as a writer and see your way to fix the problems. A tough critique is the best gift a friend can give you.
A toxic critique, on the other hand, is usually personalized and promotes an agenda aimed at tearing you down, not improving your writing. Perhaps the person feels threatened by you and your writing—that often happens, especially in workshop environments. It’s rarely accompanied by useful suggestions, or if there are suggestions, they’re rewritten in the critiquer’s own voice. There aren’t many if any positives added. Or that person doesn’t care for your choice of story or genre. Whatever. If you’re not certain, check with a trusted mentor or friend.
That said, sometimes even tough, accurate criticism can be wrong. Part of your development as a writer is learning the confidence to disregard critique when you don’t think it works.
A controversial point here. Learn to kill your darlings. That can be a plot twist that doesn’t work, a scene that doesn’t fit, a character, a particular turn of phrase—whatever it is, sometimes it just has to die. For example, in my early book Netwalker Uprising, I wrote a detailed scene where my character Melanie kills a suspected assassin while on a ski expedition. It was a lovely scene. I had worked hard on the choreography of that scene…and it absolutely did not work. I had to throw a whole book out in that series, Netwalking Mars, because the physics were wrong and the characterizations didn’t fit what those characters became when the entire series was not written. But all was not lost, because I did use elements from those scenes and that book in other things I wrote.
A waste of time and effort? No. Because while I made some big characterization bloopers, I also learned from those mistakes. All writing is learning your process, and to be honest, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have…at some point you screw up. Just ask any writer further down the trail than you are.
And finally, be psychotically persistent about your writing. “Psychotic persistence” is another Jay Lake-ism, and it refers to discipline. Write. Write as often as possible, finish your work, write mindfully, and don’t be afraid to discard what doesn’t work. But write. Keep on writing. One word after another. Don’t let others discourage you.
Writers write. They finish what they write. They exert consistent, mindful effort to improve their writing. They learn to discern effective criticism from ineffective. When necessary, they kill their darlings, and above all else, they are psychotically persistent about writing. That’s what it takes.
Other posts in this series by Joyce Reynolds-Ward (note: each website owner will post at some point during the week listed).
March 29-April 4th—Organizing Your Plot http://www.joycereynoldsward.com
April 5-11—Self-editing, grammar, and beta readers https://authorwilliamcook.com/blog/
April 12-18—Genre and cross-genre https://tanstaaflpress.com/news
April 19-25—My Approach to the writing process https://varidapr.com
April 26-May 2—Reading to Impact your writing http://www.conniejjasperson.com
May 3-9—Advice for new writers https://lecatts.wordpress.com
Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a speculative fiction writer from Enterprise, Oregon. Her short stories include appearances in Well…It’s Your Cow, Children of a Different Sky, Allegory, River, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. Her agripunk thriller trilogy, The Ruby Project: Origins, The Ruby Project: Ascendant, The Ruby Project: Realization, are due for release in November, 2020. Her books include Shadow Harvest, Choices of Honor, Judgment of Honor, and Klone’s Stronghold. Joyce has edited two anthologies, Pulling Up Stakes (2018), and Whimsical Beasts (2019). Besides writing, Joyce enjoys reading, quilting, horses, and hiking, and is a member of Soroptimist International of Wallowa County.
Those were great insights and it was fun to hear the behind-the-scenes thinking!
She’s funny, isn’t she? And it’s all true.
I agree with Brian, and from my own and limited experience, it all rings true, especially being able to kill your darlings. We often invest so much in books we cant let go or deviate even when presented with the hard facts that something is, for the want of an expression,’crap’. Learning how to change things, to keep what we want, or the essence of it is something we all need to learn. It does, I think, go hand in hand with constructive criticism and learning how to spot it amidst the mire of useless unconstructive comments.
A greaat article to finish with. Thanks to you all, and mollie for posting them all!
Thank you for reading!