Becoming a Writer: The Best Advice I Ever Received
“Writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce.”
~Annie Dillard (The Writing Life)
Back at the beginning of this series, I mentioned attending the 2001 Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference at Ridgecrest, NC. Up until that time, I’d been writing and writing and writing for years. I’d even majored in creative writing (and hated it) many years before that.
At the conference, I took the Fiction 101 track, taught by author T. Davis Bunn. It was pretty early on in the first day’s workshop that I heard the piece of advice that had the most profound influence on my writing career of anything I’ve learned since:
“Above all else: FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT.”
It seems like a pretty simple thing, doesn’t it? Almost too simple to have to be said aloud, right?
But how many people out there are like I was: content to just “play” with our characters by either revising/rewriting existing stuff we’ve already written or writing scenes/vignettes that don’t necessarily tie together into a story, but that’s okay, because we’re writing and entertaining ourselves, without ever having a story that has, as Meg Cabot explains, a beginning, middle, and end.
I think this is probably a bigger trap for those of us who’re character driven than for those who’re plot driven. Those of us who start writing because we’ve fallen in love with a couple of characters really are writing to spend time with those characters. If we don’t have a clear idea of a story for them, we can write stuff about them for years without ever “finishing” anything. Take it from me and my 200,000-word unfinished opus that I spent ten years playing with.
One of the questions I’ve seen most often in the interviews I’ve been doing recently is what advice would I give to “aspiring” writers.
My response is this:
- Just like someone cannot one day pick up a stethoscope and scalpel and “become” a doctor, one cannot just pick up a pen and notebook (or start up a computer) and “become” a writer. Writing fiction is as much about learning and studying as it is about composing and creating.
I’ve heard it said that no one can consider himself a “real” writer until he has written at least one million words. I’m not sure it takes quite that many. I would revise that to say that it’s really hard to truly learn how to write well without having written at least two or three complete manuscripts, attended a few writing conference or workshops/classes, and read many writing-craft books and/or websites.
To all aspiring writers: get your manuscripts finished! Stand-In Groom was my fourth complete novel and the first I’ve ever completely revised, and it was an almost three year process from beginning to end. With each manuscript I wrote and completed, I learned more and more about the craft of writing. So instead of just concentrating on polishing and repolishing those first three chapters for contests or submissions, get the whole book written and revised, then start on the next one while you’re in the process of submitting.
Am I suggesting that no writer is ever going to get their very first manuscript published? Absolutely not. But I’ve talked to a plethora of writers who did get one of their first finished manuscripts published—and now they cannot abide to even split the covers of that book because they’re embarrassed by the lack of quality in the writing.
By writing a story through to completion, you’ll learn more about yourself as a writer than you will from any seminar, workshop, conference, mentor, or critique partner. You’ll learn how long it takes you to write something to the end. You’ll learn what your natural rhythm for pacing and character development. You’ll find out that you have a tendency to write chapters of a certain length (which can change, based on what genre you write in if you write multiple genres). You may find out that you’re really better suited to romantic suspense rather than romantic comedy or to women’s fiction rather than chick lit.
But more important than any of that, you will feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence in yourself and your calling as a writer when you write those two most glorious words: THE END. Nothing else in the writer’s life can compare with writing the ending of a story—whether it’s a happy ending, bittersweet, melancholy, or tragic.
Forget trying to make it perfect as you’re writing it. Just write. Turn off the internal editor. Ignore the analytical side of your brain. Don’t worry about rules and finding the perfect descriptive verb. Don’t write for anyone but YOU. As Stephen King told us in On Writing: you write the first draft with the door closed, you revise with the door open.
“A writer who is writing at white heat with the muse at his shoulder doesn’t need any rules. All he needs to do is be a good typist.”
~Ellen Gilchrist (The Writing Life)
Every time someone announces winners of writing contests—whether it’s online at ACFW or in the back of the RWA magazine—I always read them, because I know I’m going to see familiar names and want to congratulate friends and acquaintances. However, there are some people I worry about—their names regularly appear on finalists’ lists for multiple contests, and have been there every year for five or six or more years. A few I’m close enough with that I’ve talked to them about this phenomenon and I’ve come to discover that there are certain writers out there who have what many of us call “contest addiction.” They spend most of their writing life revising and implementing suggested changes on the first ten, fifteen, twenty-five, or fifty pages of their stories—but never really go past that. Either they never finish the story, they just keep entering those few pages into contests, hoping the editor/agent judge will miraculously offer them a publishing contract, or, when they do get a request for a submission, the rest of their manuscript has suffered from severe neglect and can’t live up to the quality of the opening pages.
I’m a big proponent of writing contests. Entering the Noble Theme three times helped me overcome my fear of letting others read and comment upon my writing. And it was entering Stand-In Groom in the Genesis contest in 2006 and being a finalist that gave me the confidence to approach two agents and ask if I could submit it to them. But do you see the difference? I took the comments and feedback that I received from those early contest entries and applied the feedback I received to all of my writing—and I moved on, kept writing, kept finishing manuscripts, kept building my confidence.
Your turn. What’s the greatest single piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?