I’ve been writing for eight years now. In writer terms, that could mean eight books for the lucky/hardworking types (these two aspects seem to go hand in hand), or it could mean half way through a first draft (which in no way indicates lack of work). In short, time does not always equal experience, and for that reason I’ll be considering myself a newbie for some time to come.
One of the great things about being new though, is that the writing community will bend over backwards to try and help out. Its my favourite aspect of the community – no matter whether established, direct competition, genres apart or starting brand new, people are always willing to help by giving whatever advice they can.
Because of that, I’ve been lucky enough to get some great advice that had given me the drive and ability to keep going. Here’s some of the most useful I’ve received to date.
1) VOLUNTEER FOR EVERYTHING!
This one takes a bit of common sense, as each person has their own limitations; but if it’s within your capability, DO IT!
When I first received this advice, I thought it was limited to festivals and conventions. So that was all I volunteered for, and I made some great networking connections including into my writing group. There are also a bunch of other benefits like face time with industry professionals, workshops and so on. But there are other situations in which volunteering has it’s benefits.
Such as when an internship came up at an independent publishers. I wasn’t going to apply, and then I remembered this advice and figured, why not? So I went for it.
I didn’t get the internship. But I did get a chance to go through the slush pile for them, which then led to getting the internship twelve months later before it was even offered to anyone else. I also managed to get on the judging panel for Aurealis awards though the same theory – might as well volunteer if it’s within capability.
Now, I am no more qualified than the next person for these roles. But following this advice and putting my hand up in the slim hope of getting through is slowly building my writing resume, and it ties in nicely with my studies into creative writing as well. By the time I submit my novel, I’m hoping that gives some kind to boost to my chances of a successful application. That was certainly the intent, though as always, it still comes back to the writing. But every bit helps.
2) PUBLISH THE RIGHT MANUSCRIPT FIRST
This might seem a little odd, and I was sceptical at first, but I’ve heard it from a number of different sources now, enough that I’ve adjusted my own writing schedule quite significantly because of it.
The best way this was described to me was that your first manuscript is your journey from being a beginner to mastery. You want your first novel to be all mastery. Some people, and certainly I was one until a couple years ago, focus so much on their first manuscript that they neglect others. If the only reason you are doing this is because it’s your first, you may be neglected a better story that you now have the skills to do right from the start.
Basically, it’s saying if your first manuscript’s greatest virtue is that it is one giant darling, then kill it. It’s the wrong manuscript to be working on.
(Note: don’t actually kill it, put it away for later. Darlings can be still be resurrected!)
Of course, after some editing and rewriting, there’s no reason your first novel can’t be all mastery. It may well be that your first novel is the best one to establish your brand and launch your career. But it is not obliged to be. Don’t put off writing a great book because you’re focused on fixing your first one.
3) WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW (kind of)
“I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could” – Ursula K Le Guin
I mean, this isn’t a direct bit of advice to me, but one I was directed to by a mentor, and one in which Le Guin seems to ooze sincerity, sarcasm, and individuality all at once. She claims never to have broken the rule of write what you know. But she also rightly points out that you are not limited by your direct experience. If you have imagined your world or your story, you know it better than anyone.
It was also pointed out in the Writing Excuses podcast during one of their ‘what writers get wrong about <stereotype>’ that experiences are translatable across situations. The statement referred to straight authors writing gay protagonists, specifically those that are hiding their sexuality, and it went something like this: “I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, but I do know what it’s like to have a secret”.
It doesn’t mean the author knows exactly what their character would be experiencing. But by bringing that details of the fear, the longing to share, anything else that ties into the keeping of secrets, the author can bring a genuine shared experience. Its a small detail that can really bring a character with aspects you may not know particularly well to life, without any inappropriate appropriation.
4) DON’T BE AFRAID TO WRITE ACROSS DIFFERENT GENRES
This is a pretty recent bit of advice. The question was raised on a Q&A segment of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast and I was lucky enough to get a great answer from A. L. Tait her own experience with this question. Basically she recalled how she sat on the idea that became her best-selling Mapmaker Chronicles series for about six months because it wasn’t her genre or demographic, or so she believed at the time.
After some questions regarding whether she had a children’s book in her, she finally put the proverbial pen to paper, and safe to say she’s made a decent career out it ever since.
This is a particularly troublesome one for me. I love speculative fiction. Fantasy is my happy place. But so often I find myself writing passionately in the general fiction space, and it is in this field I get the best responses from beta readers and crowds.
I don’t know the full extent this advice will have yet, but I think there needs to be some serious exploring of other genres, and I think there is much merit to this advice. Writing is rarely about limiting ourselves. Why limit ourselves to just one genre?
5) TELL YOUR READER EVERYTHING. THEY NEED TO KNOW AND WILL NEVER KNOW IF YOU DON’T TELL THEM
Yep, genuine advice I received through an online writing group.
Thankfully by this time I had enough experience to know this was bad advice. BUT it did teach me something very important – not all advice is good, and it’s pretty critical to be able to spot bad advice.
One of the best ways to do this is simply diversify the data. In this particular example, I had six readers. Three were generic ‘good stuff, liked this part, not that bit’ critiques. Very vague, and not particular useful. Two were great, both identifying similar beats that didn’t really hit the mark, some clunky dialogue and some world-building issues.
I used these two as they came from independent sources and still came up with similar issues. In cases like that, its a good sign there is a genuine fix needed.
The last one ordered me to write about the building material on the floor, what time of say it was exactly, more detail on tattoos, more detail on. . .well, everything. He did not expect readers to think for themselves.
It was bad advice. But it was also some of the best advice, because not only did it teach me that it is ok to ignore advice sometimes, but it also allowed me to use one of my favourite memes: