Advice For Aspiring Writers from Veteran Authors

Bookreporter.com, another website from The Book Report Network has been talking to authors since 1996. Here is a slew of advice from 75 authors who have been through the publishing wringer and have lived to tell us about it. Don’t wilt in discouragement – instead hear what these writers told us when we asked for their professional help.

Laurie Halse Anderson: Read everything you can get your hands on. Be kind to your English teachers — they know more than you realize (the good ones). Please don’t be one of those people who just talk about being a writer… BE a writer. Write something! And never give up — never, never, never, never.

Martyn Bedford: My advice to aspiring writers is to write as much as you can as regularly as you can — every day, ideally. Don’t wait for the mood or the muse to strike, just write. Write because you want to write rather than because you want to be a writer. Be original or don’t bother.

Elizabeth Berg: Trust yourself above anyone else. Writer for yourself first, then worry about what to do with it. Don’t try to imitate anyone else — instead, cultivate your own unique voice. And if you’re really interested in learning what I know and I believe about writing, take a look at a book I wrote called Escaping Into The Open: The Art of Writing True. It’s available in paperback, and it’s for anyone who wants to write for any reason. It has everything I know and believe about the craft, and a bunch of exercises, too. (Also, a bunch of recipes, which are really good. A woman came to a reading the other night and told me how much she liked that book. Then she showed me the stains she got on the page when she made the recipe for chocolate cake. It was good, she said. And it is.)

Maeve Binchy: I would advise anyone to write as they speak, and on the subjects that they know about.

Judy Blume: Don’t let anybody discourage you!

Christopher Bohjalian: Read lots and write often. And, truly, savor the process of writing. I had amassed over 250 rejections before I sold my first short story (to Cosmopolitan) when I was 24, so it’s important to enjoy those moments when you are, literally, crafting sentences.

Terry Brooks: Don’t quit the day job! I gave a talk at Maui this year on ten things every writer should know: Read. Read. Read. Outline. Outline. Outline. Write. Write.Write. Repeat. That’s it!

Christopher Buckley: Write. But seriously — 1) get some reporting experience early on. There is no better training. 2) Read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. 3) As my writing professor, the great William Zinsser, used to tell us, “Be grateful for every word you can cut.”

Ana Castillo: Write, write, write! Read, read, read! Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! Share it with a few people you trust, who can give feedback you’ll respect. Send it out. Don’t be afraid of rejection. Everyone gets rejected and will be rejected throughout their lives at one time or another. Do it because you must, because you want to, need to, couldn’t live with yourself otherwise. If you do it for the fame and glory, you may fall hard on your face.

Carol Higgins Clark: Keep writing. Join a writer’s group or writing class. If you have something that you can send out, try to get an agent. Go to the library and look up in Literary Market Place the list of agents, and send out letters to agents. The most important thing is to keep writing.

Michael Connelly: Write everyday, even if only for a few minutes. To even accomplish a few minutes of writing you have to think about the story and the characters. Writing everyday keeps them fresh in your mind. When they are in your mind you are constantly working the story. A lot of writing takes place away from the computer or the pad and pencil. This little trick keeps that creative process going.

Liza Dalby: Write about what obsesses you.

Dianne Day: My advice is to write what you most like to read. And read, read, read. Then write, write, write. Be realistic: this is not a glamorous business. It’s damn hard work, that you do alone, in the absence of anything like immediate feedback; when and if you do get feedback you have to wait a long, long time for it. I shudder to think how long you have to wait for the money! If delay of gratification is not your thing, you’ll probably be unable to tolerate the realities of this sometimes-brutal business. There is only one good reason to have, and to stay with, the impossible dream of being a published writer: If once you’ve written that first book, whether it sold or not, whether it got you an agent or not, you feel you can’t live without writing another. Which becomes another and another and another…because your life seems empty when you don’t have plots and characters in your head…and eventually they have to be emptied out of your head onto the page or else you’ll explode. At least, that’s the way it is for me.

Jeffery Deaver: There are only two rules I’d give to aspiring writers: one, write what you enjoy reading and, two, never, ever, ever give up; rejection is a speed bump, not a brick wall.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I’m not sure I would presume to give advice, but here are some things I tell myself: If writing is important to you, you must be prepared to work hard at it, and simplify your life so that you can give your art the time and energy it requires. Read widely, practice for long hours. Like a potter, you must be willing to throw away misshaped pieces. You must be willing to take risks, try new forms, grow with each thing you write. You must try to tell the truth as best you are able.

Andre Dubus III: Don’t outline your stories. DO NOT outline your stories. I know some writers do this, but I think the writing process asks us to surrender to the mysteries of the unknown. Nowhere in our culture is this taught. You have to trust your gut, trust your characters to take a story where it’s going to go; and, more often than not, it does that. That’s my two cents.

Elizabeth Evans: Read the best books and write as often as you possibly can. And be respectful of your work. Give it your best shot.

Carolina Garcia-Aguilera: Don’t give up. It’s not a hobby. You can’t be a weekend dabbler. You have to commit. If you can, take a few months off from your job. Writing is not a part-time occupation. And remember that publishing a book is not just writing — you have to promote the book, read the contracts. I didn’t know anything about publishing when I began. I still can’t believe I’ve published books. You know how writers say they don’t really feel like a writer until they see someone on an airplane reading their book. Well, that happened to me recently at the gym. The woman on the bicycle next to me was reading one of my books. I asked her if she liked it. She said yes. And I decided to tell her I was the author.

Olivia Goldsmith: Write every day. Find the hours that suit you. Sit there until something comes. Don’t judge what you write that day — you can do that tomorrow. And if nothing comes, you can edit what you did before. One more thing….your agent does NOT know more than you do, and neither does your editor. I listen to advice, but I don’t always follow it.

Barbara Gowdy: Read everything, especially the classics and poetry. Eavesdrop on real conversations. Don’t watch too much TV, nobody talks like TV people do. Don’t ever be too attached to anything you’ve written; you are the vehicle for the word, not it’s creator. Write what you’re obsessed by.

Beth Gutcheon: My advice to aspiring writers is, of course, read. But more important, and maybe less obvious (though I’ve already said it once) is, if you aren’t constitutionally suited to being alone for really long stretches, and can’t handle the fairly tricky part of the job description which reads paychecks and reality checks may only arrive every three years, it may not be for you. How does any writer know if she’s good or merely deranged? It’s not a small problem.

Barbara Hambly: Don’t be afraid to rewrite. Have someone whose judgment you trust read your work, and ask them if it worked for them, and if not, why not? Finish what you start, if not every time, at least most of the time. Tell a story about people — don’t spend all your time setting up a world or a history or a setting.

Colin Harrison: Be honest with yourself. If you don’t have to write, don’t bother. Do something else. Really. If you do have to write, don’t give up — ever. Be defiant in the face of rejection and disinterest, yet be humble about the craft. It takes time. Study the masters, learn technique and structure. You only live and write once. In the words of Willy Loman, “the woods are burning.”

Jim Harrison: The only advice I can give to aspiring writers is don’t do it unless you’re willing to give your whole life to it. Red wine and garlic also helps.

Kathryn Harrison: Revise.

Mo Hayder: The usual advice: write, write, write. And, when you’ve done that, write some more. Don’t give up. If you’re unclear about where to pitch your voice, whether you’re steering the right course between the obtuse and the condescending, then imagine yourself as the reader. You have to write for yourself — if you start indulging in writing for a market you’re lost.

Alice Hoffman: No one knows how to write a novel until it’s been written.

Craig Holden: Become a long distance runner. Read a thousand short stories and poems, and hundreds of novels. Write every day. Marry some money, but not too much.

Susan Isaacs: Avoid writing classes. You have one thing as a writer: that’s your own voice. If you go into a class, the first thing they’ll tell you to do is write in the style of a famous writer. Immediately, you’re being taught to mimic. You’re not doing the one thing you have to do which is tell yourself a story, listen to the sound of your own voice. You’re writing to please the teacher instead of yourself. What comes out of those classes is generic New Yorker short stories, few of them good enough to be in the New Yorker. Did Austen get a Master’s? Did Dostoevsky have a writing workshop? There’s nothing wrong with these 2-day courses where you can get a few pointers on getting published and finding an agent, but no one can teach you how to write. All they can do is make a good writer so self-conscious, she gets into an artistic knot who can’t get untied.

Wayne Johnson: Try, as much as possible, to pour your life into those things you love.

Molly Jong-Fast: I think the advice that helped me most was just that you have to write and read, and not take no for an answer.

Faye Kellerman: To aspiring writers, I say, “Write, write, write” as well as “read, read, read.” Not just fiction, but nonfiction as well. You can never get enough information . . . so many stories out there. I just wish I had enough time.

Matthew Kneale: Just write. Don’t worry about seeming clever. If you can find a subject that means something to you, and you can make it mean something to the rest of the world, you’re made. But be sure enough happens.

Billie Letts: Keep writing. Go to writer’s conferences. You never know whom you will meet at these conferences, and they are the best way to get to know agents and publishers. And read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, more than once. And believe in yourself.

Lois Lowry: I always tell aspiring writers that reading is the best way, maybe the only way, to learn to write well.

Greg Mitchell: If you’re going to write a book about managing in Little League make sure you draft a few kids who are real characters, in every sense of the word. And, as Casey Stengel said, you got to get someone to play catcher — or you’ll get a lot of wild pitches. Finally, keep a diary, every year, in case you get lucky.

Reggie Nadelson: Aspiring writers? Enjoy it. And rewrite it. And read a lot. It’s the only way to learn the trade — for my money, it’s probably more useful to read non-genre books, novels, biographies; but if you read too many mysteries, you’ll start copying and lose your own voice.

John J. Nance: Well, first, please forgive the “wannabe” reference above if you’re a serious student of the craft. If your heart demands that you write regardless of economics, then write what you want. But, if your financial interests also demand that you seek remuneration for your efforts, then learn the basic business realities of writing today. It’s a far different business than just fifteen years ago, and one that demands different things of you in return for financial success. There may be a few critics and university professors out there searching for the great American novel, but no mainstream publishing houses have any rational mechanism to discover such a beast, let alone publish and promote it (in the absence of a movie deal with Robert Redford or someone in Hollywood to wag the dog and promote the book from the movie). What the reading public demands is entertainment, and it is the writer’s responsibility to give great value on that level as well as incorporating those elements which are important to the writer and his or her muse, all of which must be economically viable to a targeted market. It sounds depressing, but the good news is the publishing world is always looking for the next overnight success that took fifteen years to happen. Do your homework, pay your dues, and never give up. (Also, remember the three basic rules: Get an agent, Get an agent, and Get an agent). And, once you’re published, never forget for a second who’s paying your salary and making you a hit: Your reader — your customer. Be faithful to your readers, give them an ever improving product with the respect and appreciation they deserve, and they’ll stick with you.

Joe Queenan: Do not write anything until you are 30 as you will have absolutely nothing to say. Spend all your time reading the great writers. You can catch up on the writing part of things later, and there will always be plenty of money. At least that has been my experience.

Nora Roberts: Write first what you would read for pleasure. If it doesn’t entertain you, it’s unlikely it’ll entertain anyone.

John Saul: My advice for aspiring writers is to write, write some more and when you’re done, write some more. Just don’t keep beating on the same dead horse, rewriting the same story until all the life has gone out of it. Don’t be afraid to throw away projects that are not working and start new ones. Make sure your story idea can be communicated in one easy (non-run-on) sentence. When you are done with a project contact legitimate agents any way you can. Many bona fide writers conferences offer an unpublished and unknown author a chance to pitch their ideas and their writings to agents and editors.

Anita Shreve: Don’t quit — ever.

Sonya Sones: Start writing right now! The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Read great writers. And read about how to write. There are some excellent books out there on how to write, including one by my teacher called “Poem-making.” And if you can find some other kids who are serious about writing, form a critique group — get together on a regular basis to read, discuss each others work and share constructive criticism. That’s what I’ve done for years and it’s really helped.

Suzanne Fisher Staples: Learn to recognize and act on your gifts. Even if it seems to be something small — like the precise word you’re looking for — be grateful and value it. Work hard at what you love.

Amy Tan: Know why you want to write, why it’s necessary. No one can tell you what those reasons are. But if you want to write only to be published then you will likely get discouraged and quit before that happens. An ambition for fame is not enough. The reason you write should be substantial enough that you would continue to write no matter what. I would also advise young writers to continue reading prolifically. Know the difference between good writing and bad. Be willing to revise. Go to readings by other writers and stay inspired. Don’t ask them how much money they got as an advance. Ask them what they value in writing.

Joanna Trollope: Patience, persistence and train your powers of observation. You can’t be too old to be a writer, but you can definitely be too young!

Alan Watt: Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.

Donald E. Westlake: Sorry; I have no space left for advice. Just do it.

Simone Zelitch: Read. It’s as simple as that. The more you read, the more you will have a sense of the books you like. Then, write them. Make friends with other writers and serious readers, and ask them what they read. Then read it. Let yourself be influenced, and let yourself grow out of each influence. One good way to develop your own style is to keep a journal. I’ve been keeping one for 25 years. By looking at my style there, I could often tell what I was reading, but slowly I began to write in a way that was completely my own and that, without a doubt, sharpened my public writing — my fiction. If you keep reading and writing and make contact with other writers, you will have both a vocation and an audience. Publication is another story; it’s a crap-shoot. Persistence pays off, but don’t sweat it too much. A writer is not someone who publishes; she’s someone who writes. Keep writing.

Laura Zigman: The best advice an aspiring writer can receive is this: keep writing. No matter how daunting, impossible, or difficult and painful it seems, keep doing it. It’s worth it.

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