My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, April 6, 2018

A Baker's Dozen Random Bits of Writing Advice I Wish Someone Had Given ME. (And two that someone did.)

I definitely write a lot of themed listicles for this blog (and don't worry, we're going to get back to that D&D one soon enough), but some of the best advice doesn't fit into a tidy little box about prose or craft or ways to get writing again when you have writer's block.

Of course there's the advice you hear all the time like "Read a lot" and "Write every day" and certainly there's no shortage of advice on prose, process, and the market. Don't even get me clich├ęd on folks go out and actively SEEK advice about publisher and agent-finding advice before they've even completed a book (sometimes before they've started one). But, for me over the years, some of the best gems aren't things everyone always says. They're the rare treasures left haphazardly among the junk that is strewn about like engine blocks and tractor parts on the lawn of your uncle who lives on ten acres.

Like a fully functional daggit....

When metaphors go wrong.

This is advice for the dedicated wordsmith with an eye on "making it" or "success," and less for the casual hobbyist content to putter when it makes them happy. It is united by little other than that, if the grizzled me is ever visited by a time-travelling alien who won't let me stop genocide or make a zillion dollars by writing "Every Breath You Take" in 1982 (because "something something fixed points in time something"), but will totally let me pop in the time pod and hop back to give myself some rock solid words of wisdom, this is what I'd say...

1- Get some fucking sleep

Twenty-year-old me thought it was a fun game to be sleep-deprived and brag about how much caffeine I was currently running on. I essentially nursed a sleeping disorder, and then wondered why I couldn't focus or come up with good ideas, and was always tired when I sat down to write and the adrenaline of always being on the move ebbed for half a minute. I convinced myself I was an artist because artists stayed awake until all hours. It didn't matter that most nights, I was up late watching anime or playing video games rather than...you know...ACTUALLY WRITING. I had convinced myself that this was the artist's life.

While some people can't sleep regularly, and young me was probably self-medicating my ADD/ADHD with caffeine, what I've found is unswervingly true is that creativity just works better on predictable sleep, generally well rested neurons, and a nervous system that isn't being tricked into alert mode with drugs. Caffeine can be a last resort jump start to a groggy mind, but usually only if it hasn't been abused for a lifetime prior. Waking up slowly from a good night's sleep to those morning dreams is a fantastic wellspring of inspiration. And those hours of concentration that real artists put in take a rested brain. It doesn't matter if you're nocturnal–sleep from 7am until 3pm if that's your jam–but get some sleep.

When you're elbow-deep in the project and flying on inspiration, you can stay up until the sun rises sucking down 5-hour shots and breakfast tea chasers, or inject meth into your eyeball if you want (I don't judge), but until then, get your ass to bed. You'll be a much better writer for it.

Three complete drafts?
Maybe you plebs need to write three drafts.
I'll just revise the original document.
2- Don't think you're too good to try [that thing].

This is sort of the overarching advice for all that other advice. The meta advice if you will. One advice to rule them all.

Writers give a lot of advice–often solicited by folks with shaking voices, sincere faces, and clasping the open mic in trembling fingers at the Q&A that falls between a packed reading and a mile-long book signing line. "How can I deal with this (or that) problem?" they ask. "How can I bypass decades of hard work and achieve what you have achieved?" And the writer dispenses the advice as requested like a long runner of frozen yogurt into an easily digestible cone of some anecdote or funny story. Whereupon everyone who would have asked the same question, and perhaps even the asker themselves, tosses it into the garbage.

What's going on with the weird metaphors today?
While all advice should be taken with salt (but most frozen yogurt never should) and ignored in favor of whatever works, the thing I see most often in young writers and starting writers and definitely young Chrises is being too good to even try. THEY don't need to stop watching movies and Netflix and read a lot more. THEY won't need to change almost everything about their rough draft. THEY won't have to put in years. THEY don't need to write every day. THEY don't need to kill their darlings. THEY won't have to cut 20% because every word is absolutely essential. THEY won't need to learn a modern industry. THEY will be the exception.

A sort of economy of effort around new writers who cling to affectations about how to use special pens and what time of day to write and for how many pages, but ignore advice like "You should probably do three drafts including at least one complete rewrite before you start worrying about editing."

I was right there with them thinking I could worm out of everything that sounded like a lot of work. I couldn't. I didn't. And it wasn't until I learned that my shit didn't smell like roses enough to at least give those hard ideas a shot that I started writing well enough that people around me began to take me seriously. The minute I wasn't too good for all that advice–like almost that day–my writing went to the next level.

3- It's going to take more than you think.

Oh young Chris. Oh darling, tender, young Chris. My sweet summer child. That idea in your head that of course it is going to take work (of course!) and then you imagine a montage of "Hard Work™" and spend a year writing a manuscript and surely now you're ready to be published and paid, right?


How about now?


Whatever concessions young writers make in their heads, they still seem to egregiously lowball the final analysis. ("Don't be ridiculous. Of course it's going to take a lot of work. I know that. Pfffft. Of course I know that. I'm prepared to work hard for at least a couple of years. Maybe even.....what? HOW LONG???? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME????")

Of COURSE it will take a lot of work. I'm fully prepared–
I can't tell you exactly how much it will take because everyone is different, everyone has different goals, and luck is a mercurial turdmuffin in this equation, certain kinds of writing are easier to publish and/or sell and even certain demographics of writers encounter fewer obstacles––particularly in traditional publishing. Conventional wisdom from a lot of writers (including me) suggests that it's about ten years of solid, hard core, rock-the-party-that-rocks-the-party effort. However that probably depends more on when you start counting. I've been writing creatively outside of school since I was in fourth grade. Ten years ago, I was about to start my upper-division coursework in creative writing.  In three more years, this blog will be 10 years old, and I might be able to get by without side gigs. Where do you set the starting line?

Of course, you won't have to make all the same choices I did (giving up weekends, a social life, raiding guilds in WOW, and even being a father), as you will have totally different sacrificial choices to make, but the general consensus that it takes about ten years to forge a career in writing does not refer to ten years of weekend warrior effort and chimerical dreams. These are ten years more akin to an olympian training.

I wish someone had told me (and all of us really) that there is no reason to write–not fame, not money, not sex, not validation–that was going to happen in a timetable to make it worth it but for one fact: if we loved writing for its own sake. I wish they'd spoiled for me the big plot twist that "Hard Work™" didn't mean months, or a few years, or even half-assed decades of journaling and rough drafts. I would not have made another choice (though I know a few who would have) but it would have helped with the long, frustrated periods where I felt like I was spinning my wheels.

Think about how many writers are published in the way you want to be (not just with their name on a few online articles or a dust jacket somewhere). Now think about how many writers there are. Total. From would be hopefuls to dedicated hobbyists to fanfic to self-published to small print publishing to one big-five title, but you've never even heard of them. Basically if you want to be like a professional athlete of writing, you better gear up for the most arduous training you've ever done on anything. Ever.

4- You're spending a lot of time in self-deception, and no one is going to really talk you out of it.

Literary agents love lions.
No one is going to sit you down and tell you that you're full of shit. (Well, no one who's not writing a blog about writing anyway.) Young writers are notorious for shooting the messenger if anyone tries.

Or simply ignoring the answer if they don't like it like Homer Simpson wanting steak.

Not that this impetus is always bad–a lot of people try to pinch a deuce in the sandcastles of a writer's dreams under the auspices of managing expectations or trying to keep the artist grounded in pragmatism. It's tough to be a writer and even tougher to tell people you want to be a writer until you have a mid-five-figure income and a retirement plan from writing. People who say "Come on...what do you really do?" are around every corner.  (My favorite: grudging support during fair weather but: "Maybe it's time to get a real job," at the first sign of a setback.) The thick skins and aggressive immune responses that writers grow to this sort of bullshit serve us well in most situations. But like an allergy, they end up attacking the wrong thing to our detriment when we hear anything we don't like.

For me it was things like "grammar doesn't matter because an editor will just fix" it or "grammar doesn't matter because prescriptivism sucks and I'm better than that" or "I don't need to worry about what isn't working because I don't care about commercial success" or "maybe you should put that in a drawer for an indeterminate amount of time and enjoy the lessons you learned from writing it instead of trying to get it published" or "my spouse laughed at this, so it isn't confusing." And of course my coup de grace: "The story that I wrote in high school won't need more than one major revision."

For other young writers, it might be that their NaNoWriMo novel really only needs some polish. Or that they can be a good writer if they're a movie buff and never really read. Or that a literary agent will be blown away by their first three chapters and not care that the book isn't finished. Or that their book really doesn't need a content editor. Or that writing web content is a career that will really help because it's good practice. Or that one can have a successful writing career without writing every day (or pretty close). Or that they really will never have to self-promote if they just sign with a big-five.

You're kidding yourself about something. And no one's going to be your wake up call––especially if you shoot the messenger.

I wish someone had told me that I SHOULD listen when the advice came from good sources who clearly didn't want me to abandon my dreams. I wish they'd told me that no one was going to bother correcting me about these misconceptions if I was aggressive about insisting they were true. They might try once in good faith to correct me, but if I got snippy and argued with them, they were as likely as not to just shrug, say "okay," and just let me smack into them like a sparrow into a pane window and walk away stunned.

Which I did. Repeatedly.

5- Don't share your story! Write your story.

But then, no shit, this dude turns out to be
Did you even see that coming?
It might seem validating to tell friends and family all the cool things that are going to go down in your book and all the brilliant metaphors you're planning and how fucking awesome as shit the ending is going to be.

It's a great way to be uninvited to the Christmas party for starters....

But what I wish someone had told me is that every time I told my story to someone else, it would syphon off a little bit more of that passion to WRITE it. And by the time I told it a few times, I was kind of going to feel like it was out there and there was no point to doing all the hard work of transmuting it into language and working out the mushy middle. I lost the will to write a few stories before I learned that one the hard way.

I see a lot of young writers talk about their books and then lose the fiery passion for sitting down and doing it.

6- Writing at the same time every day is surprisingly effective.

Most successful writers write at the same time every day. (Yes, they write every day. I'm not including that in a list of "uncommon" advice though.) It might be when they first wake up or after they've tucked the kids into bed, but it is usually routine.

Despite this, not too many writers offer this up as advice explicitly–perhaps some don't realize what they've inadvertently stumbled upon. Yes, it is invaluable advice to write daily, but this can be magnified further by writing at the same time each day. Within just a week or two, the muse knows it's going to have to sit down and work at such-and-such o'clock and it starts generating the ideas ten, fifteen, thirty minutes before your writing session begins. (It's like starting to imagine food a half an hour before dinner.) Your mind "drops into the writing place" and you are able to concentrate longer and better than at some random time. Before you know it, you're going to be in a bad mood and a little anxious if you miss sitting down to write. It's almost like meditation.

Not every schedule yields easily to doing anything at the same time every day–to say nothing of sitting down for a couple of hours (or more)–but I wish someone had told me how effective it would be for my creativity, my focus, and my productivity to get it as close as I could.

7- The "darlings" you need to be killing are usually not characters.

"Kill your darlings" is, of course, not rare advice. It might be in a battle royale with "Write what you know" for the MOST ubiquitous writing advice ever. And unlike "Write What You Know," it deserves that position of honor.

Also a 2013 film about Harry Potter's double life as a poet.
But what I wish someone had told me is that your "darlings" are not your beloved characters (although they can be) but encompass everything you fall in love with. That oh-so-witty turn of phrase (that you've shoehorned in and isn't as cute as you thought). That incredible play on words (that is actually clunkier than you think). That great chapter (that adds nothing to your narrative). That amazing story that you keep trying to revise for an agent (that you need to put away and come back to in a few years....if ever). That ending scene you wrote ten years ago (that has not evolved with either your writing ability or the thematic directions your story took). That fun political rant that is everything you want to say about an issue in the mouth of a character.

Your darlings are all the things you think you've done really well. If someone else also says you nailed them....well then maybe tell them that it's their lucky day. Chances are, though, you need to take them out behind the chemical shed.

8- Not all criticism is created equal.

Criticism creates a paradox within art. Artists (writers included) have to simultaneously listen carefully to criticism and blithely ignore it because "what do those Philistines know about my vision anyway?" It's called Schrodinger's reception. (Pause for big laffs.)

Thank you. Thank you very much. Please tip your servers.

Usually it doesn't take too long for an artist to learn the difference between real, sincere pro/con criticism that is maybe taking an honest look at their areas for improvement, and some bloviating take down in the comment section that is at best a cheap shot to lift up the writer by tearing another down, but often looks more like someone trying to exorcise their own personal psychological demons by being sadistic.

Here's what I wish someone had told me though: criticism is not even a toggle that is either on or off, good faith or bad, helpful or unhelpful. Navigating this complexity of feedback goes way past trying to figure out if you should listen to someone or not. It's this complicated continuum on multiple axes with a blob-shaped Goldilocks zone of trusted, sincere, earnest people who want you to succeed but aren't afraid to be honest. People may be good (or not) at giving feedback, but they also might be good (or not) at giving it on that day. Maybe they like (or don't) the genre you're writing in. Maybe they don't (or do) understand what you're trying to do artistically–but then also maybe what you're trying to do is too subtle if they haven't picked it up or too ham-handed if they're complaining. Is the top of your head starting to prickle the way it does when someone is pointing out something about you that you know is all too true, or are you pretty much feeling like a ten-year-old is legit challenging you to do a dissing contest? Do you think they probably have some great things to say about character development, but seem pretty lost about how to worldbuild in your genre? Do you find they're right about your prose but have no idea about the industry?

And yeah...maybe even that sadistic asshole just said something you could actually use to improve your prose.

All criticism must be considered and a LOT must be thrown out but not in any kind of all or nothing pattern. It is why someone you trust to be honest yet encouraging is such a gem.

9- Writing is not grammar

I wrote a whole post about this. In fact, that post was what led to this post.

There's a needle to thread here because grammar is not incidental in the pursuit of better craft. You HAVE to know the rules to bend them or break them effectively and not just randomly. The last thing I want is to have some angry publisher screaming in my ear because they think I told them grammar doesn't matter.

But writing is not grammar.  And grammar is not writing. It's like saying that reading the notes is music. It's not. It's probably vital to 99% of professional music careers to know how to read music, but if you run into "Morendo" as a notation in a score, it doesn't make you not a musician to have to go look that one up.

I wish someone had told me that it was not grammar holding me back. That I didn't need to grab one more copy of an adult native speaker's grammar guide and study it like my career depended on it. That I knew more than I thought I did, and what I didn't know was esoteric and weirdly interesting (in a nerd cred way), but wasn't essential in being able to express myself well.

10- The amount of writing is bananapants, but you can't write all the time.

If you want to make it as a writer, you have to give it the time. It'll be your part-time job and your hobby rolled into one. Once you are (kinda) making it as a writer, it'll be your full-time job and your hobby rolled into one. The time itself is an investment to make the Labors of Hercules look like a reasonable alternative plan to mythological fame.

I wish I could go back in time and tell myself a gentle "Yes, but..." about all this stuff. It would have to be me, though. As I stepped out of the time pod, and young me realized it was old me and not just some random unhip old dude who didn't know what it meant to have a dream (because young-me thought only young hip people had dreams), then old me could say, "Yes, you must spend so so so so so much time writing....


And young me would listen would listen to that "but."

Yes, it takes so so so much time......BUT.....there is a moment of limited returns if one neglects their life balance. Just like sacrificing sleep (even to write) has a cost, so does never getting out of the house, never having fun, never relaxing, never seeing friends, never getting exercise. Ironically, while sacrificing these things for writing is par for the course, if one sacrifices them too much, one can find one's writing suffering.

11- That moment you're dreaming of where you "make it." That moment only really happens for .001 percent of writers.

I'm so...fucking.....VALID!
No more imposter syndrome EVER!
You know the scene in your mind. You've played it over and over and over to yourself a hundred times:

The phone rings. You answer it (calmly–because you totally haven't been a hot mess to every unknown caller since you sent out your manuscript). "Hello. This is [your name]." "Hi. This is Gate McKeeper at Lotsabooks Publishing. Listen, we just read A Wind of Sapphire Doom and we're all super stoked. Are you sitting down? How does a hundred thousand dollar advance sound. You are a 'real' writer now!"

Not. Gonna. Happen.

Don't get me wrong. I love those stories too. Stephen King. Andy Weir. Jim Butcher. But have you ever noticed there's about a dozen of those stories. Yet....look at how many writers there are.

What I wish time traveller me had told me was first of all, it's up to you to decide what "making it" even means. I have literally hit every goal I had as a young writer in my twenties (read by millions, paid, technically supporting myself). And yet, if I want to do some damage at Half-Priced Books, I better have an appointment that week to scoop some cat poop. So now I have new goals.

Goals with less cat poop.

And secondly, I wish someone had told me that success is kind of going to dribble out of the hose. One day you're published in a little thing. Another day someone pays you...but it's a pittance. Then you get a regular donor out of the blue who just wishes they could do more. Then you get paid for another thing and it's a little more. Half a year later, a post goes viral. A month later someone presses a $100 bill into your hand. The next year you start getting feedback that is breathtaking. A year after that, more opportunities open up. The next week someone takes your temperature about a project. Before you know it, people you meet are saying "Oh I've read your work!"

It's like climbing a mountain. You don't really feel like you're moving very fast at all and then you turn around and...."Woah!"

12- Yes, you need a content editor.

Your story needs more than to just be proofread. I know you think it's perfect. I know you think the only thing that's wrong with it is a few dangling modifiers and some commas. It's not.

I swear to you on all that is holy and pure in the universe, it's not.

I wish someone had told me every writer absolutely needs someone to read through and say, "This doesn't make sense." "That part was vague." "Why would this character do that." "What about that this happened like twenty pages ago?" "Wait, did the point of view just shift to the dog for like one page and never again?" And if you really want to create something of lasting value and artistic integrity, you should hire someone who can say things like "I think your use of language here is not working with the mood you're trying to set" or "I feel like your setting could better work with your theme if you talked more about the statues..."

You can totally self-publish these days and get around those pesky gatekeepers who might send you back to the drawing board if you hand them a gleaming, polished turd with a confusing, hackneyed plot, flat characters, and a wilted prose (but nary a grammar error in sight!). However, if you don't get a content editor, that self-published book will sit proudly on the shelves of a few close and supportive friends and family and that's about it.

I'm guessing that's not actually what most of us want.

13- No one's ever going to just hand you a check to write.

Pictured: Unrealistic expectation.
It's not going to happen. No writer in the modern era gets to just write, send off their manuscripts, and pick up their royalty checks.

You have to roll up your sleeves on the business end. You have to promote yourself. You have to market. You have to manage. And if you think you're just going to be so fantastically well paid from book one that you can hire people to do all that, let me know how that goes. You might have to walk around your local small bookstores and beg them to let you put books on consignment. Or you might have to do reading events (in the audience too, as it's rude to only go when you're featured). You might have to do a book signing and no one even knows who you are. You might have to wrestle with an agent over the wording of a contract. You might have to set up your crowdfunding site with some reward tiers. YOU MIGHT HAVE TO GET YOUR BACKERS THEIR REWARDS. You might have to spend days and days revising your book to be true to your vision while still having some changes that'll help it sell. You might have to sit on the phone with your publisher talking about your book cover.

Once you're waist-deep in the business of writing, you're going to realize it IS a business, and while I wouldn't personally change a thing, I wish someone had told me that it was going to be roughly a quarter to a third of my time so I'd know what to expect.

Bonus: Here's a bonus one at no extra charge. (Something someone DID tell me, but I wish they'd told me sooner.)

The industry is changing has changed. 

As much shit as I give the ivory tower, I loved my creative writing degree. However, the U.S. government also paid for 90% of it since I was taking home about $5k from tutoring, and that may have had a lot to do the fondness. When I mention that someone could reproduce its effects with a library card, a good peer review group, about 800 hours of online research, attending readings, a couple of years of really hard work, possibly a hired editor at a fraction of the price, (and maybe a blog about writing by someone who knows where the pitfalls are), I'm usually talking about the cost/benefit analysis. Honestly, it's valuable if you have the money and the time, but it's not the only logical next step no matter where you are.

But one thing I really took home from watching our guest speakers was that the working writers who hadn't established a traditional career a decade prior were all non-traditional. Self-published, e-published, bloggers, choose your own adventure app writers, you name it. They cobbled together seven different incomes (and maybe a bartending shift each week) to make it work. The traditional publishers....they all had day jobs or rich spouses (except for Daniel Handler). They all told us about how making money was a pipe dream (except for Daniel Handler). Whereas the working writers were doing it and told us it was doable if we would be willing to do something other than traditional publishing.

If what you really want is someone (probably a middle-aged white dude) who works for a corporation to tell you that your book is "worthy," you should absolutely go traditional. If what you want is readers, money, a career, there are all kinds of ways to make it from here to there, from fully non-traditional careers to hybrid ones. There are reasons to go traditional, but thinking that it's the only way to a career and readers really isn't one of them.

Lastly here's some advice that someone (my mom) did tell me that never quite panned out: 

"Never fuck."

I think this was in the early 90s and Mom had reached the apex of this tendency to try to distill complex issues into subtext-laden sound bites so she could get a word in edgewise as one of the only women in the upper management world of bank executives.

She was also getting pretty cynical by then. For her, "never fuck" was an indictment of how complicated and time-consuming relationships could be–and of course the consequences of sex. Growing up in the sixties, she got a lot of promises about gender equality that sort of fell short in praxis, and every relationship since she was 20 years old involved her sacrificing her own hopes and dreams to further the ambitions of some fucking guy. Technically that even included the wee baby Chris, and even though I was sort of blameless in that situation, I wasn't exactly conducive to a high powered "lean in"-caliber career, and it was obviously fucking that had brought me into the world.

Never ever again.
And now we shall never speak of this again.

Fortunately, progressive attitudes and birth control don't fetter sexytimes so much these days, and I'm able to show some wonderful folks from time to time how my tongue ring works, but part of her advice has haunted me for how true it turned out to be. I'm probably watching the train leaving the station right now for ever having my own kids. My partners call my writing my "primary relationship." I push people away who make a lot of demands on my time. I'm guarded about who I let in. My deal breakers tend to be all about pushing against that independence.

We modern writers can reintroduce fucking to our repertoires, and some of us may even have family. But eventually we're going to have to give up something. The casual hobbyist can have a weekend distraction, but for those of us struggling to make it, the social life, the career, the family...something will eventually end up on the table and we'll have to decide to move our writing or it to the back burner.

The literal meaning of "never fuck" didn't come to pass, but all that subtext turned out to be right on the money. Would I have made it without those sacrifices? Impossible to know for sure, but I sort of wonder. I'm fairly certain I'd have made all the same choices again.

But I really really wish someone had told me.


  1. I can personally attest to how important getting a good night’s sleep is. I weigh at least three hundred pounds, which makes my neck wide enough to give me sleep apnea. I’ve been using a breathing apparatus every night since mid-2016 and I’ve had a clearer mind because of it. It’s always nice to be able to write stories and poems on my computer without feeling like I’m going to nod off after the first few sentences. As always, Chris, you’re an excellent source of wisdom and it’s a pleasure to read your blog entries. Thanks for being awesome!

  2. As someone who is still working on her first manuscript, this is eye-opening, and terrifying.

  3. Yeah, there's a lot of advice that would have been nice to get while we were young enough to take full advantage of it. Problem is, as my mother used to say, "there are just some things you don't understand until you're older." And if we had gotten the advice, I wonder if we would have been wise enough to take it.

  4. Thank you for the harrowing terror advice, I will put this where I keep the UN's environmental report stating we have about 12 years left of optimal climate. I will peruse this post and that report periodically when brave and patient enough to lift my head out of the sand. I will reflect on what you have posted, thank you for the honesty and advice.

  5. This article could translate beautifully to those seeking to work in other artistic/creative professions. Thank you for the insight, I hope I can apply some of your wisdom!