I often read these lovely tips for writers. Being darkly cynical I then reflect that all they wrote for that day was a list of tips for other writers, and that really they have lost an opportunity for writing something really meaningful that day.
A successful writer is merely someone who shares their madness with a wider group. When I first started writing, everything I wrote got published. Everything. Then for some reason nothing I wrote got published. Meh! – this will happen. Play it as it lies. Don’t let it stop you writing, all this is the world’s problem. Just keep writing good things and write your way through the quiet times. Have a book and write in it.
So here is my attempt at some useful advice. My dark list of meaningful writer’s tips;
Tip #1. Have something to Write About.
Nobody cares who you are, what your precious beliefs are or how clever you are unless you have something of value to say. People are busy. Don’t steal their time unless you have good reason to do so. Everyone wants to be an artist or an intellectual but you can’t be anything until you form opinions. You can’t form opinions until you experience the world. The writing world is full of lovely people from safe places with virtually nothing new to say because they never left their safe place. Good writers need to search for the experiences that they can draw from. No, I don’t mean hanging out at the library or cafe.
They need character and character evolves through experience.
Tip # 2. Research Your Topic.
Yeah didn’t think about that one did you? So keen to do the creative thing but do you actually know what you are talking about? Is your work historical? Science fiction? Maritime in flavour? Writing about other places? Other cultures? Research will produce ideas and themes. Most libraries are nice, comfortable places with big padded chairs. Civilised and there is usually coffee nearby. Experience it. You will meet other writers down there. Most are big talkers. Sadly most can’t shut up once you get them going.
Go further than this though. Speak to actual people, real people. They will not object once they figure out that you are not selling anything or trying to hit on them.
Tip#3. Consider Your Voice.
Who am I listening to? What person is this in? Can I do something different here and change voices? Can I become invisible? Can I make this voice an unreasonable character? Can I inject humour? What voices are most effective in telling the tale? What are the advantages or disadvantages of a different narrator? What do I see from her angle that I lose from his? Can I make that voice a simple written document such as a letter or memoir? Get creative. Come at things from different angles.
Tip #4. Write Something.
A writer writes. An artists paints and draws. Musicians play music. So do it. It matters little what you write in the first draft. Concentrate on committing thoughts and ideas to paper. Everything else will follow but if you fail to initially record that good idea right in the moment, you have lost the heart of the process. Perfection is rarely achieved in a first draft unless you are Picasso with a whole lifetime behind you at dashing things off.
There is no such a thing as talent. Talent is merely human experience bundled up and presented nicely. So get some experience.
Tip # 5. Get a Day Job.
Fulfill your journey. Walk life’s path. Live in the positive and answer your calling. Just try to pay the bills and not starve as you do it.
Tip #6. Correct What You Wrote.
Don’t be afraid to chop and reduce. Watch for repetitive statements. Try and chop the ‘ing” verbs. Make it a direct verb. Make the story tell the tale and make the reader experience the tale, rather than have a narrator explain the tale to a listener. Make them live the story and don’t dictate thoughts and emotions but let the reader boil those up themselves – bring them to the edge of the cliff. They will always jump off, trust me and you seldom need to push.
If you do push, make it a little push.
Tip #7. Stop.
Never send it off too early. Beginner’s mistake. Writing is giving birth. Don’t waste energy on delivering an underdeveloped and malformed foetus to this harsh world of instant thrills. You will not be rewarded for that.
Tip #8. Get Someone to Read and Critique Your Work.
Forget about family. They could’t care less about your marvelous career as a world famous artist. They love you as a sister, brother, friend, Mum or Dad. Get someone who knows something to read your work. Someone different, someone with a bit of character and experience. Someone different from who you are. Are you a lefty? Get the hardball conservative to read it and tell you if it flies for them. Listen to their comments. You don’t need them to correct all your spelling mistakes, more to simply give you an indication as to whether the story is even vaguely worth their while. Are you writing something historical? Get a young person to read it and see if it keeps them engaged. If they start texting before the final sentence, you failed, so try again.
Tip #9. Be Thankful for Criticism.
The most valuable thing someone can do to your work is criticise it. Be thankful for every drop of criticism that you receive. The critic works on your behalf for free. Saving you from months of agony in simply underwhelming your readership. Be thankful for the critics. Hate them but be thankful. Embrace this stuff and if they really offend you, write them up as a character in your story and then assign them a morbid destiny involving intricate personal revenge. Enjoy this. Make them suffer more pain than you did delivering your baby, but thank them for it beforehand.
Tip #10. Rewrite What You Wrote.
This is the most enjoyable part of it all. You dash along like a jogger through the forest, touching the trees but skipping over the path with comfort and grace. Experiencing, observing. Trimming the branches. Does it feel right? Enjoy this moment, the art of revising your words and making them come to life. Tidy this up – expand and develop that. Try a new path. Revise for effective adjectives. Revise to vary sentence length or paragraph structure. Revise for character depth. Revise for plot and subplot. Revise for beautiful language and the smooth transition of narrative. Revise for effective, real dialogue. Insert new themes and smooth it over. Revise for more effective or beautiful verbs and adverbs. Revise for symbolism. Revise for dark humour. Revise for poetic effect. Revise for any angle that you can come at.
Tip #11. Say Hello to Your Family.
Reassure them that you remain sentient in their world. Even if you really are not. Feed the dog. Smile and talk to them. Stop muttering to yourself.
Tip # 12. Revise it again.
Keep reading it with the file open and update as you jog along. Make it better. Every time you open the file, just make it better. Even if you open the file and improve three sentences per day, this is good work.
Tip #13. Identify the Weakest Part.
Come on. You know where this is. Be honest. Why doesn’t it work? How can you make this weakness your strength? Why is it weak? Pull it apart and rewrite the damn thing. No weaknesses!
Tip # 14. Abandon It.
Go for a walk by the sea. Meet someone for dinner. Watch your kid’s sports. Yell a lot. Go shopping. Play some music, mow the lawns, read a short story or watch a good film. Just get your brain out of it all and get out of the journey.
Tip # 15. Come Back In and Engage.
A few days later, get jiggy with it. Cut stuff out. Make it better for impact. It will all be so clear to you now.
Tip #16. STOP!
Do NOT send it off yet. Hold it right there. You need to read it over for a at least a couple of days. You are so satisfied and contented to be finished but if you act now, there will be a mistake. Just stop the energy here, enjoy the finished work, keep reading it but trust that there are still corrections, grammar improvements, spelling and typos to be tweaked. You know they are in there somewhere. Have someone read it out to you.
Tip # 17. Now Send It Off.
Consider carefully where you send your baby. There is much art here. Send your baby to the wrong home and they will kill it. Where does it most naturally belong? Don’t stress over time. It may take six months for others to fully realise your brilliance. That’s their problem. Just concentrate on getting published and when you do, expect it. Always submit to more than one magazine or publisher at any one time. Always. Don’t be an idiot. Your chances of success, any success, are minimal. Editors know stuff. Trust that. They know more than you about what works, what is suitable, where you are not fitting in to what people are looking for. Listen to them. Keep a little list of where you have sent your work along with the date that you sent it. Submittable does this nicely for you but not every magazine or publisher uses it.
Tip # 18. Rejection. Rejection is normal. Rejection is an instruction for revision and improvement. So if you keep getting rejected, just keep improving the piece. Expect success and expect rejection, that is the creative experience. Van Gogh sold only a couple of paintings and drawings in his lifetime. If you love it and you know it is good, then fine go with that, but don’t expect the world to break down your door. They simply won’t. If you are publishing a novel go and google vanity publishing. If you are a good writer you will bump into vanity publishers and they can really suck off all your steam. Don’t get caught up in that like many people do. Remember you can pay publishers to publish your work but then you may need to pay people to read your work. Concentrate on getting good work published by good people.
Tip #19. Talk to Other Writers. Explore the insanity. Be reassured that you are not the only self flagellating dweller of the nether worlds in this self-obsessed universe. It’s not important what you talk about. Offer to critique their work and critique the hell out of it. Don’t be rude. As precious as they seem, that is you right there. Understand it. Just stay in contact and join some little support group – it will give you strength and ideas.
Tip # 20. Nasty People. Good luck. There are nasty people and every now and then you will meet one. The energy suckers. Our modern world encourages and promotes narcissists. The jealous people. Understand that. As a writer you cannot ever get hurt because you have a beautiful ability to balance out your world – every injudicious individual you meet is asking to be repackaged and written up as a character walking around in your story. Your story. Watch and wait for these people to come strolling through your life and listen closely to what they say. Never buy in to stupidity but do enjoy it when it comes.
And the very best of luck. It’s a jungle out there.
Diane is a writer based in South Africa