Seven years on: advice to new writers

Last week, on 9 December to be precise, was what I consider the anniversary of my writing career. In December 2004, I took the decision to take my writing seriously and joined SF-OWW. I’ve done my seven years in the vein of ‘It takes seven years to become an overnight success’. I’m not an overnight success, but slowly getting to places I want to be. A bit more about my personal writing plans and goals later, but first a post inspired by a similar one made by New Zealand/US writer Ripley Patton on her LiveJournal. If you were to give advice to your beginning writer self, what would you say?

What makes successful fiction?
Seriously, dear pedantic little self, don’t sweat the details. There is no list of forbidden words the use whereof will preclude publication forever. There is also no rule that prohibits the use of passive tense when you need it, and the word ‘was’ is a legitimate and very useful verb in the English language. It has only tree letters, and has no synonyms. Use it. It is, however, wholly possible to stifle your story with simply too many words, pretty or otherwise. The most important thing about successful fiction is that it tells a gripping story, style be damned.

Should I do writing courses?
I did one. It was invaluable, but not for the reason you might think. The writing course I did brought me in contact with people and opened my eyes to a world I had never known before. As writer, you are likely to benefit from being part of a community. Whether through a course or in some other way, join this community. As for multiple courses, many teach too much style and too little of what makes successful fiction tick. If you can find one that concentrates on whole-plot fiction, great. Otherwise… if you enjoy taking a magnifying glass to style, fine, but don’t expect it to lead to publication.

Should I join a crit group?
Right now, after having done 4000+ crits, I’ve pretty much burned out on crit groups, but they can be a great way to gauge your work and collect reader reactions. And make writer friends. Very important, that one. However, do not linger in a group that has ceased to be of use to you. An example would be if you’re by far the most experienced writer in the group. A successful group should have writers of similar level. Also: some people will hate your stories. This is a good thing.

Too much of anything is a bad thing.
That’s the only writing rule you need to remember. Vary your word use, your sentence pattern, your scene types. Vary your characters, their goals, their plans and their associations. Try something that’s a bit out there. About trends: by the time you jump, the bandwagon will long be gone.

Know what you’re talking about.
Add depth and realism to your fiction by doing the leg work. Whether than means reading up on facts or cobbling out an intricate world doesn’t matter. Depth and research make your stories unique. This is the stuff that sells fiction. Think about it. Would Harry Potter have sold so much had the world been some generic thing? Would the Da Vinci code have sold so well without all the research the author did? What is the most amazing thing about Kim Stanley Robinson’s the Mars trilogy? The Windup Girl? A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms? Research and worldbuilding. This is where you can make a difference.

Most importantly: you learn writing by writing, not by talking about writing.

And rejection is a sign that you are submitting. Celebrate it.