Writing advice: what I wish someone would have told me when I started

Starting as a writer can be very bewildering, and books, blogs, workshops and classes are full of advice. It can be really hard to figure out what is important. Here are some things I wished someone had told me in 2005.

1. DO finish your story. If you have no finished story, you have nothing. When you finish it, start another one. DON’T be precious about the first story. Most likely, it’s severely lacking in the genius department. That’s OK. Just finish it. Write another one.

2. DO learn craft and continue learning. Listen to people further up the slippery pole than you are, especially if they’re in a place where you would like to be.

3. DON’T, like, EVER, pay someone to publish your work. Money flows TO THE WRITER, except when you decide it doesn’t, like when you hire an editor for self-publishing, and when the boundaries of their service to you are clear.

4. DO learn “the rules”. Learn why they exist, and what the reason is behind them. Mostly, those reasons fall into two groups: 1. Reader engagement. You want your work to be vivid and pack an emotional punch, 2. Clarity. You want the reader to understand what you’ve written.

5. Then, after having done 4 for a year or so, DO forget about all those rules. Because they’re not rules, they are tools to help new writers understand. “Show, not tell” is about making your writing more vivid. “One POV character per scene” or “No head-hopping” is about clarity. “Don’t use the word ‘that'” is about not stuffing sentences with unnecessary words (except don’t get rid of the word “that” too often. You need it).

6. Having done 4. and 5., DON’T fall down the “must use interesting prose” rabbithole. Seriously, I’m still undoing the damage done to some of my earlier fiction by this BS. If someone remarks on your use of the word “was” or “that” or “something” or “and”, signs are that you’re probably doing something that’s repetitive. But getting rid of all of these offending terms does not make your writing as dynamic and varied as getting rid of half of them. This should be the most easy half. When you need to twist a sentence around to make it more “interesting”, you’ve lost the plot, and probably a good number of readers.

7. Talking about plot, DO learn about plot and character. This is MUCH more important than micro-editing your prose. Do I need to shout how much more important this is?

8. DO declare a work finished (even if you decide it’s no good) and move on. DON’T dwell on a single story. At this point, your career will be much better served by your writing another story.

9. DON’T shit on other writers, no matter how famous. Yup, Fifty Shades wasn’t my cuppa, nor was the Da Vinci Code, but those writers did something right. If you’re interested in learning, find out what it is, and stop whinging about their terrible prose. If anything, there is the proof that prose really doesn’t matter one iota as long as people can understand what’s being said. Besides, whinging makes you look like a dick.

10. DON’T take advice from someone who has a financial interest in the subject matter of their advice. Or at least don’t do so without extensive checking of that advice.

11. DO connect with other writers. Who you know is important. No, not for schmoozing, but for networking and finding out about opportunities. It is extremely unlikely that you will live close to any genre writers who are at the same career stage as you. You meet them online. This is what social media is for, and it can be very beneficial and very important.