by Jeana Conder
Several months ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled. The responses I received are now creating our series, “From the Mouth of Writers.” We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion.
This month’s question: Any advice for upcoming writers?
(1) LIVE (2) READ (3) WRITE (4) THINK ABOUT WRITING (5) REPEAT UNTIL DEAD—the most important one is #5. Writing is a practice. Keep at it, and be patient with yourself.
Unless you have been trained in technical writing, don’t quit your day job in order to write. Best sellers are hard to come by and you need to eat and pay your bills. Developing as a writer is a very long process that requires discipline and cognitive development.. Poets rarely make much money unless they are already celebrities. Spend time every day writing. Try new forms. Go to workshops. Share work with other writers and take their critiques seriously. Read, read, read, especially work that challenges such as nonfiction.
I taught writing for 40 years so I have nothing but advice for upcoming writers. What it’s worth, if anything, is up to each individual writer.
Learn to use Microsoft outline. Start there.
Early in the process stay away from sentences, paragraphs, any extended rhetorical construction for as long as you can.
Write or try to write what only you can, nobody else.
Pay attention. This is everything. Pay attention.
Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration is bullshit. If you’re serious, put aside the things that distract you and start writing.
Form the habit of writing. Don't wait for inspiration to hit; sit down and do the work with regularity. This might mean every day or it might mean three times a week, or it might mean every Saturday morning for one solid hour. But stick to it, and make sure it's a regular thing. If you write regularly, and with tenacity, you're a writer. Don't feel like you have to write from page one to page three hundred. Write bits and pieces, write specific moments, write half-scenes if need be, but keep getting words on the page. And don't be afraid to throw things out. Once a story starts taking shape, you'll probably find that a lot of what you wrote at first no longer fits. That's good: that means you're developing a discerning eye. Keep all those scraps somewhere in another document or another notebook, and know you can always use them if you want. Write, write, write: that's the best advice I can give.
Read out of your usual topic/genre/form zone and find or build a writing community. Watch out for those exclamation marks.
Read. Read widely. Read curiously. Read books across genres. Look at what you’ve read and ask about authors who aren’t represented—writers of color, women, LGBTQ authors, foreign authors in translation. Read. Read. Read.
It’s old advice, but true. Some people say that if you read while you’re writing, you might be infected by the author’s voice, and write in an imitation. Well, good, I say: their books were published because they are good writers, most likely. There are worse things than mimicking someone you admire. I copied author’s voices when I started. I still do, probably. And then I revised, as I revise now, and other authors’ voices transformed into mine.
When Kao Kalia Yang visited UW-Eau Claire, she said, “Art inspires art.” I sometimes picture us, as writers, standing in a long line. We can look behind us at all the authors we love, who influence us, who mean the world to us, and their books are a record of what came before and how we used to live. We can look ahead at the uncertain future and try to guess what we might have to say. The two aren’t unconnected. Guiding us along, all the while, are the voices of our influences and our idols, singing in a chorus, melding together, coaxing us to put pen to paper, asking, Now what? Now what? Now what?
Try and shut me up! First off, finish. And you know exactly what I mean. Get it done. And read. Read your ass off. Go to workshops and take classes and meet other writers and join a few things, but not too many, and keep writing. And more than anything, don’t forget to have a life. How else can you write about it if you’re not in it kicking it around and falling once in a while? It’s the falls that make your story/poem/song/painting/life full of the passion we all need to know about. Now go and make you some art!
Read, read, read, read, read. That's it. Telling me you want to be a writer, but that you don't read very much, or that you only read Harry Potter (I love the Harry Potter series and JK Rowling's exquisite universe) is sort of like telling me you want to be a carpenter but all you have in your toolbox is a few nails and maybe a pliers. Good luck. Take your time, read widely, live a full and interesting life, work strange jobs, take your education seriously, but mostly—read.
Write about something you are passionate about. You will be spending long, lonely hours at your computer so love what you’re writing about. Patience and perseverance are also very important. You will write and re-write any number of times to “get it perfect” and then write it again and again so never let yourself get “down” and never say “I can’t do this.” Of course, you can, but you may need an extra dose of determination to get the job done. And I pass along what an author friend once told me: your book is never finished until it goes to press, so stick to it.
Read good writing; pay attention; love the power of language and story