You love words and love writing them down. You like to read and want to read your own book one day. You were born in the 90s (or maybe not). After years of studying and a few years of working as a writer, below are my best tips for new or young writers. I didn’t do most of them, but here’s your chance to learn from my mistakes…
1) Write a novel. Any novel.
When I was 21, I wanted to be a writer. But I only wanted to be a certain type of writer–like a journalist. I wanted to write a book one day, but not then. I remember reading Less Than Zero for a class (what a great class…!) and learning that Bret Easton Ellis wrote that when he was in college. I remember being jealous…and not doing anything about it. I didn’t even try to write a novel until I was 23 or so.
2) Don’t limit yourself.
In college, I mostly did journalism. But for some reason, I thought I was a poet, too. So then I only took poetry classes. It seemed easier. I mean, you didn’t have to write as much, right? But I was ignoring the evidence in front of me. I never read poetry just for fun. I eventually figured out that I wasn’t a poet. But I locked myself into my own box before I was fully formed. I may have made the switch to fiction earlier if I had taken a fiction class. But I read tons of novels, so I should’ve known.
And this is controversial: don’t ever feel settled. One day you may need a niche, but try different books in different styles. You’ll know which ones work because you’ll feel free after awhile.
3) Read tons of books.
Like every 21-year-old guy I was into the Beats. And Norman Mailer. And William Carlos Williams (poet!). I read what was assigned and then I read a lot of magazines, which I don’t think was bad, because it gave me a framework for communication. But then I played video games. Too many of them. And then I smashed TVs. I didn’t read much contemporary stuff, and then someone gave me Dave Eggers’ book (AHWOSG) and then Dave Eggers came and spoke at my college. Point is read books when you have the time, because one day you may not have time and you’ll get jealous of those that read and write well. So…
4) Don’t get jealous.
This one is hard. Jealousy is probably the easiest emotion to feel when you’re a writer. You see people older than you (or even younger, I see you Ben Brooks) doing cool stuff and you want to do it, too. But instead of writing more and more, you seethe more and more and put another burrito into the microwave. Don’t do this…! (Processed burritos are bad for you).
5) Be disciplined.
Yeah, when you’re in college or just working in your early 20s, it’s easy to put stuff off. But be disciplined. That doesn’t mean not to ever go out. It just means, be intentional. If everyone is doing something awesome on Saturday, don’t just hang out at the bar on Tuesday. Write instead. Pick days to do your own writing, not just your homework. So be disciplined about having fun and be disciplined about your writing.
6) Tear up whatever you wrote in #1.
Just because you wrote a novel doesn’t mean it’s a good novel. Or that it’s publishable. But still, it’s a good exercise. Because you did it. And maybe one day you can use it again. Remember, you’re in this for the long haul. I remember Blake Butler talking about all of the novels he had written but not published. (Or here are the things he wrote for 2 years and what happened to them).
7) Be a grammar pro.
Yes, grammar is boring. But it’s infinitely invaluable. You will study sentences and then learn about proper punctuation and then you will know when you’re breaking those rules. And breaking those rules are okay. It’s part of developing your style. But learn the rules first. (Plus, it could help you get a job later on…). Get this book.
8) Close the gap.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
9) Be inspired by your heroes.
Like the one above, go for your heroes. That means reading their books, dog-earing the pages, re-reading the books and copying their style. But in that process, you’ll find your own writing self.
10) Yeah, I said “copy.”
In addition to helping with writer’s block, it can also teach you tons about composition, structure, detail and narrative. Type up a few pages (or a full book!) and see how your favorite writers did it. You’ll pick up more than you think and it’ll create some new ideas.
11) Don’t worry about where and how to sell your stuff yet.
The inside-baseball business of publishing is fascinating. But it’s not time for that yet. You don’t have to worry about whether to self-publish or not yet or if the sky if falling. Create something first. Refine it, then worry about distribution and sales.
12) Expect to get rejected.
At some point, you’ll want your little bird of a story to fly in the world. And tens or hundreds or thousands of people will shoot it down. You feel sad for your little bird. But your bird is not for everyone, and some of those people legitimately like your bird, it’s just not the right time, they’ve got other birds to feed, they don’t understand your bird exactly, they need to know more about the bird’s situation, etc. etc. They see many birds everyday. It’s hard for them to know your bird is special. It takes a bunch of tries for them to see how special your bird is. So keep at it, feed and nurture your little bird and then make some more birds. Maybe read Bird by Bird (I never have…but people say it’s good!).
13) Learn how to code.
This is still one skill I’m working on. And I wish I had the time like in college to really dive into it. But it’s infinitely valuable, not only because so many writers are asked to landing pages or blog, but it also helps with problem-solving skills. Essentially, coding builds a world, much like writing does. Just in a different way.
14) Record stuff.
Like a voice recorder on your phone. I mean random stuff. Conversations and interactions about anything. This is not for dramatic effect, you’re trying to understand how people actually talk and act. This will improve your dialogue immensely and help you understand what’s important to a scene and what’s not. You could do video, but you don’t want people to be aware that they’re being filmed.
15) It’s okay to ask for help. But be willing to do the work.
Point is, you don’t really know what you’re asking for. You have some vague idea about what it means to write, but it’s hard for people to help you if you don’t ever do the work. Most people do want to help you, but they don’t want to waste their time. It’s great if you can show them something and ask for feedback. What’s even better is if you take their feedback, make the edits and send it back to them. Then they’ll know you listened and they’ll be willing to help you more in the future.
16) Write what you know. And also what you don’t know.
Sometimes I think it’s a cop-out to only write what you know, to never challenge yourself with new settings or ideas. But there’s also something liberating about reforming your life experience into a story. The key is to not be afraid of either.
17) Wash the dishes.
That’s metaphorical. But find an activity that clears your head while still being active. That could be a routine chore like walking dogs, or exercising or doing another art form. Your subconscious needs time to reformulate and recalculate. It does wonders.
18) Keep a notebook.
You could also do this on your phone. I’ve been using Google Keep. Or Notes. Or Evernote. Or in an actual notebook. Maybe it’s a journal, maybe it’s not. You just need a place for stray ideas. Carry it around with you and don’t be afraid to use it.
19) Don’t worry about word counts, until you have to worry about word counts.
Daily word counts are good as long as you go back and edit. Like actually re-read it and think about what’s being communicated. I’ve always tried for an overall word count goal in the project, but not necessarily daily ones. Some people say 300 words a day, some people say 3,000 words a day. I’ve worked on a big project all day and never wrote a word that advanced the story. Instead I edited the heck out of it. BTW, I talked about word counts with Bob Schofield.
20) Save everything.
Don’t delete those files with those stupid plots. Those characters will bounce around in your head and you’ll be wondering how you wrote back then. You may even resurrect a few of them. This is why Google Docs were invented.
21) Write long-hand.
I love computers. Use them everyday. There’s also power in writing things out by hand. You’ll self-edit in a different way, your hands will get tired and you’ll write different sentences. I wrote the whole first draft of my past two novels by hand. When you type it, you’ll start editing. So that’s another draft out of your way. For this, you’ll need a good notebook. I used Mod Notebook for my last book, but the one before that I used a spiral notebook from the drug store.
22) Use social media to your advantage.
I’m a huge fan of creative writing on social media and status update lit. Don’t put everything you write on the Internet. The Internet can be mean sometimes. Put what you think is awesome on Tumblr or NewHive and see what people say. Don’t expect them to like everything, instead expect them to be mean. Very mean. Then try to forget what they say. You won’t forget everything they say, but what you remember, let it motivate you. There, now do it.