a little advice for writers

The following is excerpted from an email I just sent to a young, aspiring writer who was asking for advice on writing (who specifically mentioned they liked SciFi & that when they tried to write stories, they ran out of things to write before the story was done). I’ve been thinking a lot about how to write about writing for a book I want to do on how I managed to write (and moreso, went on to publish) a dozen books (so far), and perhaps will include something along the following lines of thought:

As far as advice that will help you with your writing, I can only recommend two things that I know will work for everyone. I’m sure you can find thousands of pieces of “sure-fire” advice from writers to writers, if you look around the internet (and dozens of books on the subject in the “Writing” section of your local book store), but different things work for different people. The only things I know work for everyone are the things you’re already doing: Read more. Write more. In that order.

Read as many books (and short stories and magazine articles and blogs and textbooks and whatever else you can get your hands on) as you have time for. When you find a piece that you really love, read it again. Think about what you love about it, what the writer did that really spoke to you, what works and what doesn’t. When you find a piece you really hate, do the same thing – try to figure out why you don’t like it, and how you think (specifically) you could improve it. Then read some more. Read new books, read old books, read books outside of your favorite genre (instead of SciFi, try a Western or a Mystery or a ghost story – or if you want to ease yourself into it, try Stephen King’s The Gunslinger; it’s a (great) SciFi/Western/GhostStory), and -if you want to be traditionally published someday- read books (and web sites) about what it takes to get published. (It’s hard, and takes a long time, and doesn’t pay well.)

In the midst of all that reading, write. A lot of people say you should write every day. If you’re able to, and if that works for you, then do it! Writing more is the best way to get better at writing. If you’re having trouble writing long stories, try shorter ones (more on that later), or try writing essays for a while, or write book reports, or write newspaper articles, or write blog posts, or write letters (or emails). It wouldn’t hurt to write a little of each of those things. Contemporary writers have been doing a lot of great things with really, really short stories that might be a good stepping stone if you’re finding yourself running out of words too quickly: While most publishers think a short story is 3000-5000 words (and some writers think they’re 5000-15,000 words), you can tell a complete story in what’s called “Flash” fiction, which is usually fewer than 1000 words (often just a few hundred words), and of you practice at it, it’s possible to tell quite an excellent story in only SIX WORDS. I know my wife sometimes teaches the six-word stories in her high-school English classes. Remember that most stories (even the shortest stories) still need a beginning, a middle, an end, and a reason to exist (Why are you writing it? Why would I read it?), even if that’s just to convey a particular image or idea or character/theme/setting. Trying to write a good story in a few hundred words can be a lot more difficult than using several thousand words, as I’m sure you’ll discover when you try it. Remember, though: If at first you don’t succeed, write, write again!

It’s good you’re starting young and (hopefully) have been writing stories since you were a child. Malcom Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers, talks a bit about how the difference between doing something well and being truly great at it may simply be a matter of accumulating enough practice. Gladwell pegs the line between good work and truly great work at around ten thousand hours (or about ten years’ worth) of practice. At one thing. So before anyone heard of The Beatles, all day every day for years they were playing together, practicing, getting better and better and -around the time they first hit it big- they happened to have put in around ten thousand hours of practice together. Before Bill Gates reached a point where he could write world-changing software and found Microsoft, he spent around ten thousand hours working with computers and developing software. –Of course, that’s just if you want to be world-changingly great. To be merely good (say, good enough that most of the time you start a story you’re able to finish it) probably only takes about one or two thousand hours’ practice. Don’t be discouraged that you’re not there, yet! Think of all the progress you’ve already made, just by doing your homework, writing emails, and *trying* to write stories (trying is more than most people ever do) – you’re well on your way to becoming a good writer. I consider myself to have quite a lot more practice yet to go, as I’ve only got three or four thousand hours’ practice writing so far, myself! ((The trick, I think, is that to be a *really* great writer, you’ve also got to get in thousands of hours of reading along the way – we’ve got it twice as hard as everyone else!))

I do tend to get carried away with my writing, though, in case this nearly-thousand-word emailpost didn’t make that clear. I apologize if my rambling was too long, or went off-track, or seemed discouraging. If 10,000 (or 1,000) seems like too scary a number, think instead about 1: Write one more story; you’ll always be a better writer for your next story than you were when you started your last.

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Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.

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