A short while ago a blogger contacted me and asked me to put together an advice article for new writers. This article first appeared on her blog, which has several very interesting advice articles for new and established writers in 'Between The Bindings'. You can read mine below, but make sure you take a moment to stop by and visit Meghan, the Gal in the Blue Mask, too!
When Meghan first contacted me and asked me to write an advice article for new writers, I wondered what it was that I was supposed to know. It’s tempting to try to sound important and act like I have some compelling advice that will help you write your masterpiece, snare an agent, or better yet a publisher in New York. But the truth is that when she asked me, I didn’t really know what to tell you.
One obvious starting point is the same advice that I see repeated all over the web when new writers ask how they are supposed to become successful. It goes something like this.
1) Get a blog
2) Get a Facebook account
3) Write a good book
4) Tweet about said book until somebody other than your mum buys it
5) Make money and celebrate
I have seen this kind of advice time and time again. It makes it sound like there is a twelve step program on how to write the next NYT bestseller. Actually, it’s not bad advice, at least steps one to four. I believe that having a blog is the best way to showcase consistency in your writing and style, and Facebook is the biggest social media platform in the world. I have made friends in five of the seven continents through Facebook and this has definitely resulted in sales. But the fact is this. You probably already knew that you should do some/all of the above, and if you didn’t at the start, I bet you have read it somewhere else already. All I gave you by writing it again were ten minutes of displacement activity for you to think about how one day you are going to become a successful writer. As practical as the advice is, it’s kind of like an empty promise. It doesn’t really amount to anything, or help move your dreams forward.
So instead, I wondered this. What would I tell myself right back at the start of my journey when I wanted to become a writer? What would the 32 year old Michelle tell the 18 year old version, other than the fact that the Jennifer Aniston haircut won’t suit me, and that going to Megadeth gigs will definitely screw up my hearing?
Well back in 1999 when I was eighteen, as well as bad hair and questionable taste in music I developed a great love of film. Especially Sci-Fi. So when The Matrix came out I saw it at least five times at the cinema, and at least one hundred times on DVD, re-enacting the fight scenes with anybody willing. But in my haste to move in bullet time and work out where to buy Trinity’s boots and sunglasses, I missed the best piece of advice for my potential future as a writer.
In The Matrix, Neo takes a trip to see The Oracle in order to find out if he is The One. This is what she tells him. Temet Nosce. She informs him that nobody could tell him that he was The One, just like nobody could tell him if he was in love or not. He would just know it.
When I was contemplating writing the first chapter of my first book around the same time, I still didn’t know myself as a writer, or really believe that was actually what I was. It took another seven years before wrote the full first draft, and even then I was full of doubts about whether it was any good. I thought that because I didn’t have a degree in English Literature that real writers would think of me as an imposter. I was pretty sure that somebody would take one look at my work and point their finger to question what the hell I thought I was doing. Even a couple of years ago I was still mooching around advice websites asking people what they thought of this, and what they thought of that. It was as if I was trying to make excuses and shift the responsibility for saying, this is who I am, and this is what I write. As if I was waiting for somebody like The Oracle to tell me that I was a writer.
So, teenage Michelle, twenty four year old Michelle, and New Writer. Listen up. Know thyself. Know that being a fiction writer is not about pleasing others. You cannot work to prescription with writing like you could in your old job as a scientist. There is no correct method to follow. No correct story to tell. Nobody can tell you that you wrote the wrong thing, but only if you know what it was that you wanted to write in the first place. They can reject you, yes. I was rejected loads of times by agents and publishers. You can indeed be something that they are not looking for. But they cannot tell you that you are not a writer or that you got it wrong.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t follow other people’s advice. Advice like reading a lot and doing endless amounts of revision of your work are really important. But you learn this quickly. The thing that is harder to learn is that you shouldn’t look to anywhere else for validation that you are a writer. Know it because you do it. Write what you want to write, what you feel. Know that you have something to say and keep going until you have finished saying it. I can’t promise you it will be any good, but I can promise if you keep doing it that it will get better. We can look to the Stephen Kings of the world or the Hugh Howeys and say that’s where we want to be. We can look at their methods and see what worked for them. But ultimately, nobody wants to be a replica.
Know that your skills and your talents are what will take you forwards. To have belief in your abilities to produce something original and of merit is the best thing any new writer can remember. Only then will you produce work that you can truly be proud of, and that in itself is an element of success. Only once you know yourself, can you stop trying to please, or be somebody else.