“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” — Toni Morrison
This is one of my all-time favorite quotes about writing… because it’s so true. Your job as a novelist is not to just repeat what other people have done before. Your job is not to imitate. Your job is not to replicate. Your job is share yourself with the world in a way no other person can. Even if you’re writing in a genre that thousands of other people have written in, and even if you’re sticking to many genre expectations, there should be something about that story that’s entirely you and nobody else.
Writing and revising a novel takes a long time. Six months, a year, probably longer. Spend that time on something original, something exciting, something compelling that you yourself would love to read but nobody has ever written yet. If you can find that story, your passion and dedication will come through on each and every page.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” — Robert Frost
As you draft and revise your novel, you should feel what your protagonist feels. You should be scared for him or her. You should understand what he or she is going through and feel it in every part of your being. Laugh when your protagonist makes a funny joke to his or her friend. Let your eyes well up with tears when your protagonist is feeling sad or is suffering through an emotional episode.
Be in your fiction. Don’t be a neutral observer from somewhere above. Become a part of your world. Let the characters surprise you sometimes, don’t just follow a strict outline from the first chapter to the last. No surprises in you, no surprises in the reader. Feel your story. Pretend it’s real. Doing so will work wonders for your readers.
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
One of the best pieces of advice you can ever learn about writing is that it’s so much better to have a bad first draft than than no draft at all. A bad first draft you can edit, you can shape, you can spend months and months turning into something magical. If you don’t finish your first draft (or if you don’t ever start it in the first place), there’s nothing to work with. Nothing to make better.
The first draft is not about achieving perfection. The first draft is about telling yourself the story to the best of your ability, getting everything down you want, taking chances often, and finishing the damn story. The draft can be shit. The draft can be embarrassing. Don’t worry. The only one who sees the first draft is YOU.
Finish that draft, let it rest awhile, and then get to work. You’ll be shocked at how you can take a pretty dismal first draft and then, in time, turn it into something great.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King
This is one of my all-time favorite Stephen King quotes. It seems so obvious, and yet when you’re in the midst of writing fiction every day, you might not take the time to think it or consider it. You might believe you don’t need to necessarily read every day. That spending two to three hours or more writing is enough to do good work.
But the thing is, writing is like exercising, and reading is like the stretching before the exercise. Reading gives you ideas, not just about stories and characters, but about pacing, theme, and structure. Reading is the best teacher because it shows what other people have done before, and while you don’t want to ever copy what other people are doing, you should feel free to let other writers inspire you in your own work.
Reading is fun, and you should never forget that. We all got into writing in the first place because of our love for reading.
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” — Franz Kafka
One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to write exactly the story you want to write and not water it down, not change it any way, to suit the needs or interests of other people. Don’t write a young adult novel a certain way because you think it might secure you a literary agent or a six-figure book deal. Don’t go against your own instincts to water down your subject matter or challenge the ambitious ideas you had for your story in the first place.
Instead, embrace the eccentricities of your novel. Embrace the originality. You might think your story is too weird or too offbeat, that no agent, no publisher, will ever fall in love with a book like yours.
In some ways I think the opposite is true actually. If your story is too ordinary, too similar to other books out there, it will actually be harder for you to get people interested in it. Lean into the weird and the unusual. You’ll be glad you did!
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” ― John Steinbeck
One of the other hardest things to do as a writer is to commit to one great idea and spend many months investigating it, thinking about it, developing it, and then writing and revising a novel about it. This is so hard because as soon as you get excited about one idea… another shiny idea appears in its place. This might happen to you before you start a new novel. Worse, this might happen to you when you’re halfway through writing a new novel. You’re supposed to be fixated on this current project, and all you want to do is focus on another one.
Because Steinbeck is right. Sometimes one simple idea will grow into a dozen. A dozen creative story-lines that each could make for a compelling novel. How in the hell do you pick from twelve stellar ideas? What I do is let the ideas simmer in my head for a long, long time, and after a year, maybe even two years, I go with the one that simply won’t go away. The idea that enters my head practically every day.
Go with the idea you have the most passion for, and pray that no better idea will come to you while you’re hard at work drafting and revising your newest project.
“Toss out the worst elements of genre and literary fiction — and merge the best. We might then create a new taxonomy, so that when you walk into a bookstore, the stock is divided into ‘Stories that suck’ and ‘Stories that will make your mind and heart explode with their goodness.’.” — Benjamin Percy
This quote comes from Benjamin Percy’s mind-blowing craft book Thrill Me, which came out in 2017. Percy believes what I believe and what I have been telling people for years. That the best books mix the greatest elements of literary fiction and genre fiction. To me, the best books, the best films, the best stories, have a blend of genre fiction qualities — propulsive storytelling, big surprises, action and romance and humor and excitement — and literary fiction qualities — rich themes, dynamic characters, gorgeous prose.
When literary fiction and genre fiction come together, you have incredible books that push boundaries, that offer something unique and original. Novels like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. Books that enrich your soul and at the same time deliver a compelling, page-turning story.
“When you make music or write or create, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.” — Lady Gaga
It’s not enough as a writer, especially when you’re writing a novel, to devote one to three hours to your work every day and then leave the rest of your day to other endeavors, other interests, all the other life stuff you have to take on. Even when you’re not currently working on your latest story, it needs to stay within you. You need to stay thinking about it. You should be reflecting on the writing you did for the day, and obsessing over the writing you intend to do tomorrow.
Once you’ve decided on an idea, you need to keep it with you at all times, even in the back of your mind while you’re completing other tasks. You should jot down notes about a supporting character when they come to you. You should rush home a little faster to write a scene that simply cannot wait.
Be in love with your idea, not just while you’re writing, but throughout your whole day. Doing so will ensure that your latest project is the best it can be.
“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke
Here’s the deal — if you’re not thinking about your novel throughout the day, if you’re not particularly enthusiastic about the project, if you’re sort of bored while doing the actual writing, if the writing itself feels like work, you’re in trouble. Your reasons for writing have therefore escaped you. The idea of your latest novel, and possibly writing in and of itself, has not spread its roots to the depth of your heart.
Writing is hard. Really, really hard. And it doesn’t get easier. You have to love it. You have to get up every morning excited to put some words down. You have to be willing to fail, and fail often. You have to feel enthusiastic to go on a journey that might result in publishing success and prizes and adoring fans the world over, or a bunch of dead ends that result in no success whatsoever. Imagine your life if you couldn’t write. If your reaction to that reality is a shrug, then maybe you shouldn’t be a writer. If your reaction to that reality is sadness and total despair, then you should keep going and never give up!
“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.” — Erica Jong
It’s one of the most terrifying aspects of finishing a novel — having other people read it. You can believe in your story all you want. You can do everything you can in revision after revision to make it shine. But it’s not until the book goes to other readers that you receive some quality feedback to make your work better. It’s why so many authors use beta readers. It’s why literary agents and editors are so invaluable.
You can take your book only so far. You can revise it ten times in a row by yourself if you want, but it’s not until you get opinions from others that you truly see where your flaws lie. When three different beta readers find fault with a specific chapter in your novel that you love, you simply must listen to the criticism anyway. You can’t ignore it.
The first step, of course, is finishing your work in the first place. I know it’s scary to have other people read your work and judge you. It’s still scary to me to this day. But you’ll never get better, you’ll never get anywhere, if you don’t take that frightening step to finish your work and then send it out for feedback.
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” — William Faulkner
Not only should you read often if you want to be a writer, but you should also seek out all kinds of genres to read in, both the good and the bad. Although it might not sound like the most enticing prospect, reading really, really bad fiction can actually help your writing immensely because you can see what not to do in your own work. Reading bad fiction will also give you a sense of confidence because you can think to yourself, if that book got published, maybe you have a chance!
You should also read really, really great fiction, too, of course. Read wonderful literary novels. Read the classics. Read the last five novels that won the Pulitzer Prize. Read everything you can find, really. If you write young adult, don’t just read young adult. If you write adult horror, don’t just read adult horror. Read everything, read widely. And then see what happens.
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” — Isaac Asimov
Writing is a life-long endeavor. It’s something you should be doing, and what you should want to be doing, for as long as you live. Stay creative until you die, that’s my motto. Don’t think of writing as a quick way to get rich. Don’t think of writing as a hobby to do on Sunday afternoons when you get bored. You should be totally immersed in storytelling every day. Read. Watch. Write. Repeat. Read books often. Watch films every day. Write for hours and hours until your fingers start to hurt. And then repeat.
I love writing so much that I do genuinely intend to do it for as long as I live. If a doctor ever tells me I have three months to live, one of my first thoughts is probably going to be, I need to type faster. Because writing brings me joy every day. Writing gives me calm, gives me comfort. Writing is my life.
And it should be yours, too. Enjoy yourself, and keep going. Never give up, okay? The world needs your stories. The world needs so much more of you.