Judy Blume (born in 1938) is one of the most beloved authors of all time. Her many classic works include Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret, Tiger Eyes, Blubber, and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I even had the great honor of seeing her in person at a writer’s conference in 2014!
She has given us amazing insight into the writing process throughout the years, and here are six nuggets of wisdom I particularly love…
1. I hate first drafts, and it never gets easier. People always wonder what kind of superhero power they’d like to have. I wanted the ability for someone to just open up my brain and take out the entire first draft and lay it down in front of me so I can just focus on the second, third, and fourth drafts.
Oh my God, there is so much truth in this. I don’t necessarily hate first drafts — it’s often a thrill on the best writing days to be so immersed in a scene that the characters’ voices completely take over — but first drafts are definitely hard, and they never get easier. I’ve written nineteen novels. Not a single one was easy. Not a single one came naturally to me from beginning to end. The sooner you learn that the better.
I can see where she’s coming from when she says she wishes someone could just open up her brain and take out the first draft so she can get to revising. The revising process is often more ideal to the writer than writing the first draft because there are already words on the page. You have something to work with. Something to fix. Something to shape. You can’t work with, fix, or shape a blank page.
2. The best books come from someplace inside. You don’t write because you want to, but because you have to.
Again, I totally agree. Because after nearly ten years and nineteen novels, I recognize now that the best ones came from someplace inside. The best ones I didn’t just want to write for fun or to make money or whatever but because I simply had to. Such is the case of my MFA thesis novel currently in revisions. Such is the case of my middle grade horror novel that a literary agent fell in love with and offered me representation on.
The books that have a life, that bring you more success, are the ones you write because you have to, not because you want to. They are the books that nobody else in the world can write. The books that are completely unique unto you. If you don’t write it, that story will never exist in the world in any shape or form. And so whatever that story may be, whatever story you’ve been delaying or thinking about for way too long, get started on it now. You’ll be glad you did.
3. I was twenty-seven when I began to write seriously, and after two years of rejections, my first book, ‘The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo,’ was accepted for publication.
See! See, look! Even the great Judy Blume was rejected for two years straight! Now two years seem like nothing to me. My novels were rejected for seven years before a literary agent took a chance on me. A lot of people in my place might have given up in year five, year six, but I pressed on, wrote one more novel, and finally got myself another step closer to a traditional publishing deal.
It doesn’t matter when you start taking writing seriously. Judy Blume was twenty-seven. I was twenty-five. You might start getting serious at twenty-three, or thirty-five, or forty-nine. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that once you commit yourself to the writing practice, you go all in, you give it your all, and you don’t give up. Not after one year. Not after two years. And not after seven years.
4. I’m really quite bad at coming up with plot ideas. I like to create characters and just see what will happen to them when I let them loose!
This is something else you should learn about writing fiction sooner than later. I know it sounds counterproductive, but it really isn’t. You should always begin with a story idea, yes, that’s super important. But you should also always be more concerned with your characters than with the “plot.” This is partly why I don’t outline very much. If you sit down to write a novel, and you have every scene mapped out and every chapter cliffhanger planned, not only will there be no surprises for you as you write the first draft but also your characters might be forced into actions and decisions they otherwise wouldn’t go along with.
You should start a short story and certainly a novel with clear ideas of how it begins, how it ends, and some things that happen in the middle, but don’t be married to every little moment. Let your characters breathe, let your characters live. You might find yourself ten chapters in realizing the story needs to go a different direction because of what your protagonist wants. This is totally okay. You’re much better off letting your characters loose in a way and letting them tell you what should happen next in the story, rather than forcing them into your already decided plot that no longer makes sense.
5. A good writer is always a people watcher.
It’s something you might not consciously think about as you go about your day, but if you want to be a good writer, it’s in your best interest to spend some time whenever possible taking in your surroundings. Yes, watch people’s behavior nearby. Listen to how they speak. You don’t necessarily need to write down their words (although this can be a fun exercise, one I’ve done more than once before). Listening to the rhythms of dialogue will help your fiction writing tremendously.
But go beyond just watching people nearby and look around. Enjoy nature. Study the structure of buildings. Listen not just to people but the way the wind blows, the way the traffic sounds in the distance. All of this can help you in your writing. Being an observer of everything around you is a good practice for life in general but it’s absolutely critical if you want to be a descriptive and thoughtful fiction writer.
6. Believe in yourself and you can achieve greatness in your life.
So many writers live in a constant state of self doubt. So many writers hate every word they put down on the page. I’ve certainly felt these things before. I’ve spent months and months on a novel that I came to hate, that I couldn’t even look at anymore. And I have self doubt all the time. I wonder if I’m any good, if I’m ever going to reach the level of success I desire.
But try something for me, okay? No matter how you feel about your writing. No matter what stage of the process you’re in. If you’re writing your first short story or you’re revising your fifth novel. I want you to believe in yourself. I want you to believe you have talent, that you absolutely have what it takes to be successful in your writing career. Sometimes it’s the belief itself that can make all the difference, so do it. Don’t forget it. Be brave. Have faith. If you believe in yourself, there truly is no limit to the greatness you can achieve!