Hi, everyone! Right now I’m in L.A. for my father’s 90th birthday. I don’t “feel” like writing, nor am I “inspired” to spend my first morning here writing a blog post. Have you ever felt like this?
Like most editors, I’ve been asked for writing advice more times than I can count: “What does it take to be a writer?” “What should I do to improve to improve my writing skills?” “What tools do I need to write?”
Here are the three things I tell them:
Glue your tush to the chair. To be a writer you have to write. And you must write on a schedule. Choose either a daily word quota or a daily time quota, and stick with it.
“If the sun rises today, I will write.” (Judy Walnoha)
Have nothing to say? Write down what’s going through your head. Remember Dumbledore’s Pensieve?
Think process, not product.
Does this sound impossible, or just weird? Let me ask you something: Do you have to be inspired in order to brush your teeth? Do you have to be in the mood to breathe? Same with writing. I personally don’t believe in all that passion stuff. Get into the trenches and write!
Read. This is the second most important element of being a writer. You must read, and you must read good books. If you read my blogs regularly, you will begin to understand what makes good books good. Divide your reading time between
- The classics: Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Dreiser, James, Conrad, Bronte, O. Henry…the list is endless, and there’s something for everyone; I promise. I myself am not a big fan of Hardy, and I generally dislike the Americans except for Dreiser and O. Henry. Check out the library (pun intended), or go explore a used bookstore, and commit to reading one classic every six weeks. It could even be your bathroom reading. Study writing techniques, and examples of superlative writing will pop out at you from the pages of the books you read.
- Outstanding modern literature: For starters, try one of Kate Atkinson’s novels, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, or anything by Sue Monk Kidd, Anna Quindlen, or William Brodrick. And since you’re so nice, I’ll let you in on a little secret: John Grisham has a great novel called A Painted House, which is one of the best modern books I’ve ever read. It’s not one of his lawyer books which, while fun, are in the category of “good trash.” And I say that with love, as I’ve read all of them. As above, you will not like all of these authors, but you will find some either on this list or elsewhere whose books are to your taste, well-written, and worthy of your time. Try to read one or two of these a month.
- Books on writing: My picks? The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White of Stuart Little fame, On Writing Well by William Zinsser (it’s ostensibly for nonfiction writing but in my opinion it’s invaluable for fiction as well), and On Writing by His Majesty of Horror himself, Stephen King.
Take grammar seriously. Seriously, folks. You can’t be a good writer unless and until you have the tools. Grammar is so important to good writing that I will be dedicating almost half of my blogs to it. (See my first grammar post here.) It’s so embarrassing to read prose that’s riddled with mistakes, and it’s well nigh impossible to get a book contract if you write like 90 percent of the “writers” in the world.
This has been a somewhat controversial post, and I hope it has given you food for thought. I’d like to hear from you now: do you agree with what I wrote here? If not, why not? What other things do you think are essential to becoming a writer? Which other authors exemplify great writing? What kind of a writing schedule do you have or are you going to create?
Let me know what you think in the Comments section below.
Until next time, happy reading and writing!
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