"Ten Things I've Learned (As A Writer)" by Stephen Leigh
I’ve been lucky. Over the last five decades (and let me tell you, pointing that out that makes me feel old…), I’ve managed to sell and publish twenty-six novels and somewhere around fifty pieces of short fiction, along with the occasional non-fiction piece and the even more occasional bit of poetry. That’s a total (counting only the first publications and not the various reprints, other editions, and foreign publications) of about 4,000,000 words of published work.
Now, before you accuse me of shameless bragging, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying how incredibly talented I am and how I’ll probably be considered by future generations as the second coming of Shakespeare. I suspect future generations will consider me the second coming of Howard Sturgis (“Who?” you ask. To which I reply “Right.”)
In truth, what those publications of mine show is that I’m persistent, dogged, and stubborn. They show that I am an ugly mule, not some beautiful thoroughbred racehorse. They show, perhaps, that I’m what nearly anyone could be: if they desire it enough and live long enough. I’ve made my career mostly in the midlist, not the top tier.
Along the way, I’ve realized some truths about being a writer: things that in my mulish, stubborn way, it probably took me longer than it should to realize—things, in some cases, I wish I’d learned a lot earlier in my career. Here are ten of those realizations, with the hope that a few of them resonate with those starting to tread the same path.
You poor, poor fools...
1: Expect progress to be slow, not fast
I’ve seen this not just in writing, but in music, in aikido (another avocation of mine), in painting, in any form of art. Too many newcomers think of success in their career as a race, with the medal going to the person who gets there first.
That’s not the case. Oh, yeah, there are those few, those brilliant and irritating few, who race into the bestseller lists, win the big awards, and reach fame and fortune with what appears to be their first efforts. These people are the exceptions. Don’t expect yourself to be an exception, because the great likelihood is that you’re not.
Here’s the first part of the equation: Nothing worth learning can be learned quickly. There’s a reason nearly every artist laughs when someone deems them an “overnight success,” because “overnight” consisted of months and years of learning the necessary basic skills; of looking at other artists and trying to figure out how they managed to make their work so incredible; of trying to imitate some of that and failing, and failing again and again and again, but each time getting just a little bit better; of trying to find your own voice in all the chaos and managing (eventually) to coax it from its chrysalis stage; of honing that voice and making it your own…
Overnight success takes decades sometimes. For some of us it never really arrives.
And here’s the second part: There’s never, ever, any finish line for any art or avocation. “Mastering the art” is a chimera—once you think you know everything there is to know, you’ve committed artistic suicide.
I guarantee that you’re going to write stuff you think is terrific. I wrote short stories all through high school and college that I thought were incredible, easily as sophisticated and polished as the crap my teachers shot at us from the literary canon. In college, I started sending out those nascent efforts, yet the editors to which I sent my works of unadulterated genius were blind to their literary quality and did nothing but send me rejection slips.
Reams and reams and reams of rejection slips.
I kept those old stories that no one wanted. They’re in a file cabinet in my office, and I read them now and understand why they never sold.
They really, really sucked.
I couldn’t see that then—because it takes time to get to the point where you have the necessary expertise and knowledge of the craft to see your early work for what it is: early work. Practice work. Bad sketches of what could be, rife with errors that you didn’t and couldn’t see because you didn’t have the experience yet.
There’s a reason why there’s an old cliché about having to first write a million words of crap. Get started on that as soon as you can. Maybe you’ll get lucky and only have to write half a million.
2: Expect criticism. No, rejoice in criticism...
As a writer, the word you’re going to hear more than any other is “No.” No, I’m not interested in your story/article/poem/novel. No, this is simply not good enough. No, this plot twist doesn’t make any sense. No, I can’t believe the character would do that. No, the setting doesn’t feel real. No, and no, and no again.
I’ve been doing aikido for over twenty-five years now, and every time I go to class, my teachers manage to point out something I need to work on. I want them to do exactly that, in the same way that I want my editors to be honest with me and tell me when something isn’t working because otherwise that mistake doesn’t get fixed. For whatever reason, I didn’t see the mistake; I needed another person’s eye.
In fact, after I posted the first full version of this essay, I received a lovely piece of critique from a good friend (who is also a fine writer in his own field), and who was kind enough to send a detailed commentary. I’ve gone through the essay again with his critique in mind—and the essay’s better for it. When a good, skilled reader tells you that something’s wrong with your prose, it behooves you to listen because they’re probably right.
The worst thing you can believe as a writer is that your prose is pure gold and should not be touched. The worst thing you can believe as a writer is that you are a freaking genius just waiting to be discovered. The worst thing you can believe as a writer is that you don’t need an editor.
You need an editor. You need competent first readers who will tell you what’s working and what’s not working, because you’re too close to your work to be unbiased. You know the story that’s in your head and your imagination, and so you’ll think everything’s there on the page when it’s not. That’s an easy mistake to make—read student work, or slush pile material, or the majority of self-published work if you want to see that in action.
We need a critical, honest, impartial response to our drafts in order to make those final drafts work well. Remember point #1? Another skill it takes time to acquire is the ability to read your own work as if you’re reading someone else’s work.
Honestly, most of us never quite get there.
An honest critique is a glorious gift. It really is. It’s just sometimes hard to realize that.
3: Don’t be jealous of the success of others
Early in aikido, I was told “Never compare yourself to the other people who started about the same time you did. Only compare yourself to yourself.”
Easy to say, hard to do. That works for writing, too.
A few people who started selling their stories at about the same time I did have gone on to fame and fortune, to awards and bestseller lists. Many who started selling stuff about the same time I did seem to have utterly vanished.
If I look up toward the Fame and Fortune crew, I could feel neglected and belittled. If I look down at the Vanished group, perhaps I could massage my ego. However, I shouldn’t be looking either up or down and performing comparisons; I should be looking at myself in a mirror. Period.
Here’s the question you should always be asking: is what I’m writing today the best material I can possibly write at this point? If the answer is “yes,” then don’t go any further. You’re doing what you should be doing, and looking either up or down doesn’t matter.
If the answer’s “no,” then you need to address that. Figure out what you need to make your writing the absolute best you can make it. You won’t get the answer by glancing either up or down at the others in your “class.” The answer’s inside.
Here’s the proper way to think about Mr./Ms. BigName Author’s resounding success: they can’t possibly write fast enough to please their fans. It takes a reader a day or three to read a book. If it takes Mr./Ms. BigName Author a year or three to write their next novel, their thousands of readers are going to go looking for another good book to read in the meantime. Maybe they’ll pick up yours! Maybe you’ll acquire a few new fans yourself.
So don’t be jealous of your peers’ successes. Rejoice with them. They’re creating more readers for all of us, and that’s a good thing.
4: Make writing a dirty habit
In my early career, I waited for the muse to appear before I wrote. I thought stories were supposed to flow in sparkling fire from my pen to the page, fully formed and perfect. I’d always been told (by people who weren’t writers themselves but who taught literature) that this was how Capital-A Art worked.
That’s complete and utter bullshit.
It took me awhile to realize that. When I waited for the muse to appear, I’d write one or two stories a year—they weren’t very good stories, either, because when stories are supposed to flow pure and perfect from your pen to the page, revising them afterward is a form of blasphemy. I mostly didn’t revise. I accepted what the muse gave me.
My muse must have found that hysterical.
What I slowly realized was that if I hoped to forge a career as a writer, I couldn’t wait for the fickle muse to appear. I had to write without her… because once you start writing, the muse can’t stand to be left out and eventually shows up at your side. The very act of writing attracts the muse to you.
Not only that, the more you do it, the more she expects it of you. She begins to show up promptly.
Early in my career as I was lamenting my lack of time for writing, a much-better known writer told me this: “If you write one single, lousy, double-spaced page a day—just 250-300 words—by the end of the year, you’ll have finished a novel.” That would be two years or more for some of the door-stopper fantasies I’ve written, but his point was well-taken, and I’ve tried to follow that advice. I endeavor to write every single day, even if it’s only a lousy page… and it is indeed amazing how you can acquire a nice pile of paper if you follow that advice. My personal goal is to get 1,000 words a day of draft. I don’t always make that, because there are those days when it’s a struggle to get down even a paragraph, but there are also those (unfortunately too rare) days when the muse takes over and I spew out 2,500 words or more.
I’ve made writing a daily habit. I can’t imagine not writing. For most of my life I’ve also had a full-time job to bring in steady money. I’ve had to deal with family and kids and getting them to and from school and activities, and all the time and energy that takes. I realized that if I was going to also be a writer, then I needed to learn to write in whatever scraps of time I could steal. Now, if I have a few minutes, I open my laptop and move the story along for another paragraph. If I have an hour, I can get that page done. I’ve written on lunch breaks, at slow times, early in the morning and late at night.
I don’t wait for inspiration. I sit down, I do my work, and I trust that the muse will feel the pull and arrive to help. If she doesn’t, well, that’s why we have revisions and the delete key.
You can do it too. Give up one of your TV shows, or stop playing that MMORPG that’s been eating up your free time. Get up an hour earlier; stay up an hour later. Make the time to write.
Then sit your ass down in front of the keyboard and get going.
5: Pay forward!
Somewhere along the way, someone further on the path to the summit of the Great Writing Mountain will give you advice, help, a tip, or even a huge helping hand. It’ll happen because as you progress in your own career, you’ll get to know the other writers, editors, and publishers. You’ll meet them online, in person at conventions, at conferences or workshops.
They’ll hand you the gift of their own wisdom and experience. You’ll be incredibly grateful, and you’ll want to pay them back. For me, one of those moments was when I'd finished my own first novel. I didn't know how to market it, so I asked my friend and fellow writer George RR Martin (who’d already had a few novels published at that time) if he knew of an agent he could recommend. He did, and offered to send a letter of recommendation for me. I ended becoming a client of the agent, who sold my first several novels. (The first three, as of May 2013, have been collected in a DAW Books omnibus entitled ASSASSIN'S DAWN.)
George is now arguably THE best known and most successful writer in the sf/fantasy genre. There’s no possible way that I could ever repay him for the help he gave me. He doesn’t need my help. That’s the same type of situation in which you’re likely to find yourself: the person who reached back to help you doesn’t require your help in return. Those who help you will stay further along on that path to the mythical summit, or you won’t see them for years, or you’ll lose touch with them entirely, or…
There are a dozen potential reasons that will prevent you from paying them back. But you can pay forward.
No matter where you are on the path, there are people behind you: with less experience, less knowledge, less skill. What you can do—what you should do—is reach back and guide them along, just as others helped you along. Point out the pitfalls that you’ve discovered, so that they’ll miss falling in themselves. Show them something cool that you’ve realized, so they can use that trick and don’t have to discover it a year or two ahead. Be a mentor.
That’s paying forward: giving the gift that you received to someone else.
Think of it as adding to your load of good karma. The more you pay forward, the more good karma you acquire. The more good karma you acquire, the more likely it is that you’ll find your own path easier to tread.
6: In the beginning, always say “yes”
This will be somewhat contradictory, but that’s okay. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
What’s important early in your career is that you’re wide rather than narrow in what you attempt and what you do. When you start out, you’re not only trying to find your own unique voice, you’re also determining what you do best and what you most enjoy doing.
I started out writing short stories. I eventually realized that I was trying to cram a novel’s worth of ideas into the container of a short story, and as a result, my stories were 1) not very good, and 2) were growing increasingly longer. Something in me wanted me to be a novelist. Not a poet. Not a short story writer. Not an essayist.
I enjoy writing short fiction (and have written lots of it). I enjoy writing poetry (though I think that I would have to study poetry far more than I have to be anything close to a decent poet). I like writing creative nonfiction as well. But mostly, I know I that I like the scope and breadth of character and story that I can examine in a novel.
If you don’t try your hand at everything, you may never discover what you really like. So don’t shun poetry. Don’t shun creative nonfiction. Don’t shun short fiction. Don’t be afraid to attempt a novel. Try every genre. Try every style and every approach. Experiment. Push the envelope.
Try everything. You’ll fail often enough—because that’s what we do when we’re learning—but let those failures teach you. When someone asks “Have you ever tried this?” and you haven’t, give it a shot. If you see a market report that sounds vaguely interesting but isn’t something you’ve attempted before, go for it. If someone asks you to write for them, even if it’s something entirely outside your experience, say “Sure, I’ll do that for you.”
Say yes to everything.
Further on in your career, you’ll reach a point where you’ll need to say “no” in order to retain your sanity and an unstressed life. There is such a thing as having to juggle too many projects without crashing and burning. But saying “no” is a trick you can learn later. Hopefully.
For now, the answer is “yes!”
7: Don’t write for fame
Writers have egos.
Actually, when you consider it, the whole “submission” process is fraught with ego. In sending out your story, poem, article, or novel, you’re essentially saying “Hey, I think this is so damned good that everyone should read it.”
Writers need ego. We need to believe we’re capable of doing something special or we wouldn’t make the attempt. There’s nothing wrong with self-confidence; just don’t let your expectations destroy you.
When I started out, I wanted fame. I wanted my name to be on the lips of every reader. I wanted to top the best-seller list. I wanted everyone to say “Oh yeah, he’s that brilliant writer who wrote…”
Here’s the problem with chasing fame: you can’t catch Fame from behind. Fame, if it wants to, will instead catch you.
Let’s say that the current Bestselling Novels are about zombie were-weasels in Victorian London. You’ve just read the current #1 version on the NY Times list and you’re thinking “Hey, I can do better than that!” Maybe you can. But the reality is that by the time you research Victorian London and zombie were-weasels, finish plotting, drafting, and revising your novel, and start sending it out, the new Bestselling Novels will be romances set in haunted RVs in the desert. An editor will look at your zombie were-weasel novel and just shake her head. It could be the best zombie were-weasel novel ever written, and it’ll still get rejected because it’s already passé.
It’s not that you can’t catch the current popular wave. Sometimes you can, though the later you start, the more difficult it becomes. But even if you do, understand that it’s the first ones out there that will be (and will remain) the popular ones, not those jumping on the fading tail of the trend. Your book is likely to be seen as the proverbial pale imitation of the original—and that’s not what you want.
Want to be famous? Imitation won’t get you fame. What might do that is creating the next Big Thing, but you won’t know that you’ve done that until it happens. The reality is that most writers never manage to do so.
You’ll get fame if Fame wants you. If it doesn’t (and be aware that it’s a fickle, fickle master), you won’t. Whether or not you ever become famous isn’t under your control: therefore, don’t worry about it. At all.
8: Don’t write for money
Don’t misunderstand. I like to be paid for my work. I want to be paid. I make a decent percentage of my annual income from writing and I don’t want that to stop. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being paid for your creative output.
What’s wrong is when the money is the only reason you’re doing something.
It’s an easy trap into which to fall. I’ve fallen into it more than once—and let’s be honest: if someone dangles enough money in front of me, I may yet fall into it again. I’m a slow learner sometimes.
I’ve written novels strictly because decent money was involved. However, because the project it wasn’t mine but someone else’s, I also wasn’t greatly enthusiastic about the writing. Here’s what I’ve found every single time I’ve done that: I’ve ending up hating the project, it’s been a terrific slog to finish, and I haven’t been entirely happy with the finished product.
There are times when you might have to do this. How many of you hate your current job? How many of you are laboring strictly for the paycheck and benefits you get as a result, because you need the money to survive? If that’s the case, you understand what I’m talking about.
If writing is your sole source of income, to pay the bills you may well have to undertake assignments that don’t really interest you. Just be aware that you might end up poisoning the well. You might make writing something you dread: just another lousy job. You don’t want to end up being the bitter, jaded writer whose first question is always “How much are you going to pay me for this?”
Writing purely for fame or purely for money are the wrong reasons to choose writing as a career.
9: Write for passion
You should be writing because you’re writing something that you absolutely love. You should write because what you’re working on is something that you can’t not work on. You should write because you believe passionately in what you’re writing: whatever that may be, whatever genre it happens to be in.
Good things happen when you’re writing simply for the joy of the work you’re doing. You look forward to working. You enjoy your work—all of it, from drafting through revision to final polishing to marketing to (hopefully) the eventual publication. You finish the work you start.
This is especially essential for novels. The longer the work, the more it had better be a work of passion—because if it’s not, the great likelihood is that you won’t finish it. It’s perhaps less critical with poetry or short fiction or short nonfiction; those forms aren’t inherently easier to write, but the time expended tends to be far shorter than with novels.
That’s what passion can give you that nothing else can: the drive to make your work your absolute best. When you write something that you’re passionate about, it’s easy to find the time to work on it. You’ll be willing to take the time to inspect and polish, to revise and revise and revise again to make the words sparkle. You’ll make it good, and if you’re lucky, you’ll even make it great.
Passion will push you beyond your current boundaries, to explore aspects of the craft you hadn’t expected, to become a better writer because the work demands more of you.
Leaning the craft is a function of intellect, but passion is all about the heart and being willing to tear open a part of yourself and let it bleed onto the page, if that’s what it takes. It’s about being willing to be vulnerable and all the risk that implies.
But (and I swear this is the truth) a good reader can tell when something is written with passion and when it is not, and difference is stark to them. Write with passion, and your work has the chance of being special and great; write without passion, and it will never be either of those.
10: Enjoy what you receive
It’s easy to get so caught up in life and your career and your expectations that you forget to take the time to enjoy what’s happening. Imagine you’ve set up a book signing in your local bookstore, you’re ensconced behind a towering rampart of your shiny new publication, and you’re hoping for a line that stretches for blocks around the bookstore. But what you get are two friends whose books you already signed a week ago and one stranger who’s buying your book mostly because you look so pitiful sitting there all alone.
Sucks, doesn’t it? How the hell are you supposed to feel good about this?
It is what it is. Talk to your friends as long as they’ll stay. Talk especially to that stranger who bought your book—she’ll tell a half dozen other people about this cool book and how you talked to her about it, and a couple of them will come in to the bookstore to buy the stock you signed.
This happens to all writers, no matter how well-known. All of us have sat behind the rampart of new books for that signing. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t. It’s not your fault and the universe doesn’t hate you. It’s what life has deigned to give you today and you can’t change it, so you might as well enjoy it.
Celebrate the good things that happen along the way and take the time to relish them. What you don’t want is to look back later and realize how you wasted your best times worrying and always wanting more.
One of these days, if you’re persistent and dedicated and stubborn and passionate enough about this craft, you’re going to sell your first (or second or third, or tenth or twentieth) story, and you have a choice. You can think that it’s about fucking time the universe recognized your awesome talent and allowed this to happen, and now that it has happened, it’s probably going to be fucking forever until it happens again.
Or you can embrace those successes and revel in them. Each time, you can taste all the pleasure the moment holds, then carefully place the memory in the section of your mind labeled “Excellent Stuff To Recall.” You can think that maybe, perhaps, the universe has just aligned itself a little more in your favor, and that it’s now more likely that things like this will continue to happen.
Yeah, I know. Sometimes it’s really hard to avoid the dark universe. We all struggle so hard and get so many rejections that depressing thoughts sometimes dominate. I still fail at holding onto the brighter place myself. The truth is that the universe itself probably doesn’t care one way or the other, but which way of thinking gives you more joy? Which way of thinking makes you feel better? Which way of thinking is more likely to help you persist, to push yourself even harder than you already are?
Take the time to enjoy each step along the way. Stay in those moments as long as you can. Take pleasure in them and celebrate them, because you really can’t know what the future holds.
Enjoy what you’re doing while you’re actually doing it. It’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
Those are some of my insights after decades in this business. Feel free to argue and disagree with anything I’ve said. But if something here resonates with you, if it feels right, give it a shot. Who knows, it allows you to miss one of the pitfalls or take a shortcut to the top of that mountain you’re climbing.
Let me know what the view’s like from up there!