Here is my own advice about writing as well as some creative inspiration for my fellow insomniacs/dreamers/inventors/loners/imagination extraordinaires out there.
1. Write what you imagine
In every writing class I took, every teacher I had told me the same thing. “Write what you know.”
Well…I would strongly argue against this claim. If you only write what you know, you’re in danger of being very autobiographical and unless you’re a covert espionage agent, your life probably isn’t that entertaining. No offense.
If you only write what you know, it’s limiting. I say, write what you imagine. Write the kinds of books you would read. I love dystopian literature because it’s creative and imaginative, yet I can apply messages and themes in the story to real life. I’m also a sucker for a good love story. I wrote Awaken because it’s a book I would pull off the shelf; the same goes for everything I write.
I know its strange writing advice, but if there’s one thing I owe to my writing inspiration, it’s traveling. To borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, The Sure Thing, “Life is the ultimate experience. But you need to experience it in order to write about it.” I think this is fantastic advice. Get out of your comfort zone every chance you have. Talk to strangers. Travel by yourself whenever you can—it’s amazing what you will see and soak up when you’re alone.
Just as it is important to write everyday, you need to read everyday. And don’t limit yourself to one genre. Devour everything. I read children’s books, memoirs, science, romance, poetry, fantasy, philosophy, comic books, teen fiction, newspapers, the back of cereal boxes—anything I can get my eyes on.
How do you improve your writing? You work at it everyday. Yeah, there’s an element of luck and timing that plays into getting published, but more than anything it takes hard work and dedication.
If you’re in college or high school, I recommend writing for your school paper. You’ll learn to work under deadline, proofread, rewrite and collaborate with an editor. Enter writing contests. Contribute to a local newspaper or weekly. Get used to seeing your words in print.
If you want to get published, just keep writing. Make it a habit. If you love it, you do it. It’s instinctive, like breathing.
5. Rewrite Rewrite Rewrite
Good writing is rewriting. This is an indisputable fact, not open to argument, debate or interpretation. I don’t care if you’re a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, or a thirty-year Times columnist—you need to rework your writing. If you think your first draft is shiny and perfect, I have one comment: Get over yourself. Be open to feedback. Be open to changing material to make it stronger. Have friends or teachers edit and proofread your work. Step away from your story for a few weeks so you can go back to it with fresh eyes.
Here’s my analogy: writing a story is like building a house. Your first draft is just the framework. The second draft adds details—the trimming, the floors, the light fixtures, the windows. Other drafts are like decorating—hanging pictures, picking out furniture. And even later drafts add the tiny details. What does the house smell like? Do the floors creak? Does one window tend to get stuck? Is there a crack in the bedroom ceiling that runs through the plaster like a vein? These are the fine details that bring a story to life and transport your reader in your character’s world.
How many times did I rewrite AWAKEN? At least 200. If you’re not open to rewriting, you are simply not open to being a writer. Period.
6. Writing Process
I never outline. Ever. I feel like it forces scenes. It limits where the story can go. It stifles my character development. It can block my creative process because I feel like it’s something I need to stick to. When I write, I always feel like it’s my characters story to tell, not mine. I translate their thoughts and their experiences and that’s what I follow. When my characters are done telling their story, I’m done writing it. I try to take myself out of the story as much as I can. I zone out of my world so I can zone into theirs.
Now, that being said, when I write I always have a general idea of the major ideas of my story: how it’s going to begin, end, and where I see the rising action and climax. In other words, I know what conflict will drive the story. This isn’t necessarily an outline; it’s more of a rough road map that I sketch out, which my characters usually stray from anyway…
I don’t have a time of day I need to write or a specific place or a certain pen or computer. Sometimes my best writing is done on a shopping receipt in my car, or on scratch paper while I’m sitting on a bus or a plane. Sometimes my creativity snaps on at night in a noisy café. I love sitting at a bar by myself and journaling; I absorb the music and people and energy around me and it usually flows in to my story, sometimes creating my favorite, most visual scenes.
Just do what works for you. If your best material happens while sitting on the toilet, blaring Whitney Houston 80’s dance hits, go for it. Embrace it. Be proud of it. Remember, there are no rules.
Publishing a novel is a journey and any writer will tell you it’s a long process. I’m not an expert, but here are five pieces of advice I’ve picked up along the way:
1. Believe in yourself
One more time. Believe in yourself. People love to belittle your dreams. People love to point out the odds against you. People can be your greatest enemy when it comes to pursuing your goals, mostly because they envy you for being brave enough to strive for your dreams. Or, they’re afraid you might actually succeed.
Turn a deaf ear to these people. De-friend them, whatever. Fill your life with people who inspire you, who believe in you, support you and lift you up. Life is too short to doubt yourself and what you want. This is a hard, relentless and competitive business to break into. If you think about the odds stacked against you, you won’t even try. So don’t think about it. If you write something you are proud of, if it’s good material, you can publish it. You will publish it. It might take some rejections. It might take some rewriting, but you will do it.
2. Write a completed, polished manuscript
It’s exciting to get a few strong chapters down. Pretty soon your head is reeling with thoughts of publishing and you’re already sending your work out to agents. DON’T. Don’t send your manuscript out until it is completely finished, polished and edited. Have some friends look at it. Have someone you trust proofread and line edit it for grammar and content. When you are convinced the manuscript is YOUR BEST POSSIBLE WORK and it can’t possibly be any better, then you submit it.
3. Research literary agents
Some people submit straight to publishers but the big houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. My advice is to get a literary agent. They are the golden key that unlocks the guarded portals into the publishing world. They also understand contracts, how to negotiate, and how the business works. I had three expectations of my agent: someone who loved my book, someone who would help me make it the best it could be and someone reputable with experience in the industry.
There are some fantastic websites that aggregate lists of literary agents and you can search for them by genre. Here are two sites that helped me:
4. Write a professional query letter
Querying an agent is a lot like writing a cover letter for a job—take this step seriously. You wouldn’t go to the trouble of applying for a job without researching the job description and the company to see if you’d be a good fit. It’s the same with an agent. You need to research their submission guidelines, collect desired materials (proposals, synopsis, part manuscript, full manuscript), and research their websites and bios to find agencies and agents that fit with your work and vision.
There are thousands of sites that offer tips and examples on how to write query letters. Here are two that I found helpful:
5. Find a publisher
Once you sign with an agent, one door opens but there’s still another door—finding a publisher willing to make an offer. Again, this takes trust (that your agent knows best what editors would be a good fit), and PATIENCE. I’m allergic to patience and it’s still something I have to work on everyday. Meanwhile…keep writing.
Finally, I recommend owning a copy of the book Putting Your Passion into Print, by Arielle Eckstut & David Henry Sterry. It’s an excellent reference and it takes you through every step of the process—from finishing your manuscript to developing a marketing plan for your published novel.