Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Advice for Writers

1. Do something else, if you can.

It's hard work. If you want to get published, the odds are that you won't. Even if you get published, if you want to make a living at it, the odds are that you won't. The market is glutted. Everyone says they're writing a book or has a book in them. Unless you really do, don't bother. But if you really have the fire, you'll ignore all that.

2. Read fiction/literature. Get a feel for the poetry of language.

We don't need more regurgitated information. We have the Internet for that. If you want to write, write big or go home. And the best way to learn how to do that is to read. Even if you plan to write non-fiction, read fiction. Good fiction. Poetry too. You can stomach poetry, can't you? If you can't, you may not be a writer. You can probably put some words together that say things, and you may be really smart, but you're probably not a writer. But if you are a writer, read the sorts of works where it's not just what is being said, but how it's being said. Good fiction is typically the best for this because the number of real writers writing non-fiction is dwindling.

If you're reading this blog, it's likely you want to write from a Christian perspective. My friend Ray Ortlund has some good words:
It is so hard not to be dull. C.S. Lewis wrote that "when the old poets made some virtue their theme, they were not teaching but adoring, and . . . what we take for the didactic is often the enchanted." As I write, I am not merely teaching. I am adoring. Please do not take the enchanted as merely the didactic.
Figure out how to exult in your writing. This will involve feeling what sentences can do, holding up the diamond of language at different angles to see how the light plays from this perspective and that. If you don't know how to exult in your writing maybe write flow-charts or restaurant menus or something. We don't need any more Christian books that approach the gospel like a manual for a toaster oven.

3. Seek feedback from people who will be honest.

Other writers, if they're not jealous nitwits, might actually be inclined to over-praise your work, hoping you'll return the favor when it's their turn in the hot seat. But non-writers close to you may struggle with honesty for fear of hurting your feelings. Seek feedback from people who a) would know good writing if they read it, and b) won't lie.

First, you will need a thick skin. (I know this is difficult, because writing something good is akin -- in our minds -- to crafting a Ming vase. Then, handing it to some Philistine for critique is like saying, "Here, use this for a bedpan.") Secondly, hand your work to some Philistine for critique. Find an honest Philistine, preferably one who reads a lot. Aunt Martha is probably not the ideal choice, unless Aunt Martha is an editor or (real) writer herself. Leave Aunt Martha to like your Facebook statuses and find a real peer who is honest instead. You want to get better, not have smoke blown up your Ming vase. (Pronounce that last word "vahz.")

4. Do the work.

Talking about writing, reading about writing, thinking about writing, planning to write is all writing. Don't listen to people who say it's not, even if you find me saying that somewhere in the archives. So do all that stuff. It's part of the process. But writers write. At some point you have to stop processing and start producing. The process becomes writing when it directly results in pages. Don't slack. Read your guts full and then write your guts out. Open up a vein and bleed. Or take up knitting.

Forgive my tone. I'm hungry for a literary renaissance among followers of Jesus. Are you it? If so, I love you. Godspeed.


Previously: Tips for Aspiring Writers (Lotta hubris there, because it was written a few years ago, before I had a book deal, but I stand by it still. Those are the steps I worked through myself.)

Also, on the humorous tip: That's Not Really How it Works (So You Want to Write a Novel)


bullets said...

i was just saying to a friend here in belgium that i hate reading stories (fiction). i like reading books that have information (kierkegaard, spurgeon, edwards, murray). i can't get into fiction like i can get into non-fiction. i say all this cause i hope to write a book soon enough. this post encouraged me but please tell me that a fictional reading necessity is one mans opinion, even as highly as i value your opinion and honesty? i can stomach poetry as i consider myself a musician but fiction, man, that is going to be boring at this point in my game.

Jared said...

Fiction boring? You must be reading the wrong fiction. :-)

Try Lewis's Perelandra, for starters.

Andrew Faris said...

Great stuff.

A little while ago I got to interview Fred Sanders on how to write well. He's one of the best non-fiction writers I know, and his advice coalesces with yours.

Click here for the link.

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Jeremiah Vik said...

I would have to say that I agree with (and laughed at) your points.

I would consider myself a writer, but by the literal definition... maybe not. I craft sermons (ok, well the Holy Spirit does most of the work), & write articles, but that seems to be where the bulk of my writing "energy" is spent.

First & foremost, I'm a reader. Tolkien, MacDonald (George, not Ol'), & Lewis are at the top of my list. I enjoy my share of poetry, as long as it was written before the twentieth century & has rhyme and meter (I'll make an exception for guys like Ogden Nash).

My friends & colleagues--even my wife--have been telling me for years I must write. Finally, I've begun transferring thought to paper... er, well, digital paper.

I'm interested in hearing more about your journey to being published and I could use a sounding board.

bullets said...

no thats the point i am not reading fiction at all and at this point my brain is in non-fiction mode. so trying to absorb a new dynamic is liking try to wrap my mind around a new doctrine on hell ;-)

i've got lewis' perelandra but haven't started it. there are too many in front of the line-up

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I don't know that this would help any but comics are not off-limits and most of those are fiction. It's often thought of as a visual medium but there's still writing going into it. Principles of characterization, pacing, narrative, conflict development and conflict resolution are all in there. If you watch films you're watching something that at one point was still just words on the page. It takes some discipline to acquire a way of translating visual narrative into a textual/conceptual frame of mind but it can be done. I hardly read any fiction now but I threw myself into a lot of Dostoevsky and Kafka and some other authors in my twenties. Where fiction goes I still read it but it tends to be comics but I would suggest that as fiction goes that still counts.

Anon said...

Oh c'mon, bullets! Perelandra is a *trip*. Do it.

Chris Poblete said...

This is great, Jared. Bookmarked it. Thanks.

First stop, this comment. Now, off to write elsewhere!

Don Crawford said...

jared ... i've said for years i doubt i have a chapter, never mind a thesis, never mind a book in me, but i am very glad some of you do. and yes, i am waiting for dashhouse's ...


Israel Sanchez said...

I really have the fire. Thanks for the brutally honest tips!