The Best Advice for a Beginning Writer

If you could give a budding writer only one piece of advice, what would it be? Below are some of the most well-known and talented writers of our time who tackled the question.

Writing Advice from the Greats

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary.

—J. K. Rowling

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written . . . Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

—Stephen King

Above all else, the writer has to be a good reader. The kind that sticks to academic texts and does not read what others write (and here I’m not just talking about books but also blogs, newspaper columns and so on) will never know his own qualities and defects.

—Paul Coelho

If you ask me what I am reading on any given day, it is most likely going to be a work from a great author from long ago. Every writer stands on the shoulders of the old authors who have shaped and refined language and storytelling.

—Laura Hillenbrand

A Different Perspective: You Don’t Have to Write Every Day

If you’ve had a bad writing day, or if you’ve been struggling with your writing recently, I found this article by Cal Newport to be a reassuring read. I think Newport’s point of view is an important counter to Stephen King’s (who says you absolutely have to write every day).

In the end, the goal of advice should be to help you figure out what works for you, not what works for someone else.

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Famous Authors on How They Discovered Their Best-Selling Story Idea

Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I love hearing about how authors came across their book ideas. I especially love the ones like J.K. Rowling’s where it’s a flash of creativity and suddenly you know what you need to write:

It was 1990. My then boyfriend and I had decided to move up to Manchester together. After a weekend’s flat-hunting, I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.

I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one…

I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.

Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write “Philosopher’s Stone” that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.

J.K. Rowling

In fact, the authors of quite a few books I love have similar stories:

J.R.R. TOLKIEN and The Hobbit

Tolkien was grading college exam papers, and midway through the stack he came across a gloriously blank sheet. Tolkien wrote down the first thing that randomly popped into his mind: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He had no idea what a hobbit was or why it lived underground, and so he set out to solve the mystery.

C.S. LEWIS and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

On an otherwise ordinary day, 16-year-old Lewis was seized by a peculiar daydream. A frazzled creature, half-man and half-goat, hurried through snowy woods carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels. Lewis had no idea where the faun was heading, but the image was still with him when, at age 40, he finally put pen to paper to find out.

LEO TOLSTOY and Anna Karenina

As he lay on a sofa after dinner, Tolstoy had a vision of an elbow. The image expanded into a melancholy woman in a ball gown. The mysterious lady haunted Tolstoy and he eventually decided to write her story.

– Writer’s Digest Jul/Aug 2012

Stories like these give me hope that maybe some day I’ll be hit by a bolt of creativity . . . or maybe I won’t. Then what? I can’t just sit around waiting, hoping, to get my big break. What was it that Dumbledore said? “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Is Fear Keeping You from a Writing Career?

On Writing by Stephen King

You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.

—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

The definition of cowardice is “lack of courage to face danger, difficulty, opposition, pain, etc.”

Ask yourself for one moment what your feelings have been on the eve of some act involving courage, whether it be physical courage, or moral or intellectual . . . what has happened to you? If it has really called forth courage, has it not felt something like this: I cannot do this. This is too much for me. I shall ruin myself if I take this risk. I cannot take the leap, it’s impossible. All of me will be gone if I do this, and I cling to myself. 

And then supposing the Spirit has conquered and you have done this impossible thing, do you find afterwards that you possess yourself in a sense that you never had before. That there is more of you? . . . So it is throughout life . . . you know “nothing ventured nothing won” is true in every hour, it is the fibre of every experience that signs itself into the memory.

—John Neville Figgis

Your Audience Should Not Be “Everyone”

I have spent a good many years since – too many, I think – being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Even 200 years ago authors knew that a book cannot – and should not – please everybody. Here’s Jane Austen (in her usual tongue-in-cheek style) writing a letter to her sister the year that Pride and Prejudice was published:

I had had some fits of disgust [with Pride and Prejudice] . . . The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade, it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style. I doubt you’re quite agreeing with me here. I know your starched notions.

Ironically, it’s when a writer writes with a narrow scope and only a small target audience in mind that her work has the greatest chance of pleasing the masses. So hunker down in your literary niche and let the world find you.

*Photo by Richard Kardhordo @ 500px / CC BY

You’ve Got to Read If You Want to Write

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Last year I returned to my book roots. I did read a couple of new ones, but I mostly went through my stack of old favorites – because, as King also said: “Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.” The verdict? I like wizards and witty (if not slightly disturbed) damsels:

  • Harry Potter 1-7 by J. K. Rowling
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  • Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding
  • Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding
  • A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Whenever I’m apathetic about my writing, I find that it’s usually because I’m trying to be someone I’m not – trying to impress a potential agent, editor or reader. Reading books that I admire, written by authors who have stuck to their literary guns come rain, snow or evil review, inspires me to stay true to myself.

*Photo by Zoran Mesarovic 500px / CC BY

Top 5 Best Books on Writing in 2012

I keep a running list of all the writing books I’ve read. Here are the ones I got through last year, along with my five recommended favorites:

The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within by Alan Watt

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II by James N. Frey

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

You Can Write a Novel by James V. Smith, Jr.

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Creating Strong Protagonists by William C. Martell

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great by William M. Akers

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron 

The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel by James Thayer 

And the books that won a spot in my Top Five are . . . 

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!) by Alexandra Sokoloff: I took away some great ideas from this book written by a screenwriter turned author. We’re living in a digital age and the gap is narrower than ever between the pace a reader expects in a movie and what she expects in a book. (Reread Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. You’ll be surprised how much slower it is than you remember.)

Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence by Roz Morris: I’m not a big fan of those ra-ra-listen-to-your-inner-spirit books (no offense, Natalie Goldberg). By the end of them I’m thinking, Great, so I’m in touch with my inner writer, now what? I prefer books that give you a little ra-ra, but then go on to tell you how to get your writing butt in gear. This is one of those books.

Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy: My expectations were low for this book (who could blame me with the title?). But this book covers a lot of important ground. My two biggest takeaways were 1) their reassurance that every writer usually serves a long and frustrating apprenticeship; and 2) their explanation of  both what a pitch is and what it is not.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks: This book has gotten a few lengthy negative reviews (like this one) because the author can come off as repetitive and defensive. I’ll admit that I did have to slog through chunks of it, but Brooks won me over when he opened my eyes to the bare bones of plot structure presented in a way I had never considered before. I wrote an in-depth analysis of how Brooks’ story structure applies to the Harry Potter series.

On Writing by Stephen King: I’ve never read a single Stephen King book (I stay a good aisle or two away from the horror section of the bookstore), but I loved King’s book on writing. It’s interesting, funny, and inspiring (and not nearly as long as his novels!).