Good morning! There’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now but never got around to it. And that is, share some tidbits of wisdom that I have learned over the years about writing. Most of these tidbits are things I learned from people who really knew what they were talking about, so I was sure to listen! Some others are just things I concluded along the way.
And wouldn’t you know it, the list has grown to include another important item since I originally scrawled them down. In any case, almost twenty years after I began writing, I’ve managed to condense the most important lessons I’ve learned down to six main tips. Here they are…
1. Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow
Sure, it sounds like an old cliche, but there’s a reason why cliches are cliches. They tend to be in a timeless sort of way, which is why we all get sick of hearing them. And when you hear this very bit of cliched wisdom from someone like J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5 and Sense 8), you tend to take it seriously!
And it makes perfect sense. If your work is something you love doing, it doesn’t feel like work. This makes it so much easier to invest your time and energy into it and become good at what you’re doing. Given time, someone is sure to pay for you for doing it! And even if they don’t, you’re still doing what you love, so what does it really matter?
2. Keep Your Day Job
This advice is something I picked up from a fellow writer named Chris A. Jackson. And it made a ton of sense to me, so I kept it close at hand. It’s a wonderful thing to commit to a labor of love. But until such time that you can make enough money to support yourself, be sure you’ve got something else to pay the bills. It’s always good policy to have more than one iron in the fire.
3. Don’t Wait to be Discovered
This advice came to me from my boss and mentor in all things digital, publishing, and promotional: BC’s own Fraser Cain, famed science communicator and publisher of Universe Today. When we first met through his then-wife (a friend of mine who introduced us), he was intrigued that I was an aspiring science fiction writer. He took it upon himself to mentor me through the process of creation, submission, and self-promotion.
His advice, distilled to a few words, was “don’t wait to be discovered, put yourself out there.” This helped me overcome my biggest stumbling block, which is all-too-common for writers. Basically, once we’re done with the creative process, we have no idea how to proceed. Typically, we look to the traditional gatekeepers – the publishers, agents, promoters, etc. – and wait for them to notice us.
As per Fraser’s advice, I ditched that approach and began taking advantage of new media and independent publishing services to promote my work directly to the general public. I was able to build a following and a media presence. Ironically enough, this was how I gained the attention of a startup publishing house and got my books in print!
4. It Takes 20 Years to Become an Overnight Success
My father gave me this tidbit of advice almost twenty ago, and it stuck with me because it makes a ridiculous amount of sense. Like most things in life, things change slowly and only seem like they happened quickly in hindsight. You wake up one morning, and you realize how far you’ve come, and you ask yourself, “where did the time go?” It’s also an important reminder that no one hit it big right out of the gate. Take your time, work hard, be patient, and the kudos will eventually arrive!
5. Do Your Homework
This bit of advice comes directly from me and touches on another time-honored cliche: “Write what you know.” That’s good advice, in and of itself. While developing story ideas, you’re likely to stumble into subject matter that doesn’t fall into your area of expertise. Case in point: I once thought that the only limitations were my own imagination when it came to writing science fiction.
I know, I have a hard time believing I was ever that naive too! In time, I realized that if I wanted to write about SF and speculative fiction, I needed to read up on all the new developments in science, technology and the impact they would have socially, economically, politically, etc. It’s an ongoing process, and it’s never complete. So start early and never stop!
In addition to knowing your subject matter, you also need to know your genre. So before you set out writing that manuscript, be sure you’ve acquainted yourself with what has been said (and is being said) by other writers in your field. This will not only let you avoid doing something that’s been done to death, but it will also help you to refine what you are trying to say with your work.
“There Aint No Such Thing As One-Hundred Percent Original!” Here is another piece of advice that I learned the hard way. When you’ve got an idea, and you find yourself deep in the creative process, one of the worst things that can happen is for you to find out that somebody, somewhere, wrote something very similar. When that happens, it’s enough to make you wanna toss your manuscript in the trash (or recycle bin, let’s be responsible!).
But take it for me, this is entirely normal, and the best thing you can do is ignore that instinct and power through. For me, the moment came in 2015 when I was working on the manuscript for the Cronian Incident. The miniseries The Expanse premiered around the same time, and as I sat down to watch the first episode, I was hit with the terrible realization that’s someone had beaten me to the punch. This is what I like to call the “Oh Shit!” moment.
I was further discouraged when I cracked the cover of 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson and noticed that he also beat me to the punch with a number of his story’s elements. Naturally, the thought of trashing my manuscript crossed my mind, but I persisted. Part of what kept me going was a story William Gibson related about how he nearly trashed the manuscript for Neuromancer, his seminal cyberpunk novel that revolutionized the genre, back in 1982.
As Gibson tells it, he was deep into writing Neuromancer when the film Blade Runner was released. After seeing the movie, he was so discouraged because he felt director Ridley Scott’s gritty depiction of Los Angeles in the 21st century predicted all of the elements of Gibson’s story. Lucky for us, Gibson persisted, and Neuromancer went on to become one of the most influential novels in the cyberpunk and SF genre.
The hard truth is that it’s damn-near impossible to be original, especially in today’s world. Even if you come up with an idea independently (chances are, you will), someone is likely to have thought it up already. But you can’t let that stop you. The same goes for rejection. If your manuscript has been rejected, don’t throw it out! Tweak it, polish it, work it, but don’t throw it out.
There will always be people who get there first and critics and readers who just don’t get what you’re putting down. But that’s the way it’s always been with the creative process. The truth is, there are countless versions of this story where authors almost quit but didn’t. If they had, some of the greatest works of literature would not exist today!
That’s what I’ve learned so far, and that’s what I want to pass on. I hope someone finds it useful! 🙂