There are really not a lot of absolute rules for writing, just a bunch of guidelines and advice from other writers — “this is what works for me.”
It’s up to each of us to distill all of this collegial advice and our own experiences into something that “works for me.”
So I’ve been blogging on writing long enough now, that three things have emerged as my “Guiding Principles” for the kind of writing life I want to lead. I pass them on in the hope that maybe you’ll find something useful in my approach.
“Finish what you write,” says Neil Gaiman, and it’s pretty great advice. You can learn a lot from writing story fragments, but you can’t go very far in your career if you don’t have finished stories to send out into the world. The first time I actually finished a story, I had this weird, pins and needles sensation. Oh wow. I did it. I still get that sensation every time.
Finish your stories, even if you think they don’t work. I’m certainly not the kind of writer who figures everything out in the first go –my stories live and die in revisions. Sometimes I can’t even see the big picture until I have a finished draft.
Beyond that, I think of finishing a story as a bit of a level up. Links in a chain. Every story I write teaches me things that help me in the next one, and the next. Even if one of these stories ultimately gets trunked, I know I’m experimenting, learning new techniques, and building a body of work. I’m building confidence to tackle the next challenge I set for myself.
Some stories are worth sweating over, while from some stories you’ll get what you need even if you never write the ending. It’s okay. Some stories you ulimately have to abandon. But it’s better to build a habit of finishing them.
Ted Chiang was one of our “Mystery Muses” when I attended Clarion West. He urged us to write the things we wanted to read.
“What are you not getting out of what you read? It’s your job to write it.”
He also told us to cultivate a unique voice, to write the stories we liked to write — even if it means not finding popular or commercial success. That can be a tricky road to take, to be sure. But Ted’s been successful in finding his own path.
I got similar advice from no less than Ray Bradbury when I timidly told him at a book signing that I was a writer, too. I figure if it works for Ted and Ray, it should work for me!
Ask yourself, will I be happy following popular trends, writing things I think other people want to read? Or will I only be happy writing my deepest loves, hates, and fears?
There’s no right answer, except “are you writing what you love?” Keep in mind that can change from story to story, from project to project. Just because one story is a deeply psychological exploration on a theme doesn’t mean the next one can’t be an homage to all the things you loved about Star Wars.
Be you. Write what moves you. What you love. There are readers out there waiting for a voice just like yours.
The internet gives us many opportunities to be a dick. As Will Wheaton says, don’t be.
We’re all a pile of opinions, biases, blindnesses, righteous anger, disagreements, social anxieties, political ideologies, loves, hates, and fears. Treat other writers, readers, fans, and colleagues with respect and kindness. Even when it’s hard. Even when they don’t deserve it. Maybe especially when they don’t. As much as possible.
But most importantly — be kind to yourself. This is a hard sort of life. Writing is lonely. Opportunities for mingling with other writers can be scarce. We put our innermost vulnerabilities out there for all to see, so rejections can seem personal, even though they aren’t. Other writers (younger writers, older writers, good writers, bad writers, etc.) will always seem to be more successful that you feel you are. Impostor syndrome will kick in. Acknowledge that it’s hard. That you feel like you aren’t where you want to be — those feelings can help spur you to get where you want to go!
But be careful of getting too caught up on those feelings. They aren’t the whole story, and they can distract and impede sometimes more than they can help.
Finish. Be You. Be kind to others, be kind to you. It’s working so far.