1. Write, a lot.
The first rule, the one true precept. You get better by doing, so therefore make sure that you’re out there making things happen. Maybe this is the year you finally attempt the sticker method (do it, it is so useful for keeping track of things and giving you a visual representation of how much you’re putting out each day). More than anything, the sticker method has helped me learn to…
2. Set reasonable writing goals for yourself.
If you know that you’re consistently able to produce 1k words that you don’t hate a day, then good! If you feel like you can get a better handle on your draft by writing more words, then write more words a day. If you feel, like I do, that you need to go slow and make sure that the words you do write each day are words that you’re mostly proud of, then cool, do that.
A resolution to write more is never going to stick if you make it exhausting to accomplish each day. Break down your goals: so you want to write one book, or two, or three. Figure out a basic word count (lit agent Jennifer Laughran’s post here is a good resource) and then determine how you can meet that writing your optimal– whether it’s big or small– number of words each day.
3. Read, a lot.
One of my favorite pieces of advice was that you should always be reading more than you’re writing. This sounds so haughty when you first come across it, like how dare you random internet blog I read what I want. But if the mind is a storehouse of furniture for you to use in your stories, then books are the shops and wholesalers you get the cool chairs and hip rugs from. That way, you have the luxury of choice when you want furniture for your own stories.
4. In fact, learn from many masters.
The way you get stuff in your stories that is new or different is to read a lot of different things. Diverse books, non-fiction books, poetry, even things that aren’t books. Watch anime, TV shows, play video games and analyze the stories, re-write newspaper articles to be more interesting, write an epic fanfic for that crack pairing that may or may not be your OTP. The exercises you can make for yourself are endless.
The thing is that you are constantly, actively or passively, thinking about story.
5. Realize it’s going to take a while.
Sometimes it won’t, but it’s always nice to be surprised pleasantly than unpleasantly. Sometimes you are going to feel like your writing life is either a comedy of errors or an epic tragedy. Your friends or people you consider your peers may already have agents or contracts, and you will look at your empty hands and wonder what god you left unappeased for this to happen to you.
But, hey, one: publishing is slow. Two: the people you’re comparing yourself to probably put in a lot of unseen work/time– it only seems like things are moving faster for them. Three: your hands aren’t empty– you have a lot more experience and manuscripts than you did before.
6. And find a way to relax.
Everyone tells you to go on social media and read up on the industry– which is great! don’t stop doing that!– but an equally important thing is to know when you’re being driven too insane and need a break. Find an activity that you can do that calms you down, whether it’s reading not on your laptop, walking the dog, crafts, welding, etc. For me, it’s drawing.
7. Commit to fixing one thing you don’t like about your writing at a time.
Do you know how long it took me to wean myself off of using telling verbs and onto showing verbs? (Hint: a long time.) Your writing is never going to get better unless you are actively trying to change it, unless you can identify a thing you don’t like or feel is clunky and then get to work fixing that. Don’t like your beginning? Read a lot of book’s beginnings– more specifically, read the beginnings of stories you love and study how those authors draw you in.
8. Don’t be afraid to imitate.
Obviously this goes with the slight caveat of DO NOT PLAGIARIZE but one of the ways you get better at telling the stories you want to tell is by doing it with training wheels on. Sometimes writing fanfiction helps a lot– you can write through a scene a different way than the author/creator and see why they chose to present it the way they did. You can do character studies, or you can practice description or thematic arcs.
Even if you don’t write fic, you’ve probably reaped the benefits of imitation. One of my earliest stories was this half-drawn, half-written thing that I am more or less sure was a rip-off of Akira, but it also taught me a lot about character archetypes and worldbuilding. Two years after I stopped working on it, I’d more or less realized it was terrible but it also provided me a more solid foundation to work on my next story, and the one after that.
Especially if you write YA, you’re in a great place to try something new. Push your boundaries as well as your readers’– I guarantee you that you’re going to feel like you’re jumping off a cliff writing a POC or LGBT protagonist for the first time if you’re a cishet white person, but ultimately you’re doing both yourself and your readers a service. You’re learning how to be a better writer by telling more stories (and also learning how to research culture and lifestyles like a bamf) and you’re learning to be fearless.
Will you mess up? Yeah. But you’ll also learn to…
10. Ask for help.
Whether it’s having someone beta read for your character with a mental illness or you finding a critique partner long-term, one of the greater truths in publishing is that this whole thing is very rarely done alone. Traditional publishing usually means you and your agent (and your editor) will all be on your team helping to make your work the best it can be. There are tons of critique partners and beta readers out there who want to help you depict their culture/illness/faith/lifestyle, etc accurately.
Realize that writing is a big job. You do not have to go it alone, and no one’s going to shame you for having CPs or hiring a freelancer or checking your work. They’re probably going to think more highly of you for it.
11. Always be learning.
Maybe this falls into a few of the categories above, but it’s important enough to also stand by itself, too. Always be bettering your craft. Read, challenge yourself to improve your writing, notice what your CPs are doing that helps give their scenes extra sparkle, make a list of things you want to change about your writing this year and cross them out one by one. No one is ever done learning– ars longa, vita brevis, yo.
12. But also realize your contemporaries are not your competition.
Hemingway had this great thing; when people asked him who among his contemporaries were his greatest competition, he said he didn’t think about them that way. Instead, he thought being a writer was more fighting the people who came before you, the established classics, and trying to be better than them.
I dig. It forces you to concentrate more on bettering your work so it can stand against some of the greatest storytellers of all time versus trying to take down your fellow ~students of the craft~
13. Make lists of ten.
One of my other favorite things from Kate Brauning, CP and good friend, is the list of ten technique.
You ask yourself a question: why doesn’t this adult C– like crowds? And then write up ten different answers to it. Your first three will probably be pretty run of the mill (his mother lost him once in a crowd and he felt helpless, he hates people, the city is suffocating) but as you go on to #5-7, your ideas will get more original (maybe he saw a crowd stone someone to death and has no faith in humanity). #7-10 will likely be the trickiest but also your most creative.
14. Be the consummate professional.
Publishing is both a slow business and a small one: relationships are forged gradually and can be destroyed quickly. It is almost never in your best interests to act on the spur of a moment (if it’s a good or a bad thing). Read your contracts carefully, return your critiques in a timely manner, and always always thank people for their time.
Neil Gaiman said in one of his keynote speeches that there were three things that you needed to make people want to work with you again:
People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.
15. Last, always be writing.
Always have something in your backpocket, another trick up your sleeve. Publishing is in many ways a long game. You’re in this because you love it, and that means loving it beyond the lifespan of a single project. If you’re serious about writing, then you’re not just in this because you have one single book you want to publish. You have hundreds.
The key is to develop a system, whether it’s draft-> revise -> query -> repeat, or draft -> revise -> send to agent -> sub -> repeat, and just keep going. More and more what I’m seeing of publishing is that its problems are stones that you have to wear away over time. Steady work will wear the stone down, but you have to be putting in that work even when you’re not seeing a visible reward.
Happy 2015, and happy writing!