21 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Writing: Must-Read Advice for Writers at All Levels
By Robin Black
Offered in the hope of sparing others some of the bumps and bad moments I have experienced over the past thirteen years. . .
1. Publication doesn’t make you a writer. Publication makes you a published writer. Writing makes you a writer.
2. Your “writer friends” are suddenly going to seem a lot more interesting, understanding, sympatico, and just plain fun than the friends (and sometimes family) you had before you threw yourself into this pursuit. I mean, they get you! But be gentle with the ones who were there all along – and remember the support they’ve given you, and the care, and try not to hurt their feelings by making it clear how much more compelling the ones who “speak writer” now seem. (And may not always seem. . . )
3. The best you can do is the best you can do. There’s a fine line between learning from other authors, and trying to be them. Be yourself. There are more than enough different types of readers out there for us all. I can’t tell you how much time I have wasted wishing my work were more “hip” and “edgier.” And every single moment was indeed a waste of time. I didn’t even like much of the writing I wanted to emulate. I just liked the attention heaped on the people who wrote it. Write the book you’d most like to read – not the one you think will win over the editor du jour.
4. Not everyone will love your work. Not everyone will like your work. Some people will hate your work. Don’t put energy into pursuing the fantasy of universal adoration. It has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with guaranteeing that you’ll never be satisfied.
5. Don’t expect yourself not to be jealous; but don’t let yourself act on it. Be jealous and be generous. Be jealous and feel generous.
6. You will make mistakes. You will seem too pushy. You will seem falsely humble. You will forget someone in your acknowledgements. You will rush publication on something not ready to go. You will say things to your editor you wish you hadn’t. You’ll accept edits you shouldn’t accept. You’ll give a friend unhelpful advice on a draft. You’ll forget to read a draft you promised you’d read. You’ll ask for one favor too many.Don’t expect perfection of yourself. Do your best. Feel bad when you screw up, apologize if necessary, and don’t let it make you hate yourself. A lot of writers seem awfully prone to self-hatred. Try to cut yourself some slack.
7. But be vigilant about being a jerk. We all make mistakes – but it’s also frighteningly easy to become a taker, a user, a self-absorbed neurotic wreck, and not even know that’s what you’ve become. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but don’t assume you haven’t fallen into bad-colleague practices either.
8. Many writers live in bubbles. It could be family. It could be editors, friends, an admiring workshop. Your bubble loves you and loves your work. Your bubble may give you inflated ideas about the impact your work is going to have on the universe. Before you step into the great big world, try to remember that the world may not receive your work the way your bubble has. Try not let yourself be set up for a huge disappointment. It’s such a privilege to have readers at all – don’t undermine the joy of that privilege by setting your sights so high you forget to feel grateful.
9. Speaking of which, know what counts as success for you. If it’s the NYT Bestseller List, then know that. If it’s the grudging respect of a former lover, own it. If it’s critical acclaim and not so much about sales, try to remember that fact. There are cultural templates of ambition – prizes, lists etc – that the world will tell you count as success. But don’t fall for believing that they’re necessarily what you want. Only a very few writers get those things, so if that’s all that counts as success for you, you’re just setting yourself up to fail.
10. If you have kids, don’t insist that your career be the center of their lives. It’s more than enough if they’re engaged and happy when good things happen for you. It’s not their job to see your artistic life as the center of their home. They may even push back a little bit. Kids are smart. They know what’s competing with them for your attention and they aren’t always going to welcome their rivals. Nor should they. I grew up in a home where a parent’s career (my father’s) was in many ways the emotional center of the household; and trust me it’s a lousy way to grow up.
11. If you have success of any kind, don’t believe your own hype. Maintain a little skepticism about your own “victory.” The most inspiring authors to me are those who respect their own work, and are even proud of it, but don’t give off an air of entitlement, don’t act like they’ve been owed that seven figure book deal since birth.
12. Network only as much as you can bear. Don’t obsess about your followers or your platform. Time spent on platform cultivation is almost always time better spent writing. If you enjoy Twitter that’s one thing, but if you don’t, then skip it. As much as publishers say they love authors with platforms, no extraordinary book has ever been rejected because of a lack of a Twitter following. And if you’re doing it to sell books? People would love to think Twitter sells books, because then we’d all know something that sells books; but the internet is littered with people who made splashy online names for themselves and then had sales numbers that still keep them up nights wondering what the hell went wrong.
13. Don’t suck up to famous writers so they’ll blurb your book – the one you wrote that’s soon to be published or the one you’re sure you will write one of these days. I didn’t ever do that; but then at a certain point (big confession) I kind of wished I had. And now I’m very glad I never did. It’s just icky. Plus, they know you’re doing it.
14. It isn’t in the power of an editor (agent, etc.) to tell you whether or not you’re a writer. It’s that person’s job only to tell you if they want to work with you and your manuscript. Don’t view rejections as the final word on your worth – or even on the worth of the pages that were returned. You are the only person who gets to decide if you’re a writer or not.
15. Before you decide that someone will reject your work, give them the opportunity to do so. You might well be shocked by who falls madly in love with what you wrote.
16. If your Goodreads, Amazon etc. review of a friend’s book is going to lower their average, don’t review the book. Your integrity as a literary community member does not require you to make things harder for your friends. And if you loved the book, consider taking the two minutes it takes to tell the world.
17. There are only so many manuscripts you can read for free before you begin to resent the people who are emailing them to you. Try not to get in the habit of doing “favors” that tick you off. Find a way, when it’s appropriate, to make a reading fee clear – or just say you don’t have time. It’s not doing anyone a favor to read a draft with steam coming out of your ears. When you offer to read a manuscript, do it because you want to be a help to a friend, or because the project interests you, and not because you haven’t learned how to say “no.”
18. Annnd. . . don’t ask people to read and comment on your work for free – unless you gave them a kidney once (or read their book for them). But if they offer, don’t hesitate to accept. Take them at their word, and offer to reciprocate if that’s ever a help to them.
19. You cannot write the pages you love without writing the pages you hate. Nothing that you write is pointless, useless, or unnecessary. The product requires the process. The good days may be more enjoyable, but the tough ones are the ones they’re built upon.
20. Don’t believe there are rules. There is only advice. There is only opinion. There are only my experiences and yours and yours and yours. . .
21. Make your skin as thick as you are able to, for your career. Keep it as thin as you can tolerate, for your art.
Robin Black's new novel LIFE DRAWING is forthcoming from Random House, July, 2014, and Picador UK, April 2014. It has been called "a magnificent literary achievement," by Karen Russell, and "a riveting story about the corrosive effects of betrayal," by Alice Sebold. Her story collection IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim by publications such as O. Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Irish Times and more. Robin lives in the Philadelphia area with her family. Her website is www.RobinBlack.net. This article appeared previously on Beyond the Margins.