I reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life every five years or so, but my Bird by Bird advice has to do with reading, not writing. I’m always surprised when aspiring writers blithely proclaim that they don’t read much contemporary fiction! I remember years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference when a show of hands with a group of short stories writers revealed that about two people had bought a short story collection in years and that the writers didn’t really read short stories! So my advice is read. Read voraciously.
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I think we all get hung up on certain metrics, and for a lot of us it’s sales. For a writer, that’s a really hard one to use to determine success. After all, sales aren’t just elusive—as a writer they’re also mostly outside of your control. Publishing a book is typically a years-long process and most of the time it’s spent writing, revising, and interacting with agents, editors, and other publishing professionals.
Be able to say, in a sentence, what your book is about. By that I don’t mean the elevator pitch (giant man-eating shark attacks beach town) but rather the soul of the story. Then make sure this beating heart is on every page of your manuscript, whether it’s a twist-revealing moment or simple dialogue between two characters passing a shaker of salt back and forth.
On why she writes, Joan Didion has said: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
We are always—by our friends, our teachers, parents, the media—encouraged to “think big.” Frankly, I worry that there’s so much big thinking going on that we forget to think small. I mean small in a number of ways:
When I was a young girl in school there was a teacher who used to say, “Keep your head down and focus on your own work.” I’m pretty sure she was trying to dissuade us from cheating off of one another’s papers, but I think this saying applies equally well to maintaining sanity while pursuing a career as a writer.
There are many voices across the publishing industry and the wider culture telling writers to prepare themselves to be rejected. It is more important and more useful to tell writers to prepare themselves to be accepted. Understandably, there is a great deal of focus on just getting through the eye of the needle, but it is true that on the other side there awaits the real work of publishing the book. Two essential components of that work that can sometimes take writers by surprise are, first, how a publisher talks about and presents the book, and second, how an editor goes about editing it.
“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: It is the continuous thread of revelation.” —Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (Harvard University Press, 1984)
Follow the rules, but know when to break them. When you enter the world of studying, teaching, or editing and publishing creative writing, you quickly see patterns, and these patterns suggest rules. We’ve all read prologues that feel unnecessary to the story that follows, like throat-clearing: Prologues should be cut! Many successful novels have short chapters: Let’s make all chapters short! And so on. But the truth is there is nothing more exhilarating than reading a submission that defies a rule of thumb in a way that truly earns the dispensation.
There is an apocryphal story James Mangold and Gill Dennis included in their screenplay for the film Walk the Line in which Johnny Cash auditions for an impatient Sam Phillips, the head of Sun Records. Phillips cuts Johnny off saying, “If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up.