Advice to the Younger Fiction Writerby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, December 1999
I used to be a good club-level athlete, and a very good sprinter who never dedicated himself sufficiently to compete at the top level. Trying to offer advice to a young writer, is a bit like trying to give advice to a young athlete. Can I give any meaningful tips when I don't know if you're a sprinter, built for power, a miler, or a skinny-as-a-fish marathoner? For all I know, you might be a javelin thrower, and what's "young" anyway? A good rule of thumb used to be that forty was young for a good novelist!
But see my opening sentence? I might have made it to the fringes of National Class, but I lacked the dedication. Does that matter? Maybe not. I would have liked to have been a professional soccer player too, and I wouldn't have minded being a film star, but I wasn't cut out for either and I've had a full life (even if I've never bungee-jumped) and now I'm a writer and proud of it.
So point one, by young I mean under forty and not locked into a career you think is more important to you than writing -- and there are lots of great, giving, fulfilling jobs -- don't let all those romantics convince you otherwise. I'm a writer and I wouldn't give it up, but let me tell you as well as there being plenty more important jobs every one of them pays better! So if you're a young and aspiring writer (rather than an old aspiring writer), first ask yourself how serious you are.
Becoming a good writer of fiction takes a mass of work. You have to read and read and read: the good, the bad, the ugly and the eye-bleeding atrocious, then some more of the OK, and some more of the good, some more of the very good, the classics, the stuff you don't get first pass, (so read it again) and then you can go back and you'll see that the OK is pretty bad too.
It takes a minimum of three years' full time study, or 7-10 years of part-time study to get a university degree. Becoming a writer is harder! I think it was Ray Bradbury who said we need to write at least a million words just to make it to the foothills. Seems like a lot? Not really. 3,000 words a day for a year or 1,000 words a day for three years and you're home free. What d'you mean it sounds tough? It IS tough!
Presume that one million words is a real goal. Write 300 words a day, every day, never miss, and nine years from now, you'll be able to write. That is WRITE, that is, as someone once wrote, you will have eaten your technique, absorbed it until it's in your blood, so that HOW to express your thoughts will be semi-automatic.
Meanwhile you will have been walking, sleeping, eating, dreaming like a writer. Why? Because you find time EVERY day to write. Once you get into a daily writing habit (one page, come on, you can write ONE page, can't you?) you begin to see the world as a writer sees it, the ordinary inside the great, the tiny brilliances in the everyday. You begin to see with a writer's eyes. But only, ONLY if you commit to the idea of writing every day.
How to become a writer in one month.
Here is my definition of a writer. A writer is someone who on waking, always thinks, "Now how will I find the time today to write?" If you start writing every day and it becomes a habit, something which gets into your blood. If thirty days down the line the habit is set, then you're a writer, and you'll get there twice as fast as the six-day-a-week writer, ten times as fast as the weekdays only one. Exercise the writing muscles, exercise the soul, become pixel dependent.
The Ten Commandments.
Read them, follow them. Check out the IWJ article on these.
Write about things that energise you, that make you buzz, get angry, get sad, emote over. Write about things with weight, meaning, a point. Don't be glib or trite, or clichéd, don't re-write Asimov or Chandler, write yourself, be brave, and while you're writing your million words, don't think you have to write LIKE anyone. You are a true original. Think originally.
And when you want me to believe you, paint me pictures, let me see the pain without having it explained. Understand what the pundits mean by show not tell, or better, understand my own term, seduction not instruction. And if you don't understand it, work until you do.
Most importantly, forget plot, let characters do it for you. This always freaks the younger writer (especially since most are first attracted to the genres, such as Science Fiction, where ideas and plot appear more important. They're not. What people remember are people, situations, emotions, character, so be brave, imagine your characters, put them in a spot and let them get out of it.
Think about language, style, flow and lyricism. There are great writers with ordinary styles and there are "stylists" who bore the pants off us. Nevertheless, mastering how words work musically and phonetically as well as semantically can give you an extra level of power and set you apart.
Learn about good dialogue, how it is NOT like real speech but artificially creates the illusion of everyday speech. Learn to hone dialogue and read great writers of dialogue -- I love Elmore Leonard for this.
And now an old piece of OK advice -- write at least fifty short stories before you embark on a novel, do exercises, snippets, try rewriting great short stories or novel openings, experiment with poetry, flash-fiction, writing to tough word-limits. Burn off the obvious, the commonplace, the too-closely autobiographical stuff early on. (Writing shorts does this). You will learn so much and still be creating pieces worth submitting.
Try to tell stories that illuminate life: be honest. Don't try to "be a writer," because that's the quickest way to dreadful purple prose and pretentiousness.
I've said already, read, read, read, read, read, and we know we must write, write, write; but don't forget submissions! Submitting our work after it's had time to settle and then has been seriously reworked is one of the most overlooked essentials to becoming a writer. You write to be read. If you aren't writing to be read stop now and go do something else. To be read means getting published, and to get published you have to get rejected, and rejected and rejected, tens, hundreds even thousands of times.
Get used to rejections. They happen for many reasons. Don't instantly aim at the New Yorker, but then don't throw away a great piece on a tiny e-zine, either. Understand the market (i.e.,: READ the Magazines!) and aim a little higher than you ought (but not too much), working your way down and through your list of places -- there are thousands and for these check out The Novel & Short Story Writers Market, a Writer's Digest Publication (U.S. and International) and in the U.K., The Writers & Artist's Yearbook -- but most importantly do read the magazines to which you hope to submit your work.
And if you think it, write it. never hold back. It's not always easy to write some things but if you half-write, if you hold things back, it will show in your work. Be brave. Writers are brave.
Experience, do you need it?.
The answer is NO, but it helps. Every day of our lives we are not just gaining experience but we are assimilating it through a more experienced set of senses. If you can fight in wars (and survive -- surviving is definitely useful) have a few broken hearts, make/have babies, suffer trauma, all these things and more can be deepening widening experiences which enrich your writing -- but so can reading and living quietly, so can learning to see and hear with the writer's sensibility.
What experience CAN teach us is that we are not the centre of the universe and that maybe the pictures of us skateboarding AREN'T vivid entertainment.
When we've read Solzenitzin and Henri Carriere our four hours in the slammer may not be so much after all... but then again if we are WRITERS (we write every day) we might be able to compare and contrast the Gulag with Sheriff Tomkins' cell and say something about perspective.
So don't give up the day job, just yet, but write every day, write honestly, read, read, read (never be without a book), rework, polish submit and keep submitting. Work until you see the world as a writer sees it. No matter what is happening around you, you see only "life to be absorbed". Then as the mugger screams in your face, note his dialogue and remember it. Think only, "Wow, great material! Look at the spittle on his chin, that funny tic he has, and isn't a .45 BIG and dark?"
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.