The very very beginning writer

Literary agent Janet Reid is asking for advice. Or, more specifically, she’s asking writers for advice about advice:

When you were starting out, what advice did you get that REALLY helped you? And I mean both helped you improve as a writer, and helped you deal with the sense of failure and frustration when you wanted to do something so bad you could taste it, and it wasn’t working.

I left a comment, but after 90 of them, I’m guessing she probably got all the advice she wanted. That being said, I wish that a) all of the following books had been written, b) someone pointed me to them, and c) I was smart enough to find and read them:

—James Wood’s How Fiction Works
—Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer
—The two collected volumes from the New York Times, Writers on Writing.
—Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Those five are the major ones. A few others that might be worth leaving off at first because they could be overwhelming:

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
—William Zissner’s On Writing Well
—Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche
—Steven King’s On Writing

It’s somehow popular to argue that writing can’t be taught, but the more experience I accumulate, the more I begin to doubt that advice. Mark McGurl tackles it to some extent in his book The Program Era, which is also probably worth reading for anyone pondering a career in writing fiction, since so many of those careers today run through teaching at some point or another.

Someone else in Reid’s comments section gave similar advice to mine but in different words: “Go to your local library and read every book in the “How to write” 808 section.” Good call. If the writer takes this advice, they’ll learn more than they ever could in 10 or 15 minutes with Reid. The writer might disagree with some or most of what’d dispensed in the books I listed, or the books listed in the 808 section—which is a good thing, because otherwise fiction would droop into being formulaic. That being said, I still think that at least knowing such guidance exists is a positive: it gives you something to work with, or something to work against. Either way, I think the knowledge imparted will beat beating one’s way around blindly in the dark.

EDIT: A friend has been telling me to read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where you Dreamfor months, and I’m now getting around to it (this kind of lag between meaning to read something and actually reading it isn’t unusual for me: the number of books I’d like to read expands faster than the amount of time I have to read, and the list is continually being reshuffled based on needs and idiosyncrasies). With that long preamble, I’d like to point to this passage:

If I had me to talk to me back when, I might not have had to write a million dreadful words. If I’d caught me at the right moment—and in the right spirit—I might have had to write only a quarter of a million—maybe not so many as that if I’d really listened. You might ask, why did he write five terrible novels? How many terrible novels can you write? The answer is that I had no idea how badly I was writing. None. And my ability to continue working through a million words was so rooted in self-deception that I might not have been able to hear this message. So those are the things you may have to sort through, too.

You might. But if you stumble on this post, or Olen Butler’s book, or some of the other books listed above, in time, you might still come out with fewer terrible stories and novels than you would otherwise.

EDIT 2: This post concerning Philip Greenspun’s “Why I’m Not a Writer” is also germane. If you’re rich enough, you don’t have to worry about food and rent. Everyone else does. If you want to be a professional writer, one useful way to go about it is by starting off with a fat inheritance so you don’t need a day job. And if you want to be a writer, you’ll probably have a day job for life.

7 responses

  1. I never had any questions. Not once. Not from the time I started writing till my first publication. Don’t get me wrong, this was not because of any miraculous intelligence (or incredible ego) on my part. This was simply because every question I could ever have thought of was available on

    I read every article by her. Every word that dropped from her mouth. I read and participated in the website she founded Forward Motion, even after she quit it.

    Thanks to them, I got all the basics that enabled me to continue learning. I am never going to know everything there is to know about writing, but she gave me the basics and more importantly, the ability to continue learning more.


  2. This is an interesting question, but a tough one for me, because when I got started, I didn’t know any writers. The proofreading and editing skills I picked up at my day job proved useful, and eventually a newspaper travel editor patiently walked me through mu first submission, line by line, and helped me unlearn some bad academic-writing habits. Only after I started selling freelance pieces did I learn about critique groups, writers’ organizations, that sort of thing. I wonder how different things would have been for me if I’d had received advice from the community I aspired to join?


  3. Jeff — I think it interesting that you say “I wonder how different things would have been,” the word different implying to me that you wouldn’t necessarily see them as either better or worse. Obviously no one can rerun time in order to experiment on individuals, so we can only speculate on what might have been. In my own case, however, which is the only one I’m intimately familiar with, I think much of the advice in the books cited would’ve hastened my own maturity as both a reader and a writer: some of the books listed are more about being an adept reader than an adept writing, and I think the one probably has to precede the other. In my case, getting some guidance in how to do both came more from books than from individual editors, at least so far.


  4. Jake, great blog. glad to stumble upon it.

    All these books sound good, but you’ve overlooked a book I consider to be a modern classic.
    Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Author: Roy Peter Clark.

    I’ve had writing graduate workshops with a Nobel prize winner for literature and another with a national book award winner. Frankly, when I stumbled upon Clark’s books, I couldn’t believe his insights into writing. If I read this book 20 years ago, I couldn’t imagine what I’d be doing today.

    He’s not widely known because the book is geared towards writing for journalism. But as soon as you get into it, you see the general applicability. Clark write a column at Poynter .


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