Decades ago—yes I am old enough to use a phrase “decades ago”—when I was just getting started in figuring out how to be a writer, I read everything I could find about the business of writing. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest and The Writer, I bought the annual Writer’s Market book and the occasional volumes of The Writer’s Handbook. I attended workshops, took classes, and, of course, I wrote, wrote, wrote. During those dark days of rejection (I earned over 100 one year), I read and heard plenty of advice, and during those days of my naiveté and inexperience much of the advice was stuff I didn’t want to hear.
As a desperate and dumb beginning writer, what I wanted to hear was, “Congratulations, we’re going to publish your manuscript!” or “This is the most brilliant writing we have ever read, and we’re honored to have the privilege to publish your work.”
Instead, what I received was a pretty standard rejection letter: “We are returning your manuscript. It does not meet our current needs.”
Some of the advice and writerly rules I read in those days rubbed me as wrong as the rejection letters did because that advice didn’t provide the validation I was starving for. Well, that and because the advice and rules recommended things I wasn’t willing or able to do.
1. “Nobody under 40 ever wrote anything worth reading.”
At the time I was well under 40, and I was convinced that I had plenty of material that the world would beat a path to my door to read. And I was impatient. I didn’t want to wait for publication, I didn’t want to pay my dues. I wanted to get published!
2. “Write a million pages and throw them all away. Then you’re ready to start writing.”
I started as a two-fingered typist, and it took me hours just to hunt and peck my way through a 2,000 word article. No way was I going to invest a ton of time in writing for nothing.
3. “Murder your darlings.”
Even as a green writer, I knew this didn’t mean I was supposed to smother my children. I knew that it meant that I had to be willing to cut precious paragraphs, scintillating scenes, and clever characters if they weren’t pulling their weight. I still clung to my stupid student habit of finding a way of keeping everything I wrote, regardless of how much feedback, revision, and re-reading told me it should go. Yep, I was loyal to every lousy word.
4. “At least 50% of your time should be spent in revision.”
This, I could not believe. First drafts took longer than growing a wisdom tooth, and after investing that much time in pounding out a blasted manuscript, I wanted to be done with it. Spending an equal amount of time on revision not only sounded ludicrous, it sounded downright dumb.
5. “Find a trusted and talented reader who will tell you the truth about your writing. Then believe what they tell you.”
As a freakishly fragile writer, burdened with doubt, I didn’t want honest critics forcing feedback down my throat; I wanted obsequious sycophants who would willingly tell me that my pig’s ears were really silk purses. I wanted my family and friends to tell me I was wonderful and that I would soon hit the Big Time. At this stage of my career, I hadn’t yet realized that any writer worth his salt has to want to be told what’s not working in a manuscript.
6. “The best cure for writer’s block is a big mortgage.”
What a load of baloney, I thought. Whoever said this did not appreciate that agony of art, the writhing of writing, the cramps of composition. Writer’s block was something, I believed, that afflicted sensitive artistic types, something like atmospheric interference that fuzzed up Muse signals. Artist/writers didn’t need to degrade themselves with deadlines; they had to allow time for their Muses to fertilize their fields of imagination, and sometimes, frankly, those fields needed to be fallow.
7. “Finish it. Throw it in the fireplace. Start over.”
This bit really burned me. I heard learned in school, during the days when I was a stupid student, that the writing process began the night before something was due. After pounding out a paper in a white heat of inspiration and desperation, it was finished. Done. Complete. No way was I going to throw it all away and start over. When I started writing longer things, I couldn’t even conceive of ditching an entire manuscript as a mere warm up for the real writing.
So now that I’m ancient, what have I learned? Well, I’ve learned that most of the advice I received was good and true and that I was too inexperienced, too impatient, too dumb to figure out how to use it to improve my writing. I’ve learned that writing is a long apprenticeship, often an extremely long apprenticeship and that even though there are always examples of rookie writers who smash grand slams in their first at bats (S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rowling, Christopher Paolini, Stephenie Meyer), there are many, many more workaday writers who have labored through long apprenticeships to earn their way onto bookshelves. I’ve learned that writing well is hard work and that the only way to get hard work done is to work hard.