Thursday, January 7, 2010

Advice for first time authors (Not from me, don't worry)

New Year’s resolution update: I have not assaulted my night reporter, either verbally or physically. The true test will be this weekend when he have to bowl together for BFit4Life.

I’d welcome you all to the melange; but I’m in a surprisingly coherent mood.

I want to talk about a specific topic today, a topic that comes up whenever I attend a lecture or reading by a writer — any writer.

Inevitably, some person will raise their hand, stand from their chair and contritely ask the writer, “What advice would you give a first-time author?”

Also inevitable, the writer will give one of two replies:

“Write a lot and expect rejection.”

“Pick another career.”

Both suggestions are honest, but they are also glib and less helpful than more specific advice.

It was nice to see poet Christian Wiman give a more thorough answer. (Shout out to the Bookslut blog for providing the link.)

Read deep into your own tradition and memorize poems from all eras. Read literatures other than your own. Read history, philosophy, theology, science. Travel the world, if you can. If you can’t, travel deeply into your own neighborhood, training yourself to see what other people miss. Find some way of supporting yourself that’s apart from your art. Hopefully, this will feed your imagination and bring new material into your work, but at the very least it will create a useful buffer zone between what you do and what you earn. Keep in mind that all this is coming from someone who edits a poetry magazine for a living, doesn’t like to travel and has forgotten three-quarters of what he’s read.

Jean Henry Mead has also collected some genuinely good advice from other writers on her blog.

From Elmore Leonard: The first thing you have to learn is how not to overwrite.

Pulitzer winner A.B. Guthrie Jr.: I would give one piece of advice to would-be writers: if you don’t love the language, forget it!

Janet Dailey: Probably the greatest way for a writer to break into the business is to write in category, whether it be western, romance, mystery, or science fiction; that’s the place where the publisher has already learned there is an audience. That’s where fledglings can establish themselves and become a Stephen King, Mickey Spillane, Louis L’Amour or Agatha Christie. Excel and go beyond the so-called limits of the categories.

Parris Afton Bonds: Talent is cheap. The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is persistence. Selling is a matter of luck, really.

Irene Bennett Brown: A writer shouldn’t broadcast a story’s theme or wave it in front of a reader like a banner. That’s too much like teaching and preaching, which readers hate. I give my characters strong goals, and tough problems. Theme isn’t something you plan, it just is. It’s what your story proves and falls into place when you’ve done everything else right.

-Jason Lea,



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