One of the best events I've attended so far was a "conversation" -- really, a two-person panel -- comprised of Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis. Gaiman, who is one of this year's guests of honor, is a fantasy fiction rock star; he's written the "Sandman" graphic novels and several more traditional novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods. (To give you an idea of just how big a deal Gaiman is: the reason I didn't have time to set up for the mass autographing session was because I spent nearly an hour in line, waiting to get Gaiman to sign my copy of the tenth anniversary edition of American Gods. And I started out near the front of the line.) Willis, who is the toastmistress this year, has written several excellent novels, including Doomsday Book and Lincoln's Dreams. Toward the end of their panel, they were each asked to provide some advice for aspiring writers, which I've decided to share here.
Gaiman began by quoting Robert Heinlein's rules for writing. Paraphrased, they are:
- Finish what you write.
- Don't rewrite unless an editor tells you to.
- Send off what you write.
- Repeat from the top.
Number 2 is designed to keep you going through the hard parts. Everybody starts strong and gets bogged down somewhere in the middle of the story. Everybody has good days, where the writing flows easily and every word seems like a gem, and the bad days, where it's like pulling teeth to get words out onto the page and you feel like everything you've written stinks. Gaiman says he has both good and bad days, too. But he says that when he reviews the galley proof when it comes back from the publisher, he can't tell which pages he wrote on a good day and which he wrote on a bad day. So the quality of your writing doesn't vary from day to day as much as you think it does -- a great insight, I thought, that could help someone through a particularly unmotivated day.
Number 3 will help avoid another common pitfall: constantly rewriting the same few sentences or paragraphs to make them ""better," thereby stalling the whole project. It's also good advice for a writer who has handed his or her work to some readers and asked for their input. If one person says you've got a problem here, or you need more description there, well, trust your gut; if you don't think they're right, don't change your work just to suit them. If a number of people point out the same problem, though, or if an editor tells you that something needs a rewrite, then by all means, fix it.
Number 4, obviously, will prevent you from sticking your work in a drawer. It will never be published if you don't send it out. And number 5 gives you something to do while you're waiting to hear back on number 4.
Willis's advice reinforced those two final rules of Heinlein's. She said that new writers should never give up. She told of one particularly bleak day, early in her career, on which she received a notice from the post office that she had a package waiting. Alas, it wasn't one package, it was eight packages -- all eight of her stories that she had submitted to various publishers had been returned, rejected, on the same day. She admitted that she thought, that day, that maybe she should pursue a different career. But she didn't give up, and clearly she eventually succeeded.
Gaiman's final bit of advice was to read outside your comfort zone. If you typically read fantasy, say, then pick up something in another genre, or even a non-fiction book -- just so long as you push your boundaries. You might learn a new trick or two, or gain a new insight or new inspiration for your own work.
This whole convention is a great lead-in, for me, to NaNoWriMo, which starts in just a couple of days. I'm looking forward to beginning my own new writing adventure. Here's hoping the high from this weekend carries over, for me, into drear November.