You may have heard about my good friend* Hugh Howey, who is one of those recent few writers who have turned eyeballs on self-published and serialised fiction into success and book deals and bathtubs full of whiskey (but not whiskey that was made in a bathtub, because that would be gross). Anyway, he’s posted some advice, and goddamn if some of it doesn’t sound damn fine. Choice cuts pasted below.
*I’ve never met the man and he has no idea who I am.
So here’s the #1 secret to success and a career of working in your underwear: You have to work harder than anyone else. Period. Look around. What are other aspiring writers doing? That’s your ground floor. Your minimum. That’s where you begin. Double that. I promise you, this is the easiest path to success. What follows is specifics. But this is the general rule: Work harder than anyone else. If you don’t have this as your benchmark, you are going to have to rely on too much luck. And this blog post isn’t about the luck, it’s about how to minimize your required dosage.
1) Make a long-term plan. My plan was to write two novels a year for ten years before I ascertained whether or not I had a chance of making this work. You don’t get into the NBA without at least ten years of shooting drills and pickup games. If you set a longterm plan like this, and stick with it, you will succeed. Because you’ll find yourself in the top 0.1% of aspiring writers. 99.9% of your colleagues will drop out before they finish their plan. But you’ll outwork them. And yes, even if a thousand of you read this blog post, and all thousand of you implement the plan, all thousand of you will earn a living with your writing, leaving not much room for everyone else. Tough shit. There are more seats on this bus than there are people willing to put in what it takes to make it. Keep in mind that the videogame and TV busses are packed. We can lure more and more of them over if you implement your plan. And that plan all starts with:2) Reading. I assume this is a given, but you never know. I’ve met people who don’t read at all but want to become writers because they think it sounds like an easy gig. The underwear! The mumbling! The Googling! The thing about writing that’s different than playing a guitar for a living, or acting on stage, or painting, is that we all do some writing. In fact, we do a lot of writing. We write emails. Blog posts. Facebook updates. A novel is just more of that, right? Wrong. The writing is the easy bit compared to the crafting of engaging plots and characters. There are some things you only gain through absorption. Read a lot, read the greats, and read outside your comfort zone. Want to write science fiction? Read crime thrillers and romance novels. Learn how to unspool a mystery and how to inject love into your stories.
[…]4) Daydream. Most of the writing takes place away from the keyboard. I did most of my writing as a yacht captain, roofer, and bookseller. I also got in the habit of driving with the radio off, in silence, with just my thoughts. Tune out the distractions and live in the world of your creation. Know your characters, your plot, all the twists, the larger world, before you start writing. And then keep most of that shit to yourself. The reader doesn’t care. Most of what you think is interesting is boring. Your novel is going to be a greatest hits collection, every one of your best ideas packed into a single volume. Hold nothing back. You’ll have more great ideas.
5) Learn to fail. Your first book will not be your best. The elation of completing that first draft is awesome; soak that up; remember it; get addicted to it. Because you’ll want to do this ten or twenty times before you write your best work. We’ll get to the craft stuff in a bit, but for now, just know that you should revise, revise, revise, edit, publish, and then get started on your next book. This was the best thing I ever did: I didn’t waste time promoting my works until they were already selling. I kept writing. So when things did heat up, I had seven or eight works out there. All those works are brand new as long as they stay undiscovered. You aren’t in a rush. Remember the plan.
Learning to fail also includes learning to write like crap and not care. Push through. We all write like crap, some of us by the steaming, fly-buzzing bucketload. The reader will never see it. You’ll revise it to perfection and delete the bad parts. The key is to have something down to work with. So learn to fail. Keep going. Ignore the sales of existing works. Ignore the bad reviews. Keep reading, writing, practicing, and daydreaming.
6) Plot trumps prose. The thing you absolutely should not do if you want to make a living as a writer is go to school to learn how to write. MFA programs churn out editors and waiters. Sure, you can craft a perfect sentence, but you’ve got nothing to write about, because you’ve been in school your whole life. Readers prefer the clear and concise delivery of an exciting story more than the flowery and sublime delivery of utter ennui. Hell, they’ll even take the horrible delivery of a great story over the absolute perfection of dullness. Some of the bestselling novels of my lifetime have been lampooned for the writing style therein. Granted, if you can do both, please do. But first learn to craft a story and tell it in the clearest manner possible. That means studying story. Read Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces ($13 for the hardback!). Watch great films and TV shows to see how they pull it off. Read what’s selling and ask yourself why it’s selling.
9) Write Great Shit. This seems obvious, right? But here is what separates failed works from those that succeed. I think a lot of craft writing advice is outdated. Times are different. Attention spans are shorter. You can coax a reader along, and give them a slow build, but only if you hook them first. So start your story at the most tension-filled moment, even if that’s in the middle or at the end. Introduce a likable, flawed character in the first paragraph. In that same paragraph, name the stakes. It used to be that we had to distill our novel down to an elevator pitch for prospective agents. Now we need to do the same for readers, and your book should open that way.
10) Find your voice. I put this last because it’s the hardest, will take the longest, but may be the most important thing you ever do as a writer. What the hell is your voice? It’s how you write when you aren’t aware that you’re writing. Everything else you do is mimicry. Self-awareness is the enemy of voice. When you fire off an email to your mom or best friend, you are writing in your voice. When you blog, you will begin to find your voice. Your voice will change the more you read and the more you write. That’s normal. It’s still your voice.
Why is voice important? Not because it will land you an agent. Or because your works will win literary awards. No, screw that. Your voice is important because you can’t enter a flow state without it. When you find your voice, your fingers won’t be able to keep up with your writing. You won’t stumble. You won’t flail. You won’t sit there wondering what the next best word is. You’ll have an idea or a concept, a visual image, a conversation that you want to convey, and you’ll know immediately how to convey it.
Your voice will get easier to find the broader your vocabulary becomes. You’ll have more pieces to slot into the jigsaw puzzle of your prose. Your voice will improve as you study your own writing to see what works and what doesn’t. My voice is sing-song. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets and read so much iambic pentameter that I can’t help but have my syllabic stresses rise and fall to a beat. I like the way it feels. It feels like me. I also discovered that I love run-on sentences, with lots of comma clauses, but only if I intersperse those sentences with a bunch of choppy, short, incomplete clauses. My mother pointed this out to me. She was right. Nailed it. And I learned to embrace this.
Getting comfortable with your voice means becoming less self-conscious about your writing. When this happens, you can tell the story in your mind without getting in your own way. Stop reading what you’re writing as you write it. See the world in your head. Visualize it. Smell it. Hear it. Sprinkle in details from the periphery of your character’s senses. Make the world real. Then just tell it as naturally as you can. I promise this will go better than trying to impress yourself or anyone else. I promise.
And now, speaking of, this novel isn’t going to edit itself.