How to Be a Successful Writer According to Best-Selling Authors
Take This Advice From the Masters of the Craft
Once you dedicate yourself to writing your first novel, the hard work is just beginning. While you have overcome the very first hurdle in the writing process by dedicating yourself to crafting your first novel, there are many obstacles you’ll find yourself facing as you brainstorm, outline, and develop your characters and plot.
I recently made the decision to start on my first novel and, not knowing exactly where to start, I decided to seek the advice of some of the best-selling authors of our time. After all, what better place to look for pointers that would aid me in my writing journey than those who have mastered the craft?
If you have recently made the decision to start writing your first novel, take the advice of those who have come before you. Today, I’ll be giving you some of the advice that the best-selling authors of our time have given for aspiring authors far and wide.
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“What is writing? Telepathy, of course.”- Stephen King
As one of the most widely read authors in the world, when Stephen King shares his insights on writing, you should listen. It’s just a simple fact. With his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, Stephen King shares all of his best tips to authors from the aspiring author to those on their way to commercial success.
In the memoir, King provides valuable insight into not only the author’s journey but the mind of the author. It is clear that in his memoir, King doesn’t like to waste time, getting to the valuable lessons he has to offer in a blunt fashion that I can really appreciate. Here are some of his best tips on writing from the king of suspense’s memoir to help you get started in your own writing process.
Write For Yourself First
“When you’re writing a story, you’re telling yourself a story. When you rewrite, you’re taking out all the things that are not the story.”
The first piece of advice that Stephen King has to offer that I think is especially helpful to aspiring authors is to write for yourself first. King actually states that he learned this lesson himself from his boss and editor John Gould at his job writing for Lisbon’s Weekly Newspaper.
Put simply, King believes that you should never let anyone interfere when you first begin channeling and writing down your story. Instead, let the story come to you as it will and write it down without judging it or viewing it through any particular lense. Remain objective and, when you’ve finished the first draft of your story, view it with a pair of new eyes and rewrite with your mind open.
Write Every Day
“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.”
In my experience as a writer, and for many writers around the world, this single piece of advice from Stephen King has proven to be one of the best tips we have ever received.
As a freelance writer and aspiring novelist, writing every single day, while sometimes especially challenging, has been one of the best things I could do in regards to developing my unique writing style and finding my own voice.
As I have started working on my first novel, I have found myself “too busy” (while this could honestly be debated) to work on my novel every single day. Much like Stephen King warned, I found myself losing my grip on my story and my characters did in fact begin to feel stale. Doubt in my own abilities began to creep in, casting a dark shadow over the work itself.
For this reason, I have realized that remaining disciplined and forcing myself to write every day, as King advises, is one of the best things I can do not only for the progression of my work but for the development of my writing skills. I have now committed to a weekly structure as I work on my novel. From re-reading on certain days to working out the plot, world, and structure of the things I want to say, there’s something important for me to do each and every day when writing.
Keep to a daily word count goal if that helps you to feel more accomplished! Whatever you do, take this piece of advice from Stephen King seriously when working on your novel.
Let Go of Your Fear to Impress
“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation, Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sort of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad’, is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”
If we rip away the layers and take a glimpse into the root of most bad writing, we’ll find a common enemy lying in wait: fear. This piece of advice from King has been significantly helpful during my writing process. After all, readers are smarter than you may think and I would encourage you not to waste your time over-explaining a particular plot point out of fear of misunderstanding. Let go of your fear to impress and simply let your writing flow. There will be time to soften the edges later.
“Books are my friends, my companions. They make me laugh and cry and find meaning in life.”- Christopher Paolini
Christopher Paolini, whose new novel, The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm, entered the Y.A. list at №1, devotes an entire section on his website to advice for budding authors. Along with this writing advice, the author also shares a list of his favorite books because, as you will find, Paolini credits reading often as an important part of the writing process.
When I was in the 5th grade, I was obsessed with Paolini’s debut novel, Eragon, and considered the author to be my favorite at that time. As part of a school assignment, I wrote a letter to Paolini asking for advice as a kid with aspirations of writing my own successful fantasy novel one day. Much to my surprise, while many other children in my class received automated letters back from their favorite authors, I received a hand-typed letter directly from Paolini himself where he addressed me by name, answering each of my questions in detail. I was absolutely floored and starstruck. Today, many of the tips he offered have stuck with me and acted as guidelines for the way I craft my stories today.
Read Everything You Can
“Good writers are good readers.”
Christopher Paolini, in the letter I received from him in the 5th grade, encouraged me to foster my love for reading. I told him that I was an avid reader and that it was my love for books that had truly inspired me to be a writer one day, just like him. He encouraged me to never stop reading, to soak up the words of others as often as I could. In Paolini’s words, “good writers are good readers” and there is much that every writer can learn from the works of others. Without a love of reading, you can never truly be the writer that you have the potential to be. Take this advice seriously.
Learn Everything You Can About the Language You’re Writing In
“Language is the tool of the trade.”
As Christopher Paolini puts it, the better that you are able to understand the language that you are writing in, the better you will be able to take what’s in your head and put it to paper. While learning about grammar isn’t always fun, Paolini says, it’s best to understand the rules before you try to break them.
In my own writing process, I never bother with grammar too much on my first draft. While this is the case for many writers, it is clear that your second draft could be helped along significantly if you had a proper understanding of grammar before ever starting. Help your future self out where you can and have an understanding of grammar before you ever put pen to paper! It’ll pay off in the long run.
Outline Your Story Before You Begin to Write It
“Writing is like music. It’s very hard to compose a piece of music while you perform it. So first you compose it and then you can concentrate on performing it as beautifully as possible. And make no mistake- writing is a performance. So outline your story, outline your world, and outline your characters before you start to write them.”
Let’s be honest: some of us can’t seem to bear the idea of outlining our books before starting them. I’m with you there. Commonly referred to as “pantsing” or “just winging it”, many of us tend to just start our books by writing from the top of our heads. While this may work for some people, as a general rule, Christopher Paolini advises against it. After all, if we have a roadmap to guide us as we actually put our ideas down on paper, we’ll find ourselves having a much easier time reaching our final destination than if we just stumbled around in the dark, figuratively.
When starting your novel, find the best approach possible for outlining your work. There are various guides to outlining your novel available on the Internet from writers just like you. Find what works for you specifically and stick with it. It’ll make the writing process a bit easier in many ways and will better inform the direction you are taking in terms of plot, characters, and story development.
“Let yourself fail repeatedly and don’t put pressure to be perfect the first time, because it is never ever perfect the first time.”- David Levithan
David Levithan is a best-selling American young adult fiction author, having completed a slew of novels according to his Wikipedia page. While I have only read one of Levithan’s novels, entitled Will Grayson, Will Grayson, I really enjoyed his work when I was a teenager and would take any piece of writing advice he has to offer to heart. Here are some of his best writing tips for aspiring authors everywhere.
Don’t Be Afraid to Write a Bad Book
“Don’t worry about being published — just write a really good book, but also don’t be afraid to write a bad book. Give yourself permission to fail and don’t be afraid.”
This is a bit of a hard truth that we should accept sooner rather than later as aspiring writers: in all likelihood, our first novel won’t be a bestseller. In all actuality, our first novel may never even be published by a traditional publisher. Regardless, we must overcome the fear of writing “a bad book” and just get the damn thing written.
If we allow ourselves to be consumed by the fear that our first novel is going to suck, we’ll never complete it. Further, we’ll never be able to say that we wrote a book. Taking things even further, we’ll never have the chance to grow and develop as writers. Writing is all about failing. As any best-selling author will tell you, the road to success is paved with rejection and instances of failure. It’s a part of the process. If you truly want to be a writer, you have to rise above that fear.
Write What You Feel Compelled to Write
Write what you feel compelled to write, and not what you feel like you’re supposed to write…
All too often, us writers get caught up in the act of wondering whether or not the work we are producing fits the times, has a market, or will be well-received by a large audience. If we allow this thought process to guide our every action as we develop our story, it is likely that we’ll miss out on what could potentially be some great, thoroughly original, writing.
Instead of putting ourselves in boxes and imprisoning our minds from exploring beyond the horizon, we should take what is calling to us and use it to develop our stories. Like David Levithan says, write what you feel compelled to write and let that passion and interest guide you.
Trust in Your Editor
I am still entirely dependent on my editor to see my own work through the readers’ eyes. I am not capable of that. Editing yourself is like a doctor performing surgery on himself or herself–not advisable.
As much as it is important to let ourselves take the reigns and follow our passion when writing, it is equally as important that we take a step back and let our editors do their jobs when it comes to the revision process.
As Levithan says, an editor is able to see your work through the eyes of your reader. That’s what they’re there for and they play a crucial role in the development and fine-tuning of your work. Let them help to guide your decisions as you form your second and even third draft and trust in them to help you turn your work into something that your readers will truly appreciate.
“If my writing comes to a halt, I head to the shops: I find them very inspirational. And if I get into real trouble with my plot, I go out for a pizza with my husband.”- Sophie Kinsella
According to her Wikipedia page, “at the age of 24, Kinsella wrote her first novel. The Tennis Party was immediately hailed as a success by critics and the public alike and became a top ten best-seller.”
As a 25-year-old, I dream of producing a novel that would be highly-acclaimed by critics and readers alike. Regardless, I still find my feet planted firmly upon the ground and my brain in reality. In all likelihood, my first novel won’t be a groundbreaking success as Sophie Kinsella’s was. But if I ever hope to achieve that kind of success in my life, I would do well to follow her advice. Here are some of Sophie Kinsella’s best tips for aspiring writers.
Stay Motivated to Finish
“Everybody, no matter who they are, gets to the middle of a book and thinks crikey, I’ve had enough of this. You get bored with your story and your characters, you hate them all, you can’t think why you started this wretched story in the first place.
The truth is, every book is hard to write, everybody reaches a wall, whether it is a plot hole or a scene that you can’t get past. So you’ve just got to get to the end. Even if it’s not the greatest draft, if it needs rewriting fine, at least you have a book to rewrite.”
I take this advice from best-selling author Sophie Kinsella to heart. I feel it. I experience it. I know it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started on a piece of writing only to think “Wow, this sucks. Why did I even start this?”. Regardless, the key to success as a writer is found in the motivation to continue.
As Kinsella says, every book is hard to write and everybody reaches a wall at one point or another; it’s simply a part of the writing process. When you find yourself colliding head-first into that wall, don’t fall down and just lie there- continue to push forward. Chisel away at the wall in front of you, piece by piece, and stay motivated to finish. At the end of the day, even if your first novel isn’t a groundbreaking success, you wrote a novel. You wrote a book. You are a writer. Don’t stop when the going gets tough.
Learn From Feedback
“I think everybody is entitled to an opinion and I think that everybody who is a reader has a view point and might have insights that another person doesn’t have, so I think, I listen to everybody’s voice.
If I meet somebody at an event and they say “I thought this about your book”, I listen to them with great respect. I treat all voices as equal, each of them is a valid reader with a point of view to express. They had an experience and they are telling you about their experience. That’s what I am interested in.”
Sometimes, receiving criticism can be difficult. In fact, receiving criticism is pretty much always difficult. After pouring yourself into a story and spending countless hours fleshing out your characters, it can be challenging to receive feedback, especially when that feedback is less than positive. Regardless, as Kinsella states, every reader has a voice and you would do well, as an author, to treat every voice as equal.
We have to learn from our mistakes as authors and reading reviews and receiving criticism is part of that process. It can help us develop as authors. Learn from what your readers have to say and use it to develop your natural talents further. That is, in a very big way, part of what being a writer is all about.
Keep a Notebook With You
“Always carry a notebook. Everywhere. Even if it seems irrelevant, note down whatever springs to mind. You can do so much with a passing thought or a snippet of overheard conversations. Don’t worry about what ‘it’ is going to be, just get into the habit of noting down everything and then when you have your big idea you’ll have material ready to work with.”
As a writer, one of the biggest problems I run into is coming up with ideas. Sometimes, no matter how badly I want to write, I just can’t think of anything to say. That’s where this tip from Kinsella comes in. There are countless instances of inspiration to be found in our day-to-day lives, swirling around our heads at any given moment. A notebook is one of the best ways to capture them in your hands and save them for later.
If you aren’t already in the habit of carrying an “idea notebook” around with you everywhere you go, give it a try! You’d be surprised how easily you might just come up with that award-winning idea one day while simply paying a visit to your local coffee shop or picking up a package from the post office. You never know when inspiration will strike and a notebook is one of the best tools at your disposal to grasp it before it gets away.
“You’re a writer, through and through; it’s in your nature, it’s written on your heart. It doesn’t matter whatever else is going on in your life, it doesn’t matter how anyone receives your words.”- Elizabeth Gilbert
As both an American journalist and a celebrated author, Elizabeth Gilbert is someone who knows what she’s doing when it comes to writing. Best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat Pray Love, which sold 12 million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages, Gilbert is someone I listen to intently when it comes to tips for aspiring authors. Here are her best tips for developing your novel and staying motivated to keep pressing forward.
Tell Your Story TO Someone
“Pick one person you love or admire or want to connect with, and write the whole thing directly to them — like you’re writing a letter. This will bring forth your natural voice. Whatever you do, do NOT write to a demographic. Ugh.”
When it comes to writing, one of the biggest things that many of us struggle with is finding our unique, natural voice. This can be a very serious struggle. If you are a writer, you know exactly what I’m talking about. That’s why this piece of advice from Elizabeth Gilbert is so helpful.
When trying to find your natural voice, simply write as though you’re writing a letter to someone you love, admire, or want to connect with. What would you say? How would you form your words? How would you get your ideas across?
This is a wonderful exercise for anyone who is still struggling to develop their voice as a writer and will be largely impactful in helping you to craft your first novel. Take it from Gilbert.
Don’t Worry If It’s Good- Just Finish It
“Whether or not your project is good, you’ll be a different person at the end of it, and that’s always worth doing.”
You’ll never be a writer if you don’t write. As we have discussed, the fear of ever getting started is often to blame for, well, never writing. Whether or not your first novel is successful or not really doesn’t matter. Your goal as an aspiring author should be to be an author. Put your words down on paper, form your story, develop your characters, and let it flow freely. There will always be time to fine-tune and clean things up later. For now, your focus should be simply writing. Like Gilbert says, you’ll be a different person at the end of the process and that is absolutely always worth doing!
Remember That Every Writer Starts in the Same Place on Day One
“Every writer starts in the same place on Day One: Super excited, and ready for greatness. On Day Two, every writer looks at what she wrote on Day One and hates herself. What separates working writers from non-working writers is that working writers return to their task on Day Three. What gets you there is not pride but mercy. Show yourself forgiveness, for not being good enough. Then keep going.”
What if I told you that you have something in common with every single writer to appear in this article? Well, you do. We all start in the same place on Day One. If you have started on your first novel, you know it very well: you’re excited, ready to accomplish something great, prepared to create a work of art the likes of which the world has never seen before!
Then Day Two hits. You read over everything you so excitedly put to paper the day before and you think, “This is terrible”. You struggle back and forth with the decision to even continue. The “Delete All” button calls to you temptingly. You could just throw it all away and start over.
All writers go through this. All writers wonder whether or not what they’re pouring their heart and soul into will be any good at all. All of us. Take Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice and don’t forget this fact. We all make mistakes, from Stephen King to you. We all struggle at one point or another. What separates Stephen King from the writer that never publishes a single word is the willingness to continue when things get messy.
Want to be a great writer? Write.