I love the way this season invites us to pause and reflect, to dig deep into what the past twelve months has taught us and to think about how we’d like to adjust our sails in the new year.
Usually I send out words of writing advice and encouragement from a different guest each month to my creative writing newsletter, The Writing Habit, but this month I thought I’d share all of my favourite bits of advice from the wonderful guests we had in 2019, here. (If you’d like to sign up for monthly creative writing prompts and encouragement and haven’t done so already, you can join us, here.)
One thing that struck me when I collected it all together here was the theme of tenacity in the face of rejection. This seems to me to be the one thing that distinguishes a writer from someone who wishes they were a writer: the courage and tenacity to keep going, in spite of rejection.
I’m so grateful for each and every one of these wonderful guests, and for you—thank you for being here to share your writing journey with me, and I can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store for all of us.
You don’t need to wait for The Muse to strike
“I don’t believe ideas are supposed to come naturally. One day, after (hopefully!) many years of researching, planning, and writing on different projects, my brain may be so used to this cycle that slotting the pieces of a story together, or finding inspiration becomes effortless. But when you’re first starting out, it’s not so easy.
Getting to the stage where I had an ‘idea’ I liked and could write about emerged from two avenues coming together: creative writing practice and reading.
Firstly, I knew that my creative writing muscles needed (and will always need) to be flexed and stretched. Before I had an inkling of an idea, I would try and write every day… Like anything, your brain needs training to focus and settle into creative patterns. I set a 10 minute timer, wrote without thinking, editing, or sometimes punctuating, and stopped when the buzzer went off. After six weeks or so, I wanted to write past the buzzer. Sometimes, I’d look over what had been written in the week and rework pieces into flash fiction or short stories. I’d say one in every five pieces included material I liked. Not everything needs to be ‘usable’.
At this point, I was beginning to subconsciously ‘look’ for stories in a way I hadn’t done before. I kept a notebook, but made more notes in my phone to be honest. This is when I actively began searching for ideas.”—Abigail E. Mann, February 2019
Submitting short stories to literary magazines can be a great training ground
“Short story writing gave me the content and ability to submit rapidly, and paradoxically, receiving rejections has given me as much confidence to keep writing as my acceptances. I now submit everything from a place of beautiful freedom. I cannot know what will trigger an acceptance, but I do know that rejections are reminder to submit again.”—Torrie Jay White, March 2019
Keep entering competitions, because winning one is truly career-changing
“The prize opened doors left and right: publishers began to approach me, rather than the other way around. I had emails from agents, despite being a poet rather than a novelist. I was booked for readings in London and around the country. When I submitted to magazines, responses came quickly, in days rather than weeks. It was, without a doubt, the moment my career as a poet took off.”—Rhiannon Hooson, April 2019
Don’t give up. Rejection doesn’t make you a failure
“I realized that agent hadn’t rejected me because she thought I was a piece of steaming garbage—she didn’t even know me! Writing is subjective, and so are rejections. She could already have a client with a story like mine. Maybe she didn’t connect to my writing. She might have had a dozen reasons to pass on my story. But she had never once called me a failure. I had done that to myself. I had taken the rejection personally because, deep down, I was insecure about my book. So I gutted it. I added more tension, more sense of place, more agency. I replaced scenes I felt ambivalent about until I loved all my chapters, not just some. I read more books in my genre. I looked at successful queries online and fine-tuned my pitch. I scraped together enough confidence to keep up the hard work. Six weeks later, I accepted an offer of representation from my dream agent.”—Rachel Gillig, May 2019
It’s worth doing the research, even when you don’t use it all
“While you should know as much as possibly about what your world looks like, how it functions and what effect it’s had on your characters… you should only share about 20% of that with your readers. You want to sprinkle in just enough to make your readers trust that you know what you’re doing—but not so much that they’re overwhelmed by a deluge of detail and the dreaded info dump.”—Lara Ferrari, June 2019
Make a habit of sitting down to work on your writing, even if it’s just note taking or research
“Writing doesn’t just have to be the process of documenting your story: it can be editing, writing notes on a character, forming a plot plan, researching or drawing a map of the world you’ve created. They are all valid, useful ways to utilise your time and if you really do only have a spare ten minutes to google what kind of sleeves dresses had in the 1830s then hey, it’s still productive! I started to discover that the more I made time for my creativity, the more creativity I had.”—Katy Who, July 2019
Treat rejection like a game
“There is a really good trick for dealing with rejection without losing courage, and all you have to do is shift your mind-set from trying to get accepted to trying to collect a certain amount of rejections. This is immediately a lot less scary and serious, more achievable and playful, almost like a game of ping-pong… When the rejections come in, they may still sting, but you can also give yourself a pat on the back for achieving your target each time, and send them out again. And the more you ‘play’, the higher the chances are that you will get encouraging rejections inviting you to submit again… or even “fail” at getting rejected altogether!”—Laura Theis, August 2019
Look for an agent who gets you and your work
“You want your agent to be invested in your whole career. So talk about what you want that to be and see if your expectations line up. One of the first questions my agent asked me—before she offered representation— was what I wanted the future of my writing life to look like. That showed she was interested in me, not just the one book.”—Katharine Schellman, September 2019
Just get the words down, and you can edit them later
“As well as the excitement, diving into something new and uncharted can also feel overwhelming and sometimes even a little scary. My advice? Take some simple steps towards the practical actions, and let the magic of getting started overcome those doubts and uncertainties.
You don’t have to start at the beginning. Writer’s block comes when you freeze up over getting the right words out in the right order. Introductions and opening chapters don’t have to be written first (in fact, I think they’re better left until last).”—Rosie O’Neill, November 2019