If you’ve ever wanted to sit down with your favorite author, grab him or her by the shoulders, and ask How?, you’re not alone.
Plenty of people want to know exactly how authors do it — grind through the doubt, become inspired, write, get published, and start all over again. In fact, so many people want to know, that we started asking them.
In our Behind the Books series, we interview authors from all walks of genres, asking them both pointed questions about their books and general ones about their reading and writing habits. But we always ask the following question, and we’ve compiled the best answers below for your convenience. (If you’re looking for more, download our free 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide here.)
To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?
“You have to decide how important this is to you. If it’s important enough, you won’t have any excuses. You’ll sit in the chair as long as it takes, you’ll write as many drafts as you need to, you’ll open yourself up to critique, you’ll work to improve your craft, you’ll persevere in the face of rejection. The best thing I did when I became serious about writing was to join a writing group. It’s important to find one where the members are dedicated to helping each other improve, rather than tearing each other down. I would advise any aspiring writer to join a supportive writing group, either online or in their community—and if you can’t find one, start one.”
~Laura McHugh, author of Arrowood
“Well, I have lots of opinions and advice, but I guess one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that frustration is a part of the process. I’ve rarely written anything good that did not come out of moments of extreme frustration. It’s the frustration that propels you forward. If it doesn’t — if you back away from it — the work will be less than it could have been. When I teach writing, I find that students are relieved to hear this… that frustration is an indication of a literary problem to be solved, not a sign that they aren’t good enough writers.”
~Dianne Warren, author of Liberty Street
“Be easy on yourself at the start. Be hard on yourself at the end.
The first draft often feels like dross. Don’t beat yourself up too much. You’re gold mining. There might be a lot to sift through. But at the end, when you’re tired and it feels like you’ve got to send it off right now, put it away, for weeks, a month. Then take another hard look. (But do send it out eventually — you don’t want to be a George McFly.)”
~Jesse Armstrong, author of Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals
“An English teacher — the best I ever had — once told me that the only way to write was to abandon oneself to it completely. I have tried to follow that advice. My own advice to aspiring writers is to be prepared for an often difficult, unstable, and roller coaster kind of life. Don’t do it because it sounds cool, easy, or glamorous. Do it because you need to.”
~Matthew Carr, author of The Devils of Cardona
“Just to live a big, interesting life and the writing will follow.”
~Karan Bajaj, author of The Yoga of Max’s Discontent
“Calvin Coolidge once said that nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. If there is one virtue and talent a writer must have, it’s persistence. It took me fifteen years of banging on doors and writing letters to sell my first screenplay. It took another ten years to sell my first book. If there’s one aspect of my character I am proud of, it’s that I am relentlessly persistent. There is not one single “give up” bone in my body. Anyone who aspires to be a writer should stop right now and find other work if they can’t marshal the capacity within themselves for unbridled persistence. I’ve kept every rejection letter I received on Rocket Girl. I’m getting ready to frame them – they’ll go on my wall as a testament to the fruits of persistence.
I’m doing some editing work for a literary journal this year. We are culling through hundreds of submissions, and I can usually tell within the first two or three paragraphs whether someone is a trained and educated writer, or just another wannabe who knows how to open a Word file. Aspiring writers need to understand that writing is a craft that requires training, education, and practice. Getting a degree in English or Creative Writing is a must. Writers need to be willing to invest time in honing their craft to high professional standards. That means getting a formal education.
I wish someone had given me that advice many years ago – I could have accomplished so much more. I went back to school just before my 50th birthday and spent six years getting a four-year creative writing degree. For me, it turned out to be a real game changer; I’ve never been so busy as a writer.”
~George Morgan, author of Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan
“Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep believing. Surround yourself with people who believe in you.”
~Lucy Sanna, author of The Cherry Harvest
“‘Write what you know’ is the classic nugget of advice, but I think ‘Don’t trust your comfort zone’ has been more helpful for me.”
~Monte Reel, author of Between Man and Beast
“Writing a book is a very artistic, solitary endeavor, but getting a book published requires industry smarts and a business mindset. I’m lucky to have found a community of writers who inspire and support each other, whether we’re struggling with a sticky plot point or a new marketing technique. There’s nothing better than talking shop over a glass (or two) of wine. I’d definitely suggest meeting other writers, going to conferences, taking classes, and learning everything you can about the craft.”
~Fiona Davis, author of The Dollhouse
“Read and write, and do these two things whenever you have a chance. Surround yourself with writers who are better than you. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t depend solely on external validation. Write about what thrills you and terrifies you.”
~Karen Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
“Read as much as possible, especially the work of writers who most deeply affect you. Make those writers your family. Never wait for inspiration to strike before getting to work; be disciplined and form the habit of writing every day. Understand the limitations of peer workshops, and trust that you’ll learn far more from close reading of masters than from any writing class.”
~Sigrid Nunez, author of Sempre Susan
“Advice to writers: write every day.
Best advice received: ‘kill your babies.’”
~Edward Larson, author of The Return of George Washington: 1783 – 1789
“Write about only three things: what you love, what you hate, and what you’re deeply conflicted about.”
~Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings
“Writing is like playing the guitar. There’s no substitute for practice. Guidance and models and goals are good, and you have to listen to really good guitarists/read really good writers and pay attention to how they do it (listening to your exact peers fumble isn’t as helpful), but mainly you have to do it. With passion, for which there’s also no substitute.”
~Rebecca Solnit, author of The Faraway Nearby
“Learn from the prose of the writers you admire. I remember Martin Amis’s contempt for clichés and Selina Hastings’s insistence on the importance of distilling your source material and maintaining a gripping narrative. Also learning (from my editor Shelley Wanger) not to overuse other people’s quotations.”
~Julie Kavanagh, author of The Girl Who Loved Camellias
“If you feel you have something to say, you must try and find a way to say it, and not listen to those who’ll tell you it’s unfeasible or unwise. You have to give it your best shot. The best advice I ever got along these lines is, ‘if you want to be a writer, write.’ That means, don’t content yourself with some job where you’re sort of writing: you need to confront the task, and do it. That’s the only way to learn, and to improve.”
~David Margolick, author of Dreadful
“Write. Write. Write. Write every day.”
~H.W. Brands, author of The Man Who Saved the Union
“The best advice I can give is to take your vows of poverty and loneliness, prepare for many years of disappointment and discouragement, and be eternally thankful for the privilege of doing the work that your heart is set upon.”
~Don Snyder, author of Walking with Jack
“The best advice I was given was by a philosophy professor who told me that before publishing a book you should lock it away in a drawer for a year and only publish it if, when you return to it, you are still sure that it deserves to be published. That is what I would say to an inspiring writer.”
~Ray Monk, author of Robert Oppenheimer
“It is not necessarily advice, but your job is to keep the tradition alive by animating and advancing it. Reinterpretation of our myths, histories and narratives is the essence of art that weaves our cultural fabric.”
~Eric Fischl, author of Bad Boy
“If you must write, if it lives in you like a virus, then write, write with everything you have. If you don’t, it will destroy you.”
~Colin Broderick, author of That’s That
“Well, I believe that every writer probably has a thousand pages of bad fiction — or nonfiction — in him or her. So the first thing you have to do, is just write your bad 1,000 pages. Just writing that much will shake most of your ghosts loose, and teach you how to work your way in and out of many of the blind alleys writers routinely find themselves in. Then, when you get to page 1,001, you can say, Today I begin.”
~Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders
“Write for money, even if it’s peanuts. Start small, learn your craft by knocking out direct, accessible prose on some kind of deadline. Work for somebody. Find an editor. Get paid. Keep writing.”
~Glenn Frankel, author of The Searchers
“My advice is to keep working at it and, as you do, take time to study the writing of others. Disciplined imitation is very important. I learned a lot about writing from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life—not so much about its technical aspects, but her book opened my eyes to a few huge principles of writing that helped me a lot. Plus, she pumps you up on every page! Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was also painlessly instructive. In the end, it isn’t advice that helps me as much as encouragement. A little encouragement keeps me running a long time.”
~Richard Lischer, author of Stations of the Heart
“I’d always wanted to write fiction, but it just wasn’t happening. Finally my would-be agent told me, in effect, ‘Look: your only success so far has been with nonfiction. Think of something you’re really, really interested in right now, then write me a book proposal and I’ll try to sell it.’ Never had it remotely occurred to me to write literary biography, but at the time (the late nineties) I was really interested in Richard Yates: he’d written Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, two of the best American novels of the postwar era–and never mind his great story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness — and he was all but totally forgotten. And the more I dug, the more fascinating his life seemed: son of an alcoholic sculptress! bipolar! sole speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy at the height of the civil rights movement! the subject of a hilarious episode of Seinfeld! It got better and better. So I researched and wrote a 50-page proposal, and to my enduring amazement my agent sold it to a good publisher.
So wait, what was your question … ? Oh yeah: my advice to aspiring writers is hang in there, try different things, and maybe one day you’ll surprise yourself.”
~Blake Bailey, author of Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson
“If you want to be a storyteller kind of writer, you should do a wide variety of things in order to gain a broad base of experience. Join the Foreign Legion. Smuggle. Run for political office. Work on a farm. Ride a motorcycle. Steal a car, but stay out of trouble. Remember, jail is a short-term experience. State prison goes on for years and it sucks. Avoid it.
If you want to be a reporter kind of writer, get a journalism degree and get a job at a newspaper while there are still a few good papers left in business. Once the last one is gone you will have to pay for your own internship, writing for free on the Internet.
The thing you need most of all – whether you want to be a writer or anything else – is a vision. You need to know what you want to be and have a plan to get there. Too many people enter school and assume they will figure it out later, after the party, maybe in grad school. Meanwhile, the people who know they want to be the next Hemingway, or get elected to the Senate, or invent the successor to Pokémon … those people leave all their aimless or lost brethren in the dust.”
~John Elder Robison, author of Raising Cubby
“Write, and write some more. That’s the advice Arthur Miller gave me when I wrote to him saying I didn’t want to go to college and instead wanted to serve as his apprentice at his home/studio in New Milford, Connecticut. He replied that such an arrangement would never be feasible given the solitary way he worked, and he then said going to college and working in that environment was not a bad way to gain experience, test oneself against others, and to grow. He was right.”
~Dick Lehr, author of Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss
“The most important piece of writing advice: Have something to say. Whenever I have trouble writing, it’s because I’m trying to write about something I don’t care about. Once I know what I’m trying to say, writing is a joy. Other advice: read, read, read.”
~Gretchen Rubin, author of Happier at Home
“Read as much as you can. Try to write every day. Be a harsh self-critic. Try to get down on paper (or screen) exactly what it is you are trying to say. To me, writing is rewriting, something I learned when I lived and worked in Hollywood. Think of that first draft as a clump of clay. You have to mold that into something finished. The first draft is only the beginning. The best piece of advice I ever got was from Phil Ochs, who, when I told him I wanted to be a writer, said ‘Great. Then write.’ Something like when my father took me for my first driving lesson. He put me behind the wheel, started the car and said ‘Drive!’ You have to get in there and do it.”
~Marc Eliot, author of Michael Douglas