A series of thoughts on writing
by Joe R. Lansdale
1. When I write I seldom know where it is going. I discover this every day. Now and again a story drops full blown into my head and it is just a matter of putting it down as quickly as possible, and in some cases novels are like that. Most of my work comes fast but I still work to make it good, and the next day I start all over by rereading what I wrote the day before.
2. I try and do a reasonable amount each day so I'm a hero every day. Three to five pages is what I work for, but I don't fight it if I get more. I rarely get less. I can't remember when I got less, but it happens. This amount of pages is perfect for me, but may not be for you. But I suggest something reasonable. If I try to write a lot of pages day after day I burn out, and I push the story uncomfortably, and past what my subconscious is working on.
3. I write each day until I feel myself starting to fizzle. When I feel that I usually quit, so that when I finish I can put it away in my head and let my subconscious work. I rarely ever work consciously on something, and it's why I don't collaborate much, because you almost have to do that when you work with someone. I like to write and quit and not think about it anymore, other than in the subconscious way. When I get up the next morning and start out again it is there. On the rare occasion when it's not I take a day off. If it's not there two days in a row, then I know I'm just being lazy and I play a word game or tell myself I will write one sentence or one paragraph, and this usually turns into a day's work.
4. I don't prepare for the next day's work when I finish. I let it go and try not to do that. Once in a while something will come through or I'll see something that will cause me to spring up in the middle of the night and start typing. But mostly if I think too much about it, it's like burning a short wick, but if I forget about it until it's time, the wick is lengthened overnight. I try not to think about success or failure but only that I want to make it good and entertain myself. As I have said before I write for me because I'm the only audience I truly know. I don't write for the reader, but when I finish I hope the reader is a lot like me. Frankly, when I write I try to write like everyone I know is dead. This way I'm not worried about what anyone thinks.
5. Another thing that works well for me is to read a little before I write. It can be fifteen minutes or an hour. This makes words feel comfortable. I try to read something different from what I'm writing, but not necessarily. I try to read off and on throughout the day, and have some days where I take the whole day off to read because I know I need it. I have some weeks where I read more than others, but I always read, and I usually manage three or four books a week—novels, or the equal in short stories, not to mention a variety of odds and ends I might read. Reading is the fuel, and you have to fill up the tank constantly.
6. I have had some writers tell me they don't like to read when they write, but since I write a lot, when would I read? I don't think there's anything wrong with reading while you write. For me it would be wrong not to read while I write, or miss out on reading because it's something I love to do, even if I did not write.
7. You should try to write naturally, I think, and what is natural to one may not feel natural to another. You should try to write in such a way that when your writing is examined it seems as if it is written on air and hard to duplicate. What makes writing work really well isn't the subject matter—though that helps. It's the way the writer puts it down and a good writer can make something normally banal seem interesting.
8. Thinking ahead too much gives you time to worry. Let each new day be just that: a new day. Surprise yourself. Somedays the surprises won't be as good as others, but they should still be worth it. And the days it really surprises you, that's great. When you look at it finished you might be amazed to discover that it's all pretty surprising. You hope.
9. Lastly, anyone who takes these thoughts and suggestions as law-of-the-land should be tarred and feathered. Well, made stand in the corner. These suggestions work for me and have worked for many others and might work for you. And they might not. But to find your method you have to experiment. Some of the way I work is advice I got from a writer who I spoke to years ago, and he doesn't still work that way.
Lots of readers have asked if I would do a writing book, and I think about it. But I also think that writing books haven't done much for me. Two have helped, and only for certain things. One had one piece of advice I have used, and the other had advice that helped me when I was starting out, but would probably be worthless to anyone starting out now. The first helped because it had the idea of writing only one page a day. That became three to five for me. The other had a lot of market advice that applied to the era in which it was written. That helped. Not so much now.
So many writing books have charts and arcs and all manner of things that really have nothing to do with the sound of the prose, the voice of a character, attitudes based on their past ... all of which you as a writer should know. I don't chart that past. It becomes too solid then. At some point I know why a character acts a certain way, good or bad. And I know too that whatever character I write about, they have to have both traits. Good and bad. But telling someone that and them doing it is another thing altogether.
Do I write for money? Yes and no. I write because I love to write, but I write with the plan to get paid. I pay bills by writing. I love to do it, but also love to do it for a certain amount of money. But I would write for nothing if I had a story I wanted to write and there wasn't a paying market for it. I would write it and put it away if I had to. Or I would sell it to a lower-paying market. I try not to do that, but I do from time to time.
You should write to be paid and start in the best market possible. Have faith in yourself. If it doesn't place where you like, go down the list. Find a home. Seeing something in print you're proud of spurs more creativity and more checks. You need both in this life. Starving and being paid poorly does not make you an artist.
For me writing is a passion, not an obsession. One is good and fun, the other feels a little like you're stalking yourself. I have to have things in my life other than writing to love the writing. I think if all I had was writing it would consume me. Not the life I want.
I don't do this anymore, but when I first started my wife would pick interesting stories from the newspapers and I would pick a couple that were especially interesting to me and try to figure how they could somehow be related. It helped me think about how you could take seemingly unrelated ideas and make a story out of them. In the long run I found this too artificial, but it helped me learn to construct stories. Now I don't think about it at all or use this method, but I think I learned a lot from it.
Sometimes writing works best when you create a fine opening line that deals with a character. You are forced to understand why a character would act the way you have had them act in that line. It's one line, but it can open up a whole vault of ideas about that character, and the excitement of knowing the character's motivation for murder, singing a song, or whatever, even if you don't use it all in the story, gives you confidence to proceed. Each character does what they do for a reason other than serving the plot. They shouldn't be chess pieces you're pushing around to get to the end of the story. The story has to develop out of who they are and what they would do because of their life experience.
I find that less is more when it comes to writing hours. Three is about it for me, and that way I'm not worn out the next day, and I keep adding to the story because I know I'll have a short time to work. It stays fun most of the time and a lot more satisfying, and I get to feel like a hero every day because I've worked with enthusiasm. Working my ass off for twelve hour a day just gives me dread of doing it. But knowing I only have to show up for about three hours, write three to five pages a day, I often find I write a larger number of pages than that, and I stay excited about the work. I find if the three to five pages come quickly, and I just don't feel up to working longer, I quit, even if it isn't three hours, because I know I've done my quota. Next day I might get ten pages in three hours, and often do because I'm invested in the story. It excites me and satisfies me. It's my method, and it might be helpful to others, and maybe not, but there it is if you want to consider it.
Finished a new novel tonight. The ending popped in my head a few days ago, and because I knew that ending, I wrote toward it starting about forty pages out. Got there and wrote that ending and it didn't work at all. I came up with another, but it only worked slightly better, went to bed, and bingo, popped in my head. I usually just work mornings a little bit, but this book has been obsessive. Anyway, point is, in writing, you have to be flexible. Something may be good in the head but sucks on paper.
Each to his own, but the idea of multiple drafts is not necessarily a good idea. A writer can get lost in all those drafts, and think the more drafts the better the book. I polish as I go, so there's essentially one draft, though by polishing as I go, I'm doing a lot of little daily rewrites. I don't outline or plot, except subconsciously, I just write, correcting each page the day its written, after the juices are done with the creative part. Then I look over yesterday's work the next morning before continuing, touching up here and there. For me, this creates a more polished draft. About halfway through I reread the whole thing to regain momentum, polishing if needed, then I write the rest, and reread it all and polish. So it's one draft and a polish. Now, this may not work for everyone. There is no right way, but this is my way. I can only offer as evidence a forty-six-year career. Other's may feel they need to do a lot of drafts. I don't. I also have found the more I've worked like this, the tighter the work is first time out. I write more loosely with letters, notes, things of that nature, and that is a kind of freedom from thinking about how "right" it is. But stories and books are better polished in progress for me instead of juggling a lot of drafts. I did that in the beginning, and it just depressed me. I let the story come fast every day, but when I'm done, I read over what I've written and make touch-ups.
Everything has variations due to circumstances, but this is my common method. I also try to write three to five pages a day. That way I'm a hero everyday and those pages are easily polished, as they are few. If I write ten or twenty in a day, I don't try and stop it. I let whatever comes out come out. My only law is I write every morning for about three hours to write three to five pages. When traveling, I may have to write in small bursts while on a plane, in a hotel, or what have you. I finished one book sitting on the floor with my laptop on a waiting-section chair in the airport. I had a long layover, and I was ready to finish it. It was coming hot.
What changed my writing life for me was consistency, expecting small amounts in a reasonable time, and eliminating that multiple-draft idea, which can be helpful to some, but can be misleading to others who feel they are writing better because they have a lot of drafts, or working a tremendous number of hours. Writing is best fed by life and the library, not just the library.
I also like to quit daily when I feel like I still have a bit of story left in me, and then I don't think about the story until I get up the next morning, at least not purposely. By stopping when I think I have a little bit more to tell, my subconscious builds up anticipation. I don't talk about the book outside of something like, "Yeah, it's a crime book in the early sixties with a used car salesman."
Sometimes, if I feel really fiery, but the main story is mostly through, and there are only fumes, I switch to another story. I may have nothing in mind, so I'll write the first thing that comes to mind. It may be nothing, but I've been surprised more than once when it led to another story. I have also found that there are some stories I write as my main story, but the other is there when I get my three to five pages, and I can jump over to it, writing whatever amount comes out. It might be an equal number of pages or less. This all generally happens, that story and the other, in the three hours. I rarely work more than that, though now and again I have come back in the afternoon, or before bed, or I might wake up and go upstairs and work. I find those times are rare, and they may be dedicated to a completely different story than my morning story. Again, rare, but never fight what's working, and what works for me mostly is three hours, three to five near-finished pages.
Don't talk out your energy and originality. When the story can be talked about, give it to the screen or paper, not to someone who doesn't want to hear about it anyway. Nothing bores me worse than someone trying to tell me the story or the book they're writing in detail. Put it on the page.
Write simply, which doesn't mean the words should be laid out like turds in a row. They need sparkle and they need poetry, and if you need a run-on sentence to give your story the feeling it needs, fuck the grammar police, but know what rules you're breaking, and why, even if you only sense why.
Writing isn't about pretty manners, but it isn't about trying to show you don't have pretty manners either. It's about the characters in the story, the dialogue, and a feeling of a subliminal story existing under the story. That there is more in the forest than the trees.
Write like everyone you know is dead. To hell with everyone else's opinion when you write. Write for yourself. I don't have a perfect reader in mind. That works for some, but it makes me write for them which means I might not be writing for me. I have no idea what anyone else will like. I only know what I like, so I write for me. It's a wonderfully selfish moment. When I'm done, and the book or story is out there, then I hope a lot of folks like it. But face it, you can't be universally admired, so don't try to be.
Write clearly and visually, and avoid tags for the word said. Use said. A rare nod to he whispered or yelled is acceptable, but best avoided. Avoid She replied, She remarked, He responded, He said convincingly. She said with excitement. If you have to explain how they speak, you haven't written the scene right. Or turn it into a character-reveal at the same time. Set the scene and show how they talk, and if you explain it, do it cleverly so that it reveals character. He talked like had just eaten a puppy and had enjoyed every bite. That actually tells how he spoke, but it gives you an idea of how the narrator thinks, and what he or she thinks of who they are talking to. It's more than, and in my view, better than He said with confidence. Which really doesn't have the impact. It just says he was confident, the other shows you he's confident.
Stay away from exclamation marks. The scene should tell you. You are allowed them, of course, but sparingly. Say you do use the word yelled, again a rare choice. Most of the time the scene will explain it.
I got caught up recently in semi-colons, and I like to think they fit the tone of the narrator, a kind of formal speech, but on the other hand, they may just have been semi-colons. I usually rewrite if I start to use a semi-colon, turn it into two sentences, or often a comma will do in place of a semi-colon.
Don't join writers in being members of clubs like Splatterpunk, Noir, Cyberpunk, etc. Be your own club. As soon as those things can be identified, they are pretty much over with, and if you are a member of such a club, you begin to write for the title of the club or members of the club, not yourself. Also, it becomes mechanical, then you start to write in a way that bores the reader, and you. Write what you want. Let the badger loose.
A note. You are allowed to say hi and hang out with those who like to be members of clubs. But, as soon as you join a club, you have most likely limited your possibilities as a writer. No matter how much you love something, if you cling to it long enough, you break its bones or smother it. Pet it, move on. You might come back and pet it again, but you don't have to make it your constant companion.
If you start something, and it doesn't quite jell, and next morning it's still hiding, write something else. But generally the reason your mind moves to something else is because what you're working on is getting hard. So learn to finish what you start. Abandon if it's a failure, but if it's just hard, keep on until finished.
All rules are suggestions, and all are made to be broken. Except these. To be a writer you must read, and read a lot, and read out of your comfort zone. Don't just read horror, science fiction, what have you. And write regularly. Best of luck.
Dreading work is far worse than working. Once you get started it has a life of it's own. I start quickly after waking up. When I begin writing there's an energy to it. I rarely miss a day. When I do take a day off, which is rare, I try and know the difference between taking a day off and goofing off.
What I've found, is one of the greatest joy's in life is the writing itself. Even if I feel I have nothing, that the well is dry, sitting down and trying to write one or two sentences will generally stoke the juices, and before I know it, I have three to five pages and a greater feeling of accomplishment and contentment than not working. It then becomes a habit. You don't wait for the muse, you wake it up. Say, look, you've got one good sentence, right? And then it happens. The one sentence, and then the next, and the next....
Another way to get started on a story: Write yourself a letter telling of true things that happened to you, then insert something that is untrue, but fits within the context of the letter, and then gradually add more untrue elements, along with true ones from present or past, until you start to have a story. It may, in fact, work as a letter-story, or you can begin to let the letter fall away and just leave the story. It's worked for me a few times back when I was learning how to write and tell a story. The first time I did this, I was actually writing a letter to someone and began to think how something might have gone another way, and so I thought, Yeah, I'll write that, and then the story blossomed out of what would have been common correspondence.
Another writing tip that has worked for me, is to think of some point in my life that was important, or at least interesting to me, and think what might have happened had it got a slightly different direction. This was how Hap and Leonard were created in Savage Season, and the series has a lot of these moments, along with some exact ones from my life. You take the truth, the could-have been moments, the possibilities, the mistakes or potential mistakes, shake them up with storytelling lies, and serve.
A story stays important for me if I don't talk about it. I try not to tap the volcano too soon. I like to let it build, then let the lava flow on the page, not out of my mouth. For me, I can burn out my story that way. What works for you, works for you, but containing until finished, then letting the pages tell the story is best for me, and probably a lot of others. Besides, most people really don't want to be grabbed by the sleeve and told your ideas. But they may want to read them.
I know a lot of folks feel they have to suffer to write, and that is their choice, but for me, making it fun is what it's all about. Even serious subjects can be fun to explore, and as a writer, if I explore them with excitement and energy, I think I'm more likely to engage myself. I then hope there will be others who will share my excitement. So far, there have been. A key for me is not working long hours or working now and again, but to have a general time set aside. When I was younger and working other jobs, back in my twenties, I had an exact time to start and finish before I went to work, or after. If you can steal thirty minutes to an hour a day, and you stick to it, you can get there. Writing about three hours a day in the morning, I find I do my best work. But if something unexpected comes up, or I'm traveling, I can change that. While in China, traveling all over for three weeks or so, I wrote a novella, an article, and worked on a script. I did that during breaks between travel, on planes, the airport, and so on. I used to not write anywhere except home, and I prefer that. But I realized that I was beginning to travel so much, that if I didn't learn to adapt and write elsewhere, I was going to miss out on a lot of work, as well as income, which is what I need to keep doing it. I'm a professional. I find the best bet for me is to write every day. I write short hours, so even on my birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc., I can generally sneak it in without disrupting any family gatherings. And writing is a gift I give myself. Do I ever take off? Yes, now and again, but its either because I can't avoid it, or I just feel its time for a break. But, you have to recognize the difference between taking off, and screwing off.
A bit of writing advice. I suggest these things from time to time as they help me. They don't work for you, you don't like them, don't do them. But, if you keep working to write the perfect story or book, at some point perfection will begin to smell like failure. You have to let go of the dream and write the book, even if it is wounded. That doesn't mean all of the dream will be gone, but it means the novel or story you imagine you can write may not be the novel or story you actually can write. By giving yourself permission not to be perfect, you may come closer to that than if it's your designated mission. Perfection can become the purpose more than the story. Writing is how you feel, and no matter what the story (and I haven't always done this, I admit) you should try and have your feelings, something you care about, at least on some level, emptied into the prose. In one way, we all fail to write the story we meant to write, but sometimes the story we didn't mean to write is better. And a written story you care about is better than a story you care about and can't write.
PART TWO ON GETTING IT PERFECT. Previously I wrote about it not being perfect, but on day to day, you should write to finish, I believe. Again, my view. Write well as you go, polish as you go, but what I mean by perfection, is thinking about it can actually freeze you. Write the story and know you are doing your best, polishing as you write, but knowing too that the goal you have in your head will vary from what you get on paper. It may actually turn out to be better than expected. The point is, tell the story. Think of what you write as you write. Don't get ahead of yourself about what's to come. That, as I said, can freeze you. You don't have three or four hundred pages to write to finish, you have the days work.
As a writer, you should be able to write about any characters, be they female, black, brown, gay, or straight. There is a purity test these days for everything. If you write about characters unlike you some call it cultural appropriation. If someone wears dreads, then it's called cultural appropriation, instead of cultural integration. If you're limited to writing only about characters like yourself you are creating more cultural segregation. Does this mean males should only write about males? We can get it wrong, but hey, we can try. Women writers shouldn't only write about women, black writers about black people, and so on. We have come to a point of blind purity. Let's make sure we give everyone the opportunity, have a level playing field, but let's not limit creativity. Let's make it fair, but let's not establish a form of creative segregation. I waited for thirty years to write a novel about the black experience in the West. I wasn't appropriating anything. I was writing a story I cared about, and felt was a neglected part of literature, in my case with a little "l." If a black writer should do the same, then more power to them, and they may do better than I did. And love the idea of black writers writing about the black experience in the West. And they have and I hope will continue to do so. But was it wrong for me to write about it in Paradise Sky? I have often tried to represent the under-represented. We establish purity rules, then we'll have them for all groups. If I only write about the white experience, then I'm ignoring other experiences, or my interpretations of them. I might be wrong, but I'm trying. You shouldn't be restricted to one type of story or language, and if the story is uncomfortable, then it is. I write about growing up in the South, and it could be wonderful, or uncomfortable, and a lot of that discomfort was seeing racism at work. It has become a big part of my themes when writing. Should it not? Should I turn a blind eye to it for fear of cultural appropriation? I don't think so. We learn about one another by trying to step into one another's shoes. They may not always fit as well as we would like, but we ought to try walking in them.
If you are a writer, or would-be writer, a pandemic is the perfect time to hunker down and protect yourself from the virus and produce work. Again, my advice is built on what works for me, and you're mileage may vary. But instead of thinking, Now I'll write all day long, write two or three hours a day, try and produce two or three finished pages a day, and don't fight it if more come. Polish as you go or at the end of a session, or reread the next day and continue onward. It's not how long you work, it's how consistently you work and how finished what you write is as you proceed forward. Otherwise, at the end of it all you'll have a big mess to polish. Some like it that way. If you are one of those, go for it, but I recommend polish-as-you-go, and then halfway through, reread, revise those spots you missed, finish the novel using the fix-as-you-go method, then reread the whole thing and polish. A polish is a lot more satisfying to me than facing an entire novel that needs to be rewritten line by line.
Sometimes we fool ourselves about how much time we have to write. I work all day, so I don't have time. I have kids at home, little ones. I work all day and I want to spend time with my family. All valid reasons.
I was a house dad, and I tell you, that was tough. Still, I managed to write when I put the kids down for a nap. Keith didn't nap much. Kasey was born to the nap; it was her natural habitat. I wrote in fifteen- and twenty-minute spurts back then. My wife worked at the Fire Department. When she was home I would block in more time. But I managed to write every day, and during the time I was a house dad I wrote dozens of stories and several novels, and even managed to sell them.
Sometimes for me it required getting up early while everyone was asleep. Sometimes I stayed up after everyone went to bed. I didn't overdo it, for the most part. An hour after the house was quiet and everyone had turned in for the night, getting up an hour or two early to read a bit and then write. The writing served to invigorate me. And it's what I wanted. I wanted to be a good parent and husband first, and then I wanted a career as a professional writer. I found some time to work out and train in martial arts as well. I don't begin to judge anyone else, but sometimes I notice people find plenty of TV time, beer drinking time, hanging-out time, but no writing time. That means one thing. Thinking about being a writer is more important to them than being one. But, hey. They get to choose.
Ideas to me are the easiest part of the writing game. Ideas flow over me like water. Being able to construct an idea into a story with style and characters and so on is the trick. But another trick is the ability to recognize an idea that truly belongs to you and isn't just passing by, honking and waving. I've had ideas I knew would make great novels, but for whatever reason, I couldn't connect with the idea enough to make it work. Early in my career I wasted a lot of time on ideas that might be good, but certainly weren't for me. Several times I've been unable to make an idea work, only to have someone else find that same idea and write a successful novel about it. At some point I began to identify the ideas that I can work into successful stories as opposed to the ones I can't. I control that pretty well now, though not long ago I abandoned a novel when I realized it was a fine idea, but not for me.
It was a little different than those I normally let go of. There was a lot in it that did suit me, that fit my form, so to speak, not all wrong. I set it aside with the idea that I may come back to it and visit it and lose the parts that aren't good for me and see if what remains is. That's rarer. Usually it's for me or it isn't, and sometimes it's hard to give up on an idea you know would make an excellent book. For someone else.
This is not the same thing as having an idea that you like but isn't fully formed. Sometimes an idea will occur to me, but I can't find my way into it, but I recognize it is indeed an idea for me. It's just not done yet.
I don't plot or plan as a writer. I may have an idea, but I learned long ago to let the stove in the back of the skull do the cooking and to not analyze it. It's working and the stove has its own business to take care of, and when the story is done it will heat up and I'll know. This is writing with your subconscious, or going with your gut. Your gut, of course, doesn't know shit from wild honey, but your back brain is always taking experience and primitive impulse into play. Your subconscious is your muse, and not some gift from the gods. You have to be aware of it, but give it room.
That said, that doesn't mean wait. It has been cooking all the while on a variety of things, and many of them are ready to be written. And that's another trick: realizing when your subconscious has one ready for you. I write each morning for a short time, and then I mostly don't think about it all day. I go on with my life, go to bed, get up in the morning, and my subconscious has been working on it all night, hammer and tongs, so now it's there. I just need to put my fingers on the keyboard and let it come out.
Does this always work? Pretty much. Now and again someone back there will turn the stove down or off, or seems to, but I usually have several fragments I've started that I know have been marinating. I can often turn to one of those until the stove comes on with something new. What's interesting is I nearly always find when the new ideas turn off, the old ideas I may have started have been finished and saved by the subconscious, my survivalist cook, and now it's their turn. When that fragment-story becomes more, and is done, the new ideas nearly always turn on, or the other older fragments left over begin to heat up. That way there's always something. We get tired, but that subconscious cook doesn't. Knowing how to let it do its work and reveal the well done stories to you is also something that takes practice, and for me rarely thinking directly about a story is how that's done. Never look them in the eye. They might stare you down.
My method is why I don't make a great collaborator. That's a whole nuther ball game and requires too much conscious thinking so you and your collaborator aren't cooking different meals on different stoves. I find the collaboration to be more mechanical. I find having to know where you're going to be more mechanical. If it works for you as a writer, planning, then by all means, plan. But for me that is not only hard, but I come up with better stories my way that read like me and sleep happily in my subconscious at night, those sexy things. Collaborations have their joys, but not many. It's nice, though, when a collaborated story is finished. By then it is neither of the collaborator's story, but seems to belong to a third, frequently annoying person who got it done but was pretty much pissed all along the way.
The muse is you, not some magical creature you're waiting on. It's inside your head, get it out of bed and put it to work.
So, you've finished your first book and want to know how to submit, and who to submit it to.
I don't know. I haven't read your book.
But generally speaking, try the top publishers. Not the small press and skip the print-yourself route. The latter two options can have validity, but the good thing about the other presses, the big ones, is they give you lots of exposure and pay better. Mostly.
If it doesn't sell there, go downhill as far as payment and exposure. Quality can be in the small press as well as the large, as can junk, but start high. You can always go lower down the totem pole as far as exposure and money goes if you don't sell to the top markets.
Look the markets up online. Simple as that. Read how to submit to a publisher.
If they say agent-only, then you need an agent. How do you get an agent? Even writers who have been writing for years ask that question from time to time when they find their agent isn't working for them and they need another.
It isn't easy. Neither is writing a book, but it's fun. Getting an agent, not so much fun. But you have to do the work. Look agents up, see what kind of writers they handle. If you're writing sensitive stories about folks who find mowing the grass an existential crisis, then you might not want to submit them to an agent who sells thrillers. Some agents sell all manner of things. But do your research.
When I started I agented myself. I had a book called Writers Market. I read it cover to cover and tried to decide which markets might look at my work. There were a lot more short-story markets then, by the way.
But I researched. I sent things out. And it worked for me until I had enough work that I could acquire an agent. Some bad ones at first, then some good ones, and finally a great one who I still have. I also have a film agent, but it took time before I could acquire one.
Now a lot of what I researched in Writers Market (here it comes again) is online. You have a lot more information than I did by looking online.
Another thing is, you might go to writers conventions, retreats, things of that sort where agents and publishers, editors, other writers will be. Sometimes what helps is having them be able to put a face to a manuscript.
There is no easy answer here.
Research. Meet people who can possibly hook you up. In the end the work will be the thing, but you have to get the work into the hands of those who can help you be published.
Do not buttonhole writers and ask them to read your manuscripts. Ask them if they know an agent or editor that might be looking at new writers to represent or publish. Ask them at the events, not by plaguing them at home. Ask them when they are working at a retreat or convention. Honestly, they probably won't know. But they might. I don't know because I've had the same agent forever. I'm not looking for an agent so I don't keep up with them. But at retreats, agents are often there. Check the ones out where agents meet with would-be writers. But forget the agent until you have some material worth them looking at.
Genre can be a minefield or a gold mine. I like genre, but I also like literary, or whatever label you feel driven to put on the work. If it's good, it's good. And if a literary writer writes a story with science-fiction in it, it's science-fiction. It can be literary as well. The thing about genre is it's a better storytelling engine, and then it's up to you to give it real characters and fabric, theme. Sometimes you are merely trying to make a point or tell a joke, of sorts, and you do what's necessary. Worrying about what is what can constipate your creativity. Relax. Drink plenty of water, eat fiber, and let it flow. Might be messy, but it will be yours. In the long run I did better writing my stories than the stories someone else wanted me to write. Again, I can only speak for myself.
A tip from Raymond Chandler. And I'm sure I paraphrase. He said he wanted to write the kind of book someone read even if they knew the last page was torn out.
A tip from Ray Bradbury about plotting. He wasn't for it. He said, "Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down."
I've had a few folks tell me that they are writers or would-be writers and with all that's going on now, they can't write. That this whole shut-in business has them down. Not to downplay the staying-safe aspect, but isn't this what writers do? Don't they look for time to write? And what better way to get the woes you might have off your mind, or to express them in prose? Decide that no matter how you feel, you can write a page, and then see where that takes you. You may write more. If not, well, you have a page. Sometimes just the act of writing opens doors. Take advantage of a bad situation. Turn goat shit into M&Ms. Now's your chance.
The most important thing I learned as a writer was to work from the subconscious. This sounds easy, and pretty much is once you are able to tap into it, but it takes practice. The subconscious is thought of as disorganized, and I suppose it can be, but I've found that since I don't plot my work, unless working in collaboration with others, where you kind of have to, that learning to rely on the subconscious is necessary, and though you may not be plotting in a conventional way, there's still plotting going on, but you are not as aware of it.
There's a lot of stuff there in the subconscious, and the disorganized materials have to be trained to line up, and this is a primary duty of the conscious mind, which for me works best after the subconscious has sorted things, and has in fact done a lot of secret plotting. The conscious mind scrapes off the edges, jettisons the useless, the materials that will not work in your story. Sometimes, however, the dream-like aspects of subconscious thinking, meaning the sort of thing where it all makes sense while dreaming, but not so much when awake, may have their purpose, may give your story a specific feel that can make a mundane scene seem more luminous.
Reading novels, stories, comics, and non-fiction — and viewing films and TV shows — are fuel for the subconscious, as well as talking with others, if by phone, email, or in person. Before COVID, one of my joys was sitting and talking with people and hearing their stories. Having other interests besides writing and reading are important as well. For me it has been martial arts, even though I can't do much during COVID, as far as training my students, I have a martial-artist's mind, which I believe is about curiosity, free form, and learning what truly works, for you, through trial and error.
I have said before, to be the kind of writer you want to be, you have to write for you. Write like everyone you know is dead, so that you don't worry about what others think. It's about what you think. If you write for yourself, at least in my personal experience, you do better. Writing for yourself doesn't mean it's good, but with time you are more likely to arrive at the place you want to go, where the material is good.
I found that if I sat down to plot in a conventional manner, I would look at the ceiling, think about what was out in the yard, which books I wanted to read, and nothing developed other than boredom or some forced idea that was about as exciting as being forced to sit on and hatch a chicken egg. But, during the day, if I could learn to relax and think about anything but story, ideas would develop, and certainly at night a seed would be found. I don't immediately try to whip it into shape. I let it spill out, and after all these years my subconscious has learned to give me a story, and each day when I awake it has sorted it for me. I try to quit writing when I feel there are at least fumes in the tank, then start afresh the next day.
I try to write only about three hours a day. I stay fresh that way, and don't get so tuckered out that next day I do nothing. I set a reasonable number of pages — three to five. I nearly always achieve that, or more. Sometimes a lot more. I let the idea flow, but I never let it turn into a vomit draft, which doesn't work for me at all, which explains the short work space daily. I polish as I go. I avoid multiple drafts, and when it's all done I do a polish. I work better that way.
Do I ever violate this? Of course. I'm a grown man. I can make decisions. Have I ever been let down by my subconscious? From time to time it will take a holiday and will fail to leave contact information. Still, there is enough residue in the house of my subconscious, I can on my worst day write a story. It may require more of my conscious mind than my subconscious during those periods, and I don't like it, but I can write a professional story. Sometimes the residue in my subconscious actually gives me a far better one than I expected.
That's the next trick. Showing up. I try to work five to seven days a week, and it takes something special to throw off that approach. Even on holidays, by working my short burst, in the morning, as soon as I wake up, I can be through for the day and any plans for the holidays are pretty much on course. Again, there are exceptions, but not many.
When I worked other jobs, I had to be sure to work either in the morning or afternoon or night. It might only be an hour in the morning, or an hour at lunch time, usually less, and primarily I read during that time or listened to people talk and tell stories, some of them wonderfully mundane. I enjoyed those, too. Then at night I would work some more.
But now, after forty-seven years of writing, and now reaching forty years of full-time writing, I have been able to work my method successfully. I love writing. It can be hard sometimes, but mostly I find it fun. I think you should. It beats working in the aluminum-chair factory and suits me right down to a tee.
I also bring a lot of my pre-writing experience into my subconscious, let it bunch up until it wants out, and go for it. I borrow from my life, that of others, stories I've heard, etc., and then I make the rest of it up, or at best, my subconscious does. It seems far more clever than my conscious mind.
Wake up. Explode on paper with whatever comes to mind, and over time what comes to mind will make more sense. Sometimes just a line, or a deep memory or thought will blossom into a story idea. For me, nine times out of ten, after years of tapping into the subconscious, when I put my fingers on the keys, it's like a sensation of being electrified, and away I go.
Again, this is my method. It might work for you, or might even help you find a method that works for you. I will say this. This method has been good to me.
HOW MANY DRAFTS SHOULD YOU WRITE?
Each writer finds their path. I do one, and then a polish. Now and again I end up doing more polish than expected, and each day I revise as I go, so how many drafts do I do daily? No idea. But in the broader sense, for me, it's one draft and a polish.
When people say, write your first draft ... I'm already worried. I don't like multiple drafts or vomit pages. I'm not saying that can't work for others, just that it doesn't work for me. When I quit doing multiple drafts I started doing better work.
ON FIRST READERS
Frankly, I'm my first and second and third reader, and then the editor is the fourth, and finally the proofreader, and myself again. By then the cake has been baked, and I'm willing to listen and see if they have some good ideas for the icing. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they aren't aware I don't like coconut in my icing, so I ignore certain things and demand my own brand of chocolate, but I don't mind listening to their advice about how to smooth it on with a cake knife. Little things for me can be a revelation and make the cake better, but someone who wants to re-bake my cake needs to get out of my kitchen.
I decide to have faith in myself and do. Sometimes my faith can let me down a little, but mostly it doesn't. I've learned the hard way in years past that I don't want to muddle up my thinking with someone else's, as I lose my power over the story, my feeling for it. I'm not saying this is true for everyone, but it's true for me. Early on I showed manuscripts and even created a writers group. There were enough opinions there to confuse and contradict, and frankly, in the end, all that mattered to me was if I liked it, and if the editors liked it, paid me and published it. I still get excited when books of mine show up, and I'm apt to carry them around with me from room to room for days. This is happiness that comes from being able to do what I wanted to do for a living since I was a child and tried to write and draw my own comics. It's a good life for me.
I must say, I really love proofreaders to help me with typos, spelling, and the occasional gaff on eye color or the size of one's shoes, etc.
On revisions. I revise daily, then halfway through I revise from front to middle, continue on, and when finished I revise the whole book, but by then my revisions or more like a polish, and generally take very little time. Now and again I discover I have really missed the boat in a place or two, and this may require greater revision, or an editor might suggest something. I always try and take their suggestions and see if they feel right, and if they do, I make those revisions, but I generally boil down their suggestions to the minimum and then make the changes. Sometimes a paragraph, even a sentence, can address a problem and make it work far better than a dozen pages or more.
WHY DO YOU USE OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE AND RACIAL SLURS AND ALL MANNER OF NASTINESS IN YOUR BOOKS?
Because, though I wish to entertain, a large number of my works have another purpose. Bad guys and even good guys say things that are uncomfortable sometimes. Political Correctness makes all the characters the same. If I want to show someone is a racist, I show it. They are not the heroes of the narratives, though at best, they can be complex. If you believe all novels should be some form of yodeling and tap dancing, those kinds of books are out there. I've written some. But mostly I like something that mirrors what I hear and know in life, even if I'm writing about things that are designed to entertain and are a lot made up.
But if I want to make a point about the ugliness of certain things I do just that. Huck Finn taught me anti-racism as did To Kill a Mockingbird. Some people want to ban them for the N word. That's a mistake. They use it in the context of the characters and their times, and frankly, a lot of "those times" are still these times. That's what impacted me. I understood what the writers meant and were after. They shouldn't have to write down to keep from offending your sensibilities. Don't read them if it makes you upset.
I recently listened to someone telling me how anti-racist they were and then referred to black people with the N word, angrily. I thought, Okay. That is a real person I'm listening to, and they are racist, they just don't understand that they are. If I want something to have impact, to make you think, and hopefully lead you and myself toward the light, you have to sometimes make it real. If that's pretentious to you, that's fine.
There is no Muse other than yourself. The Muse is lazy. The Muse stays on the couch if you don't show up to work. You show up to work, the Muse shows up. Mine shows up about six-thirty or seven-thirty every morning. Some days earlier, some days slightly later. In other words, I have found, curiously, that my muse has the same sleep habits, and work habits, that I have.
Some days it's smarter than others, but it shows up. It gives me pages, and after that, it has the rest of the day off. But I expect it to be "musing" in my subconscious. Next morning, both it and myself climb out of bed, have coffee and toast, and me and the Muse go to work. Thank you, Muse.
The writer who thinks the whole purpose of writing is suffering isn't one I'm much interested in. The one that tells a story for the joy of telling it is the one I'm interested in. Writing can be hard, but it shouldn't be miserable. Some days it might be, but on the whole it should be an exciting, if occasionally frustrating, adventure. A story is made better by style, character, dialogue — all the tools that make it work. But the most important component is joyful passion and a willingness to improve on your passion to make it yours and to have it read well. I like to go to work with a certain excitement that gives me pleasure, and hopefully will give the same to the reader. We are not all pleased by the same thing, but if I can write for myself with joy and enthusiasm, I'm confident readers will feel that in the work and some of them will share that enthusiasm and be swept along by the story. I enjoy writing as well as having written. I enjoy finding my story as I go, figuring it out, and putting it down for myself, and no one else, with the confidence that I will find some similar souls out there that enjoy the sort of tale I have told.
Writing like yourself is hard. Finding your voice is learning who you are. Sometimes you can't find you, no matter how hard you look. Not in the bedroom, not in the kitchen, not down the hall, not behind a box of books. Books open the doors, though. Give you keys to the room that contains you. Relax and say, How would I say this? How would I tell someone the thing on my mind in conversation? It's not a perfect guide, but you might find the key, and you might find the room. Might find the mirror with your face in it instead of someone else you're trying to be. Being yourself as a writer, expressing yourself as yourself, is hard. And not perfect. But as a writer, that's the writer you're looking for.