Advice to Writers

First, understand voice and structure. Writing well requires the study of your own most personal way of expression. Do not give in to the temptation to write like any successful author. Also, writing well requires the study of language and its construction, from sentence to paragraph to page. Use strong verbs, be selective with imagery and details, never forget that concision is precision. Pace trumps beauty and emotion, but have plenty of all three. Inspiration and talent can only carry you so far; effort and ability will do the rest. Also, be a voracious reader, and read only the best, not necessarily in your chosen genre.

Second, write boldly. Writing is like skiing - you will fall when you hesitate. Also, keep in mind that no one will be interested in anything you say if you cannot say it with verve, personality, and some skew. On this point, resist that old adage about writing what you know. To hell with that. Go learn something new, and come back to tell us about it. You'll find this a much more interesting and energizing platform than your own experiences or expertise. Use your life as a springboard, nothing more. You'll always write better from your soul and heart than from your memory. 

Third, keep in mind that imagination is limitless. Do not, therefore, reduce your story to outlines and sketches, notes and 3x5 cards. You will make your story finite this way and it will suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline. Juggle your story: by this, I mean keep eight balls in the air and only two in your hands. Let the story - the eight balls - float free, dangerously so. That's the beauty of watching a juggler: where will those balls fall? Chase your story, believe in your characters and follow them. Do not predetermine every step they take but record what they do, and do the recording breathlessly but with control, as if you just came inside to report an accident or a marvel you have just witnessed.

Fourth, wrestle to the ground the notion that editing is writing. When someone you trust - or you yourself - advises you to make some changes, and those changes make your story better, get on it with the same will and power with which you wrote the original lines.

Fifth, never write when you are tired, hungry, distracted, angry. Write only when you are at your best, when you are rested and fed, when it is quiet and you are focused, because the words you put down will be the reflection of everything you carry behind them. Make that reflection on still water, not ruffled.

Sixth, do not throw in the kitchen sink. Let some stuff that you think is interesting drop away. (see above: pace trumps everything). Do not write to impress your reader. Write to elevate, educate, and entertain. Let your reader think your story is smart or sensitive or brave, and forget making them think you are. This is a major earmark of an inexperienced writer.

Seventh, there is plenty to go around. In workshops or writers' groups, do not be jealous or harsh. One person's talent or good luck does nothing to diminish yours. Rejoice for your fellows who get a break or who write a wonderful piece. Give your best and gentle efforts to help a fellow writer learn, improve, and keep writing. If someone does well, or even gets published, they prove something important: that it can be done. This is the beauty of art: it is not a zero sum game. Be worthy of the work, and of your desire to write it. You can always be next.

Eighth, and most importantly, learn to accept the word No. Understand that No does not mean stop, it means only Not this direction. When an editor or agent says No, they are simply telling you to go another way, you cannot go through me. But there are other ways. No one must have the power to make you stop writing, learning, experimenting, or hoping.

With Tom Robbins, the best writer I'll ever know.
Outside Finca Viga, Hemingway's villa near Havana.