I hate giving advice about writing. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think a guy who has only been writing seriously for twelve years should be giving advice about writing any more than a twelve-year-old should be giving advice about life. What I can tell you, what I should tell you, is why to write.
Most of us will not get rich doing this. Of the hundreds of thousands of authors publishing today, a mere fraction can actually make a living at it and only a fraction of those will ever make more as an author than they would as a plumber or a taxi driver. Writers should get paid and paid well. I am a big advocate of big advances, but the likelihood of a writer starting out today ever seeing a $60,000 advance is slim. So, money cannot and should not be your sole motivation. What about fame?
In twelve years, I have amassed a loyal following of maybe six-hundred to a thousand readers. Any given book I write will be purchased by roughly half to a third of those readers depending on the price of the book and its availability. My mass-market novels sold between three thousand and five thousand copies depending on who you ask. No reliable figures have ever been supplied. Like all serious writers, however, I dream of fame and wealth. I dream of writing that novel I can retire on, that will be lectured about in universities, translated into a dozen languages, adapted for the stage and screen, and enjoyed for countless generations. I want that. You want that or else you wouldn’t be considering writing now. That’s why we are writers, but each individual story must have its own motivation.
When I sit down to write, the first question I ask myself is what I want to say and why I should be the one to say it. Then I ask myself if I’m capable of saying it well and there are times when that answer is no. At those times, I put the story aside until I feel I have the necessary skill to do it justice. I don’t wait for this literary ability to fall from the sky. I read books on writing. I research the subject I want to write about. I talk to other writers. I go to conventions and workshops. I grow and learn and then, when I think I’m ready, I attack that story like it owed me money. Because, no matter what, that story has to be written. But not all stories do.
Some stories should just be let go. Some stories should have never been written, at least not by me. It is hard to know the difference at times. Here’s how you differentiate between the story that has to be told and the story better left unwritten. Would not telling that story nag at you and worry you or could you put it in a trunk and forget about it?
Think of writing like public speaking. If you don’t have anything original or insightful to say, then keep your mouth shut. No one likes to hear someone talk just to hear their own voice and no one wants to see someone write just because they want to see their name on the cover of a book. That’s the pay-off for being a writer, but it cannot be the motivation for writing the story in the first place. The story should be its own motivation. It should burn in your mind, struggling to get out. It should obsess you, consume you. If you don’t have to write it, then don’t write it. Wait until you find a story that demands to be written and write that one.
“The worst advice is write what you know. We should qualify this. It should be write what you care about.” — Bruce Coville from THE ABCs OF WRITING FOR CHILDREN
I share the conceit of every artist who dares expose his or her creation to a critical audience. I actually believe I have something to say and that I can say it in a way that nobody else could or would. That is the only reason anyone should write. That is why you should write, because if you didn’t write it, no one would.
Everything you write should come from a place of truth. It should come from your unique experiences, your unique perspective on the world. Everything from your choice of words, your phrasing, your choice of characters, to the plot itself should be an expression of you. No formulas, no trends. It should come from you and only you, not from your Creative Writing professor or some author you idolize. It should not be an imitation of Stephen King or Clive Barker or Ramsey Campbell or Edward Lee or me. Write because you have a story to tell, your story.
Don’t write the story that has been written by others, that could have been written by anyone who’s ever read a Stephen King or an Anne Rice novel or watched Lon Chaney Jr. or Bela Lugosi lumber around a smoke-filled set. To paraphrase and expand on the best writing advice I ever received, whether you’re writing about vampires, zombies, werewolves, demons, witches, ghosts or serial killers, the tone, the mood, the settings, the characters, and the plot should be so uniquely personal that only you could have possibly written it. That is the only reason anyone should ever write any story, ever, because you are the only person who could have written it.