Friday, June 17, 2011

One Piece of Advice

The other night I was trying to add up all the events I’ve done. Well over 400 school visits, over two hundred book signings, probably about fifty writing classes or conferences. Lots of library visits. It’s been a really fun time.

I get asked lots of questions at these types of events: How do you get your ideas? How do you get published? Have you met other authors? How much money do you make? What’s your favorite book, color, ice-cream, football team?

I think the question I get asked the most though, is “What piece of advice would you give beginning authors?” I’m sure my answer to that question has changed over the years. But for at least the last five years, my answer has always been the same.

Are you ready?

Here it is.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

Not what you were expecting? It’s not the popular advice. People want to hear about query letters. They want to know the one secret to get an agent or a publisher. They want to know about character bibles and villains and dialog and plotting.

Don’t get me wrong. those are all important. Unbelievable dialog pulls your readers out of the story. A good character bible can be key in making sure your protagonist’s growth works for the reader. Understanding how to write a good query letter can mean the difference between getting an agent and not getting one. But before all of that, you have to give yourself permission to screw up.

Think back to when you were first learning to draw. Did you paint a land scape or the Mona Lisa the first time out? Nope. You did stick figures,. Then cows that looked like balloons with toothpicks sticking out of them. (Mine still do, by the way.) Then houses with curly-q smoke coming out of the chimneys.

Wring is a learned process, just like riding a bike or baking a great cake or playing a musical instrument. Of course when you pick up a guitar for the first time, you can barely press the strings against the frets. You don’t stop playing just because you don’t sound like Jimmy Hendrix the first time out. (I know all my readers under twenty are going Jimmy who? Look him up. It’s good for your education.)

But for some reason when you sit down to write, you expect your words to flow just like the last book you read by your favorite author. And when they don’t, you decide you must suck, and you quit writing. Instead, when you sit down to write, give yourself permission to stink. Give yourself permission not to be quite as good as Shakespeare, or Poe, or King, or Meyers, or Rowling, or Riordan, or whoever your favorite author is. Give yourself permission to finish a story even if it’s lame. Or to not finish it and to move on to something else. It’s all good, because the more you practice, the better you will get.

Here are five things to remember when you start to think you can’t write. Print these out and put them right above your desk.

Thing 1--Every single author I’ve ever met, at some point thinks that their current work in progress is crap. Everyone and every book. They just do. What makes them different from everyone else is that they keep writing. If you have a part of your story that isn’t working, stick in a note that says, “Something cool happens here.” Then move on to the part that works. Eventually you will decide what goes there. But do not stop just because it feels like your writing is bad. You can always come back and fix it later.

Thing 2—Did someone tell you they didn’t like what you wrote? Feel like that makes you a bad writer? As of this very moment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has 76 one star reviews on Amazon. Pride and Prejudice has over 10,000 one star reviews on Goodreads—and that poor lady is dead for heaven’s sake! Twilight? Over 50,000 people rated Stephanie Meyers first book worthy of only one star out of five. Here’s a quote from a reader review of the first Percy Jackson book. “Totally disliked it. To me one of the worst books I've ever read.”

So, someone didn’t like your book? Consider yourself in the company of some of the most successful writers in the business and keep writing.

Thing 3—You WILL get better. I promise. The more you write, the better you become. #1 NYT bestselling author, Brandon Sanderson, wrote eight complete—long—novels before trying to publish his first one. A great writer gets better with every book, story, or essay they write.So will you.

Thing 4—When you read a published book, it has typically gone through at very least five complete edits. A story is like a diamond. At first, it’s rough, and bumpy, and kind of ugly. But the more you polish, cut, and shape, the better it becomes. You should never compare your first draft to the final draft of a book you go out and buy. It’s like comparing apples to . . . taxicabs. (Okay, feel free to replace this with your own analogy. What do you want? It’s my first draft.)

Thing 5—And this may be the most inspiring of all. Jeff Savage writes books and gets them published. Trust me, if I can do it, you absolutely, positively can do it.

So right now, I want you to say this out loud. “I hereby, as of this second forward, give myself permission, authority, and complete and total clearance to write unmitigated, uncensored, unimpressive crap.”

Isn’t that nice? Isn’t it freeing to not have the pressure to create something perfect, poignant, and publishable the first time out? And the best thing of all is that once you give yourself that freedom, you’ll discover the most of the stuff you are writing is actually pretty good when you go back and read it.      


Magenta said...

Wow, this was such an inspiring post! Honestly the best advice I've heard from an author in recent memory. Thank you so much for writing this! ^_^

I feel like I've been missing the inspiration to write for a while... but perhaps with your 5 Things to Remember, I can get back into the swing of things.

Here's to making mistakes and learning from them!

btw, 200 book signings, and all that other stuff?! Really?!?! I am utterly impressed and awed by those numbers. It must be so awesome to meet so many people who are fans of you and your books. ^_^

The Damsel in Dis Dress said...

Completely cool post. Thanks.


Robin Weeks said...

This has long been one of my favorite bits of advice. I absolutely cannot write my first draft unless I accept that it will be awful. And that's okay. :)

Diva Donna said...

DJ in our Inkingcap group linked your blog on a post yesterday on our blog and said how inspired she was by it. I love your blog and its been so crazy lately that I haven't been around to check it out lately. SOOO glad I did today. Always a good bit of advice the freedom to write crappy stuff and then make it better.
For your comparison of rough draft to final book I like to think of it as comparing green apples to apple souffle. Green apples will never be a souffle without a lot of sugar, sunlight, and love.
Thanks for the inspiration.

David Glenn said...

A good post for anyone who's feeling a little discouraged about writing.

Nikki said...

Thanks so much! I definitely needed to hear this. I'm on the second draft (ie:complete rewrite) of my WIP. I am on chapter 4 and thinking how much better those four chapters could be and despairing that my current abilities aren't up to my current standards. I was very tempted to start over...again. But that's when I get myself into trouble always starting over and never finishing a final product that I'm proud of. But if I were to give myself permission to write to the best of my ability and not set such outrageous standards, I may actually accomplish my goal. Thanks so much. p.s. I think I'll be linking to this post on thanks so much!

Mark said...

Great post Jeff. I learn something every time you post or we talk, so I think you are just too smart for your own good, but just smart enough for everybody else to learn from.

I would just add a little advice as well. Never try to edit when you are tired, like say four in the morning when you can't sleep. Everything looks like crap. Yes, I did that on the last book when it was galley proofs, and I felt like I should toss the whole thing and start over. Then I got some sleep.


Erin G. said...

You're awesome! Thank you so much for the post. Printing out my copy of that list right now. :)

Erica said...

Wow, I don't even write and I feel inspired!

Kevin Hiatt said...

Nearly a year late.. but I just wanted to thank you for this post. I've been lurking on your blog for a while and to see your success after so much hard work and perseverance is inspiring and a great example.

So.. "Thanks!"