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A Facebook writers’ group I’m a part of put up a challenge recently: if you’re a writer, post a short piece about the best writing advice you’ve ever received. If you’re a reader, what do you look for the most in fantasy books?
I’m not much of one for listening to advice, but I’d like to have a go at answering both bits, if I may. As a writer, it’s pretty easy to feel bombarded by advice on how to write better, how to publish better, how to market better, etc. Quick tips and tricks abound on the internet, most buried deep in a post that is five times longer than it needs to be. Most of this advice is harmless, some of it is useful, and all of it guarantees instant success, which is to say it guarantees nothing at all.
You can make bad writing better, but you can’t fix nothing at all.
Receiving advice implies a level of support from others: someone who’s in the know, or whose opinion carries weight, and wants to share it with you. The funny thing is, I haven’t been much supported in my writing endeavors since my childhood, when my mother used to rave over my Star Trek fan fiction (it really was awful). Today I’d like to see myself as a ‘professional’ author, but my sales are in the double digits and my royalties not even enough to warrant being taxed. Because it’s not bringing money into the house, my immediate family doesn’t tend to see the value in what I do—other things have to take priority.
This is understandable, of course—we all have to make a living—but realistically the only advice I’ve ever received as an adult author was to write after the dishes are done, and not before. In that regard, the best advice is what I’ve discovered for myself, and it boils down to one thing: never stop writing. Write when you have spare time; write when you don’t. Write when your spouse wants you to come to bed. Write when you’re supposed to be working. Write whenever you can. Especially, write when you don’t feel like it. The reason for this is simple: if you wait to write—if you wait for the right time, or the right mood—you’ll be in your grave before your first draft is done. Most of what you write is going to be hogwash, but—but—you can edit hogwash. You can polish a turd. You can make bad writing better, but you can’t fix nothing at all.
The advantage of this approach is that you really get stuff done. Compared to some, I’m a slow writer; I tend to write a chapter a week when I’m really going at it. But it meant that the first draft of The Redemption of Erâth: Consolation was done in twenty-five weeks. That might seem like a long time, but the important part is it got done. This allowed me to move on with editing, cutting, polishing and publishing—and now, for better or for worse, there’s another book in the world. A fantasy tale, a world of dragons and monsters and light and dark—escapism at its purest form.
And this, of course, is what I look for in my reading: the same thing I attempt to accomplish in my writing. I don’t read much (time, you stingy master), but when I do I want to be transported into a world that doesn’t exist—that can’t exist. I want to ride on the backs of dragons and watch magic spells level castles. I want to see real people struggle against surreal odds. I want excitement, and I want fear; I want dirt, and grime. In other words, I want to take the raw emotion and reality of everyday life, and experience it through the lens of the fantastic.
Is this a tall order? Most certainly. Many books will fail to deliver on this. It’s likely that my own books will fail, too. But it’s the attempt that counts. I appreciate a book that tries to go deep and fails far, far more than one that never makes the journey at all. The worst books are the ones that fail to push the envelope; the ones that play it safe, that shy away from danger. The ones that leave the characters’ lives changed, for better or for worse—the ones that dare to ask what happens when limbs are lost, when parents die—those are the stories for me. And hopefully, they’re the ones I’ll leave you all with.