5 Keys to Success for Aspiring Writers (Not) to Follow

Today’s post is inspired by an award-winning fantasy and science fiction author I interviewed during my cross-country road trip, Michael Swanwick. For a time in the early 2000’s he played a character online by the name of “Unca Mike,” who took a different approach to writing advice:

Most writing columns offer sound and useful advice to new writers, so they can accelerate the process by which they become successful, well-paid professionals. Unca Mike don’t play that. My advice is designed to cut new talent off at the knees and thus keep down the number of writers I have to compete against.

In that spirit, let me offer some advice to all of those creative souls out there yearning to grow as writers:

  • Grammar and punctuation are so 20th Century: The goal of writing is to express yourself, and good writing only happens when you are true to who you are. So don’t confine yourself with rules. Embrace the modern culture of garbled spelling and syntax found in tweets and texts. Fight conformity!
  • Don’t waste your time reading: You’ve got writing to do, book tours to plan, and Stephen Colbert interviews to imagine. What could you possibly gain by reading someone else’s words? Those authors should be reading you.
  • Revision is a creativity killer: Writing is all about channeling your muse and allowing her to express herself through you. That magic occurs with the first draft. So why would you want to edit that magic, to strike out some passages, rewrite others, and add in still more material? Please submit your work to an editor or agent when it is at its most honest, directly after it’s typed.
  • Let a potential agent or editor know your value: Nobody wants to work with an author who is crippled by self-doubt. So be sure, in your pitch letter to an editor or agent, to insist that you are the best writer they will ever be blessed to encounter. Let them know the phenomenal ignorance they will demonstrate if they decline to represent or publish you. They’ll be won over by your honesty, trust me!
  • Focus on yourself: Who says creative writers are part of a larger creative community, and that we all benefit from connection and support in this community? Writing is a zero-sum game; someone else’s gain is your loss. When you realize this, you’ll know not to listen to the wisdom of other writers, whether found in a classroom, a writer’s group, a craft book, a writer’s magazine, or another blog. (Especially another blog: DO NOT READ ANY OTHER WRITER’S BLOG BUT THIS ONE!)

Any other solid-gold suggestions we can provide to aspiring writers? Share them below!

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

42 Responses to “5 Keys to Success for Aspiring Writers (Not) to Follow”

  1. Why even bother with agents or editors? Just upload your brilliance to Amazon the day you first write it, and hit publish. To hell with writingβ€”it’s getting published that matters!

    (This post is too much fun, Patrick.)πŸ™‚

    • Absolutely, Cynthia! And make sure your Amazon price point is right. You can get a hard copy of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary for $995, so price yours above that.

  2. Er, great post – I think!
    How about aspiring writers leave out punctuation altogether? After all, hardly anyone seems to use it in texts anymore and emails often don’t pause for breath.πŸ™‚
    And writing the entire work in dialect?
    That should go down a storm….
    I remember eagerly anticipating the arrival of The Book of Dave by Will Self, and discovering the thing is practically all in text speak. It was awful. I couldn’t be bothered.

    • Love the punctuation advice, Pat. But you used it!

      Oh Lordy, have I encountered some painful dialect writing. But I’m sure the aspiring writer this post is targeting would be a master at it!πŸ™‚

  3. Hmm…Make sure that you spend at least three chapters giving the reader back-story before introducing a single character. After all, people need to understand what they’re reading, right? :p

    This post is ridiculously entertaining.

    • “This post is ridiculously entertaining.” You’ve made my day!

      Love your suggestion. How about taking it a step further and ONLY providing the back story? If done well enough, the actual story itself should be implied; no need to write it.

  4. Don’t bother improving your craft. It’s perfect the way it is!

  5. Don’t bother feeding your muse. After all, you have words to write (especially on Twitter and Facebook). Artist’s Dates distract from what really matters.

  6. Awesome, Patrick. I love the tongue-in-cheek and your readers are impeccable at following your lead!

    Of course, I know I have to partly take issue with #3. It depends on your intention: do you want a perfected novel or a heart-felt blog post or an artistic/inspired presentation? As an improv artist and musician, I continue to believe in that “first take”. (Sure, I pay for it occasionally with my grammar and punctuation police friends when it comes to writing.)

    Great post and I truly think I do understand where you’re coming from. (And I didn’t notice any misspelled words or missing punctuation.)

    • Ah Stan, how interesting. My current MFA advisor is a jazz musician (saxaphone); I’ll have to ask him his take on that. And I did my share of scat-singing in my youth.

      If we’re talking about submitting to an editor or agent, I think most would prefer not experiencing the improv version.

      As for misspellings and punctuation, how often do writers fail to follow their own advice? I certainly do with ridiculous frequency.

  7. Above all, whatever you do, don’t even begin to think about writing unless you are surfing a wave of inspiration. Wait til the Muse is firmly perched on your shoulder, otherwise the writing won’t be the divinely inspired stream of consciousness that all good writing absolutely must be or don’t even get out of bed. Just stay in bed. Please.

    • Perfect, PJ. Let’s take that a step further. If you are writing and suddenly it isn’t just flowing out of your fingers, stop and walk away. Good writing should just come; you shouldn’t have to work at it.

  8. “My advice is designed to cut new talent off at the knees and thus keep down the number of writers I have to compete against” actually made me laugh out loud. I love it! Now that’s some smart advice.πŸ˜‰

    • That is of course from Swanwick. You might want to watch my video interview with Michael (it’s embedded in the previous post I link to above). He’s a very funny guy, quite droll.

  9. I agree with most of your points. However, isn’t reading one of the best ways to learn writing? Nearly everything I know about story structure, I sub-consciously learned from reading multitudes of books. I agree that writing IS the best teacher, but books are too important to dismiss.

  10. This is delicious… I have only one extra suggestion to offer, shouldn’t this sort of writer also name all brands of cigarettes, coffee, beer, cars, shoes etc that occur with frightening regularity throughout his talented copy?… no need for capitals and apostrophes… the names will be enough…

    • Absolutely! They should then also write to those cigarette, coffee, beer, car, shoe manufacturers, etc., and demand product-placement fees for the appearance of those products in their unpublished manuscript.

  11. Excellent points, Patrick!πŸ˜€ I agree with all of them.
    Hm… it’s been a while since I’ve dragged writers’ misconceptions through the dirt… we’re an easy prey sometimes, aren’t we? I guess it’s because we all still hope somewhere deep in the back of our heads, that there’s a recipe, a secret we just need to figure out, and everything becomes easy and instantly rewarding.

    • Oh no, Vero, you’re telling me there isn’t a secret formula? Maybe I should cancel my order of deer antler velvet extract; if it can boost healing of a Superbowl player, I figured out would enhance my writing performance…

  12. Nobody has mentioned Absinthe. It is impossible to write without Absinthe.

  13. Two more for you:
    For or the fiction writers, don’t hesitate to change POV every paragraph if that is what it takes to show what your characters are really thinking.

    Don’t make use of alpha/beta readers, and definitely don’t provide advance copies to reviewers. Every copy you give away is money out of your pocket!

  14. Ha! Great tongue-in-cheek post, Patrick! I would add “Deadlines are a creative killer”, too! ; )

  15. How about: Don’t worry about making your manuscript perfect, either story-wise or grammar-wise, because if an editor or agent falls in love with it, they’ll want it no matter what. I can’t tell you how many people (non-writers) have told me that!

  16. I was so relieved by number one, until I re-read the title… Thankfully, I’ve totally embraced the rewriting aspect of the craft and do my best to correct grammar and punctuation in that second process. I’m so grammatically ignorant utilizing it properly in the first draft is more distracting than a family of penguins showing up on my front lawn, in Florida.

  17. ” And definitely never use common nouns or pronouns, or adjectives with fewer than 7 words. Only the most naive folk would stoop to such indignity. ”

    Just come across your blog, and this post entertained me immensely!:)

  18. Well, you really should be a comedy writer, as this was funny as heck. As far as reading goes, I read your post so perhaps reading has its rewards, too. I have so many books lining bookcases and odd little cubbies that it increases my dusting time a hundredfold. I read some of them, but mostly I pat them lovingly before I sit and write like crazy, with or without Le Muse.

    • Hi Cynthia! Well, I’ve dabbled in humor writing in the past, so glad to hear you say that. I fear the memoir I’m writing right now isn’t a knee slapper, but I’m trying to slip in smiles where it seems appropriate.

      Oh how I understand giving a book a loving pat!

  19. Memoirs/autobiographical tales about living in a normal neighborhood with normal friends and normal neighbors is completely original and captivating. After all, it’s based on you, the most interesting person in the world.
    –JW

  20. This is the funniest blog I have yet to ever come across.

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