Can you even believe how many sessions I attended over the WDC weekend? As far as bang for your buck goes, I have to say the Writer’s Digest Conference definitely gives you a lot of content. (They’re already scheduled to have it in NY again, same hotel, next August 18-20 if you’re interested.)
Okay, so after a lunch break I went to hear Jessica Strawser talk about 10 Essential Writing Lessons From 10 Years of Bestsellers. She’s editor of Writer’s Digest and was pulling wisdom from various bestselling authors she’s interviewed. I couldn’t write fast enough to get exact quotes, so everything here is paraphrased. For the exact quotes, I’m sure you could go look up the WD interviews directly.
1. A better approach to “write every day”
This is the answer to the fact that we’re not all disciplined enough to write every day, despite being told repeatedly that we should. The guilt we feel at not meeting that goal ends up hampering us further. (For those of you who do write every day, I guess this doesn’t apply.) Strawser said that Alice Walker told her it wasn’t so much about actually writing every day as it was about the possibility of writing—being ready for it when the time came. Having the time and space and being receptive. Walker likened it to being ready for a guest who might come to tea. The person may or may not come, but have tea in the house just in case, right?
Meanwhile, Patricia Cornwell told Strawser that a writer should treat writing like a relationship rather than a job. If you want the relationship to succeed, you put in the effort. And if you miss someone, you pick up the phone and call them, even when you can’t be with them. Cornwell said she at the very least “checks in” with her writing each night by looking over her WIP even if she can’t work on it.
2. Protect your candle
This idea comes from author Lisa Scottoline. She says that sometimes it seems like it’s not okay for adults to have a dream; they’re supposed to “grow up” and live in the real world. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with adult responsibilities: a day job, the family, etc. But Scottoline says your dream—your writing—is like a candle in an old-fashioned holder. You walk with it and must shield it with your hand to keep it from going out. Protect it. This is your light. She even keeps a candle on her desk to remind her.
3. Find your weakness
Author Susan Mallery says you should figure out what you’re bad at and focus on it. Get good at it.
For me personally I liken this to targeting a flabby area on your body. Maybe you like your arms and legs but think your tummy needs toning. Work on that. Keep working on your arms and legs, too, but work extra hard on the part you want to make more appealing.
Patricia Cornwell somewhat famously mentioned that a writer who thinks they have no weakness—a writer who talks about how great their book is—is probably not a very good writer at all. It’s the insecure ones, the ones who know it’s not perfect, that end up producing something special.
4. Learn to love revision
Khaled Hosseini had a great analogy for this. He said it’s like moving into a house. The first draft is when you bring in all the boxes. You unpack everything. It’s hard work. Revision is arranging all the stuff. It’s hard work too, but can be more fun and satisfying than just the unpacking.
Don’t try to be a great writer. Be a great rewriter.
5. Don’t be afraid to throw things away
You worked hard on it and you want to keep it—all of it. Because to throw it out would mean you wasted your time.
It happened to Garth Stein. He did years of research and wrote a 100k novel only to realize he’d really only written the backstory. All that work was just preparation for the story he actually wanted to tell. Sure, he could have kept the 100k novel and said, “Good enough.” But he didn’t. “We’re building mountains, not molehills. It takes time.”
Khaled Hosseini says nothing is every wasted, even if you throw it away, because we learn from everything we write.
6. Character and plot are the same thing
Lisa Scottoline notes that how characters react is the key to the story. And that action (plot) reveals character. They are two sides of the same coin.
7. Take detours
David Sedaris notes that it’s important not to pressure yourself when you’re writing. Don’t worry about whether it’s marketable. Just go with the flow.
Garth Stein encourages writers to go out and have experiences. Similarly, let your characters off their leashes. You can always come back to where you were, but you may yet discover something new and better by letting them (and yourself) explore.
Don’t rush things and don’t force them. Readers can tell when the plot is forced. Be patient and let it come naturally.
8. Always aim to grow in your writing
Jojo Moyes says that it’s important to know what your story is really about. What’s the bigger question beneath the story?
It can help to ask readers: “Where did you laugh while reading? Or cry?” Challenge yourself.
9. Remember: It’s supposed to be fun
You shouldn’t be driven by the market or ambition. You should be driven by the passion you have for the project. Which is kind of the same as
10. Do it for love and never give up
Brad Meltzer says, “The moment you think you’ve made it, you’re done.”
Patricia Cornwell believes you can’t become a writer, you either are one or you’re not. It’s like a songbird—you can’t tell it not to sing. Whether they’re a success in the market or not won’t matter to a real writer. They just keep writing because they have to.