Advice to Young Writers

First, read everything you can get your hands on—local newspapers, fiction, comic books, cereal boxes—whatever. I don’t care what you read, but do yourself a favor and read something published before 1970—or even before 1900. Much of what is being written today is dreck and you need to see what writing was like before the complete commercialization of publishing. You need to be able to tell good writing from bad; or at least find the kind of writing you want to do. Very often writers are urged by publishers, agents, or the market to produce “a product for people who like Stephen King” or “a book we can sell in Hallmark card stores” or “a book that will get you on ‘The View.'” They aren’t told to produce their best work, carefully written in their hearts’ blood. They are producing a commercial product.

Now, as someone who enjoys writing books that sell, I have nothing whatever against a publisher wanting a book to be commercially successful. I just haven’t seen a lot of great writing coming out of today’s successful writers and I include R.L. Stine and Stephen King in that group. They are terrific storytellers (although I secretly think R L Stine has a random-plot generator program on his computer;) but they are not the best literary models to follow–unless, of course, you want to be a multimillionaire who writes for 12-year old boys. To paraphrase: write what you love; the money will follow. Particularly if you avoid traditional publishing models.

Second, if you want to be a writer, you need to learn how to do research. I get calls all the time from people who want to write ghost books like I do, for different parts of the US. I’m amazed at the number of them who don’t even know how to use a library, can’t do even the most basic research, and don’t even know enough to ask a librarian for help. Research skills are one of the most important things you will ever learn if you want to be a writer. One of the most valuable things I got out of my college education was how to do research.

Let’s imagine you want to write a horror book based on the legend of the zombie. You can’t just make it all up out of your head because there are readers out there just waiting to pounce on your slightest error. I accidentally placed the headless ghost of Ladybend Hill in Guernsey instead of Belmont County and I heard from dozens of readers! Every writer I know reads books and more books to make sure they’ve got their details right. Where do they have zombies? What is the climate like in Haiti? What kinds of houses do they have there? What do they eat and wear? How do they bury their dead? What are the names of the various Voodoo spirits? I read all the time and I’m constantly taking notes from this book or that—not even ghost story books, just details I know I will eventually use. I do some research on the Internet, but some things can only be found in books.

Third, if you want to be a writer, you have to write. It’s easy to get distracted by Life, but young writers should write as much as possible, beyond school assignments. If you write just a page a day, that’s a book in a year. And don’t think you have to start at the beginning and then write straight through. That’s way too intimidating and it has stopped many a promising book dead. I always jump right into the middle and work my way sideways, upside down, and backwards until the book is done. You can make notes on scraps of paper, throw them into boxes, then cut them up, rearrange them and tape them back together. You can talk a book into a tape recorder and then type it up. You don’t have to sit down at the blank screen of your computer and begin perfectly at the beginning. That’s what editing is for. The first time I write something, I think it’s terrific. But even a few hours later, I’ll come back and think, “Geez, that’s rotten!” I edit my books 12, 13, 15 times–until I’m happy–and even then, I still see things I’d do differently after they are published. Even years of writing, years of practice will not make you so perfect you can write without rewriting. So, don’t just talk about being a writer—WRITE!