It’s funny how, as artists who seek to tell imaginative stories that break the mold, writers long for a formula for success when it comes to the business side of things. I’m no exception to this. I wanted a checklist, an equation that would amount to something after all of the work had been added up.
If I just wrote the perfect book. If I just wrote the perfect query. If I just had a more impressive bio. If I just, just,just–
Each new just–and adjustmentwhen that failed–brought hope, then disappointment, then a consuming tidal wave of helplessness and self-doubt. What if I’mjust not good enough?
But good enough for what, exactly?
Recently, in an interview on Freakonomics Radio, Kevin Kelly, the executive editor of Wired Magazine discussed "103 Bits of Advice" he wishes he’d known, saying, “Maybe advice isn’t the right word. Maybe instead, ‘stuff that worked for me and might work for you.’”
Here are some of my favourites:
The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, “I don’t need to write this down because I will remember it.”
Habit is far more dependable than inspiration. Make progress by making habits. Don’t focus on getting into shape. Focus on becoming the kind of person who never misses a workout.
Be a pro. Back up your back up. Have at least one physical backup and one backup in the cloud. Have more than one of each. How much would you pay to retrieve all your data, photos, notes, if you lost them? Backups are cheap compared to regrets.
Art is whatever you can get away with.
But this stood out most:
“The only productive way to answer ‘What should I do now?’ is to first tackle the question of ‘Who should I become?’”
When I was at the rock bottom of my querying journey, I wrote myself a letter from my future self, the writer and human I wanted to become. I’m still not fully her yet, but through that exercise I gained some of her wisdom and creative peace.
“You already are,” she told me. You already are a writer. You already areenough.
I learned then what I continue to teach the writers I have the honor of working with: the metrics by which we measure creative success are often beyond our control, based in luck, not labor. This becomes more and more true as the industry continues to shrink and shift.
You are not in control of publishing outcomes. But you are in control of you.
So how do you become the writer and human you want to be? How do you create a measurement of success that is as fulfilling and rewarding as your dream of seeing your book on a shelf?
Unfortunately, you’ll have to answer that yourself. But I’m going to take a page out of Kevin’s book, sharing 40-ish bits of “advice” I’ve learned along my path in hopes of helping you along yours. Take what you need, leave what you don’t.
12 Tips for Writing and Being a Writer
Whenever. Wherever. However. Every day? If you want to. But you have to write at least sometimes.
Idea generation like curating Spotify playlists and creating Pinterest boards for inspiration is a function of writing, but it will not finish a book.
So, write. The more you write, the more you’ll grow as a writer.
2. Explore ideas that scare you
Learn new things. Google your way on to an FBI watchlist.
3. Try different mediums
Like poetry or essays. This’ll develop your voice and could be the key to breaking out of a rut!
4. Don't be afraid to make a mistake
Drafting is as good a time as any to get things wrong. No lesson was ever learned without some missteps.
5. Don’t try to write like someone else
Yes, be inspired and learn from writing you love. But make room for your own voice.
6. Embrace doubt
Doubt is in the job description. Be wary of those who don’t have at least a little bit. Don’t let yours stop you from writing.
7. Heck, embrace all your emotions
Crying means you’re probably on to something. Look into places where you feel you’re running away from emotions and examine that. But also take care of yourself.
8. Don’t discount the importance of ergonomics
Let them scoff at your wrist braces and massive keyboard with split keys. NOT TODAY, carpal tunnel syndrome.
9. When you feel stuck or behind or unworthy, remember you already are a writer
Just by virtue of writing. If you need a little extra momentum, picture your future self–the author who has achieved what you want–and make a list of their habits. Pick one to start today.
10. Get fresh air and sunlight
I’m no stranger to becoming a cave dwelling creature mid draft or revision. You might not want to go for a walk, or stand up and stretch, or terrorize the townsfolk with your unsettling presence. But if you are able, you should.
11. Remember: writing and publishing are not the same thing
Separate the passion from the pragmatism, and you’ll be a much happier artist.
12. Know there is nothing wrong with your collection of unused pens and notebooks
You can tell your partner I said so.
4 Tips for Revising
1. Trim the fat
Your darlings don’t love you as much as you love them. Inspect everything. Trim what you can. Save what you cut in a separate document for later use, or bonus material when you become famous.
2. Editing and revising are not the same thing
Stop editing before you’ve revised–or worse, even written. Leave the language alone until you’ve got a strong skeleton or you’ll be cutting beautiful, useless lines.
3. Read the whole book
Don’t take any notes on the first read through, just absorb and experience as a reader would. Avoid the temptation to take shortcuts or start tearing things apart. If you won’t read your work, why should anyone else?
4. Collect feedback
Be specific about the kind of feedback you’re looking for. Ask specific questions. Collect feedback in one place; look for patterns; document your thoughts.
If you are marginalized and concerned about getting feedback from individuals who don’t share your identity on those elements of the text, specific questions are a great way to avoid comments that may inflict psychic damage.
7 Tips for Querying
1. Put your best foot forward
There is no such thing as a perfect query. Someone will ALWAYS find something to change. Do your research, edit it, send it out for feedback, edit it some more, but don’t obsess over it to the point of despair.
2. Don’t submit to agents you wouldn’t be happy to work with
Not all sales are created equal and looking at sales on Publisher’s Marketplace will help you determine if an agent or agency has the connections to sell your project.
3. Embrace your inner entrepreneur and artist
When the time comes to be both the creator and the entrepreneur, make separate time for both and supervise them whenever they are in the same room. The entrepreneur can be a real bully and the artist can be a bit of a baby.
4. Consider working with a new agent
New agents with good mentorship can be wonderful partners for writers who need or want more one on one attention.
5. Creating a separate inbox for querying is self care
Don’t use it to sign up for subscriptions or socials–then you’ll only get notifications when it matters and you won’t have to obsess with combing through every time.
6. Check. Your. Spam!
7. Cut to the chase
The agent probably doesn’t care that you read xyz on their MSWL. Get to the story and show them you’ve got what they’re looking for. The greatest personalization of all? Following their guidelines.You are not the exception to an anti-MSWL.
5 Tips for Working with an Agent
1. Agency is a business partnership. You are an equal investor. The manuscript wouldn’t exist without you. Don’t forget your value.
2. Stand up for yourself
Asking for accommodations can be scary, but forcing yourself to work in ways that you don’t will take more of a toll down the line–not just on your working relationship, but on your personal health.
If you are afraid to ask your agent questions or email them, you might not be ready to have one. Alternatively, if your agent has given you a reason to fear their responses, you shouldn’t trust them with your work or your career. Remember, you are equal investors and respect goes BOTH WAYS!
3. Create a revision plan
If you’re revising, your agent may not have time to read the manuscript as you go. Need some assurance that you’re headed in the right direction? Create a revision plan–include their big picture notes and how you plan to address them. Include any notes you may have too!
4. Cultivate the art of patience
Getting an agent is not the end of your days watching an empty inbox. Submission takes a long time for many writers.
5. Take breaks
It’s okay and even advisable to take a break during the querying and submission process if you need it. You are not broken or lazy if it feels like the words won’t budge. The more you try to force it or the more you allow guilt to take over your life, the longer it will take to refill your well.
4 Tips for Building Your Author's Platform and Writing Community
1. Set boundaries
There are two kinds of boundaries. Both are equally important. 1) Set boundaries for yourself on social media: how much time will you spend? What spaces will you exist in? What is your exit strategy?
2) Set boundaries for the people you interact with. Don’t be afraid to use the block function when someone crosses a line you’ve drawn.
2. Be generous
Get involved. Offer help. Share resources.
3. Choose your platform
You don’t have to be on every platform, and in fact you shouldn’t. Be in spaces that grow you, where you can be collaborative and inspired and connected.
4. Don’t be a jerk.
Finally, a last piece of advice, or rather a reminder, for those who’ve made it this far:
All you have to do to be a successful writer is write. So, just write.
Through her companyKey Words Coaching & Consulting, Nat works with writers to tell their best stories and build their careers. She is a member of ACES the Society for Editing and the Editorial Freelancers Association. She is currently completing her practicum to be certified as a fiction and nonfiction book coach through Author Accelerator, a program that trains coaches to empower writers through every step of the writing and publishing process. In 2021, she createdRogue Mentor, a volunteer-run mentorship and community building program for writers.
Nat lives in Wyoming with her husband, a zoo of pets, and her beloved rock collection.