Top 10 Things I Learned from Successful Writers

Over the past 25 years, I have heard bad ideas and good ones.

Posted Dec 06, 2014

Let me start, first, with five things I wish I hadn’t heard. (Yes, people in this field can give some poor advice.)

1. Once you’re published, doors will open.

Whenever I heard this, it always raised my spirits, but it just wasn’t true. My false high usually ended with a crash.

2. Write only what you know.

I seriously hate this one. I write to learn. I want worlds to open up to me that invite exploration. Whenever I stay within the frame of “what I know,” I'm usually too bored to write with passion.

3. Any agent will do, just get one.

There definitely are bad agents out there, and having one can actually cripple your career.

4. If writing isn’t painful, it can't be good.

The first time I heard this one, I wanted to encourage this person to go do something he’d like better. Yes, art can arise from pain, but writing can be an awesome experience and still be quite good.

5. If an editor who has not clinched a deal tells you to make a change, do it, because it will increase your chance of getting published.

I can’t tell you how much work I’ve done on the promise of pleasing an uncommitted editor, only to learn that it was pointless. (This comment was bad advice from an agent.)

Now for the good stuff: 10 solid points made by successful writers that positively influenced my writing or career.

1. Gordon Melton: “Writers never finish…they just stop.” This comment was just a relief. Of course! Just stop when you must. You’ll never be done, psychologically, with some of those projects.

2. Terry Brooks: “If you lose steam, rethink the plot. You’ve played your hand too soon.” 'Nuff said.

3. John Timpane: “Stay stimulated!” Talk with other writers and experts in many subjects, about many subjects. Therein lies the magic of aha! moments.

4. Erik Larson: “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” He also said, “Someone will get that opportunity. Why not me?” Stop second-guessing yourself and jump in.

5. Joyce Carol Oates: “Perhaps critics who charged me with writing too much are secretly afraid that someone will accuse them of having done too little with their lives.” Don’t worry about what others say.

6. Michael Palmer: “Spend a lot of time on the outline.” He really did. He used dozens and dozens of pages to build a plot. I thought this approach subtracted spontaneity but I learned that for complex plots, an outline helps to see all the balls you must keep in the air over the course of months or years.

7. John Saul: “Turn your book idea into a single brief sentence: ‘What if…?’” It will focus and guide the work, as well as help you see before you start that you do – or don’t – have a story. What if a reporter who investigated the vampire subculture disappeared? This question became a nonfiction book and a novel for me.

8. Anne Rice: “Milk the moment.” Staying close to an experience to cultivate its fullest impact is the secret to the magical intensity she can bring to her work. Too often we want to just keep moving, but within the stillness of some moments you can find the most profound emotion.

9. Dean Koontz: Well, he said a lot of amazing things when I worked with him on his biography. He taught me that writing is a business, so don’t take comments personally. He thought it was important to “read everything you can; read widely in many areas and read deeply.”

10. Elizabeth George: What makes a character memorable, she once told me, is that he/she is “discussable.” But her most interesting insight (for me) was this: “Don’t answer a question in your writing until you’ve asked another.” Thus, you retain pace and momentum, and keep readers turning the page.

Here’s a bonus tip from my own experience, for what it’s worth:

“Don’t try to solve your personal mystery.” Trying to figure out the psychological source of your ideas can become an energy leak. If you think too much or talk too much about your ideas, you sap their fuel.

You can find more sources of creativity in Snap! Seizing Your Aha! Moments.