There are only two real rules to being a professional writer, and the rest of what I can offer are tips: things that work for me and may work for you.
The real rules are simple. First, you must read. Second, you must write. Everyone who knows the alphabet thinks they can write, but reading is what teaches you how to use words and it’s what gives you the desire to write.
Okay, those were the rules. Here is the rest.
You have to be excited about what you write. If you are, then showing up everyday isn’t so hard. For me, that’s how I’ve stayed at it all my life, and that means during the time I worked full-time jobs. Writing excites me so much that the moment I awake, it’s like Christmas.
Keep your day job until you are sure you can make it as a writer. Or perhaps you prefer to keep the job anyway and write part-time. The job may have better insurance and a nice retirement plan. Going out on your own is scary, but, thirty-six years later, I’m glad I did it.
Have a regular schedule. I write in the mornings. I do that every morning for about three hours, sometimes less. I have a three- to five-page quota, but I frequently go well beyond that. Show up.
I avoid multiple drafts. I find this just confuses me. I correct as I go. Next morning, I reread what I wrote the day before, revise if needed, and continue. No matter how machine-like this sounds, it’s not. The work has to matter more than the page count, but I like having something to shoot for. I nearly always make that quota—or surpass it—so I feel like a hero every day. I work on vacations, birthdays, holidays, you name it, but by having a short work day, I still have plenty of time left over to enjoy vacations, holidays, and the like.
When I finish a project, I give it a polish, as I seldom need a heavy rewrite, and off it goes. Now and again, this doesn’t work as smoothly as I would like. I recently wrote a long work, and when I turned it in, the editor suggested it be cut. I looked it over and agreed. I made the edits. It’s about the work, not your ego. And once copyeditors step in, you are sure to find more changes worth doing. Still, it’s your work. Be sure the changes are good ones or don’t make them.
Another advantage to short working hours is simply this. You have time to live a life. If you spend all of it writing, then you miss out on the things that make writing worthwhile. Life is what gives you the experience to write, which brings us to the often-misunderstood advice, write what you know.
This doesn’t mean you have to be absolutely literal, but for me, one of the things that has contributed to my best writing is injecting my upbringing and personal experiences into it. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction—what have you— stories grounded in real life work best. Nothing puts me off fiction faster than the feeling the writer has rarely left his or her study. I love books, fanatically, but your work shouldn’t have the stink of the library about it. It should breathe and bleed, dance and fall down. All the things that happen to real human beings living a real life should find their way into your fiction.
I don’t plot, at least not consciously. I go to bed, and my subconscious works on it. When I awake, the work is there, and when I finish for the day, I know from experience my subconscious will fill me up with the next day’s work. Now and again it lets me down, but that is rare. For me, working this way, I get to enjoy the creation of a story from soup to nuts, and the passion that goes with it. Some writers need a road map, some a compass. I’m the latter.
Don’t write for other people because there’s no way to know what everyone likes. Write like everyone you know is dead. Write for yourself, not relatives, editors, or critics. Write what makes you happy, and then you can hope others will like it.
If you like it, it’s more likely someone else will as well.
The new Hap & Leonard novel, RUSTY PUPPY, was published on February 21.