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Sean Williams
the 10 1/2 commandments 
12.05 pm 26.09.06
dog collar
I'm asked a lot for advice either from or on behalf of new writers. How to get started. How to succeed. That kind of stuff. I find this difficult because (a) there are no rules (despite there being plenty of opinions) and (b) usually I'm being asked in the context of an interview or an email exchange in which an exhaustive reply is neither expected nor, I suspect, wanted.

I have been pondering, therefore, a short answer to the question that covers every important issue in as brief a time as possible. The points below represent my attempts to do that.

I'm posting this here because I'd love to know how others approach this very question, and if ways exist to condense the answer even further.

Here's my list.

1. Read a lot.
2. Write a lot.
3. Write what you love but be aware of the market.
4. Define your version of success and take concrete steps towards achieving it.
5. Be professional at all stages of your career.
6. Listen to everyone.
7. Be visible.
8. Challenge yourself, always.
9. Never believe you've figured it out, because everything changes.
10. Work hard.

ETA: there may in fact be a Zeroth Commandment!
ETA: see the comments to this post for an expanded version of this list, as published in the SA Writers' Centre's Southern Write newsletter, December 2006. Or just click here
ETA: a similar article has been published at Writers' World, here.
ETA: also see the A-Z of Writing.

That's still not a very short list, and it doesn't include anything explicit about community, which I think is very important--but I suppose that being visible and listening to people kinda assumes that you're interacting with someone.

I figure that if people are doing all or most of the things on this list then they're substantially increasing the likelihood that they'll achieve the goals they set out for themselves. Points 3 and 4 particularly relate to someone who wants to write for a living, but I think they're still important general points. The hardest thing, arguably, is not being published but working out what kind of writer you could be (there's likely to be several different answers to that question) then seeing whereabouts in the market you could fit. The last part is difficult, as the market is always changing, but you can't ignore the question or you could end up consistently barking up the wrong tree. Or a whole forest of wrong trees, until you stumble across a right one by chance--and who wants to leave something as important as this to chance?

The flipside of 4 is the awareness of what constitutes failure as well as success. When I started writing seriously, I gave myself ten years to have a book published. If I didn't make that deadline, I swore that I would give up and try something else. That gave me a sort of anti-deadline--something to strive against rather than for. I think that's important too. (Update: See Jay Lake's post here on the subject of quitting.)

Anyway, that's enough from me. I'd love to hear people's opinions on this. Save me from oversimplification and protect me from proselytising; whatever is required. :-)

ETA: also see Robert J Sawyer's "Eight Things New Writers Need To Know".
02.53 am 26.09.06 (UTC)
I'd say that's a solid list.

>and it doesn't include anything explicit about community

May I suggest?

11. Refuel as necessary by spending time with positive people who love the same things you do.
03.53 am 26.09.06 (UTC)
Or perhaps just address the idea of community explicitly:

11. Find a community of like-minded writers, or help to create one, with which you can exchange ideas, fellowship and practical advice.

Is their a lamer word than "fellowship"? I hope not.

-scott westerfeld
03.56 am 26.09.06 (UTC)
finding a like-minded writing group was an essential part of my writing improvement process -- but I'm not sure thats the best option for everyone. Sean, I think your list is very sound.
04.13 am 26.09.06 (UTC)
Thanks, Cat. I thought long and hard about the workshop/mentor issue (given my close association with the SA Writers' Centre) and decided in the end not to include it. For everyone who had a good experience with this kind of thing, there's someone who managed well enough without and another person whose writing was actually damaged by it (I include myself in the latter category). I guess I'm looking for universalities. "Work hard" applies to everyone, without fail. Etc. Every time I wanted to include a qualification, the urge to slash and hack rose up like a red mist.
06.53 am 26.09.06 (UTC)
I probably wouldn't limit the fellowship to just writers. My initial readers are all non-writers chosen for that reason on purpose. I much prefer the company of excited readers (and I mean people who love reading as a main hobby) when I'm sharing rough drafts. When I'm showing off my polished drafts, I look to my colleagues: writers, editors and other professionals at that time. I think you could say something like "enthusiasts" perhaps.

Also, I have written a ton about the necessity of community for writers in my Live Journal lately. In the past month, it has been something I started to thoroughly research upon coming back from a year's hiatus. I have included many long quotes from the sources I went looking to learn from. You may find something interesting among those quotes that works better than what I've typed here.
11.37 pm 26.09.06 (UTC)
Thanks, Fiona. Much food for thought. And a belated happy birthday to you. :-)
07.49 am 26.09.06 (UTC)
"When I started writing seriously, I gave myself ten years to have a book published. If I didn't make that deadline, I swore that I would give up and try something else. "

Do you think you would have?

11.42 pm 26.09.06 (UTC)
Absolutely. Ten years is a looong time to work full-time (which I was even back then, on top of part-time work) at anything without a clear sign of progress. My goal was to be a self-supporting novelist and getting that very first book published was a Key Performance Indicator (to drift just briefly into bureaucrat-speak) that simply had to met. The fear of not meeting it was a powerful motivator, and added up to something much more powerful than all the little fears (of rejection, of completion, of public speaking etc) that every writer has to conquer.

If I hadn't made it, I'd now be pursuing a career in music or pure maths, or something equally lucrative. :-)
09.53 am 26.09.06 (UTC)
You forgot 'Angst, with a capital A'. (Which is why we need our fellowship posse, not so much for the advice and feedback, but because it really helps to have someone get exactly what's going on in your head.
11.47 pm 26.09.06 (UTC)
True. And I love "posse". I think you've nailed it.
12.11 pm 26.09.06 (UTC)
As someone hoping to "Make It" (haven't quite decided what that means yet :) ) this list really hits home with basic stuff that's actually doable. Although the community thing is important too.
03.42 pm 26.09.06 (UTC) - Very Good
I wouldn't grow the list beyond 10 and I think community is already addressed in the above. But I think it's interesting that your responses see community as the importance of contact apart from writing, whereas I read it as the importance of being part of the genre community (which is how Fiona takes it, even if her response is aligned differently from mine - hi Fi!).

I remember when I first started in Hollywood in 1995, there was a list of 30 things to do to achieve success. One that struck me was "Drive a more expensive car than you can afford and keep it clean." I don't think a novelist needs to worry about that one, but the keep it clean is telling. Maybe you should star the point about being professional at all levels of your career. --Lou Anders
09.26 pm 26.09.06 (UTC)
That's a very good list. Thanks for posting it. :)
11.49 pm 26.09.06 (UTC)
My pleasure. :-) Thanks for the feedback.
08.45 am 27.09.06 (UTC)
yes yes yes. There are no rules to this, and if there were, I wouldn't want to read anything written by them. (This is partly my beef with the fast-fading mundane manifesto, you end up reading the rules rather than the story). Likewise, on other blogs, I read a lot of writers getting very up tight about POV and limited-omniscient POV writing-class bollocks and all that, when I want to say, just fucking write. I can give aspiring writers my rules, but they won't be your rules.
Oh, and by the way, Hi Sean
05.30 am 28.09.06 (UTC)
G'day, Ian. Thanks for dropping by.

just fucking write

Oh, I agree completely, utterly. I've been saying the same for as long as I can remember. But people don't believe me (maybe those who won't go on to write full-time; I don't know) and I feel like I've disappointed them by giving them my honest thoughts on the matter. I do aim always to please. :-)

This list of 10-and-some will at least give me a deck of answers I can flick through at random, if the usual doesn't suffice. And it's an interesting exercise to see if it can be reduced to universals. Or one universal, at least, and a bunch of close-leaning peripherals...
(Deleted comment)
05.23 am 28.09.06 (UTC)
My pleasure. I hope it helps. Keep it up!
04.54 am 05.12.06 (UTC) - the SAWC version
"The 10½ Commandments"

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the first principles of writing--"first principles" as in
the assumptions or rules that underpin a mathematical theorem, say, and cannot be reduced further. What advice could I give any new writer in confidence that it would always apply? While I strongly believe that there are no rules when it comes to writing, I do think that if you peel back what works, you'll see some common attributes behind every successful writer. And by "successful", I mean whatever you define it to be. (See point three.)

The list I came up with contains ten points, plus an optional eleventh.

1. Read a lot.

A writer reads, the more widely the better. It may seem counter-intuitive that, if you want to write romance blockbusters, you should read Dickens, but it's true. You should, in fact, read both. Challenge your tastes, and learn from the experience. You're likely to be pleasantly surprised.

2. Write a lot.


3. Define your version of success and take concrete steps towards achieving it.

What is success in your eyes? Is it having a short story published, or a novel? Is it getting a grant or appearing on a bestseller list? Is it preserving a relative's story before they die? Every writer is different. Don't let anyone tell you that you're unsuccessful because their goals are different than yours.

4. Write what you love but be aware of the audience.

To have a successful career as a writer, you have to write the best story, poem or article you possibly can. You'll also want to write something that finds a home, whether that's on editor's desk, behind a microphone, or in the lap of someone you love.

That doesn't mean that you can't write what you love. Far from it. That's the most important thing! But there might be several different things you love to write, and which you choose is always up to you.

5. Be professional at all stages of your career.

Even if you don't feel like you're a professional writer, or want to be one, for that matter, it won't hurt you to act like one. This doesn't mean only making time to write. Create an office, invest in business software, buy business cards, and so on. Most importantly, show respect for your fellow writers and for your craft. Commonsense stuff, I reckon.

04.54 am 05.12.06 (UTC) - Re: the SAWC version
6. Listen to everyone.

Coming to an informed decision requires getting information first. At least half of everything I know about writing--which isn't even close to being exhaustive--came from listening to writers, editors, publishers, agents, sales reps, and so on. The rest I learned by making mistakes.

7. Be visible.

Listening to people is all very good, but how do you meet them? Go to conventions, to writers' festivals, to SAWC events, to book launches and readings, to award functions, etc. As soon as you set pen to paper, you are part of the community. Don't feel shy. Face this challenge as you would any other. It's worth it.

8. Challenge yourself, always.

Writers need to stay fresh. If we stick to the same thing, to familiar themes and modes, we grow stale. Constantly examine your work and set yourself challenges. My writing has improved every time I've set hurdles ahead of me and forced myself to jump over them. Push yourself to do better every time and that's exactly what you'll become.

9. Never believe you've figured it out.

That might sound strange, considering the position of authority I'm occupying at the moment, but there really are no 100% certain handshakes or rules. Writers must be prepared to make up most of it as they go along. Everything changes and you can never let your guard down. That's part of the reason it's so exciting (and occasionally terrifying too, I'll admit).

10. Work hard.

Geniuses are not made by their genes, but by hard graft and good advice. We can all be successful at what we want to do if we just go ahead and do it. And do it. And do it some more.

11. (bonus)

The one thing this list doesn’t explicitly mention is the notion of community, which I think is very important. I left it off since being visible and listening to people assumes that you're interacting with someone. However you do it, surround yourself with positive people; share problems and solutions with those in similar situations; give back to the next generation of writers who will be following on your heels. Everyone will benefit, including you.

And that's it. I reckon that if every writer considers these 10.5 points at every stage of their career--since each point applies all the time, in any order, over and over--then they'll substantially increase the likelihood of achieving the goals they've set out for themselves. And that's a good thing in anyone's book, no?
08.41 pm 04.01.07 (UTC) - Hello Everyone!
I am Recrut.
I hope I welcome here...
I am new to this...
09.02 pm 04.01.07 (UTC) - Re: Hello Everyone!
Hello, Recrut! Everyone is welcome here. :-)
06.12 pm 13.01.07 (UTC) - Pull your own pint
Pull your own pint

A pub is allowing drinkers to pull their own pints.

Drinkers at the Tapped Bar in Otley, West Yorkshire, pre-pay using a computer and then help themselves.

The tap automatically switches off once each pint has been poured.

According to the Sun, owner Ryan Blackburn said: "It's a pain to queue for ages at the bar - but not now

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12.46 am 14.01.07 (UTC) - Re: Pull your own pint
I don't know if this is LJ-spam or not, but I do like the idea of a robot bartender. If only we could get one that serves crisps too, and is a good listener--then we'd be set!
11.48 pm 13.06.07 (UTC) - Give me link to xrumer 3 Gold Edition software
Who know some info about X-Rumer? Or website with description...

It's very interesting program, but I forgot url :(

help me!!!

P.S. Hmmm... this forum category is interesting and sometimes funny ;)

12.28 pm 10.08.07 (UTC) - Hello, i new
Hello friends! i new on your forum!
see ya:))
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