photo-72A meme is making its way around the internet this week—14 writers give their advice, written on their hands. It made me think about the different ways we approach our writing, and how we all come to truths of our own over time. I have been thinking about what my truths are and how I arrived at them.

It’s a good thing to think about. What are your writing truths and how did you arrive at them?

A lot of mine came from the science fiction world, which is where I spent a lot of worshipful time as my writing self emerged. There is/was a lot of practicality in that group of old SFF gods—”write early,” said Ray Bradbury, “before you let the world in.” He loved writing, loved creating, loved living the writer’s life. The wildly prolific Isaac Asimov was a brilliant thinker who never took his intellect so seriously it kept him from writing fast. He clearly gloried in writing, reveled in it, took great joy from it. He famously said that if he had 6 hours to live, he’d just write faster.

Bradbury, too, was a believer in fast writing. In the Zen of Writing, he wrote about rough drafts:

“The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.”

From the two of them, I realized that writing didn’t need to be some terrible, laborious, difficult process. It could be a joyful pursuit, like cooking or gardening, something you learned more about as you went, something that could give life depth and meaning as an act, rather than an offering. It’s ok for me to play, to experiment, to give in to the pleasure of diving into something for the joy of it.

Of course, they wrote to be read. So do I. It occurred to me during my training as a journalist that I needed to be clear enough to be understood, that all my baroque curlicues, my vast vocabulary and clever turns, were not doing my reader any favors. Why should they work hard to read my stories? Language can be beautiful, but it must first be clear. That was the start of my profession as a novelist. Finally, I understood the basic bones of story and delivery: first clear, then beautiful. Rough draft, then polishing.

Another of my beliefs: a writer’s voice arrives through writing. We’ve heard it said many times in many ways—write a million words. Malcolm Gladwell rephrased it into 10000 hours. Whatever. Writers write. They write and write and write and write, until they write themselves into their own understanding of who they are and what they bring to the page. By the time I had my recognition of simplicity and beauty in college, I’d probably written well over a million words. Diaries, short stories, essays, and five novels. I was twenty-one, but had been writing madly for a long time.

If you don’t give yourself that gift, the writing and writing and writing, you can get too bogged down in what is Right and Wrong and How You Are Supposed To Do Things. We all know a writer who has been working on the same manuscript over and over and over again, getting buffeted about by every contest comment, every mean editor letter, every critique meeting or workshop experience, never trusting the voice within.

Which leads me to another truth: close the door until you have a working draft of a novel. Don’t let people in too quickly, before it’s formed, before it has had time to brew its own special bouquet. Give it that private time when it’s just you and your book, like the courtship and honeymoon of lovers. Get to know your book well before you expose it to the world.

I’m not sure where that one came from. Maybe just from my own observations of the damage I’ve seen done to emerging voices that had the potential to be magnificent. The way I apply this to myself is to write whole books as much as I can, even if it would be easier/faster/better for my budget to write synopses. I just don’t want too many people—or anyone but my most trusted reader—in the book with me before it’s shown me who it is.

My last belief is in filling the well. I’ve spoken of my passions for gardening, cooking, photography, travel. They give me breaks from the consuming work of words, and create a pool of images and metaphors and details that then serve me well in the creative heat of writing. My work is imbued with the smell of carrots fresh from the earth, and the simmering bounce of garlic in olive oil and the flutter of strange trees in New Zealand. Even if I take the same photos over and over—a flower, close up; a plate of food; a garden at sunset—the experience enriches me and my writing.

What are your rules for writing, and where did you learn them? If you are still developing yours, share one or two you’ve found and where. 

About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.