Today’s post is from Stephanie Burgis, author of the Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson trilogy, which starts with Book One: A Most Improper Magick, due to come out April 20, 2010 from Atheneum Books. To find out more about Stephanie and her books, please visit http://www.stephanieburgis.com.
Follow Your Fun to Success
The most important writing tip I know is this: *follow your fun*!
It’s important to write as well as you possibly can, but it’s even more important to write your true heart’s passion. That’s a lesson it took me a long, long time to learn.
Back in 2001, I attended the Clarion West Science Fiction & Fantasy Writing Workshop. It’s an intense 6-week, residential workshop with competitive entry, taught by professional science fiction and fantasy authors. I learned more about writing in those six weeks than I ever had in my entire life up until then, and I got to see my own writing improve in huge leaps, faster than I ever could have imagined. Without having gone to Clarion West, I wouldn’t be a professional writer now, and I’m incredibly grateful to have had that opportunity.
There was just one thing that wasn’t so good for me about the workshop. Before I stepped on the plane to Seattle, I was midway through the first draft of a lighthearted, silly, funny middlegrade SF novel that made me laugh and made me happy. Within a week of arriving at the workshop, I’d given up that novel. By the end of the workshop, I felt genuinely *embarrassed* to have ever let myself spend time writing something so silly and un-“serious”…because the message I somehow picked up at the workshop (and I’m not blaming any of my instructors or classmates for this) was that writing had to be “serious” to be worthwhile – and who wants to write something that’s not worthwhile?
Well, I’m a reasonably intelligent person. Once I have a goal, I try to follow it. So for the next five years, I wrote Serious Work™ with all my might. I’m really proud of a lot of the stories I wrote in those years, and I worked very hard on them. I think everyone has darkness inside of them as well as light, and I explored that darkness as well as I could.
Every so often, though, I’d slip and let myself write a funny, lighthearted short story just for my own entertainment, and in what should have been a sign to me, the first one I wrote turned out to be my first professional short story sale – but I ignored that sign with all my might because it didn’t match the “truth” I thought I understood about writing.
The thing is, what I wanted more than anything else in the world was to publish novels – so when it came to writing novels, I never let myself slip. I wrote Serious with all my might, working very hard to try to write the kind of novels I thought other people would want to read…until one day the idea for a completely different kind of novel slipped into my head. It was wacky, lighthearted, and the first lines made me laugh…so I knew I couldn’t let myself do it.
It was the opposite of “serious”. It was the opposite of where I thought I needed to go for my career. It was too quirky, too focused on my own individual loves. It was what *I* wanted to read, not what *other* people would want to read. I knew I couldn’t let myself write it, no matter how tempting it felt…
Well, I’ll cut a long story short. I finally gave in (almost a year later!) and wrote that novel purely for myself because I couldn’t get it out of my head…and guess what? Last year that book sold as the first in a trilogy. It turns out that what makes me laugh makes some other people laugh, too – and the books that were most fun for me to write are also the books that are most fun for other people to read.
I’m not saying that everyone ought to write lighthearted, funny books. But the lesson I’ve learned not, just from my own experience but also from the careers of a bunch of my writer-friends, is that your most successful books will always be the ones you write *for fun*, whether that means light-hearted Regency fantasy for kids (like mine) or hardcore, fact-based science fiction/gruesome thrillers/meditations on grief. Different people enjoy different things…
…But whatever you write, make sure you’re writing what *you* truly want to read, not what you think agents/editors/other “important people” will want to see. That’s not just the only way to make writing truly worthwhile – it’s also the best tip I know for success.