What’s the Best Writing Advice Ever?

Dear ‘Lena,

What’s the best writing advice that you ever received? The worst? -Curious

Dear Curious,

In my first college writing class, the professor said: “Write the book you want to read.” He had a sonorous voice and said everything with such gravitas that it seemed incredibly profound. Later on, when I read my notes, his advice often seemed a bit obvious. So I forgot about it.

Years passed. I published a literary novel for adults. I became a writing teacher. I was working on my next adult novel, but I couldn’t stop thinking about an idea for a different story: a girl wakes up from a dream about being able to move things with her eyes, and is disappointed to discover she’s still just her plain old ordinary self. I didn’t know how to spin this beginning into a novel.

Then someone said: “Write a paranormal romance! That’s what’s hot in publishing right now.” This was back when the lines for the Twilight movie were still circling blocks. It sure did seem like a lot of teens wanted to watch the hot vampire duke it out with the wolf boy for Bella’s affection. And heck, I could certainly do with a six-figure advance. So I dashed off a book in a frenzy. Gorgeous but standoffish hero with a dark secret. Check. Doormat heroine: Check. Gratuitous love triangle. Check.

But by the time I got the book into shape to show my agent, she responded by emailing the link to a Publisher’s Weekly article about how paranormal romance was out. In: contemporary realism, preferably featuring teens with cancer. Thanks, John Green. My stomach dropped. Much as I’d admired The Fault in Our Stars, there was no way I could turn Sparked into that kind of novel. I’d been a fool.

I learned the hard way that chasing a trend is never a good idea. Predicting what’s coming next in publishing is as impossible as trying to guess the new cut of jeans. How many times have you been duped by a book billed as “the next Gone Girl“?

So, back to my agent’s scathing response. I spent a few days despondent. Then I remembered that bit of advice: “Write the book you want to read.” I liked to read books with complicated, flawed characters, dark humor and sense of mystery. I realized that I found my own hero intensely irritating. His leather jacket. His curling lip. His disdainful treatment of my heroine. And why were his green eyes always flashing?

And I also saw that it wouldn’t be hard to take out some of those paint-by-numbers plot points I’d put in (goodbye, love triangle) and reshape my characters into three-dimensional human beings. But I could still preserve the parts of the book I loved—the parts that made writing that first draft such fun. I spent over two more years on rewrites. But because I was writing about characters that I wanted to spend time with, I enjoyed every minute.

If you write the type of book that is hot this year, it will be out of style by the time you’re ready to publish it. So here’s the best ever writing advice: don’t write a book you think will make a million bucks. Write the book you want to read. Chances are, if you do this, other people will want to read it too.

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