Some Practical Writing Advice From Douglas Coupland

LitReactor asked me for some advice for younger writers. In the end, I don't know how much advice you can really give a writer. They're either going to follow it or they're not. So rather than get mystical, I thought what might be helpful is a simple, practical list that I wish someone had given me 25 years ago. So here goes…

  • The moment your writing feels like homework is the moment you should stop doing it. It means that your project is either wrong or has gone off the rails. This is when you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re writing whatever it is you’re writing.
     
  • People who make a living from their writing INVARIABLY put aside a time and place to do it EVERY SINGLE DAY. On some days the words might not come, but you have to put yourself in a time and place where they can visit you.
     
  • Books are long and they don’t just come to you “When the spirit moves you.” They take discipline. If the spirit is moving you, then make a daily time and place for it to do so.
     
  • Most people are only good for one proofread no matter how much they love you. Use the request to proofread sparingly, and only ask people to proofread after you’ve gone over your work a thousand times and feel confident that it’s as clean and tight as it can get.
     
  • Writer’s block will happen. Don’t get too cosmic when it does. Writing will come back to you, so beating yourself up is a waste of time. Go easy on yourself. And keep putting yourself in a regular place and time to write.
     
  • Don’t write for magazines you don’t actually read. People can tell you’re not 100 percent into it.
Most people never finish the books they start. I’m guessing 97 percent. So if you can just finish the damn thing, you’re thousands of miles ahead of most other writers. So just finish it.
  • Magazines encourage writers to develop a specific voice; newspapers make writers conform to house style. If you don’t like having your voice squashed, avoid newspaper writing.
     
  • Writing can be a form of exhibitionism and writing in public can be a good way of unlocking doors, even, yes, at Starbucks. Many writers with steep deadlines go to a hotel in their own city and lock themselves away and finish things more quickly — familiarity with an absence of distractions.
     
  • Many editors are happy to meet a new face for lunch. Many are just plain bored. Phone and ask to meet them but… you have to bring a large pile of pitch ideas with you or the lunch will go nowhere.
     
  • Intern as much as possible, free if possible. The moment someone goes on maternity leave, you’re in. This is true for most jobs, actually. Nobody wants to go through 200 resumes when there’s a warm body right there in front of them.
     
  • People who come out of the magazine track often don’t understand why people from the lit stream see getting published as being mystical. One writes to be read and readerships are to be expected; don’t be cosmic, just get your stuff out there.
     
  • Your life doesn’t change much after being published. “The calm following the calm.” Even if a book strikes big, life doesn’t change much. Calibrate expectations.
     
  • If you’re writing because your parents are literary types and you think that writing will please them, best to stop for a while and find something else you perhaps would rather do. By the same token, don’t become a dentist merely because one of your parents is. People think this rule doesn’t apply to writing, but it applies as much to writing as to any other activity.
     
  • There’s no way to erase your high school teacher’s grammar voice in your head — or your lit prof’s voice. This is good because grammar is important. But the moment you follow any rules they gave you about content, you’re lost. You and only you decide what the content is that you’re going to write. Channeling a long gone prof’s elitism or quirks is crippling.
     
  • Creative writing doesn’t seem to help people one way or another. It can be fun, but it won’t get you anywhere faster. Literary groups can be helpful but they can contain incredibly needy people. Just saying.
     
  • Most people never finish the books they start. I’m guessing 97 percent. So if you can just finish the damn thing, you’re thousands of miles ahead of most other writers. So just finish it.
     
  • Most people who write long form fiction for a living tend to have done something else in their life, and the writing part came to them by what seems like an accident. So go out there and do other things.
     
  • With extremely few exceptions, writers need to be roughly 30 to start writing novels. If you’re under thirty, cut yourself some slack.
     
  • Most agents or editors won’t look at books that begin with its character sitting in front of a computer screen.
     
  • Writing can be a profoundly jealous business. Don't let yourself be sucked into jealousy spirals. You’re doing what you love doing, right? It’s the only reason you’re doing it.
     
  • A good teacher is someone who taught you what to love. A bad teacher is someone who taught you what to hate. Use your judgment.

Header background: Talking Sticks, Douglas Coupland, 2009. Image: coupland.com

Image of Player One: What Is to Become of Us (CBC Massey Lecture)
Author: Douglas Coupland
Price: $13.00
Publisher: House of Anansi Press (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 256 pages
Douglas Coupland

Column by Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland is a Canadian novelist, visual artist and designer. His first novel in 1991 was Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. He has published thirteen novels, a collection of short stories, seven nonfiction books, and a number of dramatic works and screenplays for film and television. Coupland’s novels and visual work synthesize high and low culture, web technology, religion, and changes in human existence caused by modern technologies.

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Comments

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading Clockers by: Richard Price August 3, 2012 - 1:21pm

Great article Douglas. All points are very applicable and although I'm sure most of us already know these things, it's good to have a refresher, especially coming from an author I hold in high esteem. Love your work. Hope you'll stick around. There are a lot of great writers here. Thanks again.

 

~Rian

lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles is reading LEVIATHAN August 3, 2012 - 1:22pm

Thanks, Doug! That was a great way to start my day.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast August 3, 2012 - 2:00pm

Writing *should* be fun. I'm so glad you put that near the top of the list. The one failing most of we writers have is to take ourselves waay too seriously. Nice one Doug.

M.E.Prince's picture
M.E.Prince from Georgia is reading It August 3, 2012 - 2:03pm

Thanks! This is all very helpful.

And I'm incredibly relieved. I've been really beating myself up over being 31 with no novel ready.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading 11/22/63 By Stephen King August 3, 2012 - 2:44pm

Thanks for the helpful words.  And thanks for signing those books for me about a dozen years ago in Athens, Georgia.

La Emme Nikita's picture
Class Facilitator
La Emme Nikita from Los Angeles is reading The Road to Los Angeles August 3, 2012 - 3:22pm

Hey, Doug! Thanks for taking the time to pass along your wise words. Your books have been a source of inspiration to me both personally and as a writer since I first read Generation X in middle school. 

So much of this is common sense, but all the same, common sense a lot of us forget over time. Writing should be fun, but it should also be work, that is, scheduled into your life like all other obligations. I wrestle with this regularly and admit I don't give myself the time I need to write.

At 30 I took up writing again after a long hiatus. At 31 I realized I was turning the short story I was polishing up into a novel. At 33 I've finished the first draft of that novel. Glad to know I'm on the right track. 

Hope to see more great pieces from you here. Welcome!

 
drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines August 3, 2012 - 3:26pm

Thanks, Mr. Coupland! 

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne August 3, 2012 - 3:45pm

This was indeed a very nice collection of concise, easy advice. Very nice.

And the whole "you should be 30 to write novels" thing makes me feel better. I've felt pretty awful about the turn in relation to my writing, and it's dug at me some nights. But now I feel warm and fuzzy—though this may be the result of Texas weather and a lack of shaving.

Nice that you guys got Mr. Coupland to write this up. LitReactor is moving up in the world at a pretty rapid pace.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks August 3, 2012 - 3:52pm

Thanks again for doing this, Doug. Sound advice all around.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn August 3, 2012 - 4:15pm

Every once in a while we writers need to hear these words to reminds us why we attempt this wonderfully crazy endeavor in the first place, so thank you. Having finished my first draft of a novel at 38 after toiling on it for over three years made me realize that there was no way in holy hell I could've written it in my twenties, and I instantly felt better and all regrets sloughed from me like a stubborn scab. Thanks, Doug, for the reminder.

ElliottCox's picture
ElliottCox from North Carolina is reading Selby...I'm always reading Selby August 3, 2012 - 11:05pm

Practicality does have a place in art...unfortunately.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading The Color Purple August 4, 2012 - 2:52am

I beat myself up all the time, because I feel like I should be more accomplished by now. Yet, I just realized that I have accomplished something. I have one polished manuscript and two that are in need of polishing. This makes me feel a bit better, but I'm really hard on myself and go through days of "I'm great" and then the next day I'm like "I SUCK AT LIFE!" Hahahaha.

Sometimes writers get burnt out and it is ok to step away sometimes, regain your wits, and then return. I also think it is important to have a day job. I'm an English teacher by day and a writer by night, like a superhero! Just kidding ;-) 

This was all great advice and I'm thankful to Mr. Coupland for this.

GG_Silverman's picture
GG_Silverman from Seattle August 4, 2012 - 3:20am

Thank you so much. I've made sure to share this with the Twitterverse.

Greg Bell's picture
Greg Bell August 4, 2012 - 11:31pm

I have been rejected so many times, I could paper my writing room with the pink slips, but I have not intention of letting that stop me! A great bit of wisdom. I have made sure to jot down all of the points. I realized that Mr. Coupland didn't mention all of the jackals out there who try and convince you to purchase their novels that teach you how to become a great writer and get published, when all they're known for is publishing their little how-to manuals. The marketplace is full of these snake oil salesmen that just sidetrack us and make us impoverished.

harrybythebeach's picture
harrybythebeach August 6, 2012 - 12:39pm

Thank you! Needed to read that.

 

Hetch Litman's picture
Hetch Litman from Ojai, Ca. is reading Scar Lover by Harry Crews August 13, 2012 - 4:15pm

This is fantastic! Thanks so much!!

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading Spent AND Mr. Mercedes August 15, 2012 - 1:15pm

Great advice from someobody that knows what he's talking about. Thanks, DC. Been a big fan for a long time.

Gareth's picture
Gareth from Melbourne is reading Franz Kafka September 8, 2012 - 3:22am

Fantastic.

Gloria5's picture
Gloria5 from New Jersey is reading Most recently on my kitchen table "Vogue" with star of HBO'S Lena Dunham on cover January 28, 2014 - 11:19pm

Hi Douglas, 

There are many ways writers can be distracted by the constant strains and endless tasks that seem to desire attention. Sometimes just having the thought or the desire to express certain on goings can enhance the reading. I love to read day to day on goings with  different strengths and focuses, a new mother has revealations about what her child will become. Another mother may relate a story of courage regarding concerns about family matters, these situations are the stuff scripts are made of. Family is one of the most pre-eminent and fundamental processes in humanity. We are all attached to a member of a family no matter how obsolete or how indifferent a person may be, stories are created, because matter exists in all forms and capacities. So having regard for the person who creates a catalog as a writter also creates a space for creative direction. Another writter that gives evidence to history relates a necessary link for one generation to imagine the frustration of the generation before it. Another exchange for words, thoughts, and expressions are poems, Haiku, and. Prose. In saying something in a graceful and pleasing manner, people can relate to being superior, due to the eloquence that lifts spirits and truly helps mankind to believe he can do better. People that create phrases that contain approximately nineteen words or less and surmise two thoughts that are in opposing meeting, but come to the same point are relate able, and yet puzzling. I will leave you with this thought, 

I miss the snow, except when I see it. After that I am an innocent child reborn.

sometimes ice cold flakes perfection in form, other times frozen in emotion.