Advice to Writers


By Paulette Zander

The 57 books I’ve read about the art and craft of writing boil down to three rules.

Rule #1: Never pay someone to read your writing.
Rule #2: Listen to your muse.
Rule #3: Do not let friends and family read your work.

I have broken all three rules.

Breaching the first tenet of writing simply requires rationalization skills. A reader’s fee, I tell myself daily, isn’t the same as paying someone to look at my work. Not at all. The fee is needed to defray the cost of paying a panel of no-name hacks to come up with a contest winner. I further comfort myself with the knowledge that no author is exempt. If O’Henry were alive, he’d have to fork over a five-dollar submission fee for “The Gift of the Magi.”

As for the second, all-important piece of advice to aspiring writers, I can’t obey it because my muse also happens to be my evil twin. I can’t listen to her; she advises me to chuck it all in for a real job. If she bothers to speak at all.

I broke the third rule of “So You Want to be a Writer!” last year. A long-time friend, who once was the editor of her college newsletter, begged me to show her my work. My evil twin, who is usually wrong, told me not to do it. Since I wasn’t in the habit of listening to my pretend muse, I sent the first chapter of my great American novel home with my friend, the frustrated writer. We agreed to meet for lunch the next day to talk about it.

I arrived at Rosie’s Cafe the following afternoon bursting with gracious humbleness. She was 20 minutes late, but I felt magnanimous, ready to receive her enthusiastic, if not gushing, praise of my writing genius.

I was on pins and needles while we made small talk about her dog, her latest hairstyle, her new boyfriend and her latest therapy session. After we ordered, I could contain myself no longer. I casually took a sip of water, then asked, as if it had just popped into my head, “So, what did you think of my first chapter?”

“Oh, hon,” she said as she licked mayonnaise off her fingers, “I nodded off before I got to the third page. Don’t feel bad though, you know I have pretty sophisticated literary tastes.”

I’m sure she would have followed that with a yawn, had she been able to wipe the phony, apologetic smile off her face.

This assessment, from a woman who had read everything Danielle Steel ever wrote, left me momentarily speechless.

“It’s just a rough draft,” I said with all the nonchalance I could muster.

“You‘re not upset, are you? You are. I can see it. Don‘t be. I think it’s great that you‘re trying.” She reached across the table and patted my hand. It dawned on me that I was looking at a green-eyed monster.

The burning humiliation that had started to bubble up from the pit of my stomach dissipated in an instant. “You’re jealous,” I gasped, snatching my hand away. She didn’t answer. “Of course,” I marveled, amazed at my new insight. “You’ve always said you wanted to be a writer but you haven’t written anything since college. You’re jealous,” I repeated in astonishment.

“Don’t be ridiculous. How could I be jealous of you? I have a master’s degree in journalism. You’re just being thin-skinned.” She spoke flippantly but her flushed neck and face belied her words.

“Well, I don‘t know what you did to get that degree, but you can’t write your way out of a paper bag.” Dozens of memories flooded in; all the times she’d asked me to be a “darling” and dash off some missive or another to a business acquaintance. Not to mention scads of personal correspondence she’d asked me to look over, if not actually compose.

Scarlet-faced now, and too angry to speak, she threw some crumpled bills on the table, grabbed her purse, and left. That’s when I knew I could write. Breaking the third taboo of writing had unleashed her envy; it confirmed I had some measure of writing talent.

The showdown with my sophisticated, literary friend resulted in a new, rule-abiding me. Never again would I break the third rule and let anyone I personally knew read my unpublished work. My ego was still intact, but all works-in-progress, I decided, were fragile. First drafts, even fourth drafts, deserved to be nourished in solitude.

The second rule admonishing me to listen to my muse became easy to obey. My muse, after all, had warned me against seeking my friend’s advice. My muse ceased to be my evil twin the same day my scholarly “literary critic” ceased to be my friend. I now pay attention to my muse. She tells me eating dark chocolate stimulates the left side of my brain. I adore her.

Ah, but the first cardinal rule for budding writers still eludes me at times. Blithely, I send my money, electronic submissions, manuscripts and SASEs to nameless, faceless people — editors that may take up to six months to acknowledge my work, and sometimes, not at all. I leave it to these strangers to toss me the occasional bone. I reason that doling out a little cash for a chance at publication never hurt anybody. Just last week, in fact, I received an honorable mention and a free newsletter subscription. All for the paltry sum of 20 dollars. I’m on a roll.

Category: Nonfiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing