Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Few writers of fantasy (or any other genre) can claim to be as wildly successful as Neil Gaiman. The mild-mannered English writer has long been a kind of literary rock star; his novel American Gods picked up several awards in 2001, his novel Stardust was made into an acclaimed movie in 2007, and his The Sandman comic series and its various spin-offs have swept up dozens of awards and have helped the humble comic book become respected as a literary form. Norman Mailer described the series as “a comic strip for intellectuals”, and he wasn’t an easy man to impress.
Happily, Gaiman is also very vocal regarding his success. He maintains a blog and an online journal, regularly takes interviews, and frequently speaks at conventions and festivals. He’s not selfish with his wisdom, and there are dozens of articles and videos out there sharing Gaiman’s writing and publishing tips.
But who has time to trawl through dozens of articles and videos? I’ve done the hard work for you and compiled some of Gaiman’s best tips into this twelve-point list.
1. Don’t wait for inspiration
“How do you do it? You do it. You write. You finish what you write.” Easier said than done Neil, but thanks anyway. Gaiman here echoes successful creatives from Tchaikovsky to William Faulkner, shattering the popular image of an attuned and sensitive artist writing in a sudden fit of passion. If you want to write, do it and finish it. Don’t sit around waiting for an excuse to get going. As Gaiman says:
If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your wordcount today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not.
2. Set yourself up for success
Writing is obviously the best thing you can do to become a writer, but there are other things you can do to refine your craft. Gaiman suggests finding and talking to editors, attending conventions (particularly for writers of comics, sci-fi, and fantasy), and considering writing groups. He does, however, offer a caveat on that final point:
On the whole, anything that gets you writing and keeps you writing is a good thing. Anything that stops you writing is a bad thing. If you find your writers group stopping you from writing, then drop it.
3. Don’t edit immediately
One thing that can stop a writer from ever getting anything done is a tendency to immediately edit what they’ve only just written. Whether you’re going over every new page or tearing apart each fresh chapter, overeager editing can disrupt your flow, crush your confidence, and do more harm than good.Know when to edit – sometimes it’s better to wait until you’re definitely ready. Click To Tweet
Gaiman has this to say on the matter:
The best advice I can give on [revision] is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.
4. Let yourself get bored
It’s difficult to get bored these days. Long gone are those rainy Sundays where bored children stare out windows – nowadays you can fill any idle moment with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Candy Crush, etc. There’s been a lot of debate about whether the total noise of our technological lives crushes creativity, and Gaiman seems to empathize with the doomsayers.
“Ideas come from daydreaming,” he says. “They come from drifting.” So, next time you find yourself with time to burn, stop yourself reaching for your smartphone and let your brain remember how to amuse itself.
5. Seek feedback
It can be incredibly difficult to summon the courage to share your work (particularly if you’re a new writer or if you have no literary-leaning friends), but seeking out feedback can be an incredibly effective way of improving your writing. You’ve probably spent so much time with your work that it’s impossible to come at it with fresh eyes – your perspective is distorted. A wise friend, however, can give you a reader’s opinion.
Show [your story] to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that it is. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
6. Edit, but know when to stop
This is a difficult lesson to learn. There will be times when you know that something is wrong with your work – a scene isn’t quite working, the tension isn’t quite there, a conflict isn’t quite climactic – but you don’t know exactly how to fix it. So, you do your best, you edit away, and soon you’re happier with what you’ve written. But you keep going… soon, the scene is unrecognizable. What happened?
You chased perfection and it got the better of you. Gaiman warns against this endless drive for improvement:
Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
It can sometimes be difficult to remember in our immortal world of cloud storage, social media, and always-on internet connections, but if you write something weird or rubbish or disturbing, nobody needs to know about it. Nobody’s going to snatch your newest short story from your hands and laugh you out of town. This being the case, don’t be afraid to experiment: try anything and everything. It’s how you build confidence.Experiment with your writing – you don’t have to show anyone the bad stuff.Click To Tweet
As Gaiman says: “Try things out. Enjoy yourself. If you find a writer you like, write like them. And then sound like something else. Write anything. Don’t worry about it being good or read by other people. Just play, and play a lot.” After all: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. […] So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can.”
This one goes without saying. You can’t write well without reading well – it’d be like being a chef who doesn’t eat food or a film director who doesn’t watch films. Gaiman advises writers to read broadly and indiscriminately:
Read everything you can lay your hands on. Read the ‘classics’ in whatever areas of writing you want to work in so you know what the high points are. Read outside your areas of comfort, so you know what else is out there. Read.
9. Live as much as you can
Some writers don’t need to leave their rooms, let alone their hometowns or their countries. The most famous literary shut-in is Emily Dickinson, who crafted some of America’s finest poems from the comfort of her desk. But these writers are in a minority; most of us need to get out there and live a little before putting pen to paper.Live as much and as widely as you can. Real experiences provide a skeleton for fiction.Click To Tweet
Think of writers like Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and, perhaps surprisingly, Gaiman himself. “The more things you see, the more places you go, the more lives you touch, the more you will be able to write truthfully,” Gaiman says, “and the more memories you will have to make your imaginings real.”
10. Be clear
Echoing Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Gaiman emphasizes clarity over strict grammatical prescriptivism:
Don’t obsess over grammar. If you have to obsess, obsess over clarity. Write as clearly as you can. When it works, there’s a magic in writing: you can get an idea out of your head and into someone else’s. That’s your goal.
11. Be kind to yourself
Even the best and most accomplished writers have had to wade through a load of rubbish to get where they are today; the trick is to not let failure put you off. As Samuel Beckett famously said: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”
Gaiman agrees, emphasizing how important it is to be kind to yourself and to not let a bad piece of writing define you as a writer: “It’s fine to dislike something you’ve written. But don’t dislike yourself for having made it.”
12. Get outside your comfort zone
This one is very important. On the surface, there might not seem to be a good reason for a sci-fi writer to read literary fiction or for a crime writer to be reading romance novels, but scratch a little deeper and you’ll find that there are lessons to be learned in every form and genre.Reading outside your genre will stop you being trapped by convention.Click To Tweet
Besides, if you’re writing fantasy and you only read fantasy, your book will read like every other fantasy novel. As Gaiman says:
If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies – Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.
So, if you’re a die-hard sci-fi writer, give crime a go. If you’re used to writing romance, try writing a fantasy short. Never read poetry? Do it. The possibilities are endless.
So there you have it. Twelve actionable tips on how to approach the act of writing given by a master of his craft. If these don’t inspire you to get going, I don’t know what will! Let me know in the comments what you think about Gaiman’s tips. What did he miss out? What are the pearls of wisdom by which you write? Or, for more great writing advice, check out 7 Ways Kazuo Ishiguro Can Help You Improve Your Writing, 5 Ways Ta-Nehisi Coates Can Help You Improve Your Writing, and 11 Ways Stan Lee Can Help You Improve Your Writing Right Now.