Neil Gaiman smiles

Writing Advice from Neil Gaiman

Every now and then I like to grab a favourite writer of mine (metaphorically speaking I do not assault authors) and share some writing advice I love.

This week: Neil Gaiman!

I discovered Neil Gaiman’s writing through Terry Pratchett, because they wrote Good Omens together. Which you should read if you haven’t already.

Then I read Neverwhere which is magic.

And then moved onto everything else he’s ever created, including The Sandman graphic novels.

He is wise. He is kind. He is generous. Here is some of his advice.

#1 Imagine where you want to be

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be […] was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

Neil talks about how he turned down jobs because they’d take him further from his goal, even though they were tempting.

Remember this when you’re working on your book. This advice can be twofold, I think:

  1. Is this thing you’re saying “yes” to going to prevent you from working on this book you so badly want to finish? Is it going to take you the wrong way? If so, do you really want to do it?
  2. Remember where your book is going — the point of it, the message you’re sharing. And when you’re not sure whether or not something belongs in this book, see if it moves the reader along, or sidetracks them. If it doesn’t move the book along, it has to go.

#2 “I learned to write by writing”

“I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.”

When I work with clients to write their books, as much as possible, I want it to be fun, an adventure. I do not want it to feel like work.

If it feels like work, I encourage people to question: is this the book I want to write? Am I getting off track? Is this still going towards the mountain?

And it’s okay to step away for a while and do something else. Write something else. Play. Be silly. Then come back to your book when it doesn’t feel like work anymore.

Finally: the only way we learn to write is by writing. So write.

#3 Don’t do it ONLY for the money

“The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I've never regretted the time I spent on any of them.”

I tend to work with clients whose books are to support their businesses or lives in some way. Their books can help them grow their businesses.

Which is fabulous! I’m a big fan of that.

With this caveat: don’t do it only for the money.

Neil Gaiman talks about the projects he did solely for the money, and how those are the ones he regrets. And often he didn’t even get the promised money. But the ones he did because he wanted to, paid off in more ways than simply cash.

So by all means, write for money… but make sure you’re writing for you, too. That way, if the money doesn’t come, you’ll still be proud of what you’ve created.

#4 Make mistakes

“I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, ‘Coraline looks like a real name...’”

This is the story of how Coraline happened.

Mistakes aren’t bad. We’re taught, in our western schools, that we must always be right. That we can never be wrong. This leaves no room for growth.

Mistakes are fantastic, they’re a sign of growth, of learning, or trying stuff that might not work.

As soon as we let go of the need to Do It Right, we can create wondrous work.

And, yes, as an ADHDer with perfectionism and rejection sensitivity dysphoria, I am fully aware of how very difficult this can be… but it’s not impossible. It’s not. It takes practice. It takes writing. It takes reframing our own bullshit and embracing our mistakes.

#5 “Make good art”

“Make good art. Make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do. The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you.”

I talk about this a lot, about how it’s okay to start by copying people. Sometimes consciously; often unconsciously. It’s natural, it’s how we learned to do most things as babies and toddlers and little kids.

We copy.

Then, at some point, we start making it our own.

I can tell when that happens because I feel a knot in my chest that pushes my heart into my armpit. I feel a little sick and buzzy. Cos it’s all mine, and I can’t blame anyone else.

Copy writers you love, and watch your own style develop. It’s so cool.

#6 Make up your own rules

Gaiman talks about how rules are made by people who never tried to push beyond what’s possible.

Push beyond what you think is possible, and especially what other people tell you is possible or impossible.

Learn the rules, break the rules, make your own rules.

This is your writing, your book. You’re not in school anymore.

Have fun.

#7 Pretend you’re someone who can write

One of my fave anecdotes is from Jenny Lawson, the Bloggess and author of Furiously Happy. She’s friends with Neil Gaiman (which is so cool).

She told him she was trying to record an audiobook but couldn’t — and he suggested she pretend that she’s someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could.

I love this advice. I apply it to all sorts of stuff.

Trapeze move? Pretend I’m someone who can do it. What would they do first? How would they work it out?

Book chapter? Pretend I’m someone who can write it. What would they do first? How would they go about it?

#8 Don’t obsess over your first draft

“For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important. One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed. For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, then fix it.”

^^ Nuff said.

Get the words out.

Fix it later.

#9 Be kind to yourself

“Be kind to yourself. it’s fine to dislike something you’ve written. But don’t dislike yourself for having made it.”

Oh HELL YES. I cannot like this enough.

Speaking as someone who regularly beats herself up for writing shit and equating that to being shit, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to separate yourself from your work.

You are not your writing.

Your writing is so important, of course it is.

But it is separate from you. Which means you can take it and work on it and improve it.

It’s not fixed as it is until you decide it’s fixed.

And every time a thought creeps into your head and smacks you in the mouth, ask yourself this: would I ever say that to someone else? No? Then don’t say it to yourself either.

#10 Finish what you write

Ah yes. This seems obvious, but there’s some nuance here.

Writers write. Yes.

And authors finish what they write, and then publish it.

It’s fine to have unfinished work hanging around; I’ve got tons of it. Ideas that aren’t ready yet; ideas that never will be.

But it can’t all be unfinished.

Finish your book. Publish it. Someone out there will be glad you did.

If you’re mired in the sticky tar pit of “not finished but unable to fix it” perhaps I can help with a Book Breakthrough Jam — an adrenaline injection for your book, designed to figure out what’s keeping you back and give you a plan to write to the end.

Book a slot here.

Psst: did you know you can book a 90 minute Book Breakthrough Jam session with me to get your book started? If you’re stuck and would like my help to get going on your book again, click the button below and book a slot.

Notes in the Margin

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About the Author Vicky Fraser