Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 23, 2018

Top 10 Success Tips from Neil Gaiman

Top 10 List

Over the last few months, I've shared "Top 10" lists from J.K. Rowling and Stephen King on the topics of writing and success. This month I chose Neil Gaiman, because he has so much compassion and practical wisdom to share about writing.

The amazing thing to me in compiling these lists is that all three writers offer different advice. The same way three creatives will take a single photograph and create three different worlds, these writers define words like "perseverance" in different ways. It fascinates me.

Here is Gaiman's "Top Ten" list for writing success:

1. Make good art.

The world needs us to do what we do. They need us to create stories that resonate, that take them outside of themselves. If you have the ability to create, take the time to do it well. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the magic of creativity in Big Magic.

While the fate of the world does not rest upon art, art can reflect the state of the world and it's fate. It's a mirror into society's soul and a great use of your time. Never doubt it.

As Gaiman says, "Do what only you can do, and do your best: Make. Good. Art."

2. Do what you care about.

We spend months and years writing our books. That's a lot of time to spend with characters and ideas. If you don't care about your story, what is the point? If you don't care about your characters, why should your reader?

3. Do new things.

Study after study says the key to creativity is play. If you've ever watched children play with each other's toys, you will see that they love learning how to use their tried and true whatever-toy-it-is in a new way, based on the improvisation of their friends. They have rules and they trust in them. We need trust, both to play and be creative. Exploration, building and thinking with your hands, and role-play where acting it out lets you really get inside it.

Nurture this on the page, and in your critique groups. Look at your old story in a new way. Take a writing class. I just took a Donald Maass class through the Women's Fiction Writers Association that knocked my socks off - just taking the class made me look at my work in a different way.

4. Ignore the rules.

Gaiman isn't talking about ignoring a rule "just because." We're not tweens, we're creatives. If a rule kills your writing mojo, it's okay to ignore it to bring your art into being. His argument: If you know the rules of what is possible, that is what you will do. Often that is ALL you will do. If you don't know the rules, you will have no idea that you can't do something. That soul-killing word shouldn't won't rear it's ugly head. You will try. And often you will fly.

Entertainment tip: Anne R. Allen wrote a great post on "secret writing rules" and why we can ignore them.

5. You are unique.

Your favorite authors have let their inner writing freaks fly free. You can hear their distinctive voices in every book they write. Have you every picked up a Darynda Jones book? Ditto with Christopher Moore and Janet Evanovich

My friend Natalie Hartford's first tagline was, "Be yourself...everyone else is taken." That is never more true than when you are writing. No one else will tell a story like you, and the people who love your voice will follow you through just about any story you write.

When you allow your uniqueness to shine, your writing will too.

6. Just do it!

I've talked about daring to suck before. We all suck when we start. Just do it anyway. You learn to write by writing.

Gaiman: "The most important thing you can do when you are starting out is 'write the next one.' Assume you have a million words inside you that are absolute rubbish and you need to get them out before you get to the good ones." 

7. Walk toward the mountain.

Gaiman: "If you feel like you were put on this earth to do something, then go do that thing. Which is much harder than it sounds." He puts it like this:

Imagine where you want to be with your life. Imagine it is a distant mountain. When you are doing that something with your life, take a moment to stop and see whether it is taking you toward the mountain or away from the mountain.  If it is taking you away, don't do that thing. Only do things that move you closer to the mountain.

8. Persevere.

Much to my lament (and Neil's), the heavens will not open with notes of glory and publishing contracts every time you send something out. When you first get started, they might not open at all. Laura Drake has a quote she loves, which I think every writer should post on their mirror/workstation/refrigerator:

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

9. Try more.

Gaiman urges you to think of your writing like dandelion seeds. Dozens will go out into the world, but for every five failures that float on the wind, perhaps one will finds some success. The more you send out, the more success you will have. The more types of things you try, the greater the chance of finding that success.

10. Enjoy the ride.

Gaiman credits Stephen King with the best piece of advice he was ever given, which he regrets not taking: "Enjoy the ride." Instead of enjoying his success, he worried about it - the next deadline, the next idea. He wished he'd let go and enjoyed the ride. 

Bonus Gaiman tip that I love:

A freelance life of art is like putting a message in a bottle and hoping that someone will open your bottle and read it, and send one back to you..Don’t chase money. Just do your ideas when they come. If you do work that you’re proud of, even if you don’t get the money, you still have the work.

Gaiman is very practical in his advice, and he focuses on the work. What fuels your work?  Which of these ten bits of wisdom do you struggle with the most?

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or here at Writers In The Storm.

27 comments on “Top 10 Success Tips from Neil Gaiman”

    1. Right? For me, it was the dandelion seeds. Everyone here at WITS knows I have a submission problem, so it was nice for me to hear him be so pragmatic about it. 🙂

  1. My favorite comment here is actually the bonus tip: "Don't chase the money." Nothing could be truer than that. We have no way of predicting what will sell and what won't, so the important thing is to do work that makes us proud. I would also add this tip: be proud of failing, because that meant you took a risk and tried something new. Now learn from it and try the next thing on your list, whether that's a rewrite that requires you to blow up a manuscript completely or a completely new story idea.

    1. I don't know if you had time to watch the video, Holly, but to hear him speak about the work and ART is such a beautiful thing. I've always admired Neil Gaiman but this video knocked me out. Make. Good. Art.

  2. I love this! Thank you for doing another Success Tips post 🙂 Just what I needed today!

  3. My problem is #7, Walk toward the Mountain. This one specifically: "Only do things that move you closer to the mountain." I'm a yes girl, meaning I have a hard time saying no to opportunities that come my way, even if it doesn't really fit in with where I want to go. I've gotten better, but I'm still learning focus and I'm not quite there. Thanks for all this great stuff, Jenny! Lots to consider.

    1. I too am guilty of this, Julie. But, the other side is that we have bills to pay and families to feed. It's nice when you can do both, but I do think that survival deserves to edge to the front of the line.

  4. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorites. 🙂 And when I think of his writing advice, #1 always comes to mind. Have you see the commencement speech where "Make Good Art" came from? It's one of the most inspiring, entertaining, and resonant talks on creativity I've ever heard - to the point that I wish I'd witnessed it in person!

    1. Sara, the video includes a good portion of that talk and it was simply amazing. I need to go find the entire speech and watch it for inspiration. 🙂

    1. LOL. You sound tired. I know a part of you has that drive to rush, rush, rush, but you still sound tired. 🙁 I'm glad you got to go fishing!

    1. Right? We work in a field that is creative and encourages play. The rules that make sense should absolutely be observed, and we should always be nice to our fellow writers. But the silly "have to" rules? Why do we need to heed those?!

  5. Yes, #8 for me too. It's so easy to give up. Well, I take that back. If it was easy to give up I wouldn't be reading a WITS blog!

    1. Exactly right, Barb! You are still here and we love knowing that you are keeping up the inspiration. You've got this...but yes, I know how easy it is to give up. You won't do it and neither will I.

  6. What fuels my work? Sometimes I feel like I am writing future history. If my books are a bell weather, maybe humanity won't go down a backward-evolutionary road. Not that any of my books are BIG books in that way, but if they cause just a few people to think and wonder how what's happening on planet Earth now will play out, I'll be happy.

    1. Wouldn't it be fantastic if the medi-doc became a thing?? I'd love it if your world played out and there were space battles and laser weapons and coolness.

  7. Interesting and provocative! Particularly No. 4. I've often heard that one should break rules if necessary, but not accidentally. In other words, one should KNOW the rules first in order to break them properly, to paraphrase the Dalai Lama. But Neil Gaiman here suggests ignorance of the rules may be an advantage! Something to ponder.

    No. 5 sounds good too, except there may be times when a writer wants his/her voice to vanish or be transparent, so as not to draw undue attention away from the story and characters and to the author's voice. Of course, a neutral or minimal voice is still a voice.

    1. John, this comment snuck by me! Sorry for the delay. Your thoughts on #5 are fascinating. You are right...sometimes that neutrality is a huge part of the story. I'm a fan of an active voice, but I'm thinking about the times when the characters' voices are so very distinct that the author completely steps back and lets them own it.

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