16 Life Tips That’ll Get You A Little Closer To Being A Bestselling Writer

I grew up with a single mom on a small farm in Michigan, and I never dared dream I’d be a bestselling writer. I dreamed I’d have the grand champion Jersey cow at the Kalamazoo County Fair, and that dream came true. As a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a singer, but I ruined my voice when I traveled with the circus selling snow cones. For a while I planned to be a high school math teacher, and my mom and I used to think it would be fun to open up a philosophy shop next to the gas station. But no matter what I was dreaming or scheming, I was always writing. And now I have five books!

Now that I am here, I’m happy to share what I learned along the way. There are 16 stories in my new collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters , so I thought I’d share with you 16 suggestions for how to become a bestselling fiction writer, whatever your background. After all, the most important thing for becoming a good writer is to be an observant, caring human being. Oh, and then there’s lots of hard work — so you’d better get started right away.

You Don’t Have To Be An English Major

Seriously. Study something else. I have degrees in philosophy, education, and mathematics that have served me well. Philosophy taught me new ways of thinking, new ways of categorizing and understanding objects, ideas, and feelings. Mathematics taught me to be exacting and analytical, which has helped me with the revision process — and mathematics is one field where a person can’t BS. Education introduced me to cognitive theory, which concerns itself with how we learn, and most importantly how we read. Other writers I know have done well with degrees in psychology and engineering, or no degree at all. Be a student of the world instead, and figure out what makes life difficult for folks, what makes life worth living. Those are the things you want to write about. And if you can see the world through the eyes of those other people and sympathize with their troubles, you’ve got something important to say.

Be A Woman

Women understand men better than men understand women. If you want to write stories that contain male and female characters, women have the advantage. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Travel… But Not Too Much

We writers need to get far enough away to see our world from the outside. But if you run around all the time, you’ll spend all of your money and you won’t get any writing done. You can always plan to travel later when you’re a world-famous writer!

Listen To Your Mother!

She probably knows you better than you would like to think she does. Oh, and on a similar note, listen to your daughters. Mothers and daughters can deliver the harsh news like nobody else, sure, but they have a lot of beautiful news to share, too.

Write About Your Own Tribe

I used to try to write about people in Chicago in New York, assuming they were more interesting. One day, I was telling friends in Boston about my family dragging a drowned cow out of a frozen pond — a chainsaw was involved — and they were fascinated. It occurred to me that my upbringing might have given me something worth writing about.

Have Relationships

Good fiction is about relationships, plain and simple. Familial relationships, friendships, romances. I always figured I screwed up by meeting the right man in my early 20s. I’ve been happily, joyfully married to the same wonderful fellow for 28 years, and so I’ve missed out on the experience of having a disastrous marriage with a difficult first husband. Surely I would have learned a lot.

Take Care Of Donkeys

Or dogs or cats or hamsters. No, really! Life with animals enriches our lives with other people. My donkeys in particular are handsome and they smell good, and they don’t judge you for your failures or successes.

Pay Close Attention To People

Always. Note the details others might overlook. A simple hand movement might be the key to understanding a person. Does a man keep fiddling with a wedding ring as he talks on the phone to a young woman?

Don’t Look Away When Things Get Difficult

When you see others fighting or behaving strangely, your inclination might be to turn away or cover your eyes or criticize. But difficult situations often provide insights into humanity. Also, if you’re like me, you’ll often imagine the worst, and situation will probably resolve in a way that isn’t as bad as you could imagine.

Figure Out What You Love, And Study It

You can take a class, but you can also just read books, talk to experts. The more you immerse yourself in a subject, the better your brain works, finding relationships between things as different as geometric proofs and romantic relationships. At one point, I became interested in a junkyard owner, so I spent time with him every day for a month, learned a lot about him and the business, and wrote a good story. Currently, I’m really interested in women who knit.

Observe The Landscape Around You

Find ways to see it anew, by waking up at 4 a.m. and going for a walk in the dark. By showing a new friend around an old neighborhood, by striking up a conversation with a person who has lived in your neighborhood for a long time, or someone who is brand new.

Try Writing Very Short Stories

Yes, even if you want to be a novelist. I have always thought it unfair that poets get called upon to present their work at public events, so I have started writing one-page stories. It’s a great challenge to put a whole world into about 250 words — it means every word counts. There are four of these flash fiction pieces are in my book.

Stay Fit

Many of us study yoga for fitness, but the original purpose of it was to make meditators able to sit still for long periods of meditation. Writing is something like meditating. The most difficult order of business for many of us is to keep our butts in our chairs.

Meet Other Writers

Writers need writing friends, people with whom to share the joy of success and the inevitable failure that is a part of every career. Through your writing friends you will learn about opportunities and get inspiration.

Read Good Books

Read bad books, too, and silly books, but remember that the good books and stories you read will be your teachers, will guide you to write your own good works.

Did I Mention You Have To Write?

Writing is like dancing you can't learn it by watching other people, or by reading manuals or talking to dancers. You have to move your arms and legs and make it happen. So it goes with writing. So sit down, and get busy!

Images: Courtesy of Bonnie Jo Campbell; carolynncecilia/Instagram