Read, Write, Suffer

by James Scott Bell

James N. Frey, author of the popular craft books How to Write a Damn Good Novel I & II, once gave a talk to a group of wannabe writers. He told them he’d give them ten rules which would guarantee they’d learn to write great fiction. Here they are:

Read! Read! Read!

Write! Write! Write!

Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!

Actually, that’s only nine. His tenth will be revealed anon. Let’s first do a little unpacking.

Read! Read! Read!

By this, Frey meant not just reading fiction, but also widely in all areas. “A fiction writer needs a grasp of history and philosophy, art, religion, poetry, and so on, in order to understand different viewpoints and world views, to make his or her characters whole. As a fiction writer, you need to be curious about the world and read about things you might not be interested in personally. Professionally, you need to be interested in everything.”

I like that. I am always reading nonfiction to expand my knowledge base. I even read random articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica set left to me by my grandfather (who sold them during the Depression). Inevitably, I find something which I’ll work into a short story or even a WIP.

Frey does advise reading fiction in your genre to know what’s going on in the market. True that as well.

Write! Write! Write!

We all know you have to write, a lot, to get good. That’s why I’ve always stressed the quota. As Frey puts it, “The more you write every day, the faster you learn.”

I’d add a caveat to that, however. The basketball coach Bob Knight once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”

In other words, you can write, write, write, but if you’re not also learning how to make your writing better, you’re just ingraining bad habits. You don’t want to be like those thousand monkeys hammering typewriters for a thousand years to randomly come up with Shakespeare.

So you get feedback and study the craft along with your daily writing. When I started on this road I bought craft books by the barrel, because I’d been told you can’t learn how to write great fiction. I knew I couldn’t, so set out to see if I could prove that admonition wrong. I think I’ve made a pretty good case. When I got a five-book contract I started calling it “The Big Lie.”

So write, write, write and learn, learn, learn.

And write not only for publication, but to practice various styles. Find that elusive thing called Voice. Frey offers the sage advice of taking stylists you like and copying their prose, word for word. Not to be them, but to get their cadences in your head, the sound and the flow of the words. Let that all meld in your head and you’ll soon develop a style of your own.

Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!

“Learning the craft of writing is difficult,” says Frey. “Creating stories is sometimes agonizing, rewriting is torturous. Dealing with editors is like being tossed into the lions’ den at lunch time. Then when you’re finally published, often your publisher will not do enough publicity and the critics will probably crown you with thorns.”

Frey wrote this before the self-publishing revolution, but the advice still holds. Even as an indie you have to work through obstacles, like an indifferent or hostile public (file this under “Reviews, one-star”).

So why do we do it? Frey: “To experience the ecstasy inherent in the act of participation in the creation of the world, my friend….Living a writer’s life, a life of reflection, of personal growth, of accomplishment, of working and striving and suffering for one’s art, that is its own glory.” (See also the responses to Garry’s recent post.)

I’m reminded of the famous “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. Remember? His soup is so amazing everyone lines up to get it. But you must order it a certain way. No talking in line, no extraneous comments, or you’ll hear, “No soup for you!”

“No soup for you!”

Kramer becomes his one ally, and says to him, “You suffer for your soup!”

The Soup Nazi nods. “How can I tolerate any less from my customers?”

Indeed! We all want to make the best soup. We want to gift our readers the best writing we can muster. That takes work. But when you see the results…when you get an email—that’s not from your mother—telling you how much they loved your story….that is its own reward.

As good old Aristotle put it, “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.”

And what of Frey’s tenth rule? It is: “Don’t use too many exclamation points!”

I agree with that!

My eleventh rule would be this: “Repeat over and over the rest of your life.”

Because you’re a writer. It’s what you do.

So what do you think of this list? What would you add or expand?

Mr. Frey’s article can be found here.

39 thoughts on “Read, Write, Suffer

  1. Eftsoons, indeed, came the final dictum.

    A caveat for beginners: don’t assume that readers have experienced the identical Read³, Write³, Suffer³ cycle you have. As most of us probably know, just because a situation in your prose makes you weep, doesn’t mean they will do the same. Beyond the narrative, the reader needs to know in depth how the situation affects the characters. That emotion has to be on the page, no matter how obvious it seems to us.

    As the Bard said: “To be or not to be, that is the gezornenplatz.”

  2. Hmmm… I’d always been told, mainly by people on “writing” sub Reddits that the rules to becoming a writer were:

    Video Games! Video Games! Video Games!

    Movies! Movies! Movies!

    Talk! Talk! Talk!

    And the 10th rule? “Don’t steal my book idea!”

  3. Suffer? Seriously? As they say on that sports show, C’mon, man. (grin)

    I feel bad for Mr. Frey. I see him at a launch party in a museum, nipping brie on crackers and sipping wine, all the while holding one forearm across his forehead as he proclaims to anyone who will listen what terrible drudgery it is to be burdened so with the calling to write fiction.

    Puts me in mind of Dr. Smith on the old Lost in Space, but in gleaming, heavenly authorial robes. (grin) Things could have been so different for Mr. Frey. But hey, whatever works.

    Meanwhile, people like me put on sneakers, jeans and a t-shirt, roll off the parapet into the trenches, and race through the story with our characters as the story unfolds all around us.

    And our only “job” is to try to keep up and serve as our characters’ stenographer. Not a bad gig, no pain or suffering, and frankly the most fun I’ve ever had. 🙂

  4. I agree with all of this advice, Jim. I’ll add: A writer doesn’t wait around for inspiration as though waiting to be struck by a lightning bolt. We show up whether we feel like it or not, and the story — our creation — becomes all the inspiration we need to drive us to the keyboard day after day.

    • Right, Sue. As Jack London put it, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”

  5. Coincidentally I found this quote in my e-mail this morning:

    “Read, read, read.
    “Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.
    “Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.
    “You’ll absorb it.
    “Then write.”
    ~ William Faulkner

  6. Great lessons, Jim. I would add to the “Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!” the following: Be prepared when you set out on this journey to struggle to find the time to write, to change your employment situation so that you can write, to feel guilty for not contributing to family income, and to ignore “friends” who ask if you’ve published yet, but not be the least bit interested in what you’re working on. Let go of any need for validation from others.

    Carpe pati!

  7. Reading widely is the best way to expand your world view and storehouse of ideas. A long-time science nerd, I read an article about living homes which can grow and reorganize to match their owners’ needs. The idea fascinated me. After a few weeks of reading, writing, and editing, I had a story.

    Now I have a contract, too. So you’re right, Jim. That’s the process.

  8. Every now and again I’ll feel like an old prospector who finds a nugget in the pan after endless piles of dirt and says to himself “Now, now I’ve got something to work with.” If I could just get there more often I’d be on to something here.

    The problem for me is to replicate that moment on a regular basis, and any insight is helpful.

    If you write you’re a writer. If you write well it is because you learned how.

    Nothing bothers me more than people who bloviate “Writing can’t be taught-you either have it or you don’t” and then go on, as one of the Crew talked about yesterday, to self aggrandize and self glorify and waste everyone’s time.

    I’m sure we’ve all met one of Those. I have. She’s good but not great. I think folks who repeat that party line maybe believe it and maybe they don’t but they get off on it. It’s a subtle form of abuse, telling people they can never accomplish anything and are wasting their time.

    Examined critically this statement is idiotic. Anyone can acquire the skill to be competent if you have a good foundation of literacy, an instinct for good grammar, are widely read and have an overactive imagination, just like you can learn to be an electrician or a plumber or a mason. Whether you become a superstar is another story but it takes years of diligent effort to figure that out.

    Of course, to be any good at the work requires application of Frey’s Maxims and hit your targets. With a Maxim. It takes time, and I wish I’d caught the bug early in life and not in my later years.

    One benefit to the craft of writing is there are few physical limitations and ageism-well, there’s room enough for everyone in this world.

    • Your prospector metaphor made me think of something similar from my fishing (and golf-ish), experiences:

      About the time I’ve had enough, I get solid strike (or drive), that encourages me to keep casting (or swinging).

      As has been said, a bad day on the water (or even the links) is still a good day…

      • Ain’t it the truth. You’ve had “a good walk spoiled” but then that perfect wedge to within an inch of the cup at the 18th. And thus you keep coming back…

    • … just like you can learn to be an electrician or a plumber or a mason. Whether you become a superstar is another story but it takes years of diligent effort to figure that out.

      Words of wisdom, Robert.

  9. When I first tried writing fiction, I stumbled on Frey’s books. They were incredibly helpful to learn the basics. I was so impressed that I paid $1700 plus airfare to fly to another state for a week long Frey workshop with 9 other attendees. Frey spent every day shouting and cursing at us, telling us we were idiots and that our manuscripts were pure garbage. Yeah, he definitely believes that writers have to suffer. My advice is to look for instructors like Mr. Bell, who know how to deliver criticism and encouragement in equal measure and with kindness.

  10. As someone who’s been writing all his life but still doesn’t feel as if he’s got a submittable manuscript, all this rings true to me. But I think something else — with exclamation points — has to come after “Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!” Because just yesterday, after I went back over my latest draft and concluded that it has fatal second-act problems, I set it aside, picked up a good novel, read for hours, found in it the inspiration for a workaround on my novel, wrote for a few more hours, and went to bed with head churning and gut burning. I’m suffering plenty. But I’m searching for a higher gear today to keep me going and not treat the misfired execution of what I know to be a good idea to become Trunk Novel #47.

    What comes next?

    • I set it aside, picked up a good novel, read for hours, found in it the inspiration for a workaround on my novel, wrote for a few more hours, and went to bed with head churning and gut burning.

      Nice. I find that works for me, too, when I hit a wall. Reading a favorite author again never fails to fire me up and get me back to the keyboard.

    • Your comment tugged at me, Jim. And I felt almost invited to respond by your “What comes next?”

      Trunk novel 47? If that means you’ve written 46 novels and not submitted or published any of them, please consider this for a moment (oh, and remember that if you “buy in,” I gain nothing):

      Even if you felt those novels were not worthy of publication, yours is only one opinion.

      Some readers (maybe 10%) would have loved them, another 10% would have hated them, and fully 80% would have enjoyed reading them.

      The point is, as long as they remain in your trunk, no other readers have a chance to decide. As Nina Kiriki Hoffman once said, “Dare to be bad.”

      Your job is to write, so write. I recommend trusting your characters to tell the story that they, not you, are living. But however you choose to do it, write. Then run a spell check, take a deep breath, and publish.

      So the readers can do their job, which is to decide (for themselves) what they like or don’t like. And feel free to visit the archives on my website at I hope it helps.

  11. I agree with all this advice, Jim, especially your point about learning and studying as you practice. I’d add, as we’ve discussed before, the importance of managing your expectations and focusing on what’s in your control–thus the reading and writing, but also the “suffer” part.

    I look at all the experiences we have, the rejections, the acceptances, sales, no sales, reviews, publications etc as filling out my publishing bingo card. The latest one was publishing a story collection. It’s all part of the journey and learning we do along the way, as long as we pay attention 🙂

    Have a great Sunday!

  12. I love lists, especially ones that I can remember for more than five minutes!!! I agree with the “Read, Read, Read” and “Write, Write Write.” The Suffering part is just a by-product. A writer doesn’t have to worry about doing that. It comes naturally.

    I’d add that it’s important to become a part of the writing community. Ideas pop up all over the place. Blogs like TKZ are fertile ground for ideas and suggestions. Something mentioned here may drop down into my subconscious and nestle there for months before it floats back to the surface just in time to work into a story.

    And, most importantly, remember why you’re writing. I read Frey’s article that you linked to, Jim, and his concluding paragraph is inspiration enough:

    “So why do we do it? We do it to experience the ecstasy inherent in the act of participation in the creation of the world, my friend. That alone is more than adequate recompense. Living a writer’s life, a life of reflection, of personal growth, of accomplishment, of working and striving and suffering for one’s art, that is its own glory.”

    • Great point about hanging out in positive communities, Kay. I feel that way about all craft study…things will “stick” and come back when you need them. I love going over many of the craft books I’ve read…I read the portions I have highlighted, and get refreshers. Indeed, I feel like those craft book authors are my own “positive community.” I can hang with them any time I like!

  13. But when you see the results…when you get an email—that’s not from your mother—telling you how much they loved your story…that is its own reward.

    I like that.

    Money, fame, name recognition, best seller lists . . . yeah, those are all fun and desirable, but I don’t get the glow on my face from those. One reader telling me my writing made a difference is the sun on the eastern horizon for me.

    I think I’d add Patience with a capital Pto his list. Anything worth doing well must have a grand dose of Patience stirred in. Good and lasting things don’t happen overnight.

    • Great addition, Deb. Patience is greatly important, esp. in this era when anyone can dash off a book(s) and toss them up to Kindle where they can wallow in the basement with a door marked “Nobody’s buying.” I advise newbies to have the guts to put their books through a grinder…as you had to do in the “old days” when the Forbidden City was the only way to get published (with the lamentable exception of the vanity presses).

  14. My advice to new writers is if you don’t enjoy the writing and the craft, find another hobby. Once you reach publishable level years later, you’ll discover that the business side is unpleasant at best and that the money will most likely be crap. The joy of the writing is the only thing that keeps you moving forward.

  15. And don’t ‘read, read, read’ without the ‘write, write, write.” That will speed up your learning process quite a bit. Intimidated by published authors who’d gone before, in the early years I spent all my time “learning” about writing by latching on to every craft book and going to conference after conference and taking copious notes. And I did indeed learn a lot. But I wasn’t spending NEARLY as much time writing.

    Then a while back, because I wasn’t producing, I cut off my allowance for going to workshops/conferences and cut back on purchase of craft books with the marching orders that until my writing production became worthy of it, I could no longer send my hard earned money down that rabbit hole.

    Though it has been slow going, those marching orders helped. My writing production is picking up, & I keep a limit on my craft investment. With scant free time, everything else has to take a back seat to the production. You might say I’m in my “put up or shut up” phase. 😎 I’ve given myself too many passes for not finishing projects in the past. This year the goal is to finish the first draft of a manuscript by Dec. 7. In a couple of months, we’ll know if I and my co-writer succeeded.

    • You bring up a good balance, BK. I liken craft study and writing to the two railroad tracks. Both need to run parallel or the train won’t be able to move forward.

  16. “What would you add?”
    Observe. Observe. Observe.
    Listen. Listen well. Listen better.
    Reflect. Refrain from re-writing. Review, Refresh and Reinforce your skill(s) set.

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