You don’t know what you don’t know, and when you’re starting out in this writing business, new writers are inundated with unsolicited advice. Which advice is worth listening to? I polled my writing peeps on G+ and Facebook to find out what advice about writing they found to be truly helpful.
This one came up several times making it the #1 choice of those who responded. Whether you think what you’re writing is dreck or ready for the NY Times bestseller list, keep writing. Write when you get rejected. Write when it comes easy, especially write when it’s hard. The discipline required to carve out a chunk of time every day is invaluable. The best way to learn is by doing.
2. Show Don’t Tell
Yeah, who hasn’t heard this one? If you’ve been writing for any length of time, this one ends up appearing repeatedly. Ever read an archaeology report (my apologies to archaeologists – I’m sure there’s method in the madness) – Boring. Oh my! Object x found in quadrant such and such in y position…. Yikes. When all you do is rattle off facts and numbers, report on what your character is doing, it’s about as much fun to read as an archeology report. Here’s a great post on Show Don’t Tell
3. Connect with other writers
No man is an island, as they say. Writing is such a solitary profession – find a writer’s group either locally or online. Go to a writer’s conference. With Skype, Facebook, G+, blogs – it’s easier than ever to find and connect with other like-minded individuals. And share what you’re writing – be willing to take a chance to get some honest feedback. That’s how you grow.
4. You don’t have to write well, you have to rewrite well
Thanks to Jennie Coughlin – I hadn’t heard this one, but it’s very true. It drives Marcy (a planner) crazy that I have to write three drafts before I really get close to the final product I’m looking for. I call it a vomit draft. I think it harkens back to elementary school where the teacher made me write a rough copy of everything first. The first draft always sucks – accept that it’s not going to be awesome the first time out – and edit later. When I’m submitting to magazines or newspapers, when time allows, I like to write the piece 3-5 days ahead of time. Then I go back and edit with fresh perspective – and the piece is always better for it.
5. Avoid the Big Easy
The big easy is the very first idea that springs into your head. Randy Ingermanson, creator of the snowflake method, says you need to give yourself permission to discover the answer, don’t just grab the first idea that comes to mind. I had a creative writing teacher in high school make a rule that girls could not write about horses, and boys could not write about cars. That wasn’t a problem for me – I wrote about sexual abuse, abandonment, haunting, grief and death. Any of my stories likely would have landed me in the guidance counselor’s office today. Take your first idea, and dig deeper to really tap into your creativity and produce something fresh and unique.
6. Know the rules, then break them
Usually this is used in reference to grammar and syntax, but I think it has wider appeal than that. How many of you have been reading a book, stopped at a given point and said to yourself, “I thought you weren’t supposed to do that?” Today, fiction writers use sentence fragments, begin sentences with conjunctions – any number of ‘rules’ your English teacher would have circled in red ink with abandon. If your entire novel consisted of sentence fragments you’d lose readers fast, but used sparingly with a purpose, they can increase the pace of your novel and lend authenticity to dialogue. If you break the rules, you must know why you’re breaking them and what effect you hope it will give readers. There’s no excuse for lazy writing or poor technique.
7. Less is more!
Ever read a full page of description about a setting that’s largely irrelevant to the novel? One of the hardest things to learn is to write tight and trim the fat. Jennie Coughlin responded on G+: “I had a copy desk chief one time who told me that every story should be trimmed by 10% before being turned in. Sometimes it’s hard, but it makes a big difference.” One of the Marketing Managers I work on contract for is notorious for saying, “Take this, cut it down by 40% and bring it back to me.”
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” -Mark Twain-
And last but not least…
8. Write what you know
Now before you bash me, because this one is my own, hear me out. I’ve read interviews with many authors who take a subject they’re already interested in, or know a lot about, and give that same interest to a character. Patricia Briggs writes urban fantasy and said her character Mercy Thompson is a VW mechanic because her husband often had a couple of VW’s in the yard repairing them. James Scott Bell is/was a lawyer, so he writes legal thrillers.
As a short non-fiction writer trying to break into magazines, personal experience stories tend to be the easiest to place. I just finished an article for Clubhouse Magazine about a new skill my daughter learned. I’ve written about parenting, overcoming PTSD, co-writing – these are all things I’ve done. There are definitely limitations to this rule, but don’t casually ignore this one.
So, what about you? What’s the best piece (as in most helpful) piece of writing advice you’ve received? Or, share the worst piece of advice you received.