Group Participation: Good Advice You’ve Gotten on the Craft of Writing
Posted on February 4, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 124 Comments
I’m drilling down into this novella today, so while I’m off banging it out, a question for the writers in the crowd:
What’s some good advice you’ve gotten on the craft of writing? I’m not talking airy, metaphysical revelations that someone dropped into your skull on what writing means, or anything like that. I mean, actual useful tips on the practical matters of stringing words together, and then editing them. Stuff anyone can implement to improve their writing.
Here’s mine, which I received from an editor whose name is now unfortunately lost in the pudding that is my forebrain: Read what you’ve written out loud. I’ve noted this before, but it bears repeating. Reading what you’ve written out loud will allow you to catch basic copy errors that your brain will skip over (your brain knows what you meant to write, after all, as opposed to what you actually did write), and will also let you know if, for example, something you’ve written as dialogue actually sounds like people speaking (good!), or like exposition sandwiched between two quote marks (bad).
When I read what I write out loud, I reduce my copy editor’s burden substantially. When I don’t, I end up getting e-mail, tweets and comments from people letting me know I’ve made some basic, stupid copy error. Don’t let this happen to you.
So that was some very good, practical, “craft of writing” advice I’ve gotten. What good, practical writing advice have you gotten? Answer in the comments.
Somebody should have given that advice to George Lucas before he started writing the dialog for the prequels. :)
Learned from the grandmaster Dwight V. Swain: Write first from feeling, then go back and apply “the rules.” Doing it the other way around is bound to lead to a lifeless story.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten on writing (from Deborah Blake, http://deborahblake.blogspot.com/) is this:
Write your first draft, and then set it aside for a month.
This works for short stories, novellas, and full-length novels. Setting the manuscript aside for a time gives you the mental space to come back to the work with fresh eyes, and it has certainly helped my books be better than they otherwise would be.
Also, there was a magazine article by a famous writer — whose name has since vanished from my own pudding — on how to write well. One of his rules was “use said, not declaimed, cried, shouted, or any of those other unnecessary qualifiers”. I haven’t completely broken myself of the habit, but I have toned down their use.
I think the biggest thing so far is getting distance.
Bang out the first draft in a cathartic purge without reference to the “internal editor” (as has been repeated ad nausem). But before you start re-drafting and/or editing, stick it in a physical or virtual drawer for a while (2-3 months for me while I write something else) to get some distance from what you “meant to write” by comparison with what you’ve actually written.
An editor at Newsweek who was my age counseled me when I had my first big story for the magazine in the company’s equivalent of instant messaging on the old ATEX system: “You just start working and you keep working until it’s done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery.”
Write the book you want to read, and you won’t be the only one who wants to read it.
Everybody has literary “ticks”. Figure out what yours are, and be very careful of over-using them. For example, I have a horrible habit of putting “however” in every second or third sentence. Part of my editing process is a search for that word, and replacing usually around half of them.
Does the POV character accomplish his or her goal in this scene?
I’m not sure where this advice first originated, but I first heard it on, I believe, WritingExcuses.
I’ll second and third JB Sanders and kaalalexanderrosser – Distance does wonders..I find 24 hours to be enough so when I read it, I am reading it with fresh eyes. I catch so much stuff that way.
Another piece of advice I have found useful in life with writing and more – Don’t take advice and edits at face value. Find out why the person changed something. You will learn a lot more about your improper practices and mistakes that way. Maybe even change the piece entirely because of that Q&A.
Distilled from various sources into something that made sense to me:
[show] = if [tell], what happens?
For (a lot) more specifics on craft, I second Phillip McCollum’s mention of Dwight V. Swain’s book, it’s excellent. And hey, “You can fix anything but a blank page.” – Nora Roberts
One very practical bit from Mark Van Name: “Ass in chair, writing. It’s the only way to get it done.”
It seems obvious, but there it is. If you do not write it, it doesn’t get there on its own. Don’t get distracted, just write it out.
The second bit, from an editor I think was summarizing someone else: “Every scene must do at least two of the following three things, otherwise it should be discarded:
1) Add background to the story
2) further the plot
3) show the motivation of characters
If it does all three, then it probably sings. If it does only one, it needs to get cut. If it does none of these things, don’t quit your day job.”
To avoid the copula spiders.
That’s from this book, which is actually not very good overall; if you’ve ever rolled your eyes at your English professor ranting about Students These Day or the Decline in the Literary Canon or waxing rhapsodic in a way that suggests he just likes the sound of his own voice lecturing, then you’re going to pop a contact lens on this one. However, he’s right about ruthlessly destroying copulas – that’s when you throw in ‘was’ all over the place instead of using stronger, clear language. The ‘copula spider’, as a you can see from the illustration, is a really painful but useful way to see how often one has made this error in one’s manuscript, and how it truly detracts from good writing.
When in doubt, make a list.
Don’t know what should happen next? Or why? Or what to do with this heretofore unknown character who wandered into this scene and threatens to derail the whole operation? Fill one page with a list of anything–good, bad, silly, unlikely, disgusting–you can think of to answer the question. I usually only need about half a page to get something I like.
Hate what you’ve written? Fill a page with a list of everything that’s wrong with it. Chances are you’ll hit on something obvious that you’ve overlooked, or you’ll identify something that’s a relatively easy fix.
Victory! Have a cookie.
This kind of follows from the “read what you wrote out loud” advice, but something that has become really obvious to me when reading books to my daughters is this:
If the speaker needs to be identified, do it at the beginning of the sentence, not at the end. And if you must tell how they said it, say that first too. It’s aggravating to be reading a story and then realize that you’d attributed the sentence to the wrong person, or said it cheerfully when it was supposed to be sad.
Oh, and keep the sentences short if you can.
Oh, man. Too many to say. Possibly the best thing is “write crap first.” Getting that lousy first draft out is key. I remember Paolo Bacigalupi said a friend had a sign over his desk that said “THIS IS THE WORST NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.” Just get that first one out and then edit later.
So does the reading out loud force you to focus more? So by hearing the words with your own voice allow you to catch grammar errors? If your paying a copy editor to catch your grammar errors, does it really matter if you have some extra stupid grammar mistakes? Aren’t you paying them to catch this? Then your focusing on story?
I just read that paragraph out loud and noticed really bad grammar errors that the writer nerds on here may scoff at. There is another one.
This isn’t just for John. Its to everyone.
I flip the “read it out loud” into “have it read out loud to me”. And, because I like to think I have friends, and want to continue to have friends, I use text-to-speech (ConvenienceWare Ghost Reader). Save as text, pass through the Ghost Reader app and save as mp3.
Load it into my iPhone as music and listen to teh Words, Story etc as I’m doing other things. The tyops and logical disconnects and story failures jump right out.
Treat every character like they are the protagonist of their own story. Even the one-line-of-dialogue folk.
oh, and to stay on topic (sorry :) I don’t remember who suggested it to me.
The two best books on professional writing, IMHO, both of which I got to discuss with their authors, are:
(1) Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury, 1990
(2) On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
― Stephen King, On Writing
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
― Stephen King, On Writing
“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
― Stephen King, On Writing
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
― Stephen King, On Writing
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
― Stephen King, On Writing
Not sure where I read it, but “read your manuscript backwards.” Its basically the same as idea reading it out loud, but requires less privacy.
Also, do not believe anyone who tells you “said” is a terrible word to use. The results are often painful to read. (That’s from personal observation.)
I have this posted on my wall–it was a handout from a panel on writing at some science fiction convention, though I can no longer remember the convention, nor the writer who handed the sheet out. (The words were not his own.)
1. Write quickly and you will never write well; write well and you will soon write quickly.
2. Clearness is the first essential, then brevity, beauty and vigor.
3. Correct repeatedly and stoically.
4. Erasure is as important as writing.
5. Prune what is turgid, elevate what is commonplace, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where the language is too harsh, modify where it is too absolute.
6. The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as of being another man’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the same affection that we lavish upon a newborn child.
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus
Circa 65 A.D.
Remove the first 1-5 pages just, off the bat.
The idea of this is that people put in too much exposition, and end up repeating things that the reader can figure out on their own. Read your work starting from the first action or first bit of dialogue and see if everything before that is really necessary.
It’s not always true, but it’s a good experiment to just see if you’re putting in fluff in the beginning. Trust the reader that they can figure some stuff out as they go along.
Wow, man, I published an entire book on such things (Motivate Your Writing). But if I could pick one, it would be to just keep writing! The worst that happens is that you get practice. “If you want to be a writer, write.” – Epictatus. “A writer writes.” – Harlan Ellison.
And to remember that you only read other people’s FINAL drafts. Don’t compare your first to their final!
my favorite two pieces of instruction on the craft are actually from an essay by Edith Wharton, “The writing of fiction.”
The first is that, after noting that “it has been so often said that all art is re-presentation — the giving back in conscious form of the shapeless raw material of experience” she notes that nowhere is this more true than in fiction, where the writer is working with the very material of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Now, the first time I read this it didn’t seem like much, but then in the course of my writing, whenever I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say, I just reminded myself that my focus must be on creating words, images, or action that would evoke the emotions I wanted my reader to feel – what I was working with was emotion, not images or facts or stories or even characters (or “soul,” as Wharton puts it).
The second point Wharton made that whatever you are writing about it must somehow “shed a light on our moral experience” otherwise “however a showy a surface it presents” it will be “a meaningless scrap of fact torn out of its context.” Thus a very powerful story can be made out of the most trivial event, while “the limited imagination reduces a great theme to its own measure.”
Turn off the spell-checker.
Turn off the grammar checker.
Don’t do any formatting other than paragraph breaks.
When you’ve finished the first draft you can turn them back on provided you check every single suggestion they make.
There are some good ones listed here, but the best advice I’ve ever received was “Writers write”. If you write, you’re a writer and if you want to continue to be a writer you must continue writing.
You think it’s your story because you’re writing it, but it’s really your characters’ story, and you’re just writing it for them.
Also, the point of the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written.
Most useful for me: Don’t say something twice or three times when once will do. For instance, I had a paragraph describing an aspect of the relationship between two of my characters. One of my writing group friends pointed out that I had said the same thing two different ways in successive sentences. I liked them both and hated to give up either of them, but she was right that it was overkill. I have watched for that tendency in myself ever since, and it has been a valuable exercise. I have also been able to put it into practice in editing other people’s writing. I find that inexperienced writers tend to make that mistake, not realizing that they had nailed it the first time and the reader doesn’t need the additional explanation. I try to get them to trust their writing more.
Oddly enough, the absolute best writing advice I ever got could best be summarized as:
Your Mileage May Vary.
It is a common horrible trap to fall into, as a learning writer, of trying to take every bit of advice–especially from authors one enjoys–as Gospel Truth. Which gets all the more complicated when they contradict each other, and suddenly you need to figure out which one of them was really telling the truth of how writing should work.
But writers are all different. We all have different ways of writing. And what is absolutely necessary to one person can be a killer to another, whether in productivity or voice or focus.
Write every day? Works terribly for me, especially if I try to force it. I get far more written when I write because I want to, and don’t over-schedule it. Remove all distractions so you can focus? I write more slowly, and I write worse prose, when I don’t have a few distractions going in the background. Read out loud? I get so uncomfortable with my own voice that I stop editing rather than deal with that.
But it’s okay. I tried the advice I got; I kept what worked for me, and ditched what didn’t. And, look, the Gospel Truth, told by an author I deeply respect: that’s just fine.
Oh yeah, one more.
“The truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.” –Mark Twain
“When in doubt, cut.” (James Sallis)
“Slow down where it hurts.” (Steve Almond)
1. Concrete nouns and verbs. Look at every noun and verb you use, and if it isn’t something you can see, touch, or demonstrate, consider if maybe there’s a different way to write the sentence or make the point.
2. Eliminate modals (really, very, rather, etc.) wherever possible.
3. Hunt down extraneous “that”s and murder them with glee.
4. Strings of prepositions (“the man in the car with the hat on his head…”) are a warning sign of babble. Cut and simplify.
A variant on “Read Your Work Out Loud” is “Read Your Work To a Friend Out Loud”, which Tamora Pierce and Bruce Coville do with each other. It not only helps with smoothing over the writing, it also gives you both an impetus to have something to read!
When Tammy and I moved to Syracuse, NY from NYC about eight years ago, Bruce asked if she’d be interested in trying this. It’s worked out really well for both of them….
I think my best advice was “death to the comma”. There was a point, once, when I had, like many writers do, the terrible habit of using multiple commas, because I thought they were useful, not to mention more natural to my style. It was suggested that I take any sentence with a comma and rewrite it without.
James MacDonald told me this once: write straight ahead, without revisions or thinking too much about it until you reach The End. Then go back and revise. It improved my writing and writing style immensely.
I see what you did there, Kimberly Unger.
Two useful bits:
1) From a book and workshop called Novels’ Bootcamp: finish the damn manuscript! Editing and rewriting is vastly easier than creating from whole cloth.
2) From a writing workshop, something called a plot skeleton. It’s a graph of the rising action with various call-out boxes to put critical action points.
Especially in non-fiction (articles, essays, columns): end by returning to the beginning. Amazing how much more competent I felt after first learning this not-so-obvious trick.
Regarding feedback from your alpha/beta readers: if they all specify something different as wrong, they’re probably wrong; if they all specify the same thing as wrong, they’re almost certainly right.
Almost every instance of “that” can be removed
Take out all the exclamation marks. You might need them for a breathless character but probably not. Your writing should be able to stand without those props
One nifty tip I got from Stephen King’s On Writing was to cut out adverbs in the narration wherever possible. Don’t describe everything as “quickly” or “despairingly.” Just describe the action right off.
I make short lists, then reluctantly start on the 1st task. These microscopic objectives pile up until they form a sludge that can then be spit into whatever writing is on the sidewalk in front of me. (Good) fiction involves a lot of rewriting for clarity’s sake, so writing for only for yourself goes about as far as away along riverrun past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay…
(See also: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” -Mark Twain)
This isn’t specifically writing advice, but these points relate to craft, as observed from the production side of the business:
No one else knows or loves your book as well as you do.
By which I mean that copyeditors will do as much as they humanly can, but they cannot clean up all of your slop. They can do about 90%. If you give them 100 errors to correct, there will be 10 left in. If you give them 1000 errors to correct, there will be 100 left in.
If you don’t feel confident finding your errors, engage a good friend or relative to give the final manuscript a basic going over before sending it to your publisher. I assure you, there will still be plenty for the CE to do. There is ALWAYS plenty for the copyeditor to do.
Don’t make major changes after copyediting, because no one is going to look it over again.
I used to think, when I read a book with lots of errors, that perhaps the publisher hadn’t copyedited it, or had hired a shitty CE. Now, with 20 years of experience behind me, I wonder what sort of disorganized mess the author must have turned in that this was the best the CE could make of it.
When describing the scenes/events in a story, they should never be linked by “and then.” “And then” is an indicator you’re just stringing disparate scenes together, rather than each action happening as a result of previous events.
@JB Sanders, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue,” was one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules, along with the always helpful “Try to leave out the part the readers tend to skip.”
From Judith Tarr, who critiqued a few pieces of my work: don’t phone it in, because the readers are going to know. And they won’t forgive you for it. ;)
I’ll second the ‘reading outloud’ piece. That’s what helped me get my first sale. I chopped a thousand words off of a story I was writing, and getting rid of the dead weight helped immensely.
More recently, I was reading a review where the author complained about how a book used the word ‘Had’. I went through another story and chopped them out – improved the style considerably.
Two books really helped my writing:
If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland
“If you want to write:
1. Know that you have talent, are original and have something important to say.
2. Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it.
3. Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.
4. Tackle anything you want to.
5. Don’t be afraid of writing bad stories. To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.
6. Don’t fret or be ashamed of what you have written in the past.
7. Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self.
8. Think of yourself as an incandescent power, illuminated perhaps…
9. If you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign. It means your vision can see so far that it is hard to come up to it.
10. When discouraged remember what Van Gogh said: “If you hear a voice inside of you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”
11. Don’t be afraid of yourself when you write.
12. Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers.”
Steering the Craft and her essay “On Rules of Writing” By Ursula Le Guin
“This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present. They believe the narrator’s voice (ponderously described as “omniscient”) distances the story — whereas it’s the most intimate voice of all, the one that tells you what is in the characters’ hearts, and in yours. The same fear of “distancing” leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment…
As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.””
From Garfield Reeves-Stevens in person a long time ago:
When an editor says there’s a problem with a scene or section, there’s (usually) a problem.
But it may not be with the scene or section being flagged – it can often be a structural/foundation problem earlier in the book. Look at your set-up; look at your lead-in; look at the structural elements needed to give the scene actual weight.
I would also add that I love discussing process with writers, and it is absolutely true that no two writers work the same way. So advice either has to be general or it has to be read by people who are more or less comfortable with their own process (so they know what they can, and can’t, make work for them). Grabbing hold of someone else’s and trying to conform to it doesn’t generally turn out well.
Hal Duncan can take any writing rule I’ve ever seen and bend it until it breaks and make it sing.
He actually does this on his blog – he’ll write 3k+ words on how to rework a single sentence. We’re not all going to be Hal Duncan – but his deconstructions and reconstructions are always fascinating and interesting.
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.
When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
1. Don’t preach
2. Lead the reader instead of pushing.
I was once told, “You take seven sentences to explain something that should only take two. Tighten it up.” I read every paragraph critically now, weeding out the unnecessary.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything beyond e-mail at work, here at a corporate location. But do you want to know what book I wish I had back when I studied writing in college?
“You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to the Coffee Shop” should be given to every writing major, because I should have gotten it in my head early on that I couldn’t just bank on producing the Next Great American Novel and living off of that. I should have had it drilled into my head that writers, like anyone else, need to produce enough output to live on.
Reading your book now has made me seriously consider everything I write. Can I say something in six words instead of twelve? Yes? Then six will do. If only the rest of my office had the same thought.
The two books I’ve found to be essential are Ann Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction.” They’re very different from each other, but that’s also why they pair so well.
There are so many general pieces of advice I hold dear. A great lesson I had to learn was to accept that my subconscious was writing these stories, too. Often, I would feel compelled to add a detail or scene or flashback or thing that did not make sense to me at that moment, or seemed extraneous. And later I would need to edit it, of course, but when I left them in I found that most of the time when I went back later I could see an entire extra layer of themes and character depth that I had not realized I was adding. And revision gave me the chance to consciously play around with those ideas.
I’ll echo the sentiment above that my writing got a lot better when I learned that the word “said” is invisible to readers. They don’t notice it. They care about the dialogue, not the dialogue tags. If you have to get a “yelled” or “whined” or whatever in, the best place to indicate those levels of intonation is in the dialogue itself.
My writing also got a lot better when I learned that dialogue in fiction does not need to, nor should it necessarily, sound like speech. We say a lot of things that are not meaningful and we say a lot of things that are grammatically disgusting. But nobody wants to read that. Trying to make conversations sound “real” was killing my writing for a long time.
On that note: having characters call each other by name a few times is an okay way to reinforce your characters’ names for your reader. But I rarely actually say a person’s name when I talk to them.
It was a revelation when a writing instructor told us that after writing her first draft she closes the document, opens a new one, and writes the second draft fresh. I don’t go to that extreme–I use my first draft as a heavy reference–but I rarely retain language between first and second drafts anymore. Some people can’t work this way. It’s the only way I can anymore.
Go out of your way to write things that will explicitly not be in the story. One of the most important moments of my writing development came when an instructor told us to write a conversation between our main characters and ourselves. Well, my novel is set in a fantasy world, but I held the conversation in my bedroom. I learned more about that character by displacing him and asking him how he felt about it than I ever did through ordered brainstorming. He got angry at me. I’d never actually seen him get really angry like that.
Reading out loud isn’t just a proofing tip. It’s also one of the only ways for me to confirm the rhythm and pace of a story.
In proofing, watch out for words and phrases that indicate time is moving forward normally, like “then” or “after that”. “He went to the store. Then he bought a few things. After that, he went home.” Your reader knows that time is moving normally because that’s what time does, and because the order of the events makes sense on its own. The reader only needs time clarified when it’s not being presented linearly. “He went to the store and bought a few things. He went home.” Boring sentences, of course, but MUCH cleaner and less annoying.
That’s all for now.
One of my own techniques, originally developed for handling complex blocking of multiple characters, is the Scrabble Tiles method: http://bethinexile.livejournal.com/10926.html The tl:dr version: use a Scrabble tile for each character. Set them on the desk and push them around as events change the physical (or non-physical) arrangement. This will help keep you from forgetting anyone.
Another pet technique of mine, especially when blocking fight scenes, is to stick the characters into a mental rehearsal hall and tell them, “Here’s what we have to do, and there’s where we have to end up. You solve it and I’ll be over here taking notes.” It works.
“Don’t sign any contract of substance that hasn’t been vetted by a lawyer who knows the publishing industry.” From my VP class… I think that instructor comments on this site sometimes, or something.
Even better than reading your work out loud is having someone else read it out loud to you. This is a great way to discover awkward phrasing, unclear direction, etc., because when you read your own work, you phrase it as intended, give emphasis where you intended, and so on. When someone else reads it to you, they phrase it as written, give emphasis as written. As the writer, you sit and listen. It helps you see the text. This was a technique we used in a few of the workshops I had in undergrad and grad. It also works for screenplays.
The other major advice I’d pass along is to separate writing/creating from editing. You can spend a year rewriting a chapter and never get the book done. You can spend a week rewriting a paragraph that, once you finish the book, you end up cutting out altogether.
Apart from “writers write”, almost every piece of advice by the inimitable Chuck Wendig, particularly on editing.
From Jerry Spinelli:
Write a boffo first page.
Beware of would, could and should.
A particular variety of YMMV: Make sure that the advice you’re receiving applies to the kind of writing you’re doing. Exceptionally long sentences, strung together with a plethora of commas, are generally undesirable in prose. In formalist poetry . . . well, take a look at this (by Edna St. Vincent Millay):
“When you, that at this moment are to me
Dearer than words on paper, shall depart,
And be no more the warder of my heart,
Whereof again myself shall hold the key;
And be no more – what now you seem to be –
The sun, from which all excellencies start
In a round nimbus, nor a broken dart
Of moonlight, even, splintered on the sea;
I shall remember only of this hour–
And weep somewhat, as now you see me weep–
The pathos of your love, that, like a flower,
Fearful of death yet amorous of sleep,
Droops for a moment and beholds, dismayed,
The wind whereon its petals shall be laid.”
The entire thing – fourteen lines of iambic pentameter – is one sentence! That’s admittedly an extreme example, and its success depends heavily on Millay’s extraordinary skill with the form. But it’s easy to find lesser examples that reinforce the key point: What is useful in writing good prose is not necessarily useful in writing good poetry, and vice versa. More broadly, what is useful in writing well in context X may not necessarily be useful in writing well in context Y.
Proofreading: print the section in a very different font.
1. Learn how to write scenes
2. Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, every day
3. Draft / Edit / Draft / Edit… creation and analysis are different animals
Ben Bova “How to Write Science Fiction that Sells”
Nancy Kress “Beginnings, Middles, and Ends” (includes assignments)
John Truby “The Anatomy of Story”
Robert McKee “Story” (for screenwriters, but excellent for novels or short fiction as well)
Over the years, I have put together an approach to criticism gleaned from a variety of sources. It starts with something that should be obvious, but is always worth stating: KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO DO AND/OR SAY WITH A PIECE OF WRITING. Once this is clear in your head, listen to criticism that helps you get closer to what you are trying to achieve and ignore criticism that takes you further away from what you are trying to achieve.
This will help you avoid one of the main problems of soliciting advice on your writing from others: making so many changes in response to (often conflicting) critiques that the piece you are working on becomes a mushy pudding of verbiage that will please nobody.
Read this before you start writing: “How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide” by Howard Mittelmark. Not only is it chock full of terrific advice on what not to do, its a darned humorous read. I learned a lot from that book and had fun reading it at the same time.
They are, once you have them at the forefront of your awareness – easy to spot. Sneak up on them and club them over the back of the head. For example: He smiled thinly. The wind blew viciously across the plain.
I went through my manuscript and put a stake through the heart of probably 90% of the adverbs. I was astonished at how many of the little buggers had permeated and snuck into the work. Just run a search for “ly”, marvel at their numbers…then kill them.
To take a slightly different tack from many of the excellent suggestions above, I offer ‘don’t do anything to dislodge your readers from the world you have created for them’.
That may come from the act of writing itself – characters speaking in wrong registers, or using language inappropriate for the time and place, for example. But it also often comes up in low level plot construction.
I live in London. I know it well and I know how the pieces fit together. If you want to invent your own London, be my guest. Feel free to create people, places, streets and entire neighbourhoods which are not part of the real world. But if you are going to use actual London, use it right. This road goes from here to there. This suburban station is on the line which takes you to that terminus. If your character is walking from A to C, by all means describe the delights of B spotted along the way – but going via P without a really good reason breaks the spell. Ideally, don’t use a real world location which you intend to describe in any detail unless you have actually been there. That may not be possible, but anyone can look at a map, which is often a perfectly adequate second best.
I really want to suspend my disbelief. But you have to help.
Seconding “mileage may vary.” That goes for recommendations of BEST BOOK EVAR, too. Many people in this thread laud Dwight V. Swain; me, I can’t stand him. I get the impression he never encountered a female writer in his life, and doesn’t believe they exist, despite that he had plenty contemporaries as counterexamples. And life’s too short, and too full of good teachers who *do* see me as a person, for me to put up with teachers who don’t. (I’m heard “you just have to put up with a little bit of sexism, but it’s worth it” about teachers, entertainment, etc. from so very many men, and some women too; and, well, no.)
This is not an opinion I see expressed very often about Swain. I’m putting it out there so that anyone else who shares it doesn’t feel alone. :-)
Books I love: Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write. Victoria Nelson’s On Writer’s Block.
I have not yet read Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, as this thread has reminded me. It’s time I did something about that.
A blogger I love: Havi Brooks, The Fluent Self. She is up there with Nelson for showing compassion to, rather than kicking-when-they’re-down, writers who are going through what is commonly known as writing block.
Again, mileage may vary. What works, do. What doesn’t work, don’t bother with. “Test everything; hold onto what is good.” The advice “This helped; it might help you” is worthwhile, the decree that “If you don’t do it or experience it the way I do, you’re not a real writer” is worthless.
I like James D. Macdonald’s “How do you know if it works? By the sound of rapidly turning pages.”
Don’t define your success by comparing yourself to other writers. (Mileage may vary.)
Be gentle with yourself.
These are the most helpful pieces of advice I have received. I’m picking up more of them from this thread. Thank you all.
One great piece of advice I got was to act out the things your characters are doing. Not action sequences (though it doesn’t hurt) but gestures and movements so you can better describe them.
Also read, read, read. I read a multitude of genres so I think it’s helped me get a better handle on the different kinds of things I want to write (and have written).
marek, along the same lines, if you’re writing historical fiction, do your homework and be on the lookout for anachronisms of all kinds. In trying to convince a first-time author on this point yesterday (after he had dismissed my concerns by telling me that the reader would get lost in the story and not notice such things), I ran across a nifty book called “Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders” by Susanne Alleyn. While there are errors of fact in the book, according to some of the reviews at Amazon, I think her introduction is worth reading to understand why it is important not to have characters wear the wrong clothing for their time, use slang that hadn’t yet come into being, etc. Yes, there will be readers who will notice if you have a character walking down a street in London that didn’t exist in the character’s time, and you might very well lose them right there.
Oh! And there’s this (reminded of it by Ira’s advice about knowing what you want your piece to do before you try to apply every critique you receive to it) —
“The Art of Revision” by Jake Kerr
The best I’ve seen recently is this piece from my friend Adam who is a slush reader:
All very very helpful over the years
– Avoid passive voice as much as possible.
– The more complicated the subject, the less complex the sentences explaining it should be. Give easily digestible chunks and people can swallow just about anything.
– Everything in a scene should have a clear connection to its center. If it doesn’t drive attention to the center, or worse, distracts from it, leave it out or change it.
– Be at your most ruthless when editing your favorite parts.
– A good guiding question is less “does it follow the rules?” than “does it work?” A lot of bad writing is bad not because a writer broke rules, but because she broke them poorly.
From Poul Anderson: Check to see if you have appealed to at least 3 of the 5 senses on every manuscript page (every 250 words).You can stretch this to 3 per 2 pages in action, but you need to intensify it for exposition or narrative summary, to perhaps 3 per 2/3 page.
From John Brunner: At the highest level dialogue is action (the dialogue that changes the story, like when a character is informed that a major plot point has happened or is persuaded to change his/her mind), so that speakers speak to achieve purposes (just as shooters shoot and runners run). At the middle level dialogue is exposition (and that’s often a good choice, because when you need to convince a reader a thing could happen or is right, it can be useful to have someone who doesn’t believe it voice their objections).At its lowest tolerable level dialogue is atmosphere/getting a feel for the character. At the very lowest level it’s writer warm-up (“Hi how are you” and the like). In each successive revision, seek to move all the dialogue up a level. While rough drafting, if you notice you’re at a low level, try to take it to a high one.
From John Dalmas: Write about the thing that interests you most at each point in the story. That way the people who will really love your work will know right away they have come to the right place, and the people who are going to hate it will leave before getting bitter about wasting too much time.
From A.J.Budrys: “I can always apply the rules to someone else’s story but most of the time when I write I just make things up.”
An I hope discreet toot of my own horn: there’s some rather detailed stuff by me about things I have learned while editing other people’s books at http://thebookdoctorslittleblackbag.blogspot.com. Been some months since I’ve revisited there as life got busy, but I think there will probably be something more there later this week as life settles into a different groove.
I second what Sam Murphy said above. When I go back through a manuscript I always change from a serif font to a sans serif (though I don’t usually print it). It’s amazing how many errors pop out at you when you change the font.
Re: The Passive Voice
I like to make the distinction that avoiding the passive voice is much less important than understanding the passive voice and its political implications. The passive voice erases the subject. It’s good when responsibility needs to be shifted to the object.
“She was raped” is bad because the person who did it is invisible. It implicitly shifts blame to victim, because she’s the only one who exists in that sentence.
But: “He was arrested for rape” is a good instance of the passive voice because it clearly implies that his arrest was the result of his action, and not the result of a cop.
If you find yourself writing in the passive voice by inserting the subject with a prepositional phrase, like “He was hit by his friend” then you should switch to the active every time. “His friend hit him” is way better.
I think it was Tim Powers who suggested to me “the XXX rule”. That is, at any point in your writing where you’re stuck – a character name, a bit of dialog, a tricky scene – just write what you can and then put “XXX” into the text there. You can then use your word processor to find all instances of “XXX” later and fix those bits. This, for me, is a great way not to break the flow. It’s so easy to get hung up on a trivial detail or a hard passage and stop writing. If I can just put in XXX and keep going then I get more done.
The best writing advice I got is slightly philosophical, which is: Think more, write less. I believe the agent who gave that to me was suggesting that I don’t just pick an idea and dive in, but to give it some more thought before diving in. I’ve found, however, that thinking about the writing (as long as I actually DO write it) and treating plots like a chess game with, if I do this, this will happen and then this will happen and, oh, I don’t want that, so let’s go back and see if this happens, then…
On a nuts-and-bolts level I recommend Gary Provost’s book “Make Your Words Work.”
Alan Wexelblat: I do that XXX thing except I use “Lookitup.”
Years ago I got a frantic call from a copyeditor who could not find the Lookitup Range on the map of Antarctica.
I’m saying this as a reader.
Humor helps, damnit! Find yours.
Tertiary reportage bores (sorry scholars). Primary is fun.
A general rule from me: All your fiction reading (since we’re mainly talking fiction here) is going to be professional reading from now on, unavoidably. So that it will give you wings and not chains:
Avoid the temptation to read it as if the writer were in your workshop, in your class, or your client. If you begin to read through your writing/editing lenses you will eventually become blind to the ordinary pleasures, which is sad for you, but much worse, you’ll lose the ability to discover things/ways/approaches/ideas that don’t fit into your rulebook. “The map is not the territory,” and our job as map-makers is to map interesting things (no matter how shaky our memory or pencil), not trace the maps of others (no matter how clearly we can see the line on the map).
Read junk fiction that you like, and if anyone tries to shame you for it, deliberately offend them so they go away.
Read works of fiction that people that you believe are smarter/more experienced/further along the road than you tell you are great, and see if you can find a way to like them. Accept that any problems are probably you, and not the work, and press on.
Reread a few talismans often, but stop re-reading at least temporarily if they ever lose their magic. It is the mark of a good talisman that you are fascinated but you don’t understand.
If you are reading something to see why it is popular, to see why it is admired, or because someone asked why you don’t write one of those and make a lot of money, and you have a sinking feeling that you know the answer to the “why” and you HATE THAT ANSWER, then either treat yourself to the pleasure of throwing it away unfinished, or ask yourself “What would it be like if it had been good?” Either way you got what you came for and it’s time to go.
Addendum to RIchard Norton:
Know the difference between humor and jokes; be generous with the former and sparing with the latter.
The one piece of practical advice that helped me finish my first manuscript had everything to do with discipline:
When you sit down to write each day, set a timer. Whatever time you feel comfortable with – for me it’s 30 minutes – and write without distraction until the timer runs out. This is the *minimum* amount of time you should write – it’s not a hard limit.
Daily word-count goals are fine and all, but there are days when hitting your word count starts to feel like a slog, and you just dump filler onto the page until the word count racks up and then fling it aside when you’re done. With setting a timer, I’ve found that I almost always end up writing well beyond the prescribed time, and since I’m not (necessarily) looking at a hard word-count goal, the writing tends to flow better.
There have been times where I haven’t put much down, but in the last five or ten minutes of the time something clicks and I end up writing for another two hours. This method’s not for everyone, but it really worked well for me to get some daily discipline hammered out.
The most useful tip I ever got was from a screenwriter named Dani Romain. She said that if my characters ended up someplace that was unexpected, or deviated from the outline I’d prepared and did something I hadn’t planned in advance, my characters were right and I was wrong. Yes, a rewrite was in order but it wasn’t to fix the destination; instead I had to fix earlier pages to show how they got to their current state. Given the chance to act honestly, characters will do what they are supposed to (even if it surprises the author.) It’s our job as writers to keep up.
I casually know this writer, mostly from online but we’ve met in person twice, and he generally just tells me that I am stupid. In person’s he’s nice though since I have a brain injury.
And I meant to add that his advice is that if you aren’t good enough for a contract he would sign not to bother. Practical advice wise.
From one of my (newspaper) editors: Read it backward, one sentence at a time. It slows you down and forces you to consider each sentence as a standalone entity. Might be a bit labor-intensive for a novel-length project, but it works well for particularly knotty sections that have a lot going on. I’ve used it for complex newspaper articles.
My bible for all things fiction: John Gardner’s “Art of Fiction,” in particular the chapter “Common Errors.”
I *heart* what Kimberly Unger said. My mother beat that habit out of me when I was in seventh grade, practically with a stick. She didn’t need to stay at it for long but was too effective—ever since I drop commas and abuse every other indication of pause that I can get my hands on.
The bit that keeps hitting me over the head is: know what you’re going to say before you say it. I’m in a tech market, and my demonstrated shortcomings are all from the wellspring of ignorance of the message to come.
So many years in, Strunk & White and “Politics and the English Language” remain invaluable.
“Your first job is to put words on that page.”
Granted, it’s a little impersonal, but it does help me get started after I come home from work and just want to punch things. Usually.
Three best pieces of advice:
1. Put in your butt-to-chair time. Even if all you’re writing is your main character’s and your antagonist’s grocery lists. Those blank pages aren’t gonna fill themselves.
2. Do a search for the word “that” and delete as many instances as possible. Rewrite sentences as needed.
3. Give yourself the gift of a unique, easily-identifiable antagonist. The stronger your antagonist, the more intense your MC’s struggles will be. And make your antagonist an actual person, not just some internal, must-be-overcome aspect of your MC.
@GarrettC – I like your clarification a lot when it comes to use.
I do find though that training yourself to habitually avoid passive voice means it stays out of where it doesn’t belong. When it comes up after avoidance is second nature, chances are it does belong, a la “he was arrested.”
I like that for two major reasons:
– It also means that if you find yourself using it over and over again, chances are your instincts are telling you something about that scene that you can maybe refine or develop in revisions.
– Gratuitous or habitual passive voice gives an overall weaker tone to a work that can be surprisingly hard to ferret out once it’s there. You just save yourself so much work if all you have to do is go back and deliberately insert passive voice where you want to use it as a device.
“Another pet technique of mine, especially when blocking fight scenes, is to stick the characters into a mental rehearsal hall and tell them, “Here’s what we have to do, and there’s where we have to end up. You solve it and I’ll be over here taking notes.” It works.”
This is basically what I do with every scene. I have a list of things I want done by the end of the scene. The characters get to decide how they want to do them and in what order, and they can do whatever else in the scene they want as long as my list gets done.
The two best pieces of advice I’ve ever recieved are:
1) Write -> doesn’t matter if it’s giiberish, paragraphs or epic fantasy, just get that pen on paper and have at it
2) Finish what you start -> don’t get into the endless trap of revision. ge tthe story outof your system and once it’s finished then go back and edit
“Omit needless words.”
— William Strunk, Jr.
You can go overboard with this – there are other virtues than brevity – but a lot of the advice above about removing adverbs and extraneous thats and such comes under this heading. See also Michelangelo on removing the parts of the block of stone that aren’t lion.
“There is nothing wrong with the word ‘says’.”
— Bel Kaufman
If all you’re looking to do is attribute dialog, shoving in a variety of exciting synonyms for ‘said’ will be more distracting than helpful.
“He said I didn’t want to write, I just wanted to ‘be a writer’.”
— Stephen Greenleaf
I read that, and went, “oh, exactly”. I thought a writer was a fine thing to be, and I wanted to be that fine thing… but actually *writing*? Spending hours composing masses of text, just to compose? Not all that rewarding a pastime. For me, anyway. (This sparked a similar epiphany about travel, and how I’d much rather stay home.) So, I’m not a writer. I write when I have occasion, and I try to do it well. But I’m not a writer, and that’s OK.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever read is by Christina Katz: Be productive, not just prolific. Write everything with an eye toward publication.
From Dan Wells, I learned the Seven Point Structure, which is just enough structure that a pantser like me can use it to get out of trouble rather than into it.
From my time as an editor, I learned that reading upside down slows you down so you notice errors. (You can do it with a Kindle.)
From my wonderful development editor, Kathleen Dale, I learned that if there’s a conflict in the background, bringing it into the foreground and giving your characters a personal stake in it is a great way to strengthen the story.
Oh yeah. And Neil Gaiman’s advice to FINISH what you’ve written. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
Where to start? Draft the most difficult chapter/topic you anticipate working on. Do the intro afterward, because you’ll know what you need to set up then. (I learned this technique from writing programming documentation. Perhaps it wouldn’t work for fiction….although I consider programming documentation something like very high quality, logically consistent science fiction.)
Ha. “Read it out loud” is exactly what I tell my third graders to do when they are proofreading either their own work or a partner’s. Of course, when we take a state test they can’t actually be reading or saying anything at all aloud, so we practice reading things “out loud in your own head” a lot as well.
I know the more I books read, the better I write. .
Full disclosure: I’m not published yet, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt. But take all writing advice with a grain of salt because the market is always changing.
1) Writers should not be held responsible for character’s actions. I think Poul Andersen said that. Anyway, I take it to mean that your characters can have different values than you and your readers. They can smoke, drink, cheat on their significant others, and slap other characters around. I bring this up because a friend wanted to do research on the laws, and I asked her if her character would actually care about the law.
2)My rule of thumb for writing a female POV character is that I just imagine what I would do, think, or say in their situation. Outside of period fiction or erotica, female characters can do almost anything that a male character can do. And sometimes it’s more fun to work with a woman character because I can be more creative with a woman’s wardrobe choices. But I rely on women beta readers in case I get a huge detail wrong.
When wrapping up for the day, stop at a point where you know what the next sentence will be. It makes it easier to start the next day.
The best advice I’ve gotten is to write some every day. I’m very much a creature of habit, so writing something, anything, every day – no matter how busy or tired – is a helpful thing for me. Plus it helps fight of writer’s block – can’t go to bed until you write something! Even if it’s just a hundred words, it’s all good. It means I can check something off my list and feel that lovely instant gratification of meeting a goal and building my streak. And most importantly, it’s progress.
The most practical advice that worked for me (your millage and methods may vary, driver was a professional on a closed track, consult your doctor before beginning your writing regimen) was:
-Getting an alphasmart/ NEO direct. The portability (and lack of internet) upped my word count a lot.
-Reading things aloud helped my pacing a ton.
-Not editing while I go. That works for me. The alphasmart also helps with that (small screen), but on my first novel I changed all the chapters I completed into 4pt type so I couldn’t tweak them until I was done.
-When I got really stuck, I’d write the scene after the scene I was stuck on, only do it in a horrible flashbacky “as you know Bob” exposition sort of way. Then I would tick off all the things that I had established that needed to happen, toss out the scene I just wrote, and usually I would be unstuck enough to write the first scene again.
About the time I was writing my very first book, Grant Fjermedal told me that sometime in my first three books, I’d get screwed. I wouldn’t know when, I wouldn’t know how, I wouldn’t know by whom, but I could count on this happening. And knowing that it WOULD happen, I was on the lookout. In fact, it did happen: sleazy agent who turned out to be representing the publisher’s interests but using my nickel. I fired the agent and ultimately got rid of the publisher, but it was a difficult 6 months while I sorted everything out.
This is thankfully not a universal truth. My favorite co-author did not have this experience and many other authors I know have not, either, but this is still my favorite piece of author advice.
Things I’ve learned about writing over the years, in various contexts (mostly fanfic):
1) For university essays – un-contracting all your contractions increases your word count. So does using small words instead of big ones (plus it gets you a reputation for being readable in your work). If, at the end of your essay, you discover you’ve written too much, you can always edit down. Editing up is much harder.
1a) Always try to get your first pass at an essay to exceed the word count by about 10%. Editing down tends to mean you’re making things more concise, clearer, and thus stronger.
2) Some people work well with multiple separate drafts started from scratch as an editing mechanism. Others don’t. Figure out which of these you are. I’m in the latter camp, mainly because I’m lazy, and I don’t like having to re-do things repeatedly. (Computers, text editors and word processors are a godsend in this regard, because I can thus save multiple versions of the same file, and fiddle with different edits to see how they work).
3) From Mark Twain regarding adverbs: if in doubt, strike it out. Best advice for avoiding purple prose I’ve ever run across. (Identifying adverbs: they usually, although not always, end in “ly” – “usually” is an adverb, for example).
4) [removed because several other people said it better]
5) Things readers won’t notice, generally: using “said” rather than some fancier verb; using the character’s name to identify them (as a speaker or actor in the scene) rather than a euphemism.
6) A small word people know may be more effective than a longer word people don’t know. Yes, use the broader reaches of your vocabulary, but try to ensure the words are understandable in context. And of course, if you don’t know what the word means, look it up before you use it.
7) Check your homophones. No, really. Just because the word sounds like the right one doesn’t mean you have it spelled correctly. (Most startling example of this I’ve encountered: someone talked about a character being dressed in “glittering sequence”, when they actually meant “sequins”).
8) Check your spelling – some commonly used words are the same as other, less commonly used words, when a couple of letters are transposed. (Most startling and memorable example of this: talking about a character with a “bugle” in their trousers to indicate masculine arousal. The word they thought they were using was “bulge”).
9) I first ran across this one in regards to computer programming, but it works for writing as well: “You have achieved elegance not when there is nothing left to add, but rather when there is nothing left to take away”. Edit down. Always edit down.
10) Linking back to number 5 above – reader-brain notices the unusual, and wants it explained as part of the story-telling process. The more unusual your use of language, the more you have to explain it (this is part of why we skip over “said”, but need justification for “exclaimed”; why “Fred” is easier to deal with than “the taller man”).
11) For writers of x-rated material in particular: use the character’s names to refer to them, especially if you’re writing anything other than straight, PIV, vanilla hetero sex. I cannot list how many pieces of slash writing I’ve had to stop midway through the sex scenes in, so that I can disentangle who is doing what with which to whom, to elicit whatever response, because the writer has started dropping in pronouns and euphemisms rather than names. (Oh, and personal preference: euphemisms in sexy writing sound coy. If you can’t use the short, vernacular term for it, don’t write about it!)
12) For a general writing resource, go to http://www.fanfiction.net. Yes, I’m recommending the Pit of Voles as a writing resource. Because sometimes, you CAN learn a lot more from seeing something done badly than you can from having only seen it done well. Find the most execrable pieces of prose you can handle reading in small doses. Now take copies, pull them to pieces, and see whether you can make them work better.
(Confession: I have a piece like this I’m working on now and again. It’s a story where the writer didn’t want to be bothered with things like proofreading, or being alerted to their grammos and so on. [It’s also a story by the writer who has single-handedly contributed about a third of my current list of words for a planned spelling check program which handles homophones and homonyms by bringing up dictionary references.] The overall story is pretty good; the problem is the writer’s disregard for the language means I’m tripping over errors at least once every paragraph, if not more often. Makes it hard to get into reader-brain mode).
If I may add a plea from a consumer. Please, oh god please, find and keep an editor you cannot say no to especially as you become successful. George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling are examples of good storytellers I cannot read anymore because they cannot or will not edit. For fuck’s sake, don’t bury your story in mulch!
My advice: Don’t read a column like this just before you write. You will focus more on all the advice than on the writing.
Film Crit Hulk’s book, Screenwriting 101 is full of great storytelling advice (with only a very little about actual screenwriting because the key apparently is to have a great story first), but the bits that stick out the most: if you write out each scene as a sentence, and you can’t put ‘but’ or ‘therefore’ between each sentence, your story’s broken; and that Hero of a Thousand Faces isn’t an ingredient list, it’s a list of tropes. It would be insane to suggest that every story needed a five man band and a wham episode, and yet plenty of people insist you need the Hero to Refuse The Call and Meet With an actual Goddess.
Stop using the word “that.” LOL. My editor told me she had a count of 700 “thats” in one of my earlier manuscript versions.
* * Notepad is our friend. * *
… when copy/paste-ing from anything to anything.
Probably more relevant to non-fiction / business writing, but still good advice.
In grad school I received some academic writing advice that’s stayed with me until today. My advisor was asked to help another professor with a paper he was writing; I tagged along. The other professor said, “I’ve been working on this all morning and I just can’t get it right.” It came out that he’d written eight pages from scratch in about four hours.
The advice I got later was this: Don’t expect that your first draft will be very good. Don’t assume that your tenth draft won’t need more work.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says you should feel free to write “shitty first drafts.” No one’s going to see them anyway, so why worry about style or even grammar? Just write. You’ve always got your second draft, or your third, or…
When you’re seeing things from inside another character’s head, you almost never need to use verbs like “seemed to” We take it as a given that our perception is filtered through the character’s. As with anything else, there are lots of exceptions and your mileage may vary.
Also, especially when you’re in a writing workshop or writing group, it’s important to remember that no one in the outside world will be obligated to read your work.
I heartily second the recommendation for Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”
The only received advice that has been useful is Bradbury’s advice to burn your first million words, which I have interpreted less-than-literally.
But maybe a couple of life lessons offer good fodder as well:
1. Advice is statistical – it works in general, but is not guaranteed for the individual
2. Acting is good education for writing.
3. If you generate a lot of ideas that you care about equally, then let as many of them live as you can manage at once. At some point it will become obvious if you have overcommitted, and it will be obvious rather sooner if you need to add another project to the live list.
Don’t know where I first heard it, and I write recreationally only so maybe not so marketable, but write the stories you want to read.
That get’s sorted out at the read aloud stage…unless you’re William Shatner.
The trouble is once It was a dark and stormy night becomes The dark night stormed, you’re suddenly writing Batman fanfic.
Hyper local works-for-me advice: write your first draft (of anything longer than a page) longhand. I type much faster than I write, and the time I spend physically writing a word often gives my thoughts time to sort themselves into order. I think of it as the zeroth draft, and fix a lot of the structural and grammatical stuff as I type it in.
Whether it’s technical writing, business writing or fiction, putting pen to paper means I don’t spend far too much time rearranging phrases on a screen. YMMV.
Start when the adrenaline gets flowing. Bleed a little on the page. If you get stuck, ask the character what she wants to do next. (then thwart him, of course.)
“Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.” — John Keating, Dead Poets Society
Read what you’ve written backwards. This is also very good at catching basic copy editor / proofreading mistakes.
Do final edits on a hard copy (printout), not directly on the computer. It’s amazing the stuff I overlook when I try to edit on the screen.
Read a lot, remember that the first draft of everything is shit and that you can fix it, leave something for a while and then come back to it. Remember that the actual theme may not make itself known until the end of the first draft, and should inform subsequent drafts. That writing is as much perspiration as inspiration and that doing the work should be as much a part of your routine as working out or brushing your teeth.
I read a list of writing advice written by Roald Dahl to his young fans aspiring to a writing career. One piece of advice (which he apparently borrowed from Hemingway or somebody else amazing and famous like that) was to avoid starting work with a blank page. Dahl said that he wrote for a limited period of time every day. If he was approaching the end of an idea but still had lots of time left in his writing day, he would quit then so that he had something to start with the next day. I’ve appreciated this advice immensely.
Pretty much everything on Patricia C. Wrede’s blog. I appreciate her YMMV attitude (Her “Rules? What Rules?” post is rather typical: http://pcwrede.com/rules-what-rules/), but also how she breaks things down. Very practical, lots of explanation of why you might want to follow a “rule” or why break it, good advice for different types of writers (http://pcwrede.com/writing-methods/), and so on. She’s pretty brilliant.
Mmm, also Writing Excuses.