Even the best planners learn on their feet, and writers are no exception. If you’re doing it right, you’ll never stop picking up tips, hard-earned lessons, and triumphs that sustain you during even the most depressing of writer’s block funks.
“We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up…” ― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
There are a million little things that go into writing a novel, and even more insights you gather along the (hard) way: some good, some sucky, and some downright painful. As I start my twenty-seventh year on this planet, I’d like to take a second to share―you guessed it―twenty-seven of the handiest tips I’ve collected as a reader, a writer, an editor, and everything else I’ve been able to call myself so far.
27. You can’t rush a good story.
Remember that kid in The Princess Bride? In the movie, he keeps interrupting his grandpa, trying to get him to get to the good stuff―the swordplay―and skip the kissing parts. Most of us writers have our own “kissing parts” that make us want to skip ahead even as we’re writing, but you have to remember that no mystery is just about the cloak-and-dagger plot points. No high fantasy novel is just about the adventure and the magic. No romance is just about the kissing. The list goes on, but the point is that a good story doesn’t gloss over the details that make the plot richer. A good story’s got it all; does yours?
26. Toughen up.
Nut up. Put your big girl panties on. Pull your balls out of your back pocket. Anyone else notice a theme here? Anyway, whatever you call it, do it. You can’t please everyone, and you’ll kill yourself trying. So when you get negative feedback on something you’ve written, take it in stride. Accept the criticism for what it’s worth, remain open to the possibilities for improvement, but know that at the end of the day, one person’s review will not always match someone else’s.
25. You are not (insert your literary hero’s name here).
And if you never become him or her, that’s okay, too. Be your own freakin’ hero.
24. Push the envelope every so often.
Even if your foray out of your comfort zone seems tame compared to other people’s adventures, it’s important to put yourself out there from time to time in whatever way you can. Never written a sex scene? Dim the lights, pour a glass of wine, and experiment a little. Is historical fiction uncharted territory for you? Crack open a history book and see what era speaks to you.
23. Let your characters grow with you.
If, like me, it’s taken you awhile to write your WIP, then you’re probably not in the same headspace as you were when you first started. That’s okay―no one stays the same. So, who’s to say your fictional characters should?
22. It’s okay to take a break.
Breaks are good (see #27). They help us clear our heads, avoid getting too frustrated to focus, and ensure that our best lines don’t get overused because we’re too flustered to think of something better. Just don’t make it a permanent hiatus; you’ve got stories to tell.
21. Editors are not all created equal.
Sadly, some editors will not treat your work with the same care and attention as others. But it’s important to remember that just because you get your manuscript back with tons of red ink, doesn’t mean you got the cruel one of the bunch. As long as every note and every revision is constructive, all that critique means is that you got a thorough editor. And that, my dear writer, is worth more than all the compliments in the world.
20. Stuck? Phone a friend.
They’re especially handy when it comes to identifying pesky plot holes you won’t catch on your own. Sometimes, you need someone you can trust to be honest, and who isn’t as close to your story as you are.
19. Embrace your unique writing style and voice…but know when to ditch it.
See #24 for some examples as to how you can do this and push the envelope all at the same time. You see, you can put your own spin on a new genre, or try a new voice out on one that you’re more comfortable with; it works both ways, and the best part is, you can always revert back to what you love most whenever the mood strikes.
18. Show more than you tell.
Don’t get caught up in explaining every little thing that’s going on in your story. Illustrate it for your readers; paint a word picture. When you show more than you tell, you create an immersive experience that will have your audience clamoring for more.
17. Stay active.
Take a page out of George Orwell’s book (see what I did there?) and avoid the passive voice when you can use the active one instead. In doing so, you’ll not only make your prose more concise, but you’ll keep your readers in the story, front and center.
16. Everything in moderation.
There’s nothing wrong with using a few fancy words here and there. There’s also nothing wrong with keeping it simple. Learn where that line is and make like a tightrope walker.
15. Eliminate distractions―unless they help you focus.
I was never that student who could study or write a term paper in the library. Writing fiction works in the exact same way for me. I need something in the background to help me focus: music, a TV show, a movie, something. Otherwise, I develop bat ears and suddenly every tiny noise is far more distracting than anything else ever could be. Not everyone can write this way, though. If total silence works for you, find yourself a quiet corner and write away. If not, crank up the tunes or find something you can watch but not watch while you weave your words.
14. Beware the time warp.
As an editor, I’ve found that one of the things I have to correct most often is a wandering sense of time. No, I don’t mean a literal time warp; I’m referring to a writer’s use of tenses. More often than we might be aware of, we have this tendency to accidentally fall out of one tense and into another. Past to present or vice versa seems to be the most popular snafu. So, while you self-edit, make sure you aren’t skipping from one tense to the next unless it makes sense: present to a flashback, past tense to a dream sequence, etc.
13. Kill your darlings―kill ’em dead.
You brought them into this world, but sometimes you have to take them out for the greater good of your story. If you’re willing to kill your darlings (or cut them for the time being and save them for something new later), you’ll find your plot becomes cleaner, your characters are more focused, and your readers are more invested.
12. Who’s telling the story?
Don’t lose sight of your narrator’s point of view. For instance, if you’re focusing on a first person perspective, you’re bound by what that character knows at any given point in the story. You can’t suddenly make him or her more knowledgeable about something without an explanation of some kind, or else you’ll deviate from both the point of view and your character’s backstory and natural development. The same can be said for a third person limited point of view. Just because you’re not stuck speaking in terms of “I” doesn’t mean there aren’t limits to what you can and can’t “know.”
11. Hit the books.
Do your research, no matter what genre you’re writing for. Your audience will notice if you don’t effectively set the scene for your story, which means having a deeper understanding of the world you’re going to create or mimic.
10. Set deadlines.
But, if you don’t meet them, try not to beat yourself up too badly. Unless a publisher, a client, or your boss set the deadline in question, it’s arbitrary. Writing is a marathon, and deadlines can help you set your pace. But, if all they end up doing is stressing you out and making your writing suffer as a result, then it’s time to rethink your strategy.
9. The thesaurus is your friend.
Per #16, it’s totally acceptable to expand your WIP’s vocabulary to spice things up and keep your verbiage engaging throughout the story. And if you follow Chicago Manual of Style guidelines (like most of us who are involved in the publishing industry already), then you are also familiar with Merriam-Webster‘s wealth of information. Use it for definitions or to track down some new words to replace the old.
8. Avoid he said/she said.
Dialogue tags aren’t required. Try identifying speakers with actions and physical tells: a toss of the head, a quirk of the brow. Maybe someone is cleaning a room while he speaks and pauses to scrub at a particularly stubborn smudge. Or, frame the conversation so that, every so often, you don’t need to support someone’s speech with anything at all. Short stretches of rapid conversation is a good way to demonstrate this. Consider the way the actors on Buffy the Vampire Slayer portray this exchange between Spike and Buffy (episode 5 of season 5, if anyone cares to know):
“What are you doing here?”
“Five words or less.”
“Out. For. A. Walk…bitch.”
While watching the scene would mean you don’t need any written indications of what either character is doing while this conversation is happening, it wouldn’t be that hard to make a clear distinction of who is meant to say what without a single dialogue tag:
“What are you doing here?”
“Five words or less.”
Spike scowled and counted out each of his words on his fingers so Buffy wouldn’t have yet another reason to punch him in the nose. “Out. For. A. Walk.” He paused, realized he was one word short of his limit, and then proudly threw up his outstretched thumb and little finger. “Bitch.”
Not my best work, but I think I’ve made my point.
7. Your first draft is almost always awful.
Like, nonsensical, inside out, acid dream bad. But there’s good news. Between self-editing, phoning in friends, and consulting an outline for plot revisions, there are innumerable ways to work with what you’ve got and build it better the second (or third, or fourth, or…) time around.
6. “…the road to hell is paved with adverbs…” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
On a related note, Mark Twain is credited with saying, “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.” Whichever quote you prefer, the message is the same. Not every verb needs to be described or embellished. Some speak for themselves just fine, and make more of an impact when they stand alone.
5. Don’t get picky about what you read.
Whether you’re looking for inspiration, an escape, a new perspective, or anything else, reading is good for the brain and the soul. Sometimes you just need a break from your own words (see #22), and reading something you didn’t write is the best way to recharge your brain.
4. Remember who you’re writing for.
Context is everything, and context all depends on your intended audience. When you know who you’re writing for, you can frame everything based on how it will be received. You wouldn’t use slang in a term paper, just like you wouldn’t want to use all proper English if you were writing a fictional young adult novel.
3. Give method writing a try.
Just like method acting, method writing indicates that the action is an immersive one. Dialogue and action sequences are particularly great avenues for giving this technique a try. If you’re stuck on a conversation your characters need to have, grab a friend (or develop multiple personalities and do this by yourself) and work it out aloud. If you can’t quite block out some action sequence in your head, stand up and block it out for real. Your work will benefit from the natural flow that your words take on once you know how things need to proceed, and you get a break from staring at the screen.
2. Set aside daily writing time.
You may not always get to enforce it—real life often comes knocking, and it can be a really intrusive bitch—but the first step is to plan on having that time anyway. Some write better in the morning, some at night; whichever camp you fall in, make a point to try and escape into your words for at least an hour or two each day.
1. There are no rules.
Well, except when it comes to grammar and syntax in your exposition, or whatever rules you put in place when you’re building you’re story’s world, or if you write nonfiction, or…
Okay, so there are some rules. You know what I mean.
And, because it’s my birthday, here’s one to grow on. Writing is hard. It makes you literally want to bang your head against the wall, throw stuff at innocent bystanders, scream until you’re blue in the face, or just curl up in a ball with a bottle of liquor and a tub of chocolate ice cream. But it’s also exhilarating, challenging and rewarding. So, despite all of the stress and mental turmoil that the story you just can’t get out of your head wreaks upon you, remember the fun parts. Don’t forget why you’re writing the damn thing in the first place.