Stuff I’ve Figured Out Along The Way

Every so often I repeat this post–one of my favorite pieces on writerly advice. First posted in April, 2013.

This is one of those blog posts that usually gets an appalling title like “Advice to Young Writers”. We’ll call it something more modest—like “Stuff I’ve Figured Out Along the Way”. These are bits and pieces I’ve collected, parts of the picture that I’m assembling as I go. I’m about to release my seventh novel; I’ve been published for six years. I am no longer the newest kid on the block, and I have picked up a few shiny pebbles along the road. And I’m posting them here because there’s a chance they might be helpful to someone else trundling along the same path.

  1. If you want to be a better writer of prose, read poetry. Poets are my gods. As I’ve remarked before, they say in ten words what I say in ten thousand. They are precise as surgeons, wielding their scalpel-words to hurt and to heal. It doesn’t take much—even a single poem a day can pierce your subconscious, raising your appreciation of rhythm, metaphor, and language.
  2. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research. And then leave 70% of it out of the book. This is a bit of advice I gleaned from Persia Woolley’s book on historical fiction, and it’s brilliant. The criticism I hear most often of this particular genre is that readers bog down in the history bits. Yes, they love history or they wouldn’t read this type of fiction, but it must never supplant the story in importance. It is there to support the story, and if any fact—no matter how delicious—takes the reader out of the moment, it has to go. These are the cuts that hurt, but they are essential. There is an art to weaving fact into the fiction and achieving plausibility and readability at the same time.
  3. If a scene isn’t working, let another character drive the action. This is a piece of wisdom from Phillip Margolin that he shared when speaking to a Sisters in Crime meeting I attended donkey’s years ago, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy. Say you’ve written a scene that just isn’t working. Let’s further say it is between a mother and her teenage son and it’s about his girlfriend. The mother has reservations about the relationship. You’ve begun the scene with the mother haranguing the boy and he responded defensively. It evolves, quite naturally into a fight. Now, imagine you rewrite the scene and this time the son initiates the scene by telling his mother he can tell she has a problem with the relationship and he wants to clear the air. Instead of the expected dynamic of hectoring parent and sullen teen, you have a thoughtful teen and a responsive mother. The scene would be quieter, more vulnerable. Perhaps it would open them up to confidences, to mutual understanding. Now, that may not suit you at all, and all of this depends on the nature of your characters and how they need to respond to a situation, but it can absolutely shake loose a scene you’re having trouble with. It’s also a good strategy if you have a character who takes charge too often and needs to take a backseat once in awhile. And it’s fabulous if you’re suffering a wee case of block.
  4. “Write what you know” is bunk. This is the single worst piece of writing advice out there and it’s ubiquitous. It’s also limiting. Yes, I understand that you need to grasp something thoroughly to write it effectively, but this advice presumes that you can’t get to know something THROUGH writing it. And that’s how some very accomplished writers prefer to work. So toss this one out. If you want to write something and you don’t yet know it, be a Kipling mongoose and go and find out.
  5. The book you want to read is the one you need to write. Pretty self-explanatory. Don’t try to write something simply because it’s commercial or because “everyone is writing lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances”. Unless you LOVE lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances. In that case, rock on with your furry, fiber-loving, girl-on-girl self.
  6. Never take criticism from someone who doesn’t create. This is taken from someone entirely brilliant whom I have now forgotten—I want to say Aldous Huxley? Anyway, it’s worth repeating OFTEN. People who do not create are a species apart from those of us who do. They do not understand the work, the challenges, the vulnerability, the process, the discipline it takes to carry a project from idea to completion. This doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to an opinion about your work; of course they are. They are entitled to have an opinion, to share it, to discuss it. But they are not entitled to have that opinion living in your head. Keep it out.
  7. On a related note, be careful about giving away your power. It sounds cynical and gross, but the truth is there are people who will be happy—nay, GLEEFUL—to find you have an Achilles heel and will amuse themselves by poking pins in it. So be careful about where you reveal your vulnerabilities. Do not show your work to just anyone; do not confide in everyone. Choose your confidantes with consideration. It takes discipline and willpower not to spill your guts to everyone you know and not to share your manuscript with anyone who will read it. Exercise that discipline and willpower—it will be well worth it. I’ve seen FAR too many people torn down by snarky critique partners or jealous writing groups. It can take a very long time to build that confidence back up again when someone’s sharpened their claws on it. If you share with someone and never come away feeling better about yourself, this is a very good sign that you need to move on.
  8. Just write. You can enter contests, create your website, attend conferences, go to workshops, find a writing group, join writers’ organizations, blog about your goals, tweet until you’re blue in the face. But NONE OF THOSE THINGS IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR WRITING. ONLY WRITING IS WRITING. If you’re not sitting down at your desk putting words to paper, you are not writing. You are posing. Stop it. Writing is discipline and craft and about 2% as glamorous as non-writers think it is. If you’re not willing to put in the work, you’re not a writer. And that’s fine—most people aren’t. According to a recent study—I want to say New York University, but don’t hold me to that—writing a novel exercises the same mental circuits and makes the same demands as writing a symphony. I loved reading that because it’s the first example I’ve seen that illustrates clearly what it feels like to write a novel. Each instrument has its own part to be written then the parts must be combined into a harmonious whole. There are themes and counter-themes to develop, ideas to explore and refine. Thousands and thousands of notes, put into precisely the correct order not just to make sense but to make art. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But most folks don’t walk around thinking they have a symphony rattling around inside and they’d write it if only they could find the time. But this is what you hear on a regular basis about books. (An NYT article from 2002 said a recent poll revealed 81% of all Americans thought they had a book inside them. I’d say after the advent of self-publishing that number is up even higher.) Here’s the thing—that book is going to STAY inside you if you don’t write it. So write it and stop talking about it already.
  9. You’re never as good or as bad as you think you are. We are creatures of extreme. We believe the absolute worst of ourselves and sometimes the absolute best. The truth is usually somewhere in between. Don’t let your head get turned with praise that is too fulsome, but don’t believe the worst of yourself either. Now, if you’re a person who NEVER thinks poorly of your own writing, you need to explore the middle ground a bit because if you never doubt then all I can say is: WRITING. UR DOING IT WRONG.
  10. Nice matters. Publishing is a surprisingly small industry. SURPRISINGLY small. You can show your ass all you want, but eventually people will compare notes and it will come back to bite you on that same ass. The editorial assistant you abused today can be an executive editor tomorrow with the power to refuse your newest project at the acquisitions table. The blogger you got into a flame war with on Twitter could get a job writing a review column for a major online magazine. You never know. I’ve seen people time and again think they were getting away from working with someone only to have that same person crop up again. Bad pennies abound in this business and they do keep turning up. Reputations MATTER. Make sure yours is a good one. If you act like you are terribly special and important, nobody walks around saying, “Oooh, it’s the terribly special and important author on the phone.” They roll their eyes and avoid you and tell their friends. And word travels. So, be nice. It costs nothing and generates a truckload of good karma that just might come back to help you when you need it most. Besides, the world needs more nice. Why not let it start with us?
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