With A Grain of Salt
A couple months ago I did one of those “One like = One…” threads for writing advice on The Twitters, and as I am now making a concerted effort to add actual content to this here site, I thought, hey! Why not write a post about that?
So, here goes…
0.) Take all writing (all anything?) advice with a grain of salt. Everyone thinks/works/imagines differently. Everyone has different contexts and circumstances. Take what works for you and leave the rest.
Read everything. Read carefully. Read closely, thoughtfully. Read within your genre and without. Read for structure, pacing, voice, audience, and so on. Read for what to do and what not to do. Read. (I wrote a whole post about this once, if you’re interested: Read. Read everything.)
2.) Get comfortable with critique. And rejection.
You know that saying “the only things certain in life are death and taxes”? (Of course you do. It’s a tired cliche.) Well, I’d argue that the only things certain in writing are critique and rejection.
When it comes to critique… Learn to accept it, welcome it, but vet its source and effectiveness. Meaning, have you worked with that source before? If they’re a writer, do you like their writing? Do they share some of your tastes? Do they ‘get’ your work? And (so important) do some or all or none of the criticisms ring true? Like with advice, take what works and leave the rest behind.
As far as rejections go, if qualifiers are given, listen to what, if any, are helpful, then move on. Reading is subjective. That’s it. The end.
Bottom line for both critique and rejection: Believe in yourself. Trust your instincts. Guard your story’s integrity like a dragon guarding its treasure. But remember that writing is rewriting, and you have to know what the problems are before you can solve them.
3.) Okay, pebble of salt time as this is my personal preference… SLOW DOWN.
I am a slow writer. I don’t keep track of word counts beyond a general, book-length goal. And that works for me. Writing slowly, considering each word, each sentence, methodically and (yes) tediously, starting with the first draft, saves me time and effort in the long run.
That said…3a.) Set goals!
I don’t set daily word count goals because ack! The pressure! I’d never meet them! But I do set long term, finish x by y, sorts of goals because so much of writing is self-determined. And accountability (can be) key.
4.) Find your sweet spot between vulnerability and having a thick skin.
Being a writer is like being a gusher. You know, those goop-filled candies/fruit snacks? Because writing requires vulnerability. It needs empathy, that gooey center, to elicit empathy. But being a writer also requires a thick skin, that waxy exterior to keep all that ooey gooey goodness inside. (Okay, the visual here just got extra morbid, so ahem, I’ll uh, move on.)
5.) Word choice!
Word choice, word choice, word choice. Also known as: Write carefully! This is foundational. Meaning is complex. Pay attention to it. Be aware, of context and connotation and avoid unnecessary repetition. Be exacting.
6.) BE AWARE OF PHYSICAL MECHANICS!
Sorry I yelled. But, wow, this is a pet peeve of mine. Understanding physical mechanics is another basic of writing. And while they may be tedious to write, nothing throws me out of a book faster than flaws in physical mechanics.
Picture your characters in a scene. Was the door open or closed? How many people are there? Were there two then, bam!, suddenly there are three? Were they sitting at a table, then wait, what happened to the table?
I’m not saying we need or want to read about every time a character brushes their teeth or opens a window, but readers need followthrough and consistency. If a character slammed a door, the door needs to stay closed until someone opens it. If a character took a haymaker to the face and ended up on the floor, they need to stay on the floor until you tell us they got up.
7.) Cultivate your internal editor.
Okay, yeah, vague, so here’s an essay by George Saunders, who says it better than I’ll likely ever be able to.
8.) Know your characters and world inside and out. This should go without saying, but you should know far more about your characters and the world you built (fantastical or otherwise) than actually ends up on the page.
9.) Time for some anti-advice… “Write what you know” is garbage. I mean, come on. Imagine, really, if people only wrote what they “knew”. No dragons! No Narnia! No Westeros! No <insert thousands of other examples here>!
That said… Do your research! Lots of it. More than you think you need. (Or, I don’t know, maybe I just LOVE RESEARCH.)
10.) “Show don’t tell” is not the end all be all of writing advice. I mean it. Info dumps? Loads of unnecessary exposition? Explaining how a reader should feel versus writing in a way that makes them feel it? All valid critiques under the “show don’t tell” banner. But sometimes telling works.
11.) Know your audience. Respect your audience. If you aren’t writing for an audience of people you respect, stop. Because you’re doing it wrong.
12.) If it’s not working it’s probably because…it’s not working.
I mean, obviously. But if you’re stuck and struggling, if your thoughts feel like how that wadded up pair of earbuds at the bottom of your purse looks, then look for the cause. Maybe your structure is wrong? Maybe a plot point three chapters back pushed you in the wrong direction? Maybe the character you think is the book’s center really isn’t and some secondary character is?
Making big changes or even (ack!) starting over is HARD. But it’s better than forcing yourself to finish a book that just. Isn’t. Working.
13.) Failure isn’t failure, it’s experience.
My first book, the one I found my agent with, didn’t sell. And while not selling that book absolutely felt like failure, I’d never have written Immoral Code without having written it first. I even wrote a post about it.
14.) Last but not least (and, really, not even last since the well of available writing advice is deep and ever-refilling): WRITE.
There is no ‘right’ way to be a writer, to write a book. Find what works for you and do it!