I keep a list of writing tips for myself that I look at every once in a while. It started as an outline of Stephen King’s On Writing, but expanded from there as I learned more and more about the craft.
Write what you know
Well, if we only wrote what we know, there’d be very few stories. And very boring stories. There’d be no science fiction or fantasy. No dwarves, no superheroes, no space aliens, no slasher killers. How dull.
Not to mention if you only write what you know, you’re not writing for an audience. And that’s another piece of advice that’s terrible — “write for yourself”, “write what you would want to read”.
I mean, there is a grain of wisdom in that. But what I’ve found from staring longingly at the best-seller lists for years is that all the books have something in common. For one thing, at minimum minimum minimum, you’ve got to write with females in mind. As I look at the best-seller list now there are only three that don’t have female protagonists. The three that don’t are a John Grisham book, a Stephen King book, and a James Patterson book–unconquerable legends that always make the list. If you’re going to break into the business (not that I have yet), think about who’s going to pick up your book, then skew it that way.
Buy books about writing or that teach you how to write
I’ve bought a bunch of writing books over the years. I own a paper copy of a dictionary and a thesaurus and they collect dust on my bookshelf. The online versions are simply easier. And I don’t use words that I don’t know the meaning of.
We assimilate good grammar through reading. And the few obscure rules that are hard to pinpoint, no one cares about breaking. I’ve never cracked open “Strunk and White’s Elements of Style”, but it seems pointless in this age. If you read enough (and as a writer, you should. Filmmakers watch films. Songwriters listen to music. If you write but “don’t have time” to read, you’re not a writer.), you will assimilate all the grammar you need–what to do and what not to do. If a sentence sounds funky, it can always be rewritten so that it doesn’t.
Not to mention every author has written a book about writing and they’re all the same, all too generic to be of any use. Once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.
Join a writing group
I don’t know if this is good advice or not because I’m too shy to join one or socialize with other writers. The one time I tried, it was just a bunch of retirees circle-jerking themselves over their self-published books at a library conference room. Writers are not necessarily teachers.
Feedback is invaluable, but there’s two things about this. One, I find the advice really only works for the work you’re working on. Like Gene Wolfe said to Neil Gaiman “You never learn how to write a novel, Neil. You just learn how to write the novel you are on.” Two, everyone in your writing group is probably unpublished too. That means you’re getting coached by someone who also never made the pros. The chances they’re going to say something that improves your game are minimal.
Don’t read any books in the genre you want to write because they’ll influence you too much
All creative work is just random combinations of previously existing works, like genetics. Avatar is just a remix of Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and science fiction space movies. Rear Window‘s been remade a few times. The Hunger Games was an unintentional lift of Battle Royale. Look at all the slasher movie copycats of the eighties. Or Gremlins rip-offs of small hungry critters. Basically anything with Vin Diesel in it has been done a thousand times. Be influenced. Because something that sloughed off the wall a hundred times before may stick when you throw it.
Writing something truly original is an impossible task and becomes more impossible with each work created. Don’t assign yourself such a Sisyphusian effort. Genre tropes exist for a reason–because people like those story ideas. There are really good fancy hamburgers that get critics raving. It’s still a hamburger, true, but people love hamburgers.
Do Not Include a Prologue
I’ve seen prologues that work and ones that don’t, more the latter. When they don’t work, it’s because people include them for the wrong reasons.
Prologues that are just backstory don’t work because backstory can be included anywhere within the text. And usually it should be inserted at the part where it becomes relevant (like how Harry Potter always had Hermione to inform him about some piece of the wizarding world just when he needed to know it). If you’ve got to include something the reader needs to understand before they start the story (like a science fiction movie where you need to explain why giant bugs have forced humanity underground) at least make it entertaining.
Prologues that exist because the beginning of your story isn’t very exciting also aren’t a terribly great idea. Just make the beginning of your story more exciting. I don’t like being bait-and-switched into investment then have to switch products. Personally, I prefer prologuelessness if everything’s equal.
Don’t use first person for novels
I think I got this one a long time ago and it’s terrible. The justification was that the medium is too long to be limited to one perspective.
For one thing, I’ve read a ton of great novels that have first-person POV, like The Hunger Games, Bunnicula, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Looking for Alaska.
I’ve read books that have both third and first person in the narrative. They have their cake and eat it too. There’s one main narrative from the protagonist’s point of view in first person. But occasionally it switches to a deuteragonist’s POV in third person, but written in their “personality style”. Write whatever the book seems to need. Trust your readers will stay on the train.
Let the characters write themselves
Yuck. I puke whenever I hear complaints about this. “My characters aren’t doing what I want them to do!” Whine, whine, whine. If you’re not in control of your characters, then you’re not a writer, you’re schizophrenic.
You’re supposed to be their god. You control them. You are not their victim. And this advice doesn’t apply to outliners. Characters drive the plot in that it’s their desires that motivate them to take action. But if they’re not “doing what you want them to do” they want different things than what you think you want. In other words, you’re writing the wrong story. You are searching in the dark for a black cat that isn’t there.
Don’t edit as you go
When I start a new writing session, I always do a little bit of editing of what I wrote previously to get myself going, like a sourdough starter. I know most pantsers, especially John Scalzi, edit as they go. This means he produces one draft, although it takes longer. But make no mistake, he has also edited that draft. This isn’t bad advice, but what it really means is “don’t get stuck in a corner editing trying to perfect what you’ve already written or you’ll never write anything new”.
Always outline/Never outline
There are people who people who write by the seat of their pants, like George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. They compose without ever knowing what comes next. Writing like that is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
They are gardeners–sowing seeds and letting plot points grow from them. When this works, you can really get some fantastic stories, like the aforementioned authors provide. But when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work, and those are the books that go into the bargain bin. Kinda like method acting–succeed and you get Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Fail and you get Jared Leto as The Joker.
Then there are architects, like me–they design and plan before building. If you outline, you can go back and seed the story with foreshadowing or characterization that you might have neglected before. You can fix plot holes or poor pacing before you waste the work. I don’t find there’s any lack of surprise or plot twists that can occur. I’ve tried “pantsing” and I’ve never been able to finish a story that way. But someone who can only write by pantsing would probably feel constrained by outlining.
Which is what all writing advice basically boils down to. Take what works for you, throw the rest away.
And hey, because I’m feeling generous in this new year, the next post will be all the writing tips I’ve collected over the years. Enjoy the fire hose.