Since I haven’t posted about writing advice in a while, here’s what I learned from 2017!
- Clarity super omnia.
Probably the most important thing for me to remember in my writing: at the end of the day, no one cares how beautiful the prose is if it’s not communicating what you need it to effectively. The audience needs to understand what you’re saying or else they won’t know what’s going on in the plot (was the protagonist just injured? what happened to the dog in that scene?) or they may not understand a character’s actions (what are they even doing in this scene, what’s happening?).
And sure, sometimes you want that ambiguity: I love confusing the reader when my characters are injured, out of it mentally, or acting in extreme distress. Playing around with how you narrate is great fun and can be super useful for showing how dire/extreme a situation is.
Still, there’s always the temptation to make every sentence this glittering bauble. And I love it, do not get me wrong: I didn’t choose baroque prose, the ornate life chose me.
But okay, more seriously: if your metaphor or description is getting in the way of the reader actually understanding what’s going on, then it’s not working and you need to revise it. It can be really annoying, because sometimes you’ll have this great idea for how a sentence should sound and you might have to compromise on it to make sure the reader gets the action (that is, if your first goal fails and you can’t figure out how the make the sound work and be clear at the same time). Ultimately, clarity takes priority most times.
- Some work is better than no work.
I almost always feel better when I work a little bit on a project per day. Some days it can feel like I’m not getting enough done unless I have a big win–revise a few chapters, solve a major plot problem, etc– and some days it can feel like it’s not even worth it to spend time writing if I don’t have the time to do something that will have that kind of large impact.
At the end of the day, though, a manuscript is made up of a lot of tiny changes. Sometimes you can devote hours and hours to fixing Chapter 14. Sometimes you’re only going to have time to set up the romantic arc for Chapter 14 and that’s fine. Sometimes you fix one paragraph in Chapter 14, but it’s the right one. As long as you can cross a few more items off the to-do list you have for the revision (or even figure out what needs to change! another big thing that often gets lost when when we talk about revisions: actually figuring out where to begin) you’re coming out ahead.
Other people may like to put things on hold until they have huge blocks of time to work on them, and that’s also fine. I think the most I keep my head in the project, the more my brain’s going to work on it when I’m not looking, and then more I’m going to know how to attack it the next time I pick it up.
- Balance information relevance & a sense of being lived-in in worldbuilding.
So we all know about the dangers of info-dumping: no one likes to sit through years of paragraphs of stuff that’s not relevant and is honestly kind of boring when we could be in the main action. Sometimes it feels like writers can also go the other way too, where the only information about the world we get is the stuff that’s innately tied to the plot. It feels kind of mercenary: okay, this bird is mentioned once as a legend here, so clearly one of the characters is going to be the reincarnation of the sparrow deity.
I don’t think that every single piece of information about the world has to be relevant to the plot. I like hearing the random stuff. Like: “oh, this? it’s a spell I messed up as a little kid and now this corridor’s always like that, sorry” or “this is how we get food in this city and it’s not going to be exploded or relevant to the plot, it’s just how it works.”
The key is balance. Too much random stuff and the throughline of the plot gets lost (also, see above, no one cares). Too little random stuff and it’s like a murder mystery where it’s too easy to spot the murderer. You need enough likely-seeming information to give the world depth and breadth, to make it feel like it’s something lived in, to make me not sure where the story’s going to go next, even as you’re laying the foundation for things to get cracked wide open.
My general feeling about a world, especially in fantasy/science fiction literature, is that I want to feel like I could tell stories in this place, whether writing fanfic or pretending that I lived there. There’s enough of the place/time/general vibe down on paper that I get a good idea of it without it being overwhelming or sparse.
- Even (and sometimes especially) if you didn’t like a book/movie/show/art/piece of media, you can still learn something from it.
Usually when I DNF (decide not to finish) a book, it’s because I know why it’s not working for me. It’s surprisingly hard to condense into a single sentence why you dislike something! (And not just saying, “it’s bad, ugh” but breaking it down into a critical argument like “this is not how I think cat-and-mouse arcs should go because I want the detective not to be a buffoon/source of comic relief but actually present a real threat to the phantom thief–there’s a lot of missed tension here.”)
It actually becomes a fun game: why the hell do I hate this thing so much? What precisely has this creator done wrong? How would I fix it? Or, in what way does their choice advantage them versus what gains do you get from doing it my way? I may not always agree with the way that people tackle problems, but I gain an appreciation for a creator’s choice (unless it really is just a stupid one) and learn more about what to do or not to do in my own stuff.
- Don’t be precious about your process/work.
This is actually something I realized about myself when I was in the digital art scene: I have no patience for muses. None.
It’s hard not to have an emotional connection with your work– the emotional connection is what makes it so damn good. It’s what inspires you to keep working on it even when it sucks or you’re doing tedious stuff, and it’s what’ll compel people to pick it up and read it.
But I also think that if you deify inspiration or say that a particular project is your child, it’s only going to make it harder to revise or take feedback on it later. If inspiration becomes this thing you’re constantly waiting on to ring the doorbell, you’re wasting valuable hours of your own time. You’re also taking power away from yourself: if the reason you’re good is because you were inspired to be good versus earning your skills through sweat and blood, then that’s not saying a boat load of complimentary things about the human condition. You’re not born talented enough to write a book. It’s not a gift, not an inheritance, not a divine or demonic calling. One of my favorite Leigh Bardugo lines of all time: steel is earned.
What’s holy isn’t the final draft or the idea that made you start: it’s you, sitting at your desk for hours, putting in the work to translate the item in your head to those words on paper.
Earn your steel.
- On the flip, don’t be too cynical/gritty about it.
Idk, it could just be that I also have no patience for assholes but no one likes this. Of course writing is hard. Try writing for an hour straight; it’s probably going to be hard (if it’s not, what are you doing, go back to that draft and ride out this wave out because you are clearly in the zone).
We’re never reading industry posts or writing advice columns because we need to be reminded out how hard it out there for a dude. Assume your audience has taken a few punches, that they have a basic idea of the shape of the jungle and its dangers. We’re reading because we want hope.
- Map it out (story maps).
2017 was also the year when I admitted to myself that I am actually pretty bad at holding an entire novel’s worth of structure in my head. Previously on Alex Yuschik Does the Thing, I had used post-it notes to help me get a sense of the main arcs in a project. This is still useful, but I’ve also found that making a story map in a notebook has also been effective.
This is one of those your-mileage-may-vary deals, but I thought I’d share since it’s literally helped me figure out a short story that I have been stuck on since 2016.
As its name suggests, it’s just a map. You need to know where you’re starting (boy in dorm) and where you need to go (boy offering himself up to tornado) and then you chart out the intermediate steps needed to get there. This personally has been super helpful not just for figuring out the action, but for figuring out what scenes I need to show the reader and which points I can fuzz over in the exposition.
Next time you’re stuck, try it out and see where you go.
- You can tell a reader anything, but you make them believe it through detail/evidence.
I love this one and it’s totally one that reader!me learned, which is why the old adage about “read like an addict” really works for authors– some things are just easier to see from another point of view.
As a writer, you can tell me anything. Whether I take you seriously or not as your reader is another story. If you tell me that someone loves another person, then okay. I have one line telling me this information and I have no idea what kind of love this is– the true, unending kind, or the half-love that is going to mostly be okay until it’s not and everything shatters. It’s really non-specific and it can feel kind of tacked on there.
The way you make a reader believe you is by building a case. You present the evidence and allow them to draw the conclusion. He knows how to make his best friend’s favorite kind of tea. He knows this guy would never wear a tie and so gifts him cuff links instead. He destroys a computer he spent hours building so his friend doesn’t get in trouble.
You never have to say a word about love, but you can tell that there’s a strong emotion present there. (also, it’s more fun to drive the reader crazy suspecting it.)
- Organize things to streamline them (email labels, submissions tracking).
On the business side of writing, organization makes your own life easier.
I use flashcards to track my poetry/short story submissions: each card is a piece and it lists the places and dates I’ve submitted it to on the card. If the piece is accepted anywhere, it gets pulled out of the box and put into a different box. You can also do this for query tracking; it makes your life so much easier.
Another thing I highly recommend is using filtering and inbox labels. If you use gmail like I do, you can color-code your email or tell gmail to assign certain labels to emails from certain people. The search function is pretty good, but if you want to pull up all the emails from a certain group of people or falling under a certain category for easy reference, like queries or agency emails or submissions, labeling makes it a hell of a lot easier.
- When you’re stuck/uninspired, try attacking from another angle.
If you’re not feeling excited to write a scene, no one on god’s green earth is going to want to read it either. Something that’s been a game-changer for me is keeping a scratch notebook/practice notebook around– it’s literally just a notebook that I can treat as a sandbox and play around in. Sometimes I use a spare Word .doc for this– you just have to get yourself in a place where you’re not writing in the main draft and you don’t have that pressure on you.
Maybe you try attacking from another POV. Maybe you try writing it from a different point in time– is it more useful to show the aftermath than the actual fight? Maybe you try another structure for the character entirely. You have to get back to what makes you hyped up to write: why did you decide to write this scene to begin with? Was it because you were stoked to include this one interaction between characters, or was it because you felt like you needed this scene here?
If you have a point in the scene you’re dying to write, focus on that! If you don’t, look at ways that you can restructure things so that something fun for you to write is happening. Otherwise, evaluate whether or not you truly need this one.
- The MICE Quotient.
I don’t want to say too much and not have people read the post, so I’ll just also recommend the Writing Excuses episode on this, as it is excellent.
- Voice is hard to balance with action.
This is one of those “this is why the hell that thing is so hard for me” light bulb moments from earlier in this year: what is my problem with voice?
It’s not so much that I dislike voice– there some books that I love because of the voice! Meg Cabot’s Mediator books were like my ideal as a teen reader– but there are books that I either find the voice too grating and kind of infuriating, or books where the voice overwhelms the story. It’s a safe bet to assume that we’re reading for character, but a good voice doesn’t mean that every single action is commented or snarked on.
Sometimes it’s okay to just have a character say something straight-up (“it’s a bus”) without pronouncing judgement on it (“it’s a sad little dumpster on wheels”). Especially meaningful to me in the case of a snarkier narrator is when they take things genuinely. Humor can be a defense mechanism, anything to keep them from having to be serious and open to being hurt. When you show them being open and not dissembling about something, that can say a lot.
- It is a long game.
I think about it like you’re building a city. Each project you complete is a new building. Maybe it’s a small house that only a few people know about or a project that only a few people read. Maybe it’s a huge skyscraper that people want you to construct more of. Maybe you’re building on the structures that you had before, taking things from older projects and resurrecting them into something bigger and newer.
It can get frustrating to feel like you’re not doing anything, or that it’s taking a long time for things to happen. A lot is out of your control in publishing, except for the things you make. So, get passionate about creating stuff. You have your whole life to build a city; it’s okay to start small. On the flip, it’s also okay to build a ton of huge things and see what happens. You have a lot of time to devote to learning how to do this well.
And there’s a ton of stuff to learn– you don’t just want to build the same thing over and over, it’s more exciting and looks cooler when you’ve mastered a variety of styles. It can be easy to obsess about the business side of things, but ultimately you remember more why you’re in the game when you remember why you love creating stuff.
- Emperical evidence: track revision hours and words per day.
The more you know about your process, the better you can get at estimating how long things will take you. Granted, sometimes things are just going to go wrong or be more difficult than anticipated, but having a baseline is a good place to start from.
Another helpful thing to do, especially if you’re reading for others, is to track how long it usually takes you to read a friend’s manuscript. If you know you can do about two or three manuscripts per month (while still managing your own life responsibilities and writing goals) then you’ll be able to keep commitments better for your friends and CPs.
- It’s always better to finish things, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking about stories as widgets/commodities.
Forward momentum is important, and it really does feel good to get a story to a state where you can be proud of it and okay with other people reading it. However, it can also be easy to feel like you need to constantly be turning out new projects. Generally, I learn more from the projects that I get stuck on and spend a ton of time on rather than ones that I cranked out for NaNos and other one-per-month story events.
Everyone’s process is different, but from time to time examine how you’re doing things. Is it difficult for you to finish stuff because you give yourself too much downtime (or is your life just kind of in a difficult place to finish stuff quickly)? If life stuff is going on, usually you just have to wade through that, unfortunately, but if there’s something you can fix, maybe look at that.
On the other hand, are you whipping out a lot of projects and feeling like they’re all kind of the same? One of the reasons why I really detest beat sheets is because they can make a story feel formulaic and boring if you rely on them too heavily. Each story is different, even if you’re following the same structure– challenge yourself to look deeper and see where the emotional resonance is in the story for you.
- You’re always going to win me over with the emotional arc.
Wow, what a segue.
I like sparkling prose and hilarious characters, and I’ll be happy if I can find a plot that surprises me, but the one thing that makes a book truly great to me is a satisfying ending. Sometimes I feel like the emotional arc is the hardest thing to nail down: you need to know where the plot is going (something I usually discover in the zero draft), you need to know what your characters look like, and you need to have an idea of what internal struggle the protagonist is going to need to overcome (which is not as easy as knowing who they are and what bad guy they have to beat at the end makes it sound).
Everything in the book contributes in some way to the emotional arc. For example, usually I’m fascinated by the concept of strength. You tend to see my protagonists approaching strength and power from different angles– a power-thirsty warrior sent to another dimension to cool her jets, a fallen heir taking back his company, a boy out for revenge when his girlfriend is killed.
Sure, there are external obstacles preventing my protagonists from achieving their goals, but there is also necessary internal growth that the audience sees. They are not the same person as they were at the beginning.
One of my favorite things is seeing a protagonist succeed at something at the end that they either failed at or would have failed at before the story/at the beginning. It’s like, wow, look, hanging out with this guy for four or five hours actually did something! We read this whole book and now they’ve gained this new ability/perception, awesome.
- You never truly leave the training grounds.
Once upon a time, I was really into digital art. Like, I saved up and bought my own extremely economical tablet for drawing (I still dream about getting a Wacom someday, maybe after grad school), would devote time to it during the week. There was a site I loved going to (does anyone else have fond memories of Oekaki Central, aka the One True OC to me), and they had you draw in different rooms depending on your image content and skill level.
I thought this was the literal coolest thing. If you wanted to draw hot guys, you went to the Stove. If you wanted to draw cute girls, the Jewelry Box. Outdoor landscapes? Check out the Garden. General 2-star stuff was in the Patio. Want to practice your colorist skills on premade lineart? Coloring Book it was. General 3-star stuff went in the Living Room, and so on. There was a star system– if you were a beginner, you were 1-star, if you were intermediate you were 2-star, if your work could be accepted into magazines you had 3-stars. Most rooms were 2-star and above, but if you were a determined 1-star like me (or someone with a higher star level who wanted to experiment) you could practice and get better by drawing in the Training Grounds, the general 1-star room.
I used to get so mad because I’d practice my everliving ass off and I still wouldn’t be good enough for the 2-star rooms. I’d always have to go back to the Training Grounds, work on my stuff there for a few weeks, and try again. I just wanted to be a Cool Artist and not have to swim in the kiddie pool all the time.
But if there’s anything that experience taught me, it’s that there’s always going to be something that you have to learn and you have to be okay with that. Admitting that you need practice isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t make you any less of a creator to spend time learning how to do something properly. It’s an ars longa, vita brevis kind of lifestyle and that’s actually kind of awesome. You’re never going to run out of stuff to learn.
And it may seem kind of annoying, not always churning out 2-star or 3-star work, but there’s a whole lot of expectation that comes with that. Giving yourself the space to practice, and more importantly to fail, can really help you move your craft forward.
So, I think that’s what I’m going for in 2018: be clear and fail boldly, then fix it all in revisions.
And on that note, happy new year! 🙂 Let me know what your favorite writing tips from 2017 have been!