In what has now become my traditional yearly post, here’s my summary of some of my favorite pieces of writing advice I came across or learned in 2018.
- We love progression.
You want the inside line to my heart as a reader? Show me someone slowly getting better over time. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. I want the squire learning to slay dragons. I want the long-shot freshman practicing on the field after dark, changing his diet, going from last-ditch quarterback to taking his team to the state championship. Incremental change is believable and adds up over time. This is the big romance everyone carries on with years ending and beginning– it’s a convenient way to measure where you start and finish with respect to your goals. Even if it’s just a side character or a setting, I love the hell out of it when a fictional cafe changes with the seasons or expands into a second location, when things change as time goes on. It makes us as readers feel like we helped somehow, maybe just by being there, to make these things happen.
- Sometimes you have to go it alone.
Sometimes your critique partners will not be able to read for you. Sometimes you will have a crisis and every reader or person you trust will be busy, and it’s not because they don’t care about you or anything like that; it’s just because they have lives too and sometimes everyone’s crisis points stack up. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t get help from other people because obviously you should! But when your usual system breaks down, you’ve got to have a back up plan and know you can finish things if all you have to rely on is yourself.
- No one cares about it as much as you do.
The good news: no one agonizes over mistakes and imperfections as much as you do, so you can’t be too down on yourself. The bad news: no one is going to push yourself to be better more than you. When I first came across this, I was kind of appalled– there are so many people involved with publishing that everything feels so much like a team effort. This is still true, and everyone on your team will be likely be enthusiastic, talented, and incredibly helpful. It’s just that at the end of the day, it’s going to be your name on the cover, not theirs. No one is going to have the same kind of personal investment in it as you do, and that’s okay. Learn to ask a lot of yourself in your work, but also get a good sense of what reasonable expectations are from the people working with you.
- The rule of three.
If you’re not sure how much description is enough/too much, pick three different things as touchstones to set a scene or describe a feeling. Sometimes you’ll feel like you should use more or less–it depends a lot on how important the feeling/person/place is to the story!– but if you’re wondering if you’ve done enough, generally focusing three different aspects to talk about is pretty sufficient without being overwhelming, and you can always cut back or add more when you revise to suit the scene.
- Just finish it.
Perfect is the enemy of done. You have to be able to give your very best, and then be satisfied with it. It’s brutal and I get it– it’s hard as hell to learn to walk away and say a project is Done, especially when you’re convinced a few more months will make it better. But that’s the eternal problem: of course a few month whatevers is going to make it better, because you’re always improving. Eventually, you will need to let it go, and that’s okay. My goal is to be able to confidently say I fixed everything I knew was wrong at the time, and then head on to the next adventure.
- You don’t have to write daily; you have to train so you can turn it on when you want.
I think about this like a tap. Like as in, literally, a sink faucet. When you first start writing with the goal of being professional, sometimes you turn the faucet on and nothing comes out. Sometimes actual, potable water comes out and it’s awesome. Sometimes gross, grunky water comes out and you’re like eugh, what the hell, and you have to take out the wall and uncrust all the pipes. Your goal is to make it so that whenever you sit down to write, it’s just like turning the tap in the kitchen sink: clear water comes out (you may still need to install a filtration system, aka edit, to make it drinkable, but that can be for later). Daily writing is a good way to do this, but also it’s not the only way. It’s more about treating the act of writing as training versus divine intervention. There is no muse, only the tap.
- Plan for the next steps of your career.
If you fail at any stage of your career, that’s relatively easy to handle: you keep on working hard until you succeed. But if you succeed, what then? Sketch out how you’re going to take on the new challenges that leveling up will bring you: will you need an accountant? Would opening an additional bank account help so that you can put half your advance away for taxes and not think about it? Follow and read up on how other people a step or two ahead of you in the process handle things, and make a battle plan so that after the euphoria has worn off you have an idea what you need to work toward next. If you have an agent or editor you’re working with, they’re also great resources to consult on planning ahead for next steps.
- Establish a ritual.
This is part of the tap thing– often it’s really helpful to have things you can do that get you into a creative mindset. Perform the ritual, get in the zone, and then write. Mine is music. If I have my headphones on and a song from a project playlist going, chances are I’m into it by the first chorus. Some people have very elaborate rituals depending on places or time of day– I used to wake up super early and write before dawn (also highly recommend) at a cafe– but it doesn’t have to be any fancier than what gets you to write at the drop of a hat. If I can have it, I’d love a high stool by the window watching the dawn come up in a rainy city with a latte, but I also know the only real essential for me is music. And okay, I even can do it without that, but it’s hard and I don’t like it. Experiment and learn what you need to get you in the right mindset.
- Once you know the heart of the story, all you have to do is make your work resemble that.
I like this one because it makes it sound easy to know what the heart of a story is. I usually have no idea what the hearts of any of my stories are until after I’ve written at least the zero draft, and honestly probably not until I’ve gone through a few revisions. Sometimes I’m revising and I have to stop and just look at the ceiling and really figure out what my character wants and what this means for the story I’m telling. Sometimes I try to write with the heart in mind from the start, and then I get it wrong anyway.
One way to get at the heart of a story is to ask what you want to evoke in the reader. And not just like “a sense of hope for a better world” because that is too nebulous and unhelpful, but approach it like a reader: what were the stories that resonated with you emotionally? What did you take away from them? When you settle on what you want your reader to come away with, build the heart out of that: make it essential to the main arc (chances are, it already is so emphasize it), make the growth stages more emotional, have the climax bring everything to a head, and then the resolution echo it.
- Suffering is currency.
You buy readers’ emotional investment with how willing your characters are to suffer for their goals. We judge someone more on their actions rather than what they say, and showing us not only someone working toward a goal but being willing to go through discomfort for it will convince us how badly they want it.
- Detail is king.
Research is crucial in literally everything. The more I write fantasy and any kind of fiction, the more I appreciate nonfiction. I like learning about new things, because I also learn about why our world is the way it is and what would change if I shifted up stuff in worldbuilding. Detail is also how you buy a reader’s faith. We believe more that you’re an authority on something if you can prove that: it’s one thing to tell us that a character is a master swordsman, but it’s a whole other level to talk about the tang of a blade. A reader is going to put their trust in a storyteller who knows what they’re talking about–and it makes sense: you want to listen someone you think can tell a good story. To become that person, you’re going to need to either be well-versed in what you’re writing about already, or do some legwork.
- You are an idea factory, act like it.
If you have an idea, use it. Sometimes there’s this worry that “oh, if I use this secondary character idea now, I’ll never have any other cool secondary character ideas in the future” or whatever like your brain is something finite. You’re always going to think of new things. You’re always going to think of ways to use old things in new ways. There is no end to this. Use whatever you have that you want to use, because the more media, art, and life that you encounter, the more your creative side will make new ideas for you. Go all out.
- Can you take a class in it?
Disclaimer: there are obviously some varieties of lived experience that you cannot participate in or get firsthand experience with in a short amount of time, and here sensitivity or expert readers should be your go-to. However, if your protagonist has a certain skill, it may be helpful to try experiencing doing that in real life. Like, if they make candles for a living, maybe you can sign up for a session to pour some candles. If they kickbox, try out a kickboxing class. It’s fun (who doesn’t want to act like their protagonist or characters for a day), but it’ll also help you be aware of new things about the skill that you maybe wouldn’t have been before. Again, it all comes back to detail and belief.
- Voice is hard, but immediately compelling.
A lot of what draws me into a story is character. Plot is cool, but if I’m sold on a character I will follow them forever, plot or no (this is probably why I have had to rip up various projects multiple times to fix plots). The hardest thing for me in my own writing is voice. I think there is a huge gulf between voice and style, and I may love one and hate the other in the same book. When both work together, though, it’s something else. Voice can be overwhelming and intrusive (who wants to hear every second of someone else’s thoughts), it can be robotic and spare (does this narrator not have feelings), but when done well it’s electric and makes us want to keep going, because it’s like our best friend is telling a story and we just want them to keep talking to us forever.
How do you do voice well? That’s the million-dollar question, and I think it depends on the project. The easy answer is that you have to know your narrator and their arc extremely well. The hard answer is to read through a chapter and ask if you feel exhausted (or even just not excited, honestly, because if your reader isn’t hype, they’re not going to keep going). If so, then the voice is wrong. In my case, it meant I needed to cut things and stop slowing down the action– you may also need to add things in.
- Different characters need to sound different.
Sounds easy in theory, more difficult in practice. If you have multiple POV characters, you should be able to read a page (ideally, even a paragraph) from anywhere in your book and know who’s narrating. People have different styles of talking (this also parallels to dialogue, but I feel like a lot of people miss this in exposition) and, unsurprisingly, different ways of thinking about stuff. As a reader, I love dual POV romance but I also get a little nervous when both POVs sound super alike– clearly the ways in which both characters interact with the world aren’t the same! What are their obsessions, what are their unique perceptions or quirks that come through? For exampole, if I have to walk back the same way I came, I make a circle instead of retracing my steps. A friend thinks this is hilarious because he just walks the same route back. He’s thinking about efficiency; I don’t want to retrace my steps because it feels like I’ve messed up (and a circle…doesn’t make me feel that way, I guess). Even simple decisions can be influenced by different perceptions.
- Learn from everything.
Sit at the feet of many masters. Read widely. Do you write YA? Awesome, read romance. Write romance? Read SFF. Write SFF? Read mystery novels. Read fiction and nonfiction. When you have an idea and need to flesh it out, read like a maniac. Right now, I am devouring nonfiction on the NFL. One of the key solutions to fixing my WIP came from a cozy. Follow your obsessions and push yourself outside the genre(s) you write in. Observe movies, shows, books, everything, and ask “what story is this telling and why is it telling it the way it is?” You may not end up using the information immediately, but it’s going to be useful eventually.
- Revisit the stories you loved and ask why you loved them.
On a similar track, study the things you love. I feel like there’s often a huge emphasis on reading new books all the time, but I have the learned the most as a writer by reading and re-reading the stuff I’ve loved and asking myself how the author achieved certain effects. And I get it, it can be nerve-wracking to revisit a beloved story and fear that it may not hold up, but I’d much rather understand why I love something than leave it a mystery or doubt my past self’s taste. Usually I find that I like the story more because I see more of the work involving in it. And if it really is something that hasn’t held up, I can at least analyze why my younger self liked it and what parts of it I wasn’t seeing or didn’t pay attention to. Sometimes that’s even more valuable, because it tells me what tropes I love so much I literally ignore bad or sloppy storytelling for.
- Remember why you love the work.
Whenever things get hard, revisit the good stuff. When I had to go scene by scene and rip out the lymphatic system that was the voice in my WIP, it sucked. I was excited about my new idea for the voice, but rescuing scenes felt like pulling them out of molasses, gross and kind of unwieldy. When you’re feeling tired and still have a lot of hard work ahead, read back through the good stuff– prove to yourself that the changes you’re putting in place are worth it. If you’re drafting and frustrated, remind yourself how awesome the climax will be to write.
The best advice I know to help you produce something you’ll feel proud of is to enjoy doing it. Writing is talking to other people, and people are excellent at reading emotion. Make sure you’re coming into it with positive ones and it’ll translate.
And those are the top things I learned in 2018! I might try to elaborate more on a few of these in craft posts to come, so let me know if you have any faves. 🙂 Happy 2019!