Tips on Writing Fiction
When I tell people that I'm a writer, in general, a few things happen. Almost always, I get a bizarre look in return that implies, "You're kidding, right?" The most puzzling thing to me about this initial response is that it is almost always followed by this response, "You know? I've always wanted to be a writer." Really? Then why don't you write? This routine usually morphs into an insane amount of beer drinking and long discussions about dashed hopes and crushed dreams of not pursuing a literary career by the person who started this conversation in the first place. I'm always being prodded for writing tips whether from Twitter followers or bar patrons or acquaintances who know that I've been a writer for almost 20 years (oof!) and I have a decent amount of literary output and byline credits to show for it. Do I mind talking about? I don't mind one bit.
You may be asking yourself (if you're curious at all about the writing process), "Who the hell does this asshole think he is? Who gave him the 'Writer Know-It-All' badge?" In which I would reply, "Ummm. You're quite hostile." I do not claim to be a Samurai Master of Writing. I do not go on lecture tours and show Power Point presentations about the structure of genre novels. I do not wear a monocle and a smoking jacket while sitting in a leather recliner and pontificate about iambic pentameter in Shakespearean plays. I do not claim to be anything but a writer who is asked a lot of questions about writing from people who are truly curious about writing. I enjoy the writing process or, better said, MY writing process. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from completing a writing project, whatever it may be, from blog post to short story to novel. I most particularly like the responses from readers that enjoy my written work. It is very satisfying to me. Have I made a gazillion dollars as a writer? No. Am I famous? No. Do I know what I'm doing? Yes. Do you trust me? Who knows but goddamn it, I'm going to write about writing. It will be fun. Do I have credentials? Yes, I have a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin in which I wrote an honor's thesis on the narrative strategies of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Do I have an agent? Not right now but I had one a couple of years ago and I'm currently looking for a new one. Have I been published? Yes. Blah blah blah blah... let's get on with it. OK? Let's go!
I'm going to split this blog post about writing into a few posts, maybe 3, maybe 4, I haven't decided yet but there will be a few. This particular post will be about some writing tips. There will be another about the writing process, my process, then one with frequently asked questions about writing and writers. Ready?
The following "writing tips" were born out of a message from a Twitter follower who asked me to give a writing tip to her then the rest of them spilled out in the form of a few Tweets later that day. They appear in no particular order of importance except for #9 which needs to be last in this group of tips. In all honesty, there are hundreds of great writing tips but these are some that popped into my head that day. Here they are:
1. Find the time of day most productive for you to write. There is a common misconception that all writers stay up late into the night pounding away at their computer or typewriter or whatever, drunk out of their minds, their imagination spilling onto the pages. In some cases, this may very possibly be true (sounds fun!) but just as some of you call yourselves morning people or night owls, the same holds true for your creative output. In general, you need to find the time of day when you are most productive. For me, it's morning time. I know, after a few years early on of trial and error, that I typically have one to three hours in the morning that I can belt out anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 words. I'm usually well-rested and coffee gets my mind going. Late in the day or at night? Not so much. I'm usually tired and need to relax. What time is best for you? You don't know? Then you need to find out.
2. Create a schedule to make that time available for you to write. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people that would like to write but don't is that they do not have the time to write. That's funny! You just got through telling me about last night's contestants on American Idol but you don't have time to write? I call bullshit! You can always find the time to write. If you discover that, for instance, morning time is the best time for you to write, then block out 15 minutes to an hour for the potential to write. If you are able to utilize that time, you'd be surprised how much you could consistently write during that time. It works for me. If you don't use the time to write then whatever but if you do feel inspired then you're ready to go.
3. Write for an audience of one: you. This is the simplest tip to overlook. Many times in my own search for writing tips I find agents and publishers and marketers and writing experts say things like, "Know your audience." But, when your novel is still a baby inspiration rolling around in your head, the only audience is you and that's as it should be. Write to entertain and inspire YOU. If you find yourself laughing at your jokes, your eyes becoming teary at sensitive moments, smiling when your main character says a line that is priceless, then you are on the right track. Continue to push your creativity into your emotional center.
4. Hire an editor. Every writer needs an editor because everyone makes mistakes. It's true even if you're a literary genius. This is particularly true if you're going to go the indie publishing route. Hiring an editor will be money well worth spent, even if "hiring" means buying a trusted buddy beer to read through your work and highlight mistakes. You'll be surprised by just what a casual reader will find let alone a professional editor. Do yourself a favor. Hire an editor.
5. Don't aspire to be a writer. Be a writer. DO IT! Saying that you're an aspiring writer is like saying you're kind of an engineer or trying to be a good person or sort of a lawyer or almost a doctor. In other words, have faith in your ability to follow your inspiration and be a writer. If you write then you are a writer. No exceptions. A great teacher once said, after his tired student annoyingly said he would try, "No! Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try." Exactly Yoda. Exactly. So, when it is time to fill out your Twitter profile bio or your web site "About" page or your Facebook blah blah blah, then what do you call yourself? You are a writer. Period.
6. Learn to read criticism of your work objectively. This is a really tough writing tip to swallow. I'll admit, even to this day, it is difficult for me to read a bad review about my work and not get upset (Damn you, recent kinda-bad review from mumble-mumble-mumble! I'm shaking my disgruntled fists at you). Your creative work is just too personal to overlook reacting harshly to a negative review or what you see as unjust criticism. Unfortunately, you need to get used to it, not because you will get rejected all the time but because your work won't be everyone's cup of tea. You could submit your work to 50 literary agents and 49 might tell you no but you only need one to tell you yes. Sometimes, reading 49 rejection letters can be daunting but it will be worth it to get that one acceptance letter. If a reader criticizes your work, then try to use that as an opportunity to get answers to make your writing better. What did they not like about your work? Can you glean anything from their criticism that can be useful in a rewrite or edit? If you submit your self-published book to 10 critics and they ALL say it sucks, then it probably sucks. But if eight say it's great and two say it sucks, then I'd go with the eight. Obviously, the other two don't know what they are talking about (*evil grin*).
7. You're still a writer even if you're broke. Are you a writer because, like me, you have a compulsion to write and you are a creative person? Or does the sound of a $500,000 advance from a publisher ring true to your career objectives? These two things are very different. You are not declared a writer by inking a publishing deal with a New York publisher. You are a writer the minute you put pen to paper or your fingers to a keyboard or you "hit the typer," as Charles Bukowski used to say. You are a writer because that is who you are. It is a part of your personality. A publishing deal is not a seal of approval; it is a career possibility. Writers will write no matter how much money they have. Would I turn down a $500,000 check from a publisher? Ummm, no. Is money my motivation to write? Ummm, no. Understanding this about yourself is important. For example, if you got a great job with a huge salary then got laid-off six months later, then you are still YOU even without this once-great career opportunity.
8. Put advice into your writing toolbox for later use. I read a great book by Stephen King this past spring called On Writing. I never cared for his novels much before reading this memoir (his novels were not my cup of tea) although I did like some of his short stories and his novellas but I LOVED this book. He gave some great insight into his writing process as well as some tips he wanted to share. The best thing I got from reading this book was not his tips but the idea that he knew he had a process at all and knowing that all writers have their own method to their madness. I found it very interesting that he forced himself to write a certain amount each day, whether he felt like it or not, to help reach his writing goals and he knew that he would edit the crappy parts later on. Interesting to me? Most definitely. Useful in my writing? Nope. That's just not my style. My writing comes from moments of inspiration, not allotted times of perspiration. I know I write best in the morning but if I'm writing and I feel it sucks, then I stop. I'd rather belt out 2,000 inspired words than force out 4,000 uninspired words. But I enjoyed reading about King's writing process and I could relate to his work ethic and desire to release his creative energy. His way is just different than my way, which leads me to my last tip...
9. Stubbornly ignore all writing advice and carry on. It's funny for me to say this in a blog post about "writing tips" but it's so true. In the end, you'll discover your own process and make it work for you. I love it when I read about bands I like or painters or writers I admire who basically say, when asked about some great work they did, that they had NO IDEA what they were doing at the time but they just did it; they pushed through and got it done. Inspiration ruled the day! Inspiration and determination will be the wind in your sails. In the long run though, you'll want to understand and nurture your own methods of your writing process that are productive and successful for you.
In my next post, I'll discuss my own writing process and how I approached writing my latest novel The Spectacular Simon Burchwood. I'll also compare and contrast this novel to how I wrote my last novel The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood.