Writing Wednesday: 10 Tips (Thus Far) On Writing From Yours Truly
I’ve had many people come up to me over the years and ask for writing tips and advice. My list of advice often varies (hence the “Thus Far” in the blog title), but I found these to be the top ten tips to be the most common ones I suggest to people. Hopefully there’s something here that can help you too!
Read a lot: This is my Number One advice to anyone who wants to write and write well. You have to read. A lot. Don’t like it? Too bad. Writing everyday is great, but your writing will never improve if you don’t learn from other writers. I’m not saying steal from them (that’s the subject of another blog), but learn how they use descriptions, how they build tension, how they use dialogue and so forth. By reading you can also learn how to avoid mistakes too. Ever read a crappy book? What made it bad? What could have made it better? Besides, think of it this way: how can you learn to master a skill if you’ve never witnessed it done by an expert? Just because you want to fly a plane doesn’t mean you’re going to jump behind the yoke and instinctively know how—you need instruction.
Write for yourself first: I think this is the second-most common piece of advice I give, and it’s something that I’ve relearned several times over the years: You have to write your story for yourself first before you ever write it for anybody else. If you start off writing a story thinking that you have to write it to appeal to a certain person/people, that you have to write it so well that everybody will be impressed, that you have to follow some kind of trend, or that you have to have a certain kind of character or a particular kind of ending … ERR! WRONG! Stop. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars, don’t write another word. You have to, have to, HAVE TO write your story the way you want it first. The second you start putting the real or imaginary expectations of real or imaginary people on yourself, you will fail. The writing will seem like work when it’s supposed to be fun and releasing. You’ll worry too much about getting it right, or whether or not you’ll offend people. Don’t think about it. Write the story first. Go back and make any adjustments you want later.
Write a lot: Before you start squawking to me about not having the time, hear me out; by writing even a little bit every day, you can develop your style, improve your style, and maintain the quality of your work. Trust me on this. A knife doesn’t stay sharp unless you hone it. Writing doesn’t get better unless you sit down and write. Can’t find the time? Write for ten minutes on your lunch break, in the bathroom (you’ve got your phone with you!), sitting in a waiting room, just before you go to bed, etc.
Exercise creatively: Yes, you can get sick and tired of working on a story. You can get burned out, or even worse, blocked. If you need a break from writing, take a break from writing, but don’t stop being creative! Find something else that can engage your imagination for a while. Read, color pictures, scrapbook, bake a cake, write in a journal, listen to music, whatever. Do something that’s fun but isn’t stagnating (TV & internet is okay, but you run the risk of getting zombified by it—tuned out and numb—and the next thing you know you’ve wasted 3 hours watching Youtube videos about the many alternate uses of AA batteries. Video games are a little better because they challenge you to predict and respond to challenges, but, again, you’ve been playing Mario Kart for half a day when you should be writing.)
Exercise physically: No, I’m not kidding. You will find that your brain will work so much better when you get some physical exercise every day or a few times a week. Exercising releases endorphins, relieves stress, makes you more alert and can even help you creatively. I try to walk an hour every day when I can, and during that time I think a lot about my stories and characters, and it’s helped me come up with a lot of stuff. I do kenpo karate several times a week, and I’ve actually had bursts of inspiration while in the middle of katas (Bonus tip: don’t think about your stories while sparring … you don’t want to get distracted by a thought and then have it punched out of you. Let’s not talk about how I know this.) Don’t have time? Yes, you do: go online or get a book, look up some basic exercises that you can spend 5 to 15 minutes a day on. You don’t have to join a freaking gym, just get the heart pumping a little bit.
Sleep: Lack of sleep not only makes it harder for you to focus on writing, it also makes you more easily frustrated with your work. If you’re tired and crabby, you’re not going to tolerate your mistakes as well and you may become hyper-critical of yourself. It also makes it harder to process your ideas and translate them into words. So instead of staying up posting memes on Facebook at 3 AM, how about you turn in earlier?
Get off the internet: Get off the internet. Get off the internet. GET OFF THE INTERNET. The internet is black hole and it’ll suck you in. What starts off as your totally innocent foray online to research the Easter Island Moa statues can easily turn into reading an article on the Illuminati, double-checking an urban legend you heard about on Snopes, following a link to a list on Cracked, and then scrolling through 32+ pages of baby skunk photos on Boredpanda. DON’T DO IT!! Resist the temptation. If you find it difficult, you can try something I’ve been experimenting with; I set up folders on my bookmarks, labeled with every day of the week. Each folder has links to sites I regularly visit, and maybe links to things I’ve been meaning to check out or videos I want to watch. I do my writing, and when I’ve hit that moment where I can’t summon the energy to keep going, I go online and got through the folder labeled for that day. I delete what I’m done with, refill it with other un-looked-at links I’ve saved, and then go back to work or find something creative to do. So far, it’s working well. (You can also try to use a timer.)
Don’t get it right the first time: Newsflash: your story isn’t going to be great the first time you write it. And update: it’s not supposed to be. It’s going to be filled with mistakes and plot holes and continuity errors and that’s okay. Rewriting & editing is a pain, I know, but it’s better to just get the story down first instead of sweating it out over an incorrect word or misplaced comma. All that stuff can be fixed later on. Remember what Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Eliminate distractions: If you’re the kind of person who can concentrate on writing a novel while sitting the middle of an active proving ground and not be disturbed by the noise, then good for you. As for the rest of us, we need conditions to be just right in order to focus. This may take some experimentation on your part; some people like to operate in total silence while others (including myself to a certain extent) find that it creeps them out a little too much, while still others need Five Finger Death Punch screaming at them in surround sound. Make sure your work spot is comfortable and lit to your liking. You might think you need to have it spotless, but there have been reports that say that a too-tidy area can actually be detrimental to the creative process (makes thinking too rigid and linear), so having a bit of clutter around might actually be a good thing for you. Get whatever chores and errands done either before or after your writing time (I find dividing them up into tasks for before and after works best for me, that way I feel like I’ve accomplished something and am not dreading the workload waiting for me.) And as for the whiny kid, the needy pet, the clueless spouse? Lay down the law. Tell them that they can not bother you for X-amount of minutes. Put up a sign on the door and lock it if you need to. Make them understand that this is important to you. If necessary, send them out on a errand and use that time to write. It might only be a few minutes, but hey, now you’ve had a few minutes of “Honey? The printer isn’t printing again”--free time.
Don’t fear failure: I think this is probably the biggest reason why people give up writing or don’t write at all. They think they’re no good and that the story isn’t going to go anywhere, so they quit. They’re afraid to fail/be rejected/be criticized. I’ve been there and you know something? I’m so over it. It’s taken me a while to get to that point, but I’ve come to realize that I’m going to fail—in this line of work, it’s inevitable. Am I frustrated by it? Absolutely, all the time, but it doesn’t stop me from trying anymore. If I had given up, I never would have been published in anything. And failing isn’t the end of the world—it’s an obnoxious speed bump. You get over it and keep going.
Picture: The Letter, by Alfred Stevens