Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I mostly learned it through sucking and then trying desperately not to.
- Write Things Down. I know, right? Writers should write things. But here’s the thing: Sometimes you spend hours agonizing over a character’s motivation. Or thinking about what season the story takes place in. Or wondering what will end up happening to this or that guy. Or thinking about where you want the story to go. And you need to use the toilet, or make yourself a sandwich, or move on with the day. You think, “oh, I’ll remember.” NO YOU WON’T. Write it down. The best writers leave behind notebooks, sometimes banker’s boxes, sometimes MULTIPLE banker’s boxes full of their notes to themselves. You wouldn’t believe how quickly even a monumental plot decision leaves your head when you stop writing and start living your daily life.
- Write Daily. Do not write when the muse strikes you, because the muse is a fickle wench who will run you on a bender for weeks and then leave you high and dry twenty pages from finishing your novel. Write daily. Even if it’s just opening the document and tweaking a few words here and there and patting yourself on the back for not completely sucking, write daily. If you don’t, you will grow away from your story. Every day our lives change us, even our brain chemistry changes by fractions. We continue to evolve. If we don’t write, we evolve away from our own words. Trust me, I know. Shelve your writing for a few months, come back to it, and you won’t pick up where the last sentence left off. You’ll stare at the horrid thing wondering what self-congratulating hatchet man wrote that inane drivel and then you’ll want to drink until you forget that it was you. Trust me. And it’s not just that- details like people’s eye color, what kind of sweater they were wearing, what they were going to say next, how you wanted the story to end, they will all leave you faster than the proverbial Hollywood film producer upgrading to a fresher model of trophy wife. Write daily, or write crap. BELIEVE ME.
- Read. Read good things and read bad things, but read. The best writers are also ferocious readers. Why? Because when we read we learn what we do and don’t love about writing. We, as writers, can take that and improve our own writing by knowing what is good and what isn’t. You know that one writer whose settings always draw you in? That author whose quirky characters always steal your heart? That wordsmith who smacks you down with the opening paragraph and drags you kicking and screaming to the gruesome climax every time? Don’t you want to be that guy? I know, I know, stealing other author’s ideas is plagiarism. But stealing their methodology isn’t, and by reading you can start to internalize those things you love most and recognize writing that you hate. You’ll start to think, “are my characters as endearing as Rowlings? Are my settings as breathtaking as Dickens’s? Is my pacing as nervewracking as King’s?” Whether you realize it or don’t, you are learning to teach yourself to write by reading.
- Know your characters. Have you ever read a book where the entire time you just couldn’t make yourself like the characters? Where they felt hollow and unpredictable? Where they read almost more like caricatures or stereotypes than three-dimensional people with wants and needs? Yeah, don’t write crap like that, enough other writers already do. Before you start writing, and as you write, ask yourself a lot of why questions. Why would he say that? Why would he wear that? Why would he want that? Why would he do that? Also, ask yourself a lot of “hows” and “whens”. And (point one) WRITE IT DOWN. Don’t be afraid to go through, line by line, and ask yourself, “why? how? when?” realizing that as you get more familiar with the process of thinking about your characters, it will become more and more second nature. There will come a point in writing when the words just leak out of you (in an overflowing pitcher sort of way, not an incontinent bowels sort of way) and you won’t have to think and think and think. Although there will still be times, even several novels in, where you still do have to sit there and write pages and pages about your characters in a notebook somewhere just to say “hi” and get to know them. Think of it as a shortcut to saving a lot of time later, when you’d have to spend months editing a manuscript just to fix problems that could’ve been avoided by asking yourself important questions before writing the story.
- Write about the human condition. Whether you’re a farmer in the midwest or a banker on Wall Street or a hunter-gatherer in the bush of Southern Africa, you want the same basic things as the rest of us. You want a safe place to sleep. You want to be loved by someone. You want a good meal. You want to feel like the work you do with your hands pays off. You want to leave a good inheritance for the next generation. You want to experience beauty. That is what makes you human. If you want your story to instantly speak to anyone who would ever pick it up, write about those things. The best stories are the stories where the protagonist just wants a decent cup of tea. Or, just wants to curl up with her boyfriend but an apocalypse keeps happening. Maybe he’s a servant who can’t seem to even wash the dishes right, but once the adventure starts you think, “maybe he’s going to save the world.” Even if the plot line is nearly unbelievable, if your story has those elements people will put themselves in it. They’ll commit. And if the payoff is good enough, they’ll be loyal to you as a writer, because they’ll feel like in some small way you wrote about them. And you did, because you wrote about all of us.
- Torment your audience, at least a little. If your protagonist just wants a good cup of tea, make sure he doesn’t get one until the end of the story. If she just wants to smooch with her honey make sure a really good apocalypse interrupts them. If he just wants someone to appreciate him, make sure the person he wants that appreciation from the most doesn’t look twice at him and he has to prove himself over, and over, and over. Believe me, no one wants to read the story that goes like this: “Susy never had any good luck in her life ever. But when she woke up that morning, she made the best pot of coffee. Her bacon was just crispy enough without being burnt or soggy, and for once the pancakes didn’t have any lumps. On her way to work she met the cutest guy and gave him her number. Her boss didn’t yell at her once, and then as she was leaving the cute guy called and they met for drinks. They hit it off and eloped and then made sweet, passionate, just-kinky-enough love. The end.” YAWN. NO. Make sure Susy burns her toast. She is too shy to give the guy her number. Her boss is a major suckwad. She’s miserable. She hopes to see the guy at the bar but she doesn’t, but THEN… You get the point. People want to see their characters tested because it gives them something to hope for. Maybe, just maybe, things will work out for Susy. (And if they work out for Susy, there’s hope for all of us.) Ah, that’s better.
- Torment your audience maybe a lot. People say things like, “don’t kill off your most sympathetic character or the audience will hate you.” Then authors like JK Rowling and George RR Martin have a good laugh, because isn’t that how the game is played? Sometimes there is nothing better than holding your breath while you’re reading, starting to feel that sense of dread, your pulse banging in your ears, thinking, “oh man oh man oh man…” and then, WHEW, the protagonist dodges a bullet. You put the book down and you think, “woah.” And then you fall in love with the author and read the rest. Or, once in a blue moon, the character dies gruesomely, and you throw the book across the room and cuss and cry and swear you’ll never read another word by that author, and you start to pen them a horrid note and then change your mind and read the rest of the book and adore them. (I’m not the only one who does this, right?) Because you realize that they were writing about life, and sometimes life takes a turn. Sometimes it’s brutal and short and mean and the good ones die. Sometimes by dealing with death we see people to be who they truly are. Imagine if Harry Potter’s parents had lived; or, if certain other characters had survived in other books. Would it have been the same tale? Would Harry have risen up to be the man he was by the turn of the final page? What if a certain beheading didn’t happen in A Game of Thrones? Doesn’t the torment the characters experience refine them like coal into diamonds? So don’t be afraid to torment your audience, because each time a reader feels their pulse change and their throat catch they feel their whole body commit to a story, and that’s good for everyone.
- Picture the whole story in your head. Some writers talk about being inspired by a few scenes, images, or quirks of characters. (William Goldman and NK Jemisin come to mind.) That has led to some amazing tales, but don’t think for a moment that when William Goldman first dreamed up the Princess Bride he didn’t sit down and write the sword fight and pirate tale that he first envisioned and then magically end up with that classic novel. No, he had to work out the story to give those few scenes breadth and depth and meaning. So if you have a conversation in your head, or one quirk about a character, or a few disconnected images, don’t imagine that by writing them down you will suddenly find your muse and become the next great novelist. Work your story out. Picture the whole thing. If you have to, be like Kurt Vonnegut and get a roll of paper and map the entire thing from start to finish in crayon. Think about things like pacing and how stories have rolled out as you’ve read them, and make deliberate choices about where you will take your reader and why. You know this muse that writers long for? You’ve got to woo her, and you’ve got to pay your dues. To put the figurative ring on her finger and take her home, you’ve got to know her story. Unlike the floozies you may find at the bar in the bottom of a bottle (you know the ones, the ones you would NEVER tell your parents about) she’s not going to give it up the first time you sit down at the keyboard. Work for it.
There’s more advice, of course, but this is the basic stuff. The big stuff. The game changing stuff. The stuff I banged my head against for years and years. It all boils down to the same thing- don’t expect the writing process to be magic. It’s called a process for a reason. It takes a journey to get to a good story, even a short one. Even a good paragraph means thought, planning, and work.
So work it.