I recently spent some time writing to a younger version of myself. It’s a long story and it took me a while to write.
It came out as some snippets of advice, some for people starting out, some who have a few under their belt. No sense in keeping it to myself. Maybe it will help someone some day.
1) Be careful about showing your work before it’s done. People will read your stuff once with open eyes. Twice you’re pushing it.
2) Writing is never done. It escapes.
3) There are services that will proof read stuff for all of the things that make up story – concept, pace, grammar, characters, etc. – that you can pay. Some of them are a waste of time and money, some of them are pretty good. The trick is finding a good one. If they’re only telling you good news, suspect something is wrong.
4) Writing is re-writing. It’s foolish to think you’ll write a page or a chapter and ta-da! GOLD! Not going to happen.
5) You’re a writer. You need basic command of the English language. You’ll make a lot of stupid mistakes (it took me about 40 years to figure out its’ isn’t a word). When you see yourself making those mistakes, take a second to step back and understand what went wrong and how to correct it. Generally, there are some pretty clear rules for the weird stuff, but I still find myself having to look things up from time-to-time.
6) Once you claim you’re a writer, every single time you make a grammatical mistake or make a stupid typo, people will point it out. It’s just the way it goes. It makes them feel important to have one over on Mr. Writer. Just take the hit, thank them for their sharp eye, and move on.
7) When you’re getting feedback from someone, remember, they’re WATCHING the way YOU react to THEIR feedback. No matter what they say, listen, nod politely, and if they say something really really bizarre, just say “That’s a good point, I’m going to think about it.” Mostly, though, you don’t want to blow it with the people who take the time to give you sincere feedback.
8) Your parents aren’t a good source of feedback. They don’t want to hurt your feelings, and sometimes feedback can sting. So what you do is, get specific feedback from the folks where everybody wins: “Hey, could you do a quick read on this and help me with a typo stomp?” That’s black and white stuff and doesn’t involve anyone’s feelings getting hurt (and they can still feel as if they’re helping you out).
9) Don’t ask for feedback from good-intentioned people that can’t help you. If you ask your buddy to read something and he knows nothing about the craft of writing, there’s really no chance that the feedback will be worth a lot. Conversely, when you get feedback from people that are familiar with the craft, and they say something that stings, make sure you’re paying attention. That doesn’t mean they’re right. It means they might be right.
10) Any type of writing is a craft. And to get better at your craft, you have to work at it. Study. Read. Live. Question. It’s a lot of work and sacrifice.
11) A writer finishes. This idea, by far, is what separates a writer from someone who likes to write. It’s a HUUUUGE difference. I cannot stress this enough and I cannot stress how important it is to understand that this is what makes the difference. Many people who want to be writers find that they can start, but can’t finish. If that describes you, realize that writing is a process and you need to develop a tool-set that teaches you how to finish. There are many books, articles, and web pages on dealing with this issue. My approach is to always think of things in threes, from a macro to a micro. Everything, in my opinion, has three specific phases: a beginning, a middle, and an end. When I write (whether from detailed outline or from no outline, I always think about these three ideas — these three beats.)
12) A story is a promise. You say to your reader, “hey, I’ve got something to show you. And it might take some twists and turns, but if you stick with me, I promise I’ll answer all of those questions I brought up back on page one.” If you don’t live up to what your story promises, people will not want to read you in the future.
13) Don’t ignore the simple power of allegory, subtext and cool metaphors.
14) Characters want something and what they want drives them. When you get stuck, think “what does he want?” Of course, that can be a really complicated question. Human psychology is muy importante.
15) Without conflict, there is no story.
16) Beware of flat writing. Flat writing is lazy writing. Every sentence is important, and every word within every sentence is important. You are painting a picture, and it’s your job to give enough description to bring the picture to life. For example, if you had a sentence “John put the pot on the stove.” Well, that might be OK, but couldn’t you do a lot better? “John put the scratched and blackened pot on the stove and twisted the burner knob. The gas hissed and then ignited with a soft THWUMP. As he set the pot down, the water sloshed over the edge and almost doused the flame below.” You get the idea: paint a picture (that’s the job!). There are actually lists you can use to search for weak verbs. Put, for instance, is weak. Using the word ‘is’ in a description is weak. You can find lists on-line and in books.
17) Stories are not about hooks (plot contrivances), they’re about PEOPLE. Folks that aren’t writers, folks that CONSUME STORIES, have a hard time with this idea. A good example is, sure dinosaurs are really cool, but how long could you watch them stomp around in the jungle? A few minutes, maybe? Now put in people in peril and you have a MUCH different story. Now, take those people and give them agendas and histories. Suddenly, the dinosaurs (the external pressure) can fade into the background as personal conflicts (internal pressures) take center stage. As humans, we really can’t relate to dinosaurs, but we can relate to the people dealing with dinosaurs. Plots are cool, but characters make the difference.
18) Break the rules – at your own peril. Want to break convention? Maybe you’re going to tell a story about a person that only talks in one-consonant words. Cool idea, different – but is it too different from what we’re used to? Want to spend three years writing a book with that character only to find that an editor or publisher goes – no way! I just watched LOOPER. It had no likeable characters. Nobody to root for. That’s a massive red-flag no-no. Yet it got made. Made the best of 2012 lists. And made money for the people involved. So in that example, the writer Rian Johnson broke the rules… and it worked! That’s the exception, though.
19) “You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth.” – that’s really a saying in the restaurant business and that’s the reason they put kale on your plate. The lesson though, is that the page itself must have a visual appeal which means you – the writer – have to manage white space. Ever open a book, see that the entire page was one long paragraph in tiny print and think “no thanks”? Same thing.
20) Create an emotional connection to the actions and don’t leave those emotional connections up to the reader. For example, “He looked at the dead dog in the road.” OK. Well… how did he feel when he looked at the dead dog? Gleeful? With sorrow?
M A R K