Advice for Writers

So, you want to be a writer?

Congratulations! Recognizing it is the first step. The most important thing you need to know is that…drum roll…writers write! Thanks, Jennifer, you say, I already knew that. Well, yes, I’m sure you did. But writers don’t just write sometimes, when they feel like it, when they’re inspired. Writers write often. A lot. Whenever they can. They write on computers, on sticky notes, in little notebooks, on the backs of envelopes. Sometimes they even write on the wall in crayon. (Oh, wait—that was me in kindergarten. It was not a good choice.)

Writers don’t always write good stuff either. Sometimes, they write bad stuff. Sometimes, they write bad stuff that turns into good stuff after they’ve worked on it. They don’t always write a lot at once. Sometimes they write a few paragraphs. Sometimes just a few sentences. Occasionally, they write only a few words at a time. But the important thing is that they write. The important thing is that you write. As often as you can and as honestly as you can. And honestly doesn’t mean always tell the truth in your stories—goodness knows you’ll write some wild things in your stories that can’t possibly be true.

But write from your heart and the truth, your story’s truth, will come through on the paper.

Still want to be a writer? Good! The world wants to hear your stories. So write them. 

Here are some suggestions and resources that will help you get started:

Advice

REVISION

I’m a lover not a fighter. I like everything to be super cool and awesome. So, when I write, I immediately fall in love with my words. With everything I’ve written, I am smitten.

At least at first.

Then, in a love-induced haze I re-read. I can almost hear the trumpets of glory. But, as I read…my head starts to hurt, my brain begins to spin. I stick out my tongue and sometimes I even verbalize the word, “Ick.”

Which is when I know it’s time to revise.

Revision may not be as fun as writing, but it’s just as important. Writers go through many, many drafts of their stories before they are complete.

Helpful Hints for Revising:

  • Read your story out loud. Sometimes this helps you find places where the words don’t sound exactly right. Where the dialogue doesn’t ring true.
  • Ask people you trust to read your work. I have writer and non-writer friends whose input has made my writing much better.
  • Consider saving all of your drafts. You may want to go back and compare them with one another. Sometimes you might even rescue part of an earlier draft and incorporate it into a newer one.
  • Set your manuscript aside for a few weeks. Look at it again with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed at what you find.
  • Print out your manuscript when editing. You will see all sorts of errors on paper that you did not catch on the computer screen. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps there’s a scientific reason, but after all, I’m not a scientist, so I couldn’t say for certain.

KEEP A JOURNAL

One way to write every day is to keep a daily log of your life. Okay, okay, some of you cringe at the word, ‘diary’ so we’ll hereon refer to it as a “journal.” Whatever you want to call it, a little book, into which you write daily or regularly about the goings on in your life, is a great way to practice putting words on a page. It’s also cathartic. And writing, in any form, can be cathartic.

Some of the best advice I’ve gotten was from my middle school journal (well, all right. It was from me, I suppose.) Seeing the gooey goings on of my life written on paper helped me to better make sense of them.

Writing down your feelings is a great way to learn how to write about your character’s feelings. After all, your characters do have feelings, and thoughts and dreams…and you’ll need to find a way to communicate them to your reader. 

At its best, writing is about taking your reader on a journey through the world of your character(s). About connecting the reader to your character(s). 

SOME WORDS ON DIALOGUE

Successful dialogue isn’t just about your characters chewing the proverbial fat. Successful dialogue does two very important things:

Reveals character: Your character is what he/she says. Or doesn’t say. Good dialogue lets your reader in on the inside workings of your character. The way your character speaks will tell your reader about his/her background—where has your character lived? Where does your character live now? What kinds of things have influenced your character’s development? What does your character want?

Moves along the plot: Are we there yet? Successful dialogue helps advance your plot. Your characters shouldn’t just speak to take up space in your manuscript. The things they say should help move your plot along and/or reveal specific plot points. Plot development is hard work. Let your characters help you with it.

Eavesdropping 101

One of the best ways to learn the way people speak, the things they speak about, is by eavesdropping. No matter where I am, I am always listening in on other people’s conversations. That’s right—I admit it. But I’m not just being nosy, I’m developing my craft (hee hee.)

While eavesdropping can sometimes lead to neck strain (and dirty looks,) it can also lead to wonderful snippets of dialogue. Which makes it all worthwhile.

GETTING INSIDE YOUR CHARACTERS’ SHOES

One of the best and most important ways of connecting your reader to your story is to write from inside your perceiving character(s). In other words, putting yourself inside your character’s(s’) shoes. Your perceiving character is the one through whom your reader will experience your story’s world.

The easiest and, I think, most effective way to do this, is to use your five senses. Think about how your character experiences his/her world through the five senses. What does your character’s world look like, sound like, taste like, feel like and smell like? Show the reader through your perceiving character. You will create an immediate bond between your reader and your character, which will make your reader want to read more.

SETTING

The setting of your story needs to connect or relate to your story. It’s so important to the story, that your story can’t take place without it. The details in your setting help the story come alive for your reader. It transports them there. Even with the same characters, a different setting creates a different story. 

A good tool for establishing a believable setting is using sensory language to describe it. The more viscerally your reader can experience your setting, the more your reader feels a part of it, and thus, a part of your story.

PLOTTING

Ah, to plot or not to plot…that is definitely a question. Some writers are gifted with the ability to plot out and outline their stories from beginning to end before they even begin to write.

I am not one of them.

For me, plotting is a murky thing that takes lots of revising, storyboarding and sticky notes. Oh, and chocolate.

There are many books that can help you with this (some of them are listed on this website.) But before you can plot anything, you need to be able to answer one very important question:

What does my character want?

If you can answer that question, you are well on your way. If you can’t, you need to spend some time thinking about that question.

Once you’ve answered that question, there’s another one you’ll need to answer:

Does my character get what he/she wants?

If you can answer that, you’re more than well on your way. And you deserve some chocolate.

READ

I probably don’t have to tell you this, but read. Really read. Read deliberately and with gusto. Immerse yourself in vast and diverse worlds and cultures. Revel in the richness of setting. Feel the flow of dialogue. Experience the world of imagination and language through other creative souls.

The best writers are voracious readers.

BOOKS ON THE CRAFT OF WRITING

Here are some of my favorite craft books:

What’s Your Story?: A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction, by Marion Dane Bauer

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway

From Where You Dream, by Robert Owen Butler

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

Take Joy, by Jane Yolen