Sunday, November 29, 2009

Six Tips for Writers

Several readers have approached me recently asking if I have any tips for them on writing. Funny you should ask, because I have advice to give on just about everything, regardless of whether I actually know anything about it. Luckily, I do know something about writing, and although I don't claim to be a trained mentor in this area, I'm happy to share what I've discovered along the way.

1. Don't Try to Impress Anyone
I think the number-one most important writing tip is to focus on telling a great story about something you really care about, and not to focus on trying to write pretty words. When I was a teenager, I remember focusing a lot on trying to write beautiful prose with not enough emphasis on the story and the characters, because I figured if I wrote enough fancy words, I'd sound smart, and people would like my stuff. It took me a while to realize that I didn't really care about "being taken seriously" as a writer and just really wanted to write great stories, and that made me a much better writer. You really have to write for yourself and not with the idea of whether someone else will think what you're writing sounds good.

2. Think the Story All the Way Through
It's also important to think the story through before writing it. Before I started writing Rising Shadow, I sat and thought a lot about all the characters and their back stories, who their families were, when their birthdays were, and so on. Then, I outlined all five books in the series (not in excruciating detail, just at a high level) before I started writing, and this has worked out great, because I'm planting little seeds in book one that won't mean anything until book five. I think J.K. Rowling does this amazingly well in the Harry Potter books, and I want to provide that same "aha!" moment when you go back and re-read my books as you recognize the little clues I'm laying out.

3. Don't Edit as You Write
The next most important tip is never to try to write perfectly in the first draft. Just get it down on paper. I wrote Rising Shadow in about six weeks and then spent nine months revising it. Just write. Really.

4. NOW Edit
I think the most important part of writing is the editing process, which thankfully I really enjoy. I have no problem slashing out whole sections, and I love getting criticism. This can be hard for a lot of writers--they feel that their words are precious or channeled from above, which makes it very hard to cut things that don't work. It's very important that you get over that barrier. If a scene really doesn't work but you love it, just cut and paste it into another file "for later" so you don't feel like you're throwing out your hard work but you're not keeping stuff that doesn't work in this particular story.

5. Don't Try to Force Inspiration
This is a hard one for control freaks, but really, you can't just say "I'm going to write a novel now" and pluck a topic out of the air. To put in the time and effort required to write a book, you have to write something you really care about, something that lights a fire under you every day. Otherwise, you'll quit after five pages and think you can't do it. If you've tried to write before and didn't get anywhere, you probably didn't have a good story to tell.

So how do you give your muse a little nudge? Read books, see movies, talk to people about what interesting things they're doing, and, my favorite technique: listen to people on public transit and start imagining them as characters and what their lives might be like. One of my favorite characters, Jesse, was inspired by a guy I heard talking to his friend on the train.

If you're at home and can't get out to stare at strangers, think of a topic that you are interested in and sit down to research it. Pretty soon, you'll start stumbling upon stories that spark an idea. This is the part where your family and friends think you've gone mad. "I was thinking about plows, because, you know, I like plows, and I found this story on the Internet about a man who found a thousand year-old plow buried on his farm, and then I started thinking, hey, what if there was a strange message carved on the plow that lead the man to solve a mystery that had been buried for a millennium!" Like that.

6. Learn the Rules
Lastly, get a good book on grammar and punctuation and learn the ins and outs of the mechanics of writing. I recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Learning the different between that vs. which, its vs. it's, your vs. you're, proper use of commas and semi-colons, and so on will make you a better writer, as you'll have the tools you need to express yourself without struggling. It allows the words to flow out of you much more smoothly, and it saves you a heap of time in the editing phase, allowing you to focus on editing the content, not the mechanics. You can also check out a blog like Meghan Ward's Writerland, which lists all kinds of writing tips including grammar and punctuation. If you want to break the rules, great! But you better have a good reason, and you better know the rules so that you can break them intelligently.

So there are six tips that I think are important for writers. Check back here for more tips in the future. I'm only blogging about once every week or two, because despite what all the experts say, I don't think you have to blog every single day to have a good blog. On the contrary, I think it's important to blog only when you have something important to say. But then again, I tend to disagree with the experts on a lot of things.

Or maybe I just like breaking the rules.

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