Twenty writing tips for aspiring writers.
- Read constantly. If you want to be a writer, the most important thing you can do is read. Read as often as you can and as much as you can. Read with conscious criticism. Read to analyze and learn. Read good literature to see what you should do. Read a little bad literature to learn what you should avoid. Read all the time. And if your family says you are reading too much, remind them. You are working!
- Write every day – Some days writing is easier than others. This is true even for the best and most experienced writers. If you sit down at your desk and inspiration isn’t coming, write anyway. The cold, hard fact about writing is that it is only 10% inspiration. The other 90% is digging in and working.
When my mother was battling cancer, I found myself with writer’s block for the first time ever. When I got home from being with her, I would sit at my computer and just stare. Nothing came. Nothing. This was one of the hardest times in my career. I didn’t know how to get over the inertia that I was confronting every day. I tried following my own advice and writing anyway. It was all junk. Some days I didn’t even want to sit down at the desk. I knew I wasn’t progressing. My confidence hit an all time low.
Still, I made myself write – every day, every day, every single day. And finally, the words began to flow again. If you let yourself miss a day because the writing just isn’t coming easily, the next day will be that much harder. So just write – write a page, write a paragraph, write a sentence, write just one word – or rewrite what you wrote last year. But write.
- Just do it! (Follow Nike’s advice for your first draft. ) The beginning of a new novel is a lot like the first day of a new school year. The world and all its possibilities lay at your feet. Anything might happen. Revel in that feeling. Don’t stop to analyze it. There will be time enough to do the grindingly hard work of editing down the road. For now, just put pen to paper and let your characters and story spill out. It’s a joy to write like this, and every writer deserves to luxuriate in the time between creating and editing. So enjoy!
- A great first sentence is your opening gambit. If you are trying to get an editor’s attention or even trying to get someone to want to read your book, a great first sentence is imperative. Who can forget the opening line to Charlotte’s Web: “Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. That sentence grabs you right away, and makes you want to find out what is happening. It is the hook that will keep someone reading your work – your first and maybe only impression – so make it great!
- Show, don’t tell – It’s easy to lay it all out for the reader simply by telling them what your character looks like or what is happening in their life or how they are feeling. You’ll also bore them to death doing it this way. No reader will get very excited by the sentence: “Matt was scared.” But when they read, “Matt’s hands shook, and his mouth was dry” they can feel the fear. We know Matt’s scared from the second sentence, but we also can see how it is manifesting itself in his body. Human beings like to know the dirty details of any situation. As a writer, don’t forget that love of voyeurism. Use your senses. Let your reader in on everything: the smells, the sights, the feelings. Give your reader a front row seat to the show, and don’t let him miss one beat of the action.
- Stick to one point of view. Switching points of view is one of the most common mistakes beginning writers tend to make. Unless you are an omniscient narrator (one who can see all the events in your story from every angle), then you will have a main character through whose eyes you must see everything – as if you actually inhabited that character’s body. So for example, you can’t write, “Mrs. Miller felt her heart pounding in fear” if your main character isn’t Mrs. Miller. Instead, your sentence would have to read something like “Audrey saw Mrs. Miller’s face contort as if she was deathly afraid.” Your main character, Audrey, is making her own assessment, and your readers will know that that analysis may not be accurate. That gives you, as a writer, a lot of freedom to play with what Mrs. Miller says or does next. More importantly, you have not broken with the view of events as they unfold through the point of view of your main character.
- Keep the tension strong. Keeping tension in a story is critical. If the story starts to drag, so will your reader’s interest in it. Be sure that the tension in your story stays compelling throughout. Re‐read each chapter of your work. Does every chapter add something to the story for the reader, or do you have a chapter that is unnecessary to the forward progress of your narrative?
If so, see if that chapter could be eliminated without unduly affecting the outcome of the book. If there is pertinent information in that chapter that is necessary to the story, could that information be imparted in another chapter and the slow chapter eliminated altogether? If not, is there something you could add to that slow chapter that would tighten the plot?
And always look at the last sentence of each chapter. As important as the opening sentence of your book is, the last sentence of each chapter must be strong enough and interesting enough to make your reader want to continue reading. If not, you’ve just lost tension. Tighten it up. Like in fishing, bait the hook with something spicy in order to reel in your reader.
- Try to avoid the passive voice. One of my very favorite teachers taught my daughter in college. He is fun and passionate about literature. After my daughter graduated, I even attended some of his classes. And he had the best story to explain passive voice. Here it is:
He was watching his half‐brother and sister one afternoon and had gone to make them some lunch when he heard a loud crash. Returning to where the two kids were playing, he found his half‐sister, who was deaf, still playing happily while his half‐brother stood before a broken vase. There was really no question what had happened... but the teacher asked his half‐brother to explain the broken vase anyway. His seven‐year‐old brother raised his chin and said in a very clear and serious voice, “Mistakes were made.” Of course, my daughter’s teacher was laughing too hard for any real discipline. But you can see from that example how use of the passive voice weakens the message. No one is responsible for the action that has taken place. And as the message is weakened, so is your writing.
So always ask yourself who is performing the action in any given sentence. Be sure that your sentence reflects exactly who that person is. Make sure “mistakes ARE NOT made!”
- Watch the arc of your story – Like a great piece of music, a story must draw the reader in and then build up tension until it reaches a crescendo. Your story should follow that lovely rainbow‐type approach, building up the plot on one side, hitting the top with your climax and then falling gracefully toward the story’s finish. If in re‐reading your manuscript, you are not seeing this lovely arc, map out your actions in outline form.
Many times several different arcs will form in one story. For instance, you may have a plot arc, a character growth arc, and a love triangle arc. Outline on paper the events of each. Are they flowing in a natural progression to the conclusion? If outlines are hard, create an index card for each event in these relationships and line them up on the floor. Are your cards themselves creating that rainbow effect? If not, how can you rearrange, add or eliminate events to make your story or your character’s growth proceed in a smooth, clear and consistent fashion.
- The devil’s in the details – Before you begin any book, it is important to do research – either on the setting of your story or the job your character has or a hobby he does in his spare time. Well‐researched events and places make for a richer story. For historical fiction, this is absolutely critical. Even though it is clear that your story is fiction, you owe it to your readers to make both the setting and the historical events that are taking place in your story as accurate as possible. If you take some intentional liberties with either, it is important to acknowledge these discrepancies in an author’s note.
Try to remember that many readers will believe the historical details you are giving them and will rarely do any further research into the time period once they finish your book. So it is your sacred duty to ensure that, with the exception of your characters, you are being as true to the time period as is possible.
Keep in mind though, that in your zeal to do great research, writers often discover a myriad of details that are just begging to be used. If they don’t fit smoothly into your story, no matter how great the historical tidbit you’ve uncovered, let it go. Too many details can bog down a story and reduce the tension and thus the excitement of the story itself.
- Go to the movies when you’re stuck, and we all get stuck. When I visit schools, a lot of students ask me “What do you do when you’re in the middle of a book and you don’t know what to do next?” I tell them I go to the movies. I know it sounds crazy, but your subconscious is working even when you are not actually writing. When the publisher of QUEST had accepted my book and was ready for revisions, my editor told me that Johnny Hudson wasn’t working. I tried my hardest to make him an interesting character who would appeal to young male readers, but heck, I had no brothers and no sons. And at seventeen, I hadn’t understood boys. No matter how I tried to write him, he was flat and boring. Then, one day, I just gave up and went to the movies.
And there was my answer in the form of one Captain Jack Sparrow. He was exactly the role model I needed – an adventurer – a young man longing for “the horizon.” (I had always loved Johnny Depp’s movies, but after that day, I was a fan for life) I went home that afternoon and went to work. Johnny Hudson’s pages flowed out smoothly. He was funny and a prankster and a lover of the high seas. He was perfect for the story. So go to the movies, read a book, take a swim, play a game. Let your subconscious work for you when you’re stuck. Think of other things and suddenly a light bulb will go off, and the path will be illuminated. Believe me. It works.
- Edit and edit, and then edit again. We all remember a teacher or a professor who had a heavy hand with the red pen, leaving our papers so crisscrossed with suggestions and criticism that the paper all but bled. Now it’s your turn to wield the sword – but you are going to have to turn that sword on yourself. The great sense of satisfaction you get when you finish a manuscript is just an illusion. You may feel you’ve done your best work ever, but don’t be fooled. Even the best work needs to be edited – many times over.
So put the manuscript away for a week or so and then, get it back out and reread it ‐ not from a writer’s perspective but from a reader's. You are your own editor now. Be prepared to red ink your work with a vengeance. Read with a critical mind and eye. Don’t be kind. Slash and burn your way to a stronger, tighter, and therefore ‐ more publishable piece of writing!
- There are times to let it go. While editing your work multiple times is critical and listening to criticism of others and incorporating their suggestions a must, some writers get bogged down so much in revising that they never let go. Accept the truth. Perfection is unattainable – for all of us. Even after publication, I sometimes wince at what I wrote, wishing I could go back and change it. But that is impossible, so I am stuck with what I thought, at the time, was great writing. Eventually, you have to do the good parent thing, and let that child leave the nest. Remind yourself that you did the best revising you could. Learn what you can from the criticism your work receives and move on to the next project.
- Don’t send in pictures with your picture book unless you have drawn them yourself. Editors want to put their own stamp on a book. Why shouldn’t they? After all, publishing is a joint effort. You write. They edit. If they like your manuscript, they will want to do the pairing of the artwork for your story with an artist that they feel will market strongly. Sending in your work with an unknown artist does not sit well with editors. If they like the pictures but do not like the story, how do they decline one and not the other? And vice versa?
I often hear writers tell me that the drawings are necessary so the editor will appreciate the manuscript. If the drawings are necessary, then your manuscript is not good enough to capture an editor’s attention. Your story must stand on its own merit. So let the editor do their job by pairing your great story with a great artist. And let that great artist do their job by interpreting your work through their eyes. Remember that each is adding creatively and artistically to your work of art, and be grateful.
- Be prepared for criticism – Like it or not, accepting criticism is a large part of a writer’s job. Readers will criticize you. Agents will criticize you. Editors will criticize you. Reviewers will criticize you. If you can’t take the heat, you need to get out of the fire. With readers, editors and agents, you have the ability to discuss the criticism. But with reviewers, you are stuck with it. So instead of seeing criticism as a tough part of the job, think of it as an integral one. Carefully analyze the criticism. (I have rarely found a critique – no matter how painful – that didn’t have some merit to it.) Think of how you can incorporate that criticism to make your work stronger. You’ll be a better writer for it – and a happier one for not letting the criticism slow you down.
- Your only goal should be to become the best writer you can be. Too often, writers consider themselves successful only if they get a book in print. A few years ago, when someone asked me what I did for a living and I answered that I was a writer, the subsequent question was always “What have you published?” Having to answer “nothing yet” to that was always an embarrassing moment – especially when you could see in their eyes that they thought your little “hobby” was a cute one. But looking back now, I realize that, like a medical student who must endure years of training to become a great doctor, you must write consistently to hone your skill. Those years without the pressures of publication – in terms of marketing and school visits – may have been some of my sweetest. So enjoy the quiet moments of learning your craft. Once you are published, it is hard to recapture those chunks of time with nothing to do but write.
- Attend conferences and classes. As with any other job, even great writers can stagnate if they work in a vacuum. Attending conferences, going to lectures on writing, attending classes about the subject or just meeting with other writers are all good ways to keep yourself up‐to‐date on your field and fresh with new ideas. For those interested in writing for children, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators puts on wonderful conferences. They also offer writer’s groups in different locales. Check them out at scbwi.org. Or check out your local college and audit a creative writing class. Subscribe to a journal on writing and read articles written by other authors. Join a local writers’ group – or if you can’t find one, start your own. Whatever it takes, keep yourself growing as a writer. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.’
- Be persistent. If you are determined to be an author, then you must believe in yourself. In the face of rejections and criticism, and bad writing days, you must be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get right back to work. Even the best writers experience rejection. If they gave up at the first sign of it, a lot of wonderful books would have never seen the light of day. Harry Potter? 14 rejections. A Wrinkle in Time? 29 rejections. Determination and persistence is the only way to guarantee success in any venue in life, and writing is no different.
- Write about what makes you passionate. – The market is always changing. One year picture books are the big rage, the next, you couldn’t sell one if your life depended on it. It is easy to get caught up in what is popular in the market, and as a writer, it is important that you take note of these trends and keep yourself informed of what the market is doing.
But your writing will only be great if you write about what interests you. Trying to write for the market will affect you negatively in two ways:
- By the time you’ve written to the market, the market will have changed and you will be left with a manuscript that is no longer sellable and one you wrote just to assuage an ever shifting target; and
- Your work won’t reflect the inner fire that writing about a subject you love would have contained.
So write what inspires you, and keep the chasing after market whims to a minimum.
- Don’t let others lead you to believe that your job is not a job. This is a tough one for almost every writer I know. And I fall victim to it more often than I care to think about. Because we don’t have meetings to go to or a boss to answer to, people tend to believe that our career is one that can be put on hold to handle day‐to‐day or time consuming issues. But what non‐writers don’t understand is the level of immersion a writer needs to make a story progress. Interruptions are the bane of a writer’s life. And quiet is the commodity we most seek. So it is imperative that even if no one else does, you treat your job as a writer as just that – a job! Your work is just as valid as anybody else’s – even if you do it in your pajamas!