If you’ve been following me on Twitter over the last two days, I’ve just been bombarding social media with punchy little lists of writing tips and advice. I hope I didn’t upset or offend anyone in blasting a stream of thoughts, it wasn’t my intention.
In part this is because I have a Workshop (I’ve recently found the phrase “creativity workshop” which is pretty great) coming up Tuesday night (details here) and in part because these thoughts constantly rocket through my brain and I usually just bite my tongue because some other editor or a respected writer says these things at a much slower pace. And frankly, it’s felt pretty good to just throw all these things out there, and see how they help people.
So, rather than just drop all 86 without explanation, I’m breaking them into chunks. Here are the first six.
1. Don’t think about writing in terms of “getting published”, think about it in terms of “I want readers to read stuff”. Aim for audience.
It’s really tempting, and a lot of books reinforce this idea that publishing is some be-all, end-all that once you get published, it’s all sunshine and roses and puppies. But, talk to published authors, and a lot of them are working harder now than before they were first published — almost as if publishing isn’t the end of the marathon, but the start of a new one. To that end, I caution you not to go so far down the “must get published to be legit” road, and think instead of what publishing translates to, which means readers get their hands on your creations. The goal is to get readers (as that assumes they’ve spent money to purchase your things, right?). Think of all the books that sit unread on a shelf. Sure, they’re published, but are they being read?
2. How long should a book be? Long enough to show me a plot arc, some interesting character growth and some insight about you as a writer.
One of my favorite amusing things to Google, aside from “the A-Team theme song”, is “how long should a book be” because the answers are so varied, yet so certain of themselves. Novels have this many words. Novellas have that many words. Oh you have some other number that’s just a hair over? Well then you fall into this third category.
See, these categories are imposed on authors by publishers for a lot reasons (read: costs to print, edit and produce) and aren’t really indicators of quality or requirement. A novella is a short novel, but a short novel is also a short novel. A book of poems might just be ten words, but a children’s book might also be ten words. The labels and connotations of those labels don’t always translate well to the people writing whatever they’re writing – because if you get it into your head that you have only a certain number of words to say what you have to say, then you’re going to panic as that number approaches.
Take a different tack. Let the story be however long it’s going to be, so that over the course of the story, the reader can see the plot get introduced, developed and solved as well as the character(s) involved get some expansion and maturation as well. How you do this, however you choose to accomplish those goals will share some insights about who and what you are as a writer. (Because you’ll favor certain terms, build sentences in a certain way, shy away from some details while promoting others, etc)
3. If you’re writing for young adults, the keyword is “adults” – treat them smartly, accept them. Don’t lecture or talk down to them.
I have a lot of cousins. And while they’re older now, for many years family gatherings were packed with children, running around, making noise and generally being children. Universally though, across age ranges and gender, every single one of them would roll their eyes, sigh and take a tone with an adult who got it in their head that as an adult there was a great deal more superiority than there actually was.
As an author, you’re the adult. But, don’t be THAT adult. You’re not doing these kids a favor by coming down from on high to grant them a little morsel of word-ambrosia. You’re SHARING a story with them, you’re SHARING this experience of “I made a thing, I hope you enjoy it”.
Children aren’t miniature adults, you can’t expect them to express the full depth of maturity and understanding that adult readers do – but not because they lack the understanding, merely because they lack the experience. Let your book be something that gives them an experience they can take forward.
4. Not every kiss is fiery. Not every embrace is passionate. Not everything a character does is at 100% efficiency. Let them be wrong
I’ve talked about this here and elsewhere – that a character who never fails and always super-succeeds is kind of a let-down. It’s the risk in a character’s actions, the chance that they’ll fail, that makes us care about the character.
And while that talks about big potentially bad things that the character faces, we can also apply it to the not-dangerous behaviors as well. What’s interesting about a character who always kisses the best kisses on the planet? Or who always makes the best omelets? Hyperbole aside, if everything is special, nothing is special. Also, the more perfect the character becomes, the less connection to them we (the imperfect audience) feel. Because our kisses aren’t always earth-shattering. Because we burn breakfast. Because we get really nervous talking to one another. It’s our mistakes AND our successes that define us, so why isn’t that true for characters?
5. If you’re setting the story in a kingdom and we’re not learning about politics or social class, why do we need to know it’s a kingdom?
This is about focusing and distributing details. As readers we assume that what you’re giving us is important, because you’re, well, giving it to us. Telling us about something, tossing some adjectives about down on paper draws our focus to it. And if you spend even more than an adjective on it, we conclude that it has to be even more important than that, so when you talk about it and then move on without ever coming back, we feel deprived and a little misled. (I’m looking at you numerous unfinished plots in TV dramas)
If the scale (how big the set pieces within the story are) doesn’t include or involve the big landscape details you’re giving them, why are you giving them? (Hang on a second, we’ll talk more about this)
6. When figuring out which details to keep and which to cut, ask “Does this detail show me a new thing or explain an old thing?” Stay new.
Just like we talked about above, it’s important to know WHY you’re giving detail X at the moment you are. If I’m describing…the room I’m writing this in, I may talk about the way to the desk is worn and aged. I may talk about the view out the window to my left. I may talk about the mess of papers to my right. Those details help you paint the mental picture about what the desk looks like and tells you a little about how I keep my office space. But…do you need to know the color of my shirt? Sure, you can find out about it later (purple t-shirt), but how does knowing the shirt’s color tell you more about the desk or the office? It’s a stretch to say “oh he’s wearing a t-shirt, that explains a lot about how organized he is” — that’s you imposing your conception of how an office should run onto my story. And that’s not fair to you or to the story.
When it comes time to edit and trim, one of the things I look for is why details are in the places they’re in. That question above asks “what’s the purpose of this detail?” which is key for knowing what has to stay in a draft and what has to come out. Likewise it helps pare down the number of different ways I express the same detail. How many various ways can I call my desk “full” or “active”? Breaking out the thesaurus doesn’t further the story, it just moves things laterally, heaping similar repeated statements atop one another in a slowly stalling strata of story.
Part 2 (the next ten) will be out on Monday. Have a great weekend. Hope to see you on Tuesday night.