There’s a ton of advice out there for new writers – entire books on writing craft, conferences focused on every aspect of the writer’s life, and websites and blogs devoted to helping writers improve their skills, develop healthy habits, and get published. So, how can you sift through all the noise to find the good stuff, the stuff that resonates, the stuff that will make YOU a better, more productive writer?
In my experience, most advice is given with good intent. Fellow writers share the tips that work for them. But this isn’t a one-size-fits-all activity, and writing is both a skill and an art. Advice that helps YOU work more productively is good advice. Advice that helps make YOUR story better is good advice. Some advice fits most writing most of the time. Pay attention to that. Some advice is offered by masterful storytellers. Pay attention to that too. But some advice directly contradicts other advice. Both sides sound good, or bad, or just plain confusing, depending on your point of view.
The following are three pieces of writing advice that I didn’t know what to make of early on in my writing career, but with experience and perspective, I’ve untangled them a bit and found them to be useful after all.
Write what you know.
But then Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro is quoted as saying, “Write about what you know is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography.” So, which is it? Fiction writers venture into unknown territory all the time. We can’t always write what we know or what we’re familiar with, otherwise our stories would be downright boring. But, as readers, we all recognize when something doesn’t ring true in a book. I think the intent behind this piece of advice isn’t to write about ourselves or our personal experiences, but to bring authenticity to what we do write about. To me, that means creating characters with depth. It means connecting my readers to the recognizable humanity in those characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes it means using my own experiences to bring life and color to a scene, and other times it means doing research.
Write your story and don’t listen to the naysayers.
Absolutely. This is your story. When you are creating it, do so whole-heartedly and with total abandon. Don’t worry about what others have to say. Don’t worry about following rules. Don’t worry about anything but getting that story out onto the page. But when you’re finished with the first draft, be ready to edit. Once the last word tumbles out of your over-tired brain, you are too close to your manuscript to assess it critically. I wrote a post on part of the editing process that you can check out here: Get the Most from Beta Readers and Critique Partners. When I’m ready to publish my book, my goal is for the story to be in its best form and for the writing to be as strong as possible. I know I can’t get there by myself. I need the wisdom of trusted readers and editors. I need the collective good advice of writers who have done this already. At this point, it’s important to listen, not to naysayers, but to those who have something constructive and useful to offer.
Kill your darlings.
What? Does this mean we’ll have to sacrifice a beloved main character, like Carl on The Walking Dead, to the gods of dramatic tension? Thankfully, no. Although if you do kill off a main character, be sure the event has all the dramatic punch it should. What I understand the phrase to mean is that we can’t become too attached to any part of the plot, any section of prose, or, yes, any character, that we aren’t willing to kill for the greater good. If a particular plot-line doesn’t serve our story well, we have to be willing to change it. If a section of prose doesn’t serve the story well, we have to be willing to delete it. If a character arc isn’t working, we have to be willing to fix it.
With any type of advice, it’s important to first evaluate the source, and then to consider whether or not the advice resonates with you. If it makes you a better writer, if it helps you develop better habits, or if it helps make your story stronger, it’s good advice for you. Happy writing!