There are a bazillion similar blog posts/articles on the Internet. Just google “writing advice” or “writing tips,” and you will find all the advice you could ever need very quickly. But so much of the advice I have read is either too vague or too obvious, and some tips simply don’t apply to me (like “Write for your own enjoyment”… how is that useful? Why would I be writing otherwise?) Odds are there is someone out there like me who is looking for real, specific advice that has the possibility of helping any novelist right now.
Disclaimer: I am not the sole author of these tips. This is simply my personal take on writing advice that already exists from various sources.
The following list is organized from least helpful to most helpful. Feel free to comment if you disagree with any of these tips or if you have experience that illustrates their validity. Maybe you can even explain them better than I can. I’m always open to a reasonable debate. 🙂
#10: Characters come first.
You may have a concept or plot in your head that sounds amazing, but you should not begin seriously writing it until you have solidified the key characters in your story.
The first time I wrote Liquid Death (back when it was called Shooting Stars), I did not know where I was going with the plot. I only knew one character, Kandi, because she was me. I wrote the story from her perspective and meandered all over the place. I knew Kandi inside and out. But I did not know her purpose or endgame. The result: I obviously had to scrap the book and start all over again. That first draft helped in many ways. Two ways, primarily: (1) It made clear what would and would not work in the story. There were a few scenes that worked so well that I kept them almost as-is. And (2) it made me realize that Kandi was a nobody without a purpose, and that no matter how much thought I put into her personality and her past, it would all be meaningless without a planned future.
By contrast, if I had plunged into “Shooting Stars” without fleshing Kandi’s character out in my mind, I might have given up on the idea altogether. Kandi survived the scrapping of the first draft, but the incoherent “plot” did not. I felt connected enough to Kandi, Juan, and a few minor characters to start again, this time knowing where they would take me. I never sacrificed consistent characterization for the sake of the plot.
The best way to write a story that will be memorable (and most importantly, entertaining) to readers, is to build a plot off of an interesting, dynamic ensemble of characters that will lead you where you may not expect. If you have a vague story idea in your mind that you are itching to get on paper, make sure you cast your leads first. Even if your first draft is aimless and absurd, your primary characters will survive. Let them take the wheel and see what happens. You will know them better than you know yourself. Revising the plot can always be your focus in later drafts.
Even if your first draft is aimless and absurd, your primary characters will survive. Let them take the wheel and see what happens.
#9: Outline your story.
Outlining is essential once you know your characters. It is especially important if you are writing a series, as you will avoid many plot holes and inconsistencies by outlining books 2, 3, and so on before you begin writing them. Many different methods have been explained already all over the Internet, so I won’t waste more of your time describing them here. All you need to know is that outlining is useful. It can shorten the amount of time it takes you to write a book. It can also prevent you from crashing into a brick wall and carry you through the dreaded middle section of your novel.
I plan on writing a separate post on Wednesday (Aug. 29) about the subject. Click “follow” or “subscribe” if you want to be notified when it is posted.
#8: Conceptualize the ending before the beginning.
Want to know the easiest way to sprinkle foreshadowing throughout your novel? Know the ending. Foreshadowing is fun. It keeps readers guessing, but also hints enough at where things are headed that they will eagerly anticipate the climax.
Foreshadowing is meant to be subtle. It should not be obvious until your readers reach the end of the story. Then they can look back and think, “Wow, I had no idea this sentence from page 5 hinted that this would happen on page 250.” They will be shocked and amazed and may even want to read it again to catch all the hints now that they know the ending.
I mentioned before how you can write your first draft without an aim and see what happens. But eventually, you will need an ending to aim toward. Start out somewhat flexible, and eventually through subsequent drafts you should rigidify enough that every sentence, every line of dialogue, and every scene serves a purpose in your story. That purpose is directed toward the inevitable conclusion.
You can have a powerful impact on a reader if you write the beginning of the story with the ending firmly fixed on the horizon. They will be kicking themselves wondering how they did not see it coming sooner.
#7: Don’t be afraid of subtlety.
In the same vein, resist the urge to reveal too much information at once. As I said, you don’t want foreshadowing to jump out at a reader as a blatant indication of what’s to follow. For example, a character saying, “There’s a war coming,” early in the book obviously points to the fact that a war is coming, and therefore when it does come, no one will be surprised. But if you want to take your readers on a roller coaster ride with surprises and twists at every turn, you should master the art of subtlety.
Of course I do not mean that your book should be difficult to understand or follow. You want to leave enough breadcrumbs that your readers won’t get lost. But don’t treat them like they’re idiots. Even if some of them are, you should not be writing for them. As much as you hope for every reader to catch this one hint that you made in book 1 that points to an event in book 3, not every reader is going to notice. That’s okay. The important factor, here, is that you write a multi-layered book or series that is inexhaustible in its potential for interpretation and as a topic of conversation. Someone, somewhere, will eventually notice that point you made on page 40 that you subtly referenced on pages 130 and 341. Just give it time. If you want your story to be memorable, provide enough material within it that it can be discussed for years to come.
There are three ways to reveal information in a novel: (1) state it outright, (2) offer hints via sensory description or action, and (3) state it ambiguously. The second method is the most popular, “show” method. The first is “telling.” Here is an example of the third, from the first chapter in Liquid Death:
First reference (pg.7): “I stop shaking suddenly and lift quivering fingers to my clammy forehead, expecting to see blood. When I find none, the pain slowly quiets to a dull ache in my limbs. My knees cease knocking and dizziness overtakes me. I black out…
…And wake up again on the floor three hours later. My eyes espy the time on my alarm clock, reading 7:04.“
Second reference (pg. 23): “When I return to awareness, I am still on my bedroom floor. Uncle Jim is gone. Every movement wrings tremendous sharp pain as my fresh knife wounds split open. Blood coats the carpet around me. A volcano erupts in my skull when I try to lift my head, and my legs are quaking. The room is pitch dark save for the time flashing on my digital clock. It is 4:04 AM.“
Now what information did that example reveal? Well, who knows? It might be meaningless. But it does connect the beginning of the chapter to the end and indicates that Kandi wakes up on the floor in a similar manner at the same time every morning. I’ve left it up to the reader’s interpretation.
I could go on, so perhaps I will plan a separate post about this technique for the future.
As much as you hope for every reader to catch this one hint that you made in book 1 that points to an event in book 3, not every reader is going to notice. That’s okay. The important factor, here, is that you write a multi-layered book or series that is inexhaustible in its potential for interpretation and as a topic of conversation.
#6: Avoid comparing yourself to others during the process.
🚨This is important if you don’t want to lose motivation before you finish a project.🚨 Comparing your writing style to someone else’s is absolutely fine if you are editing your work or reading another’s work and looking to improve your own prose. BUT — do not succumb to the habit while you are writing your own novel. Write like you are the only writer in the world. Like you are the best. Pretend, during the process, that you know exactly what you are doing. Write for yourself. This leads us right into tip #5…
#5: Write what you want to read.
The projects that will matter most to you are those that only your mind could conceive. If you have read a hundred books in your favorite genre (as I have), and have yet to see a book written about [unicorns hunting centaurs], which is something you desperately want to read, write it! For goodness’ sake, write it! The fact that it is something you would want to read should give you more motivation to finish it.
#4: Stick to one project at a time.
Speaking of motivation, have you ever been in the middle of one project, when suddenly an idea sprang to your mind that seemed more alluring than the current idea you were working with? Many writers have experienced this. It can be hard to complete a book when in the middle you come up with an idea that pulls your attention away from it. Here is the problem that arises when that happens: you are distracted, you lose your momentum, and you may end up abandoning the project in favor of beginning a new one.
I experienced this in the middle of Burning Space, when I came up with the idea for Gray Haze. I became attached to the idea very quickly and struggled to get over the hump in Burning Space. It slowed my progress considerably. What did I do to combat it? I wrote down the new idea and ignored it. I had to finish The Edinön Trilogy. I doubled down, reviewed my outline, and asked myself how I could make Burning Space exciting enough that I wasn’t tempted to explore the other idea.
Exert some self-control and stick to one project at a time. It will be worth it when you find that you can actually finish something worthwhile.
#3: Learn when to stop.
It is true that no writer is perfect. Nothing that an imperfect writer writes is perfect. That means that you could finish a book and edit it and re-edit it until the end of time without ever feeling fully satisfied. So when should you stop?
I still find things in Liquid Death and Dawning Life that I wish I could have written better. One great thing about self-publishing is that you can re-upload your manuscript anytime with revisions, so that is what I have done. However, there is a point where you have to put down your red pen and look at your book as a whole. Consider the feedback of people you trust. If the majority of your feedback is positive, and you would like to move on to something else, move the @#$% on. Don’t be a perfectionist. Every writer has limitations depending on their level of skill and experience. I am still at Level 1, and I am aware of my limitations. There came a point in the process of editing Liquid Death that I realized it was as good as it was going to get. I was satisfied with this realization because I did the best I could with the skill I possessed.
The only way I am really going to move up to Level 2 is if I keep writing different things and expanding my range of experience. I could write and re-write Liquid Death forever, but where would that get me?
#2: Write as often as possible.
Does this need an explanation? I think you can deduce why this might be the second most important piece of advice for writers. What do you think?
#1: Ignore all writing advice.
The most important advice I could (or anyone else could) ever give you is to ignore all the writing advice on the internet and just write. It’s as simple as that. You are a unique person with unique ideas and methods. Take all of the advice listed above with a grain of salt. You aren’t writing an essay. You are creating a new world with characters no one else knows. Now, if you have gotten this far, that means you are serious about the undertaking. That should be enough to get you over the hurdles that will come your way. Muster some of that creative energy and figure out what methods work best for you. Have you ever heard of a well-known author who managed to write a masterpiece because they read a stupid list of writing tips online? Didn’t think so.
Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. – Marcus Sedgwick