Just the other week, it was my good fortune to meet a young writer. Her mother was overjoyed when she discovered this newfound talent in her daughter, as she had recalled that it was a passion of mine and we would be in the same state for a week. Through a series of hectic circumstances (a phrase which could really describe most of my year impeccably well), I only had about thirty seconds with the daughter and that was no time at all to pass down the wisdom I’ve gained in the last ten years of writing.

So I promised her I would write her an email. I did. It’s been marinating in my “sent” file for some time now. It’s good advice.

This is what I told her:

For a fun time in November (you don’t have to participate, just observe the madness if you feel inclined), look at www.nanowrimo.org. It’s where thousands of writers congregate on the internet every year and set the collective goal to each write a 50,000 word novel. It’s a great place for inspiration, advice, and making friends in the writing community. It’s worth setting up a profile just to get the letters of advice from the various authors every year. I’ve participated three times and won twice – even though one of those wins was half-written while traveling between Colorado and Michigan. And I intend to make another go of it this coming fall. The forums are your friend. Stalk them. Seriously, the “witty lines” forum is a gold mine.
Next up: Writing Excuses. This is the best podcast on writing there is. www.writingexcuses.com. Listen to them religiously. The gang will not steer you wrong. And they are family friendly.
Another good resource: www.goteenwriters.blogspot.com. Good advice, fun challenges, and all in a readable format.
And one more, just for giggles: www.paperfury.com/beautiful-people. It’s a blog that posts monthly lists of questions to answer on behalf of a character. It’s extremely useful for character-building, and I use it often.
There are lots of important pieces of advice I could give you personally – things about dialogue tags and paragraph rules or what to do when you have too many supporting characters… but I won’t. You don’t need them, at least not yet. Those skills naturally occur with time, practice, and imitation. So that’s the advice I’m going to give.
Time: I’ve been writing hard for over a decade now and I’m still learning lots. I’ve only just reached a point where I feel like my writing is something I would be proud to publish. Write LOTS and keep WRITING because that’s where and when you will find excellence: in the journey. There isn’t a destination but your first hundred thousand words is a good start to arriving there. By the time you reach a million first words, you’ll feel like you’re getting the hang of things. Learn how to type fast enough to keep up with your thoughts – it’s a skill that will remain valuable for your entire life.
Practice: find people to read your work (alpha readers), and listen when those people tell you that a sentence feels awkward. They might be wrong, but it’s worth re-writing it anyway. Same goes for stilted characters you thought were fine, cliffhangers that maybe weren’t so tense, or muddy prose you mistook for pure gold as you typed it out. Don’t take offense; sit down and write it better. Get a grammar book or a trustworthy grammar website and look things up when you have questions. Learn the structure of a sentence and how to make your words sing in it. Stream-of-consciousness is fine, but if you can write a character’s dialogue in iambic pentameter or use an emotional semicolon, you open up a whole new world of possibility.
Imitation: read. Read everything you can get your hands on. But don’t just gobble the written word – study it. Say your textbook is a real drag (this happened to me in college – I love psychology, but this particular textbook… not so much), then look at it, really look, and figure out why. Is it because every single sentence is a paragraph long? Is it because it’s all written in the passive voice? Is it because the metaphors fall flat? Do this with novels, pamphlets, history books, the bible, tv shows, movies, or posts on the internet. I used to watch shows with my family while holding a pencil and outlining the classic seven-act structure of each episode. It was highly informative. If a line makes you laugh, imitate it in your own work. If a character makes you cry, lock those feelings down and figure out how to pour that emotion into your own creations. Examine the structure behind the story and you can become an engineer of literature. If something bores you to death, figure out how you could have made it interesting. If you know what makes it stand up, you can keep it from falling down.
And things will fall down. Trust me on this. I was writing a novel I thought was utter brilliance, but then I got stuck. I quit. I couldn’t keep writing, and I didn’t know why. I thought I was maybe never going to write again. I wallowed in the depths of despair, believing that I might not be a writer after all. Then I realized that what I had written wasn’t actually a novel. It was the backstory to the story. I needed to turn the clock forward and throw all of my characters into the middle of the chaos before the story, the real story, actually got started. So I had 30,000 words of… backstory. It turned out I was able to steal the entire lump and revamp it to suit a senior project for college (combining literature and psychology to prove that my choices made sense together). You will make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed – it just means you have more material from which you can leap to the next step.
Finally: not everything you write has to be the next great American novel. Some of the best stuff I’ve ever written was fanfic for a friend, letters to family, or rants about some bee under my bonnet, and I have absolutely no problem plagiarizing my own words to use in a more serious context.
There we have it. There was so much more I could have said, but I didn’t want to send a tsunami of words at a friend so I held my peace for the present distress.
What are the best pieces of writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What were the worst? Comment below: I’d love to know.