Advice for new (and not so new) writers
A new day in Milan
I’ve spent most of my adult life reading dozens of books about the craft, and attending MOOCs and Creative Writing courses at universities, workshops at colleges, and, once, the Winchester writers conference. Along the way I’ve amassed a large number of tips, some of which have been exceptionally helpful. So far they’ve been buzzing around in my head and I decided to write them down here so as not to forget them. Also, they might help others. They might help you! I’ve named this series a magpie’s nest of writing tips, because it’s a jumble of shiny things I’ve
stolen collected throughout the years. Credit will be given, where possible.
This inaugural post, however, is the advice I gave to someone on tumblr several months ago, who wrote fanfiction and asked me how to become a better writer. Here it is, slightly adapted:
What people want to do with their writing differs. Some write for fun, to have a laugh with the rest of the fandom/community; it’s a hobby. Some are trying to see if they’ve got what it takes to become professional writers. They’re all valid reasons to write. My advice is to the kind of fledgling author I used to be, the one who wanted to be a professional and wanted their writing to be decent, and it’s this:
- Read a lot
- Write a lot
- Step out of your comfort zone
- Attend workshops/read writing guides/be open to critique
1. Read a lot
It goes without saying; reading is what feeds a writer. I attended a travel writing workshop once and the editor told us that he could always tell from someone’s writing what they’d been reading. What one reads the most comes through in one’s writing whether they intend it or not. This “or not” is why I’ve been vigilant ever since to avoid reading anything that I don’t want to be influenced by: gossip mags, for instance, or run-of-the-mill urban fantasy.
I’d suggest reading the best examples of writing in your genre and outside of it. Read them often and try to see what it is about them that you love and you’d like to emulate: is it the dialogue? The prose? The UST and emotions? The plot? How did the author do the thing you loved? Tip #4 below helps with that.
tl;dr: read the best writing you can get your hands on as often as you can
2. Write a lot
This also goes without saying. Writing is a skill; the more you practice, the better you become at it.
At the beginning, a new writer’s output might not be as amazing as what they’d like it to be, but recognising that it’s not there yet is actually a huge step in improving. So write loads, and don’t be afraid to write things no one will see. Set a word count target and try to reach that target. It could be 300 words a day or 2k words every weekend or a total of 12k a month, whatever works for you. Make writing a habit. Ask people to prompt you, write off-the-cuff. Post flash fic on your blog or social media site of preference. Some of it won’t be great – to you. But there’ll always be a reader who loves the quick drabble you wrote. And even if the post goes unnoticed, move on. Write the next story, and then the next. Just keep writing and keep making it the best you can.
tl;dr: write your arse off
3. Step out of your comfort zone
This tip isn’t one you usually see in these kinds of lists, but to me it’s an important one. What I mean is that complacency can be a writer’s biggest enemy. Say you’ve reached a decent writing level, you’ve got some readers, you’re having fun writing your stories. They’re becoming popular so you think you’re doing something right and you write some more in the same vein. This is all good, but it might also lead to stagnation.
Stepping out of your comfort zone shakes things up. This advice relates to the points before. First, read something that you normally avoid, esp.if people are saying it’s a fantastic piece of writing. My thinking is that if X fic/book has rave reviews but happens to be a trope which I loathe, the benefits of being exposed to the great writing outweigh the trope. Do consider your triggers, if you have any, and look after yourself, but also don’t confuse them with dislikes.
Reading outside your genre is a great way to shake things up: if you’re into literary fiction, read detective stories. If you only read fantasy, read a smoking-hot romance or a family saga. If the books you buy are all adult sci-fi, try this contemporary YA everyone’s been raving about. Read poetry, if you don’t! Even if you don’t get it. Just read it, consider the word choices and put it aside. You don’t have to read outside your comfort zone all the time, but try to do it with some regularity and make sure you choose great quality works.
Same with writing: if you write in one genre, try writing a story in another. Maybe you’ll fuck it up. No one needs to see it. At least you’ve tried. This is where workshops or writing exercises come in handy. Recently I took part in one where some authors wrote a paragraph with sentences up to seven words, and another that was only one sentence. Imagine writing a 200-word sentence! You’ll probably never use it in your life, but it’s such a great way to practise sentence structure and see the effect it has on tone and pacing.
Writing outside your comfort zone is also about writing things that might make you emotional. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones was one of the first I read and it’s influenced me a great deal: she says that when you feel choked up or upset while writing a scene, keep writing.You’ve tapped into a vein. Digging deep in a character’s psyche might make you uncomfortable, sure; it means digging deep inside yourself and some dark parts of you that you might not necessarily like. Keep going. For me, that’s what pushes someone’s writing from good to amazing. It’s why some works stand out and are lauded, even if they don’t sell tons of copies.
tl;dr: reading books outside your genre, doing writing exercises and writing things that make you emotional can improve one’s writing a great deal
4. Attend workshops/read writing guides/be open to critique
If you’re writing as a hobby, you needn’t pay attention to this. For the rest: learning the technical aspects of the craft can make a huge difference in your writing.
At first, you might enjoy a story and not know why. Workshops and writing guides can help you identify what it is you liked. You’ll be able to examine a novel with a different eye when you’re familiar with the 3-act structure rather than go “wow, the pacing was amazing, I couldn’t put this down, but I don’t know why”.
There are dozens of writing guides out there. After reading more than thirty, I can confirm they get repetitive after a while. But read a couple of them, at the very least. Check if your library has: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (for motivation mostly), Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin, On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (which is also really funny).
Attending a workshop/accepting critique is the hardest to arrange. It requires other people, you can’t read it or borrow it from your library. Now, I’ve heard from people who attended creative writing seminars that they were in class with a bunch of idiots who had strong opinions as to what’s literature and what’s not. If that’s something you’d rather not face, then there are creative writing MOOCs around where people are kinder and more supportive. I’ve taken several and am a huge advocate of them. You can audit a MOOC (watch the video with the lecture, do the reading, skip the assignment) but participating will help the most. You might get 1-2 or even 15 people commenting on your work, telling you what worked and what didn’t. Some common elements will arise: perhaps everyone liked the dialogue, but many felt the description was lacking. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but you’ll have a clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t. Examining each piece of critique and seeing if you agree or not with it is a big step in improving.
Having your work edited is of course the number one thing you can do to improve, and having a good editor is invaluable–and rare. Try to find a good editor. Finally, If you’re in a fandom (or other writing) community, see if you can arrange a workshop thing with your friends. Just make sure that you’re all on board with critiquing each other’s writing with kindness, but also not just squeeing. Squeeing can take place with critiquing, it’s not mutually exclusive.
tl;dr: learn the technical aspects of the craft and learn to accept critique
What is the best writing advice you’ve received? Let me know in the comments!
Cat Wolfe is torn between finishing her YA novel or her sprawling adult fantasy series. Decisions, decisions.