Elmore Leonard has ten rules for good writing. Neil Gaiman has eight. But what really works, and more importantly, what has worked for you? With that in mind, I asked our panelists the following question:
About ten years ago, I was doing what every writer does at a Con, which was sitting in the bar talking shop. I fell into conversation with Richard Thompson, who was twice my age and as hardboiled as the murder mysteries he wrote. Richard wasn’t interested in bitching about agents or gossiping about editors or discussing marketing ideas. He wanted to discuss one thing: the craft of writing. He had a deep understanding of story structure which he tried to impart to this hopeless newbie.
“You’ve got to master your midpoint scene,” he said. “”Think of it as a tent pole that holds up the entire narrative.” He went on to explain all the things that have to come together at midpoint: the action, the emotion, the drama, “and your hero’s terrible realization that what he thought was going on, isn’t.” This advice has served me well through four published novels, and it’s advice that I pass on to other writers whenever I can. If you can nail your midpoint scene, you can nail your whole novel.
I may not be as good a writer as I want to be, but I will be a better writer than I was yesterday.
I like to say that there are only about five things to say about writing — show don’t tell, put the main character in trouble, begin just before the last moment the action of the story could have been prevented, etc. — and that you have to keep hearing them all, over and over in different ways, until you hear one at the right time and in the right way that you “get” it. “Aha!” you say. “I need to put my main character in trouble!” And then your writing takes a step forward, and you tell all your friends about this marvelous thing you’ve learned, and you go on using it to the point that you incorporate it into your writing without thinking. Eventually you hear one of the other things at the right time and in the right way, and you have another epiphany.
Okay, maybe there are more than five. But still, the number of distinct writing principles is reasonably small, with a lot of overlap; the number of different ways to say the same thing makes it look bigger than it is. So although I’ve gotten some memorable writing advice over the years, such as Carol Emshwiller’s “Use exposition as ammunition,” it’s hard for me to say where I first heard some of them. I know, for example, that Pat Murphy suggested focusing on what the main character wants and why they can’t have it, but I’m pretty sure that’s implied by a plot outline I got from Algis Budrys which included repeated try-fail cycles (the fail is important because if the character tries and immediately succeeds it can’t have been a very hard problem).
All that being said, probably the single most significant piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten has been that persistence is more important than talent, connections, style, plot, or character. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence,” Calvin Coolidge said. “Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” I have certainly gotten this advice from many people over the years, about life in general but especially about the writing biz, notably from my friend Jay Lake. But I think the most personally significant and memorable instance in which I received this advice was from Gardner Dozois, at a Worldcon in Los Angeles.
At that point I was still in my own personal try-fail cycle, submitting short stories to all the major markets but not selling any. I found myself in an elevator with Gardner, who was at the time the editor of Asimov’s, the most prestigious magazine in the field, and I said to him, “We know that the best way to rain a rat in a certain behavior is to reward the behavior inconsistently — to give the rat a treat not every time it presses the lever, but just sometimes. But what happens to a rat who gets a form rejection no matter what he submits?” Gardner replied, “The persistent rat gets published.” Then the door opened and he departed.
From that point on I doubled down on persistence. I kept writing on each idea until I had a finished story; I kept submitting each story until it sold somewhere; I kept applying to workshops and submitting to markets until I got an acceptance. More recently, I wrote four novels on spec before finally selling one, and pushed past dozens of agent rejections before getting an acceptance. I call this “protagonistiness” — the quality of taking action to attain one’s goals — and it’s something I strive to attain for myself as well as my protagonists.
The best writing advice I know, which was not given to me but gleaned from several writers, is to take writing advice with a pinch of salt. You see, once I understood that, I could get on with doing the actual work of writing: improving upon it, finishing pieces, and reading critically. Being hung up on the idea of Being A Writer sets you neatly towards the artist manqué.
I suppose it’s inevitable that coiled beneath the question of writing advice is that exhausting topic of How To Be A Writer. Writers can only be themselves. That’s the long and short of it. Writing is done in the same way, whether you’re a newbie, an MFA student, or a novelist whose titles remain at the top of bestseller lists, crushing everything below: you put words onto the page until you’re done.
At the same time, the headspace and timetabling of writing is very personal, not just because of the fuzzy tender business of your essential you-ness, but practicalities like time and health. That’s where, for me, a lot of writing advice strikes me as unhelpful, even downright damaging. Some writers have offensive ideas about disability and mental illness, some think you need expensive workshops (I’m with Vajra Chandrasekera on this one), still others propose that motherhood actively hinders writing. It should really be made plain that writers can only speak authoritatively on their own experiences—at a stretch providing friends as anecdata—and if a certain demographic dominates the field, well, it’s no surprise their writing advice beats the same dead horse.
So, yes: that pinch of salt is important. You need to season to taste.
I think it would have to be Elmore Leonard’s Rule Number Ten — “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip” — which unfortunately he did not deliver to me personally. It’s good advice on the face of it, although maybe a little flippant (in my mind, another point in its favor). I don’t know how much readers actually skip parts, but if their attention wanders while they’re reading, that’s almost as bad. Audiences have different appetites when it comes to exposition, and so might tend to skip different parts, but I was initially drawn to this advice because I like writing that is as economical as possible, and that’s how I try to write.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand this advice somewhat differently. Often, the information you’re expositing is important — especially if you’re world-building like in historical or science fiction, or writing science thrillers that have ideas at their core that must be understood. I still love lean and propulsive writing, but sometimes you can’t just leave out the skippable parts. So in my mind, this advice also means, “Don’t write the parts readers need to know in ways they will want to skip.”
To me, that’s the key. Especially if the information is essential to the reader’s understanding of the story, you’re not doing anybody any favors if you just stick it in there in a way that will glaze their eyes, or make them want to skip it, or — worst of all — put down your book.
Of course, whereas Elmore Leonard’s Rule Number Ten might be a little too cut and dried, it has the benefit of being just eleven words long, compared to some long, windy interpretations of it. But I guess that’s part of the point, too.
Writing is both an art and a business, and I got the best pieces of writing advice for both aspects on December 11, 2010. New to the Ohio-Indiana-Kentucky genre scene, I had driven four hours to Lexington, Kentucky for the Apex Day celebration of the release of To Each Their Darkness by Gary A. Braunbeck. Gary inscribed my copy with the message “With hopes that you find this worthwhile.” The entire book is definitely worthwhile, but page 14 has the bit that has driven my best writing:
…until you have explored your abyss and brought back the materials you need to enrich your work, that missing authenticity will always be AWOL. And it’s not only your loss, but your readers’ loss as well.
Not to mention that of your story or novel.
All of them deserve better.
Writers get told “write what you know” a lot. What you know, better than anyone else, is that deepest, rawest kernel of what makes you you. That is the thing you need to write. Anything less, — shying away from putting on the page the parts of me that even I’m afraid to look at — is failing both the story and the people who have trusted me with their reading time. Once I started really applying that advice and pouring every bit of myself into my stories, that was when I started getting the acceptances.
After the main Apex Day 2010 festivities wound down, I ended up in Jason Sizemore’s basement. I cannot advise following one man you barely know and two complete strangers into a basement at night in a city you’ve never been in before; however, it netted me Maurice Broaddus’ gem of business writing advice: “Always remember that you don’t need to be published right now.”
I’m not going to lie: having your name in print and something to put in the prior publications section of your cover letter is exciting. In the years since Maurice bestowed those words of wisdom upon me, the problem of people taking advantage of writers’ eagerness to unlock that First Publication achievement has only gotten worse. Not all of the venues are malicious or predatory, but even the ones that mean well can end up harming more than helping. Nascence by Tobias S. Buckell has a detailed discussion of when getting that first publication credit goes badly, along with plenty more wisdom learned the hard way.
The best writing advice I’ve received is manifold, but two (not uncomplimentary) tidbits stand out. The first came from one of my MFA professors, the brilliant Rebecca Curtis, who told us once as a class (and perhaps me expressly) that if you want the reader to retain empathy and fellow feeling for your characters, then those same characters can’t feel sorry for themselves–otherwise, there’s none left over for the reader to take up. So even if the wallow of self-pity exists as an option for your character, he or she, still, must always must be striving. This is wonderful advice, and so true; all the time, I lift it straight from Curtis and directly onto my writing students at Tulane. And the best part about it I’ve found (as with much worthwhile advice) is that it isn’t ironclad–that a very specific and pointed kind of self-pity in a character whom the writer wants the reader to identify with can reap huge rewards in fiction writing, especially when it comes to creating those splendidly flawed and at least partially unlikeable characters that are so ubiquitous in American culture today. So a character can pity him or herself, but that pity must be more than pity; it must possess, say, an ulterior motive that the character would rather not show to the reader.
The other and equally best writing advice I’ve ever received was from another one of my MFA professors, the brilliant Ben Marcus, who told me that the best thing I could do for my writing in the beginning stages was to read variously and widely. Marcus meant, of course, that not only should I read a lot and beyond the horizon of the Western literary canon of which I was part, but far and wide into other genres and modes of literary output as well (memoir, historiography, lyrical essay, poetry, noir, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, western, graphic novel, so on and so forth–and many of these, too, falling under the banner of commercial as well as literary fiction). All of this, Marcus promised, would infiltrate and infect my writing unbeknownst to me, imbuing it with the sinuous vitality that good fiction requires in order to thrive. (Reading lots of full-blown historiographies is something I’m working up to) And, if I may unite these seemingly incongruous pieces of wisdom for a moment beneath the same beach umbrella: while Curtis taught me never to allow my characters to pity themselves unless absolutely called for, Marcus taught me never to allow myself to pity myself as a writer. There was just too much out there, the pool was too deep.
These days, advice that deals with the difficulty of the writing life is what I find resonating with me the most. Not butt-in-chair mantras or ways to beat writer’s block, but the acknowledgement that writing is hard, the competition is fierce, and that the things you love about your work don’t always resonate with others. I want to staple advice that deals with those things to my forehead.
A couple of years ago I ran across a post on Christie Yant’s blog Lessons from the Slush Pile: Good vs. Great . There are a lot of nuggets in there, but this is what has stayed with me: “As writers, we’re in such a hurry to get [our work] out the door that we get it to Pretty Good and submit. Pretty Good isn’t good enough.”
There’s a lot of pressure to produce work and get noticed. Once I get a clean, not necessarily final draft of something, I make the time to interrogate it at the story, scene, and sentence level, trying to eradicate the mediocrity out of it. That way I’m always pushing myself and my craft to do more. Sometimes what’s there is already working. But at least I know I’ve done my due diligence. I know I’ve done everything I can to strengthen my work. Which, in this business, is the only thing you have control over.
The thing about writing advice is that because there’s so much of it out there, it can get overwhelming. Trying to follow all the ‘rules’ can actually end up blocking your inspiration, instead of helping. So what I like to do, is to read the articles and/or books that interest me so I can pay close attention to what works for me.
We’re all different. What works for me might not work for other writers, but there is one book that I’m pretty sure we can all agree helps every one of us. And that’s On Writing by Stephen King. Not only is he an amazing author, but he knows what he’s talking about. While reading this very helpful book, I started to feel like he wrote it in a language all writers–at whatever stage in their journey–could understand.
There are a lot of awesome pieces of advice in this book, but the three I always come back to are these:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”
He’s absolutely correct. How else can you write a story, if you don’t understand the basic mechanics of what makes a good book? And the best way to learn this is by reading all kinds of books–both good and bad–and writing all kinds of stories–both good and bad. The more you write, the better you become. The more you read, the more inspiration you can find.
I’ve learned a lot about writing through the pleasure of reading in all kinds of genres, and it’s information I sometimes didn’t even realise I was learning. So in order to be a good writer you have to read and write a lot.
I totally agree with Stephen King on this.
And that, although indirectly, is the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.
The best writing advice I ever got was from my second grade teacher, Mrs. Price, who told me to “Just keep writing.” It helped that she was so impressed by my story about Captain Bill and his spaceship Thee Eagle that she let me get out of math to work on it, but I think her advice is useful for more than just getting out of memorizing multiplication tables. Along with that goes the advice “You can’t edit a blank page,” which is so very true. You’ve got to have the guts to put some words down on paper before you let your critical self take over.
When I was studying journalism in college, my favorite professor once asked me about my writing habits. Without a prepared answer to her question, the truth accidentally slipped out. I stared at her, colored, and mumbled “I write in my superman underwear . . . ”
She lit up. “Underoos? That’s awesome!”
By age 20, I’d already picked up a plethora of weird writing habits and the superhero cami set was at the top of the list. No self-respecting college student would admit to this in their right mind. With one big smile, my professor managed to normalize the entire thing.
“Isn’t that weird?” I asked and that’s when I found out weird is okay.
Writing is not always dignified.
Even with all the support and advice a writer could want, in the end, the writing is up to them. It’s a deeply personal affair. How you get the job done is up to you, not others.
Even now, people criticize my working style. “You can’t possibly get anything done while watching TV,” they say of my most visible weird habit. Maybe they can’t, but sometimes I work best with classic Star Trek episodes playing in the background.
Don’t listen to those who are skeptical or critical of your methods. Even for professionals, writing is hard. Embrace anything that eases the process.
So maybe you blare angry music. Maybe you sequester yourself in an isolation room, free of distractions. Maybe you fill your computer area with knick-knacks and tchotchkes. Maybe you can only write in the middle of the night, when any “normal” person would be in bed. Maybe you adhere to the write drunk, edit sober philosophy.
And maybe, you write in your underoos.