During my hiatus I did a lot of reading on writing. And a lot of thinking about writing, about just what a commitment it is and if I am completely crazy for wanting to continue. But then the voices in my head grew louder (which might prove the whole “completely crazy” theory). The fictional characters of my imagination begged me to tell their stories. And I finally caved and gave in to them. Because I know that by writing about them, I will also learn more about myself.
Here are a few pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned from my reading and thinking about writing. Some came from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, some from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel (both of which I highly recommend to writers). There’s also Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King which I found extremely helpful as well.
1. There’s no room for perfectionism when you are writing. You have no idea how hard it is for me to write those words. A perfectionist by nature, this concept is completely foreign to me and one I really have to struggle with. But I’ve learned that perfectionism gets in the way of the creative process. If you stop to analyze every single sentence, the self-doubt creature that lurks in the shadows of every writer’s mind will pounce and you will soon start babbling to your best friend or spouse that you are a horrible writer and you should give up the charade now before you embarrass yourself. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes, to push forward, get the words on the page. Flow with the characters and the plot, and hold the perfectionism off until the editing phase.
2. Let your characters be your guide. It is their story after all, let them tell it. You might have your plot all mapped out, and know exactly what you want the climax to be, and then suddenly one of your characters does something crazy you didn’t expect. Go with it. Don’t keep them tethered to the outline you created. Let your characters guide you, and they may take you down some unexpected paths that enrich your story in ways you never knew were possible.
3. Listen to your broccoli. Advice straight from the great Anne Lamott. It’s so easy to be distracted by all the other stuff going on in your head. Shopping lists, work tasks, what to scrounge up for dinner, weekend chore plans (wait–not everyone plans out their weekend chores?). All that stuff drowns out the subconscious. Your intuition. Your broccoli (or however you want to see it–I think of mine as a spectacle-clad elephant with a typewriter in its lap, clumsily pressing the keys with its enormous feet). If you can tune in to your broccoli, that little intuitive decision-making voice inside your head, you can throw out the conventional rules that you’ve been taught since you were a kid and all sorts of fantastic things start to happen. Characters start speaking to you, acting out scenes, and your fingers fly across the keyboard as you try to get it all down before the other stuff pushes back in and you are once again composing grocery lists rather than your novel. It’s a way to put a bit of yourself, that elusive “voice,” into your story.
4. Let your characters break some rules. So you listen to your intuition and it decides that your character should have a complete meltdown at work. He runs from desk to desk, throwing papers into the air and breaking pencils left and right, all the while spouting off the annoying habits of each co-worker that he just can’t stand for one more second. “Wait, wait!” your rational brain yells. “What are you doing? He can’t do that. Nobody would behave that way in this economy. He could get fired!” Well, let’s say he does. And he gets fired in front of everyone in the office. And rather than tucking his tail between his legs like a scolded puppy and leaving, he yells at the boss and has to be escorted off the property by police. Makes for a much more exciting scene than a guy having a crummy day at work who mumbles to himself about how much he hates his co-workers while sitting in his tiny cubicle, doesn’t it? And it opens up a lot more plot possibilities. What’s going to happen to your character now that he’s lost his job? What’s his next move? Listen to your broccoli. It’ll tell you.
5. Complicate things. Good, page-turning fiction is all about conflict. Donald Maass’s book discusses this in detail. You should take a look at every scene in your story, and see if there is some way to up the stakes. Let’s go back to the guy who lost his job. Give him a family he’s got to support. He goes home and tells his wife what happened. But rather than being understanding, she can’t believe he put his temper before his family, packs up the kids and leaves him. Now your character has to figure out how to get his life on track. Not just because he wants his family back, but also because he has an aging father to care for. And now that he’s lost his job he can’t afford for his father to live in a separate apartment. So your character has to move his dad in with him, and they’ve never gotten along. I think you get the point here. Put your character in a situation, and see how many roadblocks you can put in his path. You know, complicate things.
6. Write for writing’s sake. Sure, writers want to get published, see our names in print, have a front-and-center cardboard display of our bestseller at Barnes & Noble. But that should not be the main motivation that drives you to sit in front of the computer and string words into sentences. You have to do it because you love it. Because your imagination won’t leave you alone and keeps creating new characters you can’t wait to write about. And while the process can be frustrating, and there’s a pretty decent chance that your work will never be found on shelves of major booksellers, there is so much that can be gained by being a writer. You become more observant of the world around you. All these observations get filtered through your lens as you construct ways to describe what you see, and you go home and sit at the computer and write it all down. And as you do that, you begin to see yourself reflected on the page. Because you can’t help but put a little piece of yourself in everything you write. And by doing so, you learn more about who you are, neuroses and all.
I could go on (and on, and on and on) with other writing advice I’ve absorbed. And maybe I will in future posts. But right now, these 6 nuggets of wisdom are constantly on my mind when I sit down to write. And they work (for me at least). What about you other writers out there? What’s some great writing tips you’ve picked up over the years?
I can’t end this post without giving a shout out to my fabulous critique partner Amber, who recommended the wonderful books where I gathered most of this advice. Thanks, Amber!