Writing Advice Part I

Here it is, the best piece of writing advice I ever got:

Write the story you most want to read.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But you’d be amazed by how few people actually do this. For years, I didn’t. I wrote the stories I thought would please my teachers. The stories I thought would impress my workshop partners. The stories I thought I was “supposed to write.” The stories I thought publishers would want, or that would become big commercial hits. But when I really asked myself what book I wanted to read that didn’t already exist, everything changed, and I ended up writing The Traitor King (the first novel I got published). If you let this one little piece of advice be your guiding star, at least you’ll please one person. Chances are, though, if you write what you most want to read, other people will want to read it too.

Other bits of writing advice:

—Write every day. As Octavia Butler said, “Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” Writing is like working out. It’s hard for the first few weeks, but once you get in shape, it’s a lot easier.

The writing life in all its stunning glory.

The writing life in all its stunning glory.

—Keep a journal. Carry it with you wherever you go. Write down your dreams, your thoughts, story ideas, and descriptions of things that happened during your day. Like an artist’s sketchbook, try sketching out things with words —descriptions of places, characters, and things you see. My favorite journal exercise is to spy on people and write down their dialogue. It’s a great way to develop an ear for how people talk.

—Don’t censor yourself. Some of the best writers I know think their writing sucks. Don’t listen to the voices of doubt. Try to write a first draft as quickly as you can. Keep moving forward, discovering who your characters are and what the story is about. Be proud of yourself for doing it.

—Revise. Here’s the big, dirty secret of writing: almost no one gets it right the first time. Not even close. A story might read like it flowed magically out of the writer’s head, but chances are that writer rewrote it three or four or twelve times to get it to seem that way. Good writers are great revisers. I usually spend over three times as long revising my books as I do writing the first draft. Read your work aloud. If anything bores you, it’s a problem. Cut unnecessary parts (you’ll never run out of ideas, so don’t be afraid to let go of things). Add scenes, develop your characters, and tighten your prose. Let someone else read it and give you critical feedback. Then revise it again.

—Read your heart out (and not just read the same type of books). Read around. Check out books that you wouldn’t normally read. Ask yourself how the writer was able to make things interesting. Try to learn something from every book you read.

Writing is the process of enacting a vision. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. So listen to James Tate, “You look like a god sitting there. Why don’t you try writing something?”

Want more? Here are six other bits of advice that help me keep going.


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