Writing Advice Part II (my top six other best pieces of advice)

The single best piece of writing advice I ever got was to write the book you most want to read (more on that here). After that, here are six other bits of writing advice that have made the biggest difference for me (and that I need to keep reminding myself of to keep on going). Hopefully, some of these will help you keep going too!

1) Write your own damn book. You know that constant need to compare your writing to other books you’ve read (“Damn this prose is pretty. I want my prose to be pretty. And this plot kicks butt. And things get blown up! And I need characters who are witty and funny like this other book…”)? That’s the comparison game, and if you play it, it will destroy you. It’s poison to art. Even if you can effectively imitate others, the result will be a train-wreck of a book that’s trying to be too many things at once (witty and touching, serious and funny, gritty and lyrical, action-packed and deep —it just doesn’t work). Sure, there’s a lot to gain from reading other writers, and learning from what’s good, but you’ll save yourself a great deal of agony if you can realize right now that no book can do everything. Instead of worrying about what other books do, write your own damn book. Trust that if you follow that other bit of advice well (and write the book that you most want to read) other people will want to read it too.

Sometimes the muse if very small and fussy.

Sometimes the muse if very small and fussy.

2) Write from love, not fear. Okay, this sounds cheesy. I’m embarrassed right now to put this out there, but this is important. In fact, it’s so important that I’ve got this one on a post-it note hanging over the computer where I work. I should probably do a longer blog post on this sometime, but in a nutshell, writing from fear means that you’re thinking of all the negative things critics or reviewers or other readers might say when they read your story, and this destroys art.

Writing from love means that you find what it is that calls to you most in the story, and you focus on that, and why you like it. Craft the story like a love letter to someone you just met, and are hopelessly smitten with. In the end, if you communicate the love part well, and avoid the fear, other people will love the story too. (Of course, some people will still hate it, because some people are people like that, but ignore them. If people listened to the haters, no good art would exist.)

3) Write to explore, discover, and learn. Here’s where things go Zen –because if you read #2, you might think it’s easy to know what you love in a story. But I think the best stories happen when you don’t know what you love, but you have an unexplainable sense of attraction, and a desperate desire to discover whatever it is in the story that’s calling to you. If you take this to heart, and write every line to discover what the story is about, you’ll create something far more interesting than if you were to simply write what you already know. Anything you know, chances are, other people already know too. The best stories are journeys the reader takes with the writer. Admittedly, though, when you approach writing this way, it might take many drafts to get somewhere interesting, with each draft digging deeper into the unknown.

4) Don’t hold back. Pretend that the story you’re writing has already been rejected a dozen times, but you can’t let it go. You know it needs to exist, even if you don’t know why. There’s something there that calls to you (see # 2). Now, don’t hold back. Don’t save the good stuff for later. Don’t pull punches. Write like you’re Rocky in the 11th round, after his eyelid has been cut. Put the best stuff out there, and then you might even discover something better.

5) Trust the gods of story. You might have an idea of what your story is about, or what will happen. You might even have an eighty page outline. But when you’re on the journey itself, trust the gods of story. There’s wisdom in narrative that goes back thousands of generations. It’s bigger than any one mind. So let the gods of story guide you. If something doesn’t feel like it’s working, then cut it. If something feels interesting, then follow it. Don’t cling too hard to what you want to say. I often take the lines that are closest to me — the things I want to tell the character or the points I want to make — and I put them in the mouths of the villains. That way, I know I’m not making the story my soap box. Instead, I’m pushing against those ideas to discover something new (see # 3).

bookdrafts6) Writing is not a race. It doesn’t matter when you start, or how long it takes you to complete a book. Few people ever truly complete a novel anyway, and creative endeavors never go as planned. I’ve spent six years rewriting the same book (those are just a few double-sided drafts of it on the right). I know another author who published five books, then wrote four novels that she couldn’t get any publisher to accept. She spent ten years in a mid-career slump, writing book after book that got rejected, before she wrote a book that became a huge best-seller.

What matters most in writing is perseverance. If you can stick with a book until the characters reveal themselves to you, you discover the story, the right voice to tell it, and make it all clear on the page, that’s a tremendous accomplishment. I’d rather write one good book, like Harper Lee did, than fifty gripping but forgettable novels. So take your time. Embrace the struggle. Enjoy the process, and don’t worry if it takes ten years, or twenty, or a lifetime to enact your vision for others to see. Give yourself some credit —after all, you’re creating a whole world out of blank pages.

Okay, so what about you? What advice has made a difference for you? What do you tell yourself when you go to face the page?



  1. Amie A. Conant says

    HI Professor Mitchell,
    I saw a post of yours, shared by a friend of mine on FB and I checked it out. I thought–Wow! I wish I had known about his Blog when I was attending CSU–but then saw that most of your articles were written in the last few months. So cool. I wish I had been able to take a class of yours when I was there; and was specifically hoping that I would be fortunate to have you as the instructor for my Adolescent Lit class. Yet Fate had other ideas in store for me. Still, I wish to congratulate you on your foray into social media and express my appreciation for your articles in this token word –YAY!

    • Hi Amie,
      Thank you for checking out the post. I just launched this site a couple of days ago, so I hope to keep adding content (especially writing craft related thoughts). Sorry I didn’t get to work with you at CSU. Are you still in town? And do you write YA?
      Best wishes,

      • Amie Conant says

        Hi Professor Mitchell,

        I still live in Loveland. No, I don’t normally write YA, (the exception– one story in creative writing 210 class at CSU) however it is one of my favorite genres to read–and my favorite age of people. I’m more interested at this time in writing for the children’s age category of 5-8 or so, or poetry.

  2. Hi Todd,
    Thank you for your wonderful classes at the Northern Colorado Writers Conference. You’ve managed to pull me out of my writer’s pit of despair. Again. And got me back on track. Love the new website, too.

    • Ahh… The pit of despair. It’s a place I know well. I’m thinking maybe I should write a post about that. At any rate, it was good seeing you this weekend, and thank you for checking out the website. Happy writing!


  3. Good blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the data are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I’ve subscribed to your RSS which must do the trick! Have a great day!

  4. Another great post, Todd. Thanks. With my first markup of my first novel, I found (and while writing) #5 taking over and leading to #4. So now what do I think? Lots to trim, tighten, fix, but glad I followed the story gods’ lead. One character had much more to say (and learn) than I realized. And certainly, #1 is the main reason I started this monster in the first place.

    • Thanks, Dean. I’ve had this happen before as well –when a character runs off with a story. Always a nice surprise, I think. There’s nothing simple about writing, though.

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