Wednesday, May 24, 2017

John's Ten Favorite Tips for Writers

Confession time: I don't always write posts on this blog in order.  Frequently I'll, say, write four reviews in a row or write all of the political articles for the week at once or stick to mostly the rants and avoid trying to come up with an entertainment-related article (I don't know why, but I have been struggling to come up with entertainment-related articles lately-if you want to see more of this style, let me know what you like from past articles so I know the direction to take them).

As a result of this, I'm actually going to write an article initially inspired by the review I did for this afternoon, where in the opening paragraph I talked about writing, and decided that since I'd never done this before, I would go through some of my favorite tips for writers.  This is a minefield, partially because discussing tips for writers makes you deeply self-conscious.  Is the writing I'm doing good enough to actually qualify me to give tips for writing, or am I just someone who is gaining a series of snickers on your end of the computer screen?  Do I approach this sincerely, risking a litany of cliches, or do I instead approach this from the sardonic viewpoint of Dorothy Parker and just toss off bon mots while dismissing the topic at hand?

With all due respect to Ms. Parker, I'm better at sincere, but I'm going to throw in a qualifier-I'm giving this advice as a writer on how to successfully write.  Not to publish, not to write like Marilynne Robinson or Zadie Smith, but simply to actually get something out into your own personal universe.  I have loved writing since I was a little boy, and have been actively writing for over a decade.  I can't give advice on getting published (Google is there if that's your game), but I can share how I am able to get 1500 words out on a regular basis, and how I'm able to see three books with my name on them on a shelf nearby, albeit in an unpublished binder.  Below you will find my ten tips that I think are essential to actually calling yourself a writer:

1. Read

Yes, I'm aware this is a cliche, but I can't deal with people who want to be a writer but don't read, and it's surprisingly common.  I find that my writing is nearly always at its worst and that writer's block is rearing its ugly head when I haven't had a book in my hands in a while.  Reading teaches you how to see a sentence, how paragraphs form, how language unfolds onto a paper.  If you want to write, you have to read, and you really should read every genre, every volume you can get your hands upon-being a genre snob or limiting yourself to only books similar to what you're writing shows a profound lack of creativity, something that is a death knell for a writer.  I found that one of the easiest ways to start writing about fantasy was actually to read through a horror novel, as it gave me insights into the way plots are similarly-structured.  And, I'm sorry, reading articles on your phone doesn't count.  If you want to write creatively or even memoirs, you need to surround yourself with books, plays, poetry, and stories.  There is no exception to this rule; writing demands that you read.  If you aren't doing one, it's probable that despite your best efforts, you're not doing the other.

2. There is No Such Thing as "Having Enough Time"

The greatest complaint I hear from people who want to write is that they don't have enough time.  This is actually the complaint I hear from everyone about not accomplishing their goals.  And the shocking thing about this excuse is that it's worthless.  Writers write-they find the time to write.  If it's important to you, if it's something that you need to have happen and get on the page, you will find the time.  You will forego a party, you will eat a quick dinner, you will skip that night of Netflix.  If ever I find myself using this excuse, in the same way that I might for exercising, I realize I don't have enough time because I don't want to write.  It's that simple-if you are saying this, it's because "you don't want to write," it's not due to a lack of time.  Any protestations to the contrary are bullshit.

3. The Muse is a Unicorn

The other complaint I hear is that "I'm just not feeling it," and like "not having enough time," this is ludicrous.  You can always write.  You might not always have this magical being above you, but relying upon a stroke of inspiration is a pitiful state for a writer to exist within-after all, what if the muse never comes and let's you finish your story?  In my opinion, the best way to avoid the trappings of the muse is to simply force yourself to write every day.  Every single day.  You can make it the same time, or you can force yourself to not stand up until you get a specific amount of words onto the page, but you need to write regularly, on a routine, in order not to be a writer who never writes.  It doesn't matter if that writing isn't always good (then you might be finding out what doesn't work), but it treats writing like the hard work it is rather than just a romantic pursuit.

4. Interruptions are Death

When I am actually intent on doing a night of long writing where I want to devote myself to the creation of new characters, I eliminate all distractions.  I tell people in my life I'm "burying the cell phone."  I will go to the only room of my apartment without food or a television or a shower (all too distracting).  I will occasionally, if I'm actually typing rather than editing, disconnect the WiFi and put the book I'm reading in my car four stories away from my computer.  The point is-the internet, social media, video games-whatever your vice is can too easily get in your way if you aren't careful.  What would have been three productive hours buried in prose becomes two paragraphs and a Twitter post with a dozen retweets.  Don't get religious about writing to the point where you can only get there during a full moon on a Waikiki Beach (unless you live in Hawaii and that's a regular occurrence), but eliminate distractions as needed.

5. Pile Drive Through Your Work

This is more for novels than for, say, blogging or poetry (I've tried all three, I've learned I'm only good at two).  It is too easy to spend your entire writing process storyboarding or creating outlines.  You can spend days, weeks, months, even 14 years (cough cough) trying to figure out what happens next in a story, but occasionally you just need to push through and write without worrying about what happens next.  If you've spent longer than, say, two weeks on how to get to the next point in the book, just write something, anything, and see if that works.  If it doesn't, delete it and go back.  But in that process, realize why it didn't work and see if that can inform your next steps.  But if you're stuck, or you're claiming writer's block, just force yourself to write something-if it sucks, you'll at least know.

6. Don't Edit as You Write

I believe I got this advice from Stephen King if I remember correctly, but some of the best advice I ever got was to not edit while you write, and gain some space between you and the novel/poetry (again, blogging doesn't really allow this for the most part...if you want a separate article specifically focused on blogging, ask for it in the comments and I'll provide) before you begin the editing process.  I used to write a chapter, then immediately go back and edit it for grammar, falling in love with certain sections and hating others, and thus in the process I wouldn't move on from that chapter I'd fallen so in love with it.  As a result I never moved forward.

A better strategy that I now employ that King recommends-if I'm doing a first draft, I write until I get to the end, only looking back to reference a name or a place if I'm unsure of what I'd called it (and even then, I prefer to reference the notebook I'm using for the writing process...also, advice within a bullet-get a notebook).  Then I put it in a drawer and pretend it doesn't exist for a month.  I write other things or I read, but the book or story doesn't exist until I have given it time to collect dust and breath.  That way I can gain some distance on it.  I don't fully subscribe to "kill your darlings" (another idea championed by King), but this process will at least let you know if the darlings are out-of-place or unnecessary.

7. Editing Needs to Be Objective

Perhaps the hardest part of editing, for most authors, is realizing that the chapter or story you spent the most amount of time in is totally unnecessary.  I think this is also the piece of advice that I am most reluctant to share with people whose writing I've read-it's almost always that what they wrote is too long, that it drags because they weren't willing to cut a flourish or a paragraph or a character.  I'm not saying that you can't have flowery language (the minimalist trend when it comes to prose frequently gets boring), but I will say that staying objective and admitting when something doesn't work is critical.  If you finish your editing with more words than you started, you're doing something wrong.

8. Don't Let Anyone Read It Until You're Done

This is such an easy trap for people who are beginning to creatively write, in that you want to share what you're working on for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps you want to see if what you're pouring out is any good, or you want to have the satisfaction of someone else realizing that you're writing and got past page sixteen.  But the reality is that the second you give your work to someone else, unless you're done or an experienced writer who knows how to move past that, you're going to take that validation and want to end right there.  The high of someone else seeing what you're doing is going to be impossible to duplicate, and you'll want to do it for every chapter, never letting the story breath and suddenly you're in a place where you're quitting because, well, you know you "could" write a book even though of course you never actually did.  Wait until you're done-ask advice if need be or talk through a problem, but wait until you're done to hand over the pages.

9.  Don't Be a Jerk to the Person Reading Your Book

Eventually, though, you need to let someone else read what you're writing.  Even with a blog, you need to click publish at some point.  With that comes a host of vulnerabilities, as the thing you've been writing, your baby that may have taken up years of your life, is in the hands of some other soul. As a result of this, be careful who you choose and how you react.

Don't, for example, pick someone you're planning on having sex with to be the first person who reads your book, as your reaction may delay or completely deny the possibility of that sex happening.  Don't be a jerk to them when they give you constructive feedback, or state that they didn't like it.  It's hard to hear, and you shouldn't take it as gospel, but don't sit there reassuring yourself that JK Rowling got rejection letters for Harry Potter and not change a thing.  A writer who doesn't edit and who completely disregards other people's opinions isn't a writer, they're just an ego trip with a typewriter.  Ask what didn't work, prod into what they did like and what they didn't.  Be prepared for disappointment, and if they give unilateral praise, figure out what they loved to make it better (because it can get better).

Oh, and if it's a novel or a longer book, ask them to mark when they stopped reading (and don't listen to their excuses that they were tired when they protest that they put it down).  If you notice a trend of when people stopped reading to take a break, that's probably because that portion of the book is boring.  Fix it.

10. Eventually You Have to End the Book

I have been working on three books in a series for about fifteen years.  I have tinkered, edited, perused, reread, thrown them asunder-I know every nook and cranny of these books.  Left to my own devices, I would probably be very content spending the next sixty years continually editing these books, never quite being satisfied.  This is because writers view their work as a living, breathing thing.  A new life experience or something as random as a book about the Mongolian Empire may give you a new character insight you want to insert into the story.

But you need to eventually let the work exist on its own.  Put it out there and let it age without change.  This is easy if you're published, but even if you're not, you eventually have to let it sit on a shelf so that you can create something else.  Because at some point those tinkers start to make the book too long, too cluttered, too bloated.  Once you're done editing, let it live and bring those creative ideas to the next work you invest your time me, that novel will appreciate the added flavor just as much.

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