There’s enough writing advice floating around to fill six or seven of those “101 Tips For The Aspiring Writer” listicles. But only the best ideas stick with you, and work their way into your daily practice. What works for us? Keep reading…
There’s plenty of pithy writing advice out there, and I should probably be following all of it. I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s book On Writing and Janet Evanovich’s How I Write. But my favorite, 3-point writer’s bible was apparently designed just for me, by the highly prolific Nora Roberts. Here it is: 1. Stop whining and write. 2. Stop f*&%ing around and write. (Yep, that’s a direct quote.) 3. Stop making excuses and write. I printed it out in huge, bold, red type. Then I framed Nora’s helpful reminder and placed it directly next to my computer, where it scolds me daily. Make that hourly.
My favorite piece of writing advice is simple:
Writing is rewriting.
I learned that about 15 years ago when I was thinking about going to film school and wanted to get my feet wet with a screenwriting class at the New School. My instructor dropped that little nugget and changed my writing life. I don’t trust a writer who claims that their amazing, pitch-perfect work is the result of a first draft. To put it bluntly, first drafts suck. And they’re supposed to. I’ve heard it referred to as a vomit draft because you’re just barfing things on the page, knowing that you’ll clean up your mess later. And sometimes it’s still a mess in the second draft and third draft and fourth draft and…well, you get the picture. The key is to just keep constantly working at it until you’re happy—or should I say happy enough.
It’s so hard to choose favorites. Instead, I’m going to share some advice that you don’t hear a lot, but that can be really helpful when you’re stuck: There are always more ideas. This concept goes back to my days as an advertising copywriter. To get one great headline, we’d brainstorm pages and pages of them, then we’d narrow it down to the best three or four, which we’d present to the client. Sometimes, we’d get sent back to the drawing board, and we’d have to push through and come up with something even better. The moral? Don’t get too attached. If you don’t like the way your chapter starts, write four more and pick your favorite. Not sure what happens next? Brainstorm five things that could happen. Book idea not working? Toss it and write a different one. Ideas are a type of currency, and you shouldn’t be stingy with them. You’ll be amazed at your capacity to generate multiple ideas, but first you have to let go of the one you’re holding on to. And when you have a bunch of different ideas, the one that rises to the top is usually the one that is most likely to succeed!
The best writing advice I ever got was the first thing I learned in a playwriting class with Curt Dempster, the late artistic director of New York’s legendary Ensemble Studio Theatre. “You only use profanity when you can’t think of a better way to say something.” I loved that. Curt was telling us that scatological language is an easy way out. He was forcing us to be more creative. True, there are writers like David Mamet who somehow make poetry out of foul language. And God knows I personally have a mouth like a sailor, something I inherited from my parents (although mostly my mother). When our daughter was little, we imposed a swear jar on Papa and Nonna. They both had to drop a dollar in the jar each time they uttered a curse word. In about a month, Eliza had enough money to buy an American Girl doll. And those dolls are pricey.
Now that I’m writing cozy mysteries, which are pretty much devoid of bad language, this writing tenet has become less important. But even so… I got an email from a reader telling me she loved my novel, Plantation Shudders, except that she objected to how I took the Lord’s name in vain. I was dumbfounded. My editor and I had gone over the book so carefully, removing the occasional “damn,” “hell,” or “bitch” that slipped in. What could we have possibly missed? I did a search and realized something. I say “Oh my God” all the time, and I’d given my protagonist the same habit. So in Body on the Bayou, the second book in my Cajun Country Mystery series, I’ve replaced the “Oh my Gods” with (hopefully) more creative exclamations.
Even in the cozy world of mild profanity, Curt’s timeless lesson lives on.
Readers, what advice do you swear by—writing, or otherwise?
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to Chicks on the Case and never miss a post. Just click the button on the top right side of this page and let the fun begin!