Ellen here, and I’m so happy to welcome back one of my favorite authors and people, M.E. Browning. And boy, does she have some valuable tips to share…
Ten Things I’ve Learned About Writing
By M.E. Browning
- Writing 90,000 words is easy, it’s putting them in the proper order that’s challenging.
Occasionally, I unearth some of my earliest writing… and cringe. But those early words serve as affirmation that attending classes, joining a critique group, studying craft books, and reading award-winning and popular books—which by the way, don’t always share the same titles—has definitely upped my game. When I first started writing, structure was something that had a door. Thankfully, I’ve expanded my thinking since those early words. Aristotle recognized that stories had a beginning, middle, and an end. The best storytellers sense the cadence of a tale: they control the rise and fall of the action. Perhaps most importantly, the best writers learn the rules and capitalize on opportunities to break them.
- You can’t edit a blank page.
The quote is attributed to Jodi Piccoult, and it’s true. You can’t edit a blank page. Staring at it won’t help. Trust me I’ve tried. An empty page is intimidating and it’s psyched a lot of writers out. But at some point, you’ve got to commit. Give yourself permission to spew codswallop across the page. It’s okay, because…
- Revision is your friend.
One of the things I love about writing is that I can take as many whacks at getting it right as I need. Unlike, say, brain surgery. You definitely want your surgeon to get that right the first time.
- Writing drunk only works in movies.
However, tea (or your caffeine delivery system of choice), is crucial. Without tea, I would never have moved beyond lesson #2—not because I couldn’t formulate the words, but because I’d lack the energy to type them. What you do after you achieve your wordcount is up to you. Personally, I’m partial to a French 75. I like the bubbles.
- Procrasti-baking is a real thing.
When I get stuck, I bake. My closets get cleaned, the baseboards get wiped. But here’s the thing. If you’ve ever read the short story “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, you know the most mundane tasks often reveal the most profound insight. Clean grout is a just a bonus.
- Read—and not just the things you like.
The Great Gatsby was my albatross—I didn’t care for it in high school, and it left me cold as an adult—heretical, right? Well, at the suggestion of a writing instructor, I revisited the novel. Only this time I re-read the story armed with a pencil—and I came away with a far different impression.
Fitzgerald was a master of compression. In 181 pages, he told a story of love, betrayal, murder, broken dreams, and the hazards of chasing what one wants at the expense of what one needs.
Perhaps it’s poetry that leaves you cold. I’d argue that no one knows the value of exactly the right word more than a poet. You want the right words.
I know, this seems obvious. Yet how much time have you frittered away talking about writing instead of actually putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard? How adept are you at ignoring social media? And don’t forget to play. Experiment with point of view, tone, genre. I like to try new things in short stories, but regardless of the length or genre, be fearless in your word choice. Discover your voice. Why? Because as we’ve discussed, you can’t revise an empty page, and practice truly does makes perfect.
- The universal is found in the specific.
Consider the axiom: War is hell. Intellectually we all know that, but it isn’t until we follow the plight of a soldier as portrayed in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, or witness Scarlet O’Hara shake her fist at the sky and vow she’ll never be hungry again that we care.
- Show don’t tell is a common writing trope for a reason.
Entire lectures have been dedicated to the topic, and it doesn’t always apply (because well, rules are meant to be broken), but Anton Checkhov put it best; “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Be humble, be gracious, be tenacious. Writing is solitary, but it can’t be accomplished in isolation. Join Sisters in Crime (shoutout to the Guppy Chapter!), or Mystery Writers of America, or the group at your local library. They’ve all got great resources and classes. I’ve found the writing community to be incredibly warm and welcoming. But as a writer you will be rejected, a lot—and from a multitude of sources: agents, editors, reviewers, award-judges, and readers may all at some point decide your writing is not for them. That’s okay. Think about your taste in music or art. There are styles you gravitate towards and those you avoid. The same is true of any creative endeavor. But you cannot—MUST NOT—reject yourself.
- There are a lot more than 10 things to learn.
Readers, what lesson have you learned? Tell us below, then go grab some tea and get busy!
BIO: Colorado Book Award-winning author M.E. Browning writes the Jo Wyatt Mysteries and the Agatha-nominated and award-winning Mer Cavallo Mysteries (as Micki Browning). Micki also writes short stories and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines, and textbooks. An FBI National Academy graduate, Micki worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades and retired as a captain before turning to a life of crime… fiction. Visit mebrowning.com to learn more.
ABOUT THE BOOK: In an idyllic Colorado town, a young girl goes missing—and the trail leads into the heart and mind of a remorseless killer.
The late summer heat in Echo Valley, Colorado turns lush greenery into a tinder dry landscape. When a young girl mysteriously disappears, long buried grudges rekindle. Of the two Flores girls, Marisa was the one people pegged for trouble. Her younger sister, Lena, was the quiet daughter, dutiful and diligent—right until the moment she vanished.
Detective Jo Wyatt is convinced the eleven-year-old girl didn’t run away and that a more sinister reason lurks behind her disappearance. For Jo, the case is personal, reaching far back into her past. But as she mines Lena’s fractured family life, she unearths a cache of secrets and half-lies that paints a darker picture.
As the evidence mounts, so do the suspects, and when a witness steps forward with a shocking new revelation, Jo is forced to confront her doubts and her worst fears. Now, it’s just a matter of time before the truth is revealed—or the killer makes another deadly move.