Here are five random pieces of writing advice worth sharing. These are nuggets that I heard, and they set off an “ah ha” moment. They are nuggets I’ve often recited when asked for advice. Some are useful, some may just be a handy FYI. I share them with you now, in no particular order:
1 – Every writer has a published story he or she wishes had never seen print. This is usually among the writer’s first publishing credits, when the buzz of sending out stories and SASE’s is awesome, when sealing the envelope seems a tad more exciting than sitting down for yet another rewrite.
I remember this because I am guilty, but I’m not alone, and it’s not a fatal mistake or anything, but something I wish I would have heard a little earlier in the game.
2 – One of the most valuable talents a writer can develop is the ability to self-edit. This can only be done by critically evaluating what works and doesn’t work in the fiction of others. Once you can pull that off, it becomes easier and easier to find flaws and strengths in your own work. My MFA program was vital to developing this skill from ground zero (and it’s still developing of course, and I don’t think anyone ever wants to NOT give a trusted colleague a story to look over and just trust themselves). You can make best use of the feedback avenues you have at your disposal when you can make some excellent headway in rewrite on your own by putting that editor hat on.
3 – Concentrate on nouns and verbs for strong writing. I think that novice writers, or simply folks that don’t write until it’s time to put together an email or letter or report, rely far too much on adjectives and adverbs. That is the primary difference that I have perceived in my exposure to lots and lots of diverse work, in both the writing and professional realm. What is better writing, “quickly ran” or “sprinted?” “Big man” or “giant?” You get more done with less when you focus on the best nouns and verbs you can come up with. An adverb, to me, is an easy to find note to rethink that particular phrase—just look for the “ly” words and stare at it a while until the right verb comes along.
4 – “If you write something for which you were given a check, and that check did not bounce, and you paid the light bill with the money, then I consider you talented.” I read this Stephen King quote when I was much younger, and typed it out and hung it up. Why? Because I wanted Stephen King to consider me talented, and he had given me a roadmap to do it. That’s why I never cashed that first check for eight dollars that I earned for a story called “The Beautiful Man,” (um, see #1 for how I feel about that story). This was proof that Stephen King thought I was talented, even though I never did figure out if it bounced or tried to pay the “light bill” with the massive sum of cash. But this is proof that goal-setting is important, that inspiration works, and that if you do indeed get paid for something you wrote (which is extremely, extremely difficult) then there is no question you have some talent. Yes, even you Stephanie Meyer.
5 – Finish your first draft. Writing is just like sports . . . finishing is the key to success. Finish your tackle, finish at the rim, close out the baseball game, finish your block, finish, finish, finish. Finish your first draft. Why? Because you’ll be surprised at what happens by the time your “lost project” is done. Because you’ll learn how to write by making mistakes. Because you can always go back and fix it later. Because the second half of this story or novel might end up being the first half of an even better one because you were writing background the entire time, gaining momentum for the good stuff. There are times that the lure of something shiny, new, and perfect (the next great idea!) have come calling. A concept so awesome you should drop this crappy project and get to work on the real thing. You know what you do when this happens? Finish what you’re working on first.
The Heart Does Not Grow Back grew out of fragments and pieces of a totally different novel that I had in mind, and I just kept plugging away, trying new things, and by the time I had fifty terrible and fragmented pages along with a surprisingly decent short story, I knew I had to keep working until whatever it was that was happening had been completed. I had to see it through, and I did, and now I have a novel that I’m proud of.
I cannot end this blog without thanking my first MFA instructor (and a hell of a nice guy to boot), Michael Nye, who told me at least two of these nuggets (numbers 1 and 2) for the first time, and continues to advocate 5, and I’m willing to bet enjoys nouns and verbs instead of adverbs. Just a hunch. And yes, he pays his light bill. Enjoy his posts at http://www.missourireview.com/tmr-blog/.