One of my first posts on Medium was “Five Awesome Nuggets of Writing Advice,” and to this day, it’s still my most popular post. The discussion emerging from that piece made two things clear — writers love practical advice with a dash of motivation, and I had more than five nuggets to share. In case you’re interested in the original, here it is:
When asked for writing advice, I continue to lean on these five pieces as my go-to answers. I didn’t make them up, and…writingcooperative.com
And here’s more nuggets — once again, I didn’t make these up out of thin air. These tips and tricks came from a lifetime of working with the blank page, with teachers, peers, editors, agents, and many more. Perhaps these are bigger than mere nuggets, and a little more “advanced” than my first set of five, but “Five Chunks of Writing Advice” doesn’t sound nearly as good.
1 — Trust your reader. You ever talk to someone at a party and they say something like, “I’m a fun person?” or “I know I’ve got a sense of humor?” There’s something both off-putting and untrustworthy about those folks.
At that same party, I bet by the end of night someone had you cracking up with perfect comedic timing, and on the drive home, you nudge your date and say, “That so-and-so has a sense of humor.”
Don’t lead your reader through the party of your work telling them “That person is funny. That guy over there, that’s the rebel. That’s teenager is the dreamer.”
You may think this is just a derivative of show, don’t tell, and maybe it is, but here’s where I state that I’ve seen too many fledgling writers show too much.
Trusting your reader is about balance.
Not trusting them can be telling, or showing too much. How do you show too much? I see it mostly with settings (two pages about the weather and the room’s decor?) and characters. And here’s the trick — we get two paragraphs about hair color and skin texture and the smell of her perfume, and then a line like “She was a dreamer” caps off a particularly tin, unenjoyable paragraph.
Let the reader use his or her imagination. A good rule of thumb? Think in terms of hints. Give us three hints about the setting. Give us three hints about the character’s look and personality. Trust the reader to do the rest.
Reading engages the imagination. Let the reader imagine. Let them draw conclusions. Once you start to make them a part of the process, they’ll stay with you. An engaged reader turns pages deep into the night.
2 — Engage the senses. Chuck Palahniuk both champions and pulls this off like no other author. When a character gets punched in the face, sure, it hurts. Sure, he sees stars and feels pain. We already know this. But what does the blood of his shredded lips taste like? How does he smell his surroundings with his broken nose?
Start finding ways to engage different senses as your work goes along, and it’ll have a rhythm and texture that drives readers wild.
Exercise: next time a character experiences something significant in your work, blindfold the character. Then write the passage as if he or she can’t see it.
3 — Start in the middle. You’ve been through high school English. You know what “in media res” means. Then why aren’t you doing it?
In script terms (shoutout to Blake Snyder, RIP) there is “laying the pipe.” That’s the setup, the backstory, the information you need in order to enjoy the movie. I’ll never forget him talking about fifty minutes (!) of “pipe laying” in Minority Report before we get to the meat of that movie. As Blake says, “That’s a lot of pipe!”
In your first draft, lay all the pipe you want. But when you’re done, give yourself 10 percent of the story for setup, and no more. This isn’t negotiable. In fact, it’s the biggest challenge of my latest draft of my new novel. Too much lovely, glorious pipe — and I’ll discuss the specific techniques for revising a beastly novel when I start my “Rewrite Chronicles” series.
But what if you need the pipe, but that ten percent of the novel seems boring?
Try “circular storytelling.” Read the first chapter of FIGHT CLUB. When does it take place in the story? Just before the climax! That’s a great trick to lay down your pipe since the reader has a signpost he or she is craving to reach. Use a watershed moment from the latter half of the book to set the tone and draw a line in the sand. Then lay your (limited!) pipe.
4 — Figure out your three big beats. People are always asking me if I outline. I say no. Then they ask if I just write by the seat of my pants. Nope. Before I start a first draft, I figure out the big beats of a story, no more, no less. Chances are, your 10,000 word outline might not have these beats, or you might have a cool scene in mind that makes you want to fly through a draft, but it doesn’t qualify as one of these three big beats.
Figure out your catalyst, midpoint, and climax.
“But Fred, that may be the way that YOU do things, but . . . ”
But nothing. You will need all three of these things for your story to work at some point, so start considering these beats right up front and you’ll save yourself from doing one of those first drafts that goes nowhere and fizzles out after about 20,000 words. I didn’t say KEEP THESE BEATS FOREVER. The catalyst and midpoint that I started with have changed in each draft of this latest book, but you know what? The ending I figured out has stayed the same.
This technique loosely frames your story without crushing your creativity, and serves as just enough outline to keep you going. I’ll talk about these beats and their importance a lot more in a future post, and if you’re an outliner, there’s a few more key beats to consider.
5 — Workshop wisely. You don’t need a fancy, expensive MFA (I have one, and loved it — not for everyone). As Stephen King says, you just read a lot and write a lot and you’ll become a good writer.
But writing is meant to be read, and having other, trusted readers give you honest feedback on your work is important for not only seeing the gaps you cannot see, but learning to see the gaps you cannot see. My MFA was vital in teaching me the hardest skill a writer can master — the ability to self-edit.
So definitely find a feedback group for your work. (Pro tip: the person who tells you how awful your first draft is — and trust me the first draft is probably awful — should NOT be your agent. Dont’ waste his or her time. Give them something much further along).
It can be an MFA, a few trusted readers, or you can sign up for a reputable online forum for much cheaper than an MFA. My personal favorite isLitreactor, which has both workshops and classes. I know several published authors (including myself) that cut their teeth in those workshops.
So now that you’ve found a workshop and you know it’s important, get familiar with these three words: do your worst.
Compliments do not make you better. No one is going to validate your work as perfect. They are going to give you the “criticism sandwich” if they’re nice by leading with a compliment, but you’re there for what’s broken so you can consider fixing it. You don’t want your mechanic to tell you that the paint job is nice. Just tell me why it’s smoking when I start the engine!
When you submit your work to a peer in a workshop, tell them “Do your worst.” Motivate them to carve it to pieces. Make it hurt. Embrace the pain. Then sift through the pieces for what feedback is useful, and what isn’t — another skill that requires practice.
Once again, this is a much bigger concept to explore, and I’ve been through enough workshops to explore it in a much bigger post.
Final words — So there you have it! Five more, larger sized, more advanced nuggets of writing advice. As usual, your mileage may vary, but I’m looking forward to continuing this discussion. Seek me out (see below), but only if you’re the fun person at the party!