Writing Advice 101

Recently I received an email from a college student and aspiring writer. It’s a humbling experience to have someone reach out under the assumption that I’m going to know what I’m talking about and have the ability to provide accurate advice for where that person is in their writing process. Because it is a process. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few years, it’s that the learning curve for writing extends into perpetuity. That’s simply something that every author has to get comfortable with if he or she intends to keep publishing. 

Therefore, it is with an enormous grain of salt that I publish my response to the aforementioned email. If you are a new writer, someone who is hoping to crack into publishing, this might be perfect for you. If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ll recognize some of the advice, because you’ve heard it and you know it works. Even for the veterans out there, this may serve as a concise but good reminder of what we must do, which first and foremost, is approach every project with a “beginner’s mind” as Goldberg famously said.

If any one piece helps, great, run with it. Possibly some will be more than you need. That’s fine, too. Same for the things you’ve surpassed. Regardless, it all comes back around, so you may want to bookmark 😉 Share widely if it resonates, and happy writing.

Response:
I can give you thousands of suggestions, but some of those depend on where you are in the process and what you need to consider. Right now, I would say that in addition to writing your novel, you should be journaling (it helps to clear your thoughts); you should be reading as many novels that match yours as you can; you should also be watching any TV series or movies that also fall into that genre and analyzing their structure (yes, you have permission to binge watch). All of this will clarify your thoughts about what you want in your novel and what you don’t, as well as help you structure your plot turns and foreshadowing and the climax. Certainly read any book on craft that appeals to you as well. On Writing, Bird by Birdand anything by Donald Maass are worthwhile.
For your novel, the best thing you can do is finish the first draft. Just write it. Do not care if it’s garbage. It will be. All first drafts are terrible, especially mine. There isn’t an author I know whose work is great in first draft form. Once it’s done, walk away from it for a couple of months. Do not look at it. Then, when you’ve kind of forgotten about it, go back and read it like you are a reader, not the author. Mark it up. What works? What doesn’t? Be brutal. Have others read. But ones you trust will provide authentic feedback, and not, “This is the greatest!” Beware of those people. They’re not being honest, they’re being kind. You want the former, not the latter when it comes to your writing.
After that, cut, revise, redo, completely unravel the novel and write a second draft. Repeat the above process for this draft.
Do it again.
Then, and only then, might you want to go anywhere with it. At that point, I could give you many suggestions for that process. However, right now, finish, and then put your writing through the process. It works.
I am currently completely rewriting a 300-page manuscript from scratch. This will be the third draft. It’s better than the other two could have ever dreamed of being. This is the work if you want it. 
Now, that’s a lot to take in, but please don’t hesitate to ask me any follow-up questions or seek clarifications. I wish you the best of luck. Writing is one of the best things in the world for me. Publishing is a business, however. You’ll know where you stand once you’ve gone through all of the above. Have fun!
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For Dan, How to Be Descriptive.

guided-imagery-therapy-inside

I don’t offer writing advice. Mostly because I don’t feel like an expert, which I know may seem weird as an author and English teacher. But, largely, that’s because I’m always questioning what I know, which may be fundamental to learning anything. The second, and more broad reason I don’t like to give advice, is because I think the process of writing is different for everyone. So the caveat that always applies is the following: this is what works for me, and it may or may not work for you.

And so, with that said, let me offer some advice 🙂

Recently, following a school visit, I received letters from the students, thanking me for visiting, which was awesome, but also asking for writing advice. One particular student, let’s call him Dan, asked the following:

“How do you write with such description? I just can’t.”

Huh, how to be more descriptive. That’s a knotty question, and one I think is excellent for every writer, regardless of his or her stage in the game. However, I think the question is better framed as “How do I provide just the right amount of description?” For some, like Dan, this may mean more is necessary. For others, possibly less. But for all, it is always about hitting the sweet spot of details for each scene. And every scene has different demands. And every writer has a different way of meeting those demands.

For me, I don’t go for extensive character description. I don’t like to completely paint physical characteristics. I enjoy leaving that up to the reader, because, I feel, it can engage the reader more fully with the story. They have to do a little work, and that’s important. Being involved and not passive is exactly what should be going on in good writing.

Therefore, my focus for detailed description falls to character action and setting. I am a firm believer that seeing what a character does is for more important than how a character looks. And providing a vivid backdrop on which this action takes place is simply necessary.

So, the question is how that is done. My answer: close your eyes and be the character.

When we write, we are not ourselves. Sure, we’re the person in the chair, hammering away at the keyboard, but we are also the girl or the boy, the villain or the hero. We have to be. We must get inside not only their heads, but become them, mind and body.

With your eyes closed, you can envision the scene unfolding, much like a movie. What do you see? What do you hear and feel? Is there anything to be tasted or smelt? It is not that you have to incorporate all of the senses, but it is important that all description not be limited to sight. The word “imagery” can be deceptive. It is truly about all five senses and creating that real-world, 3-D like quality. The reader does not feel distant from the story. The reader is in the story, and to do that means proving just enough detail, exactly as it needs to be, but not too much, nor too little.

Yes, it sounds a lot like a recipe. It is. And that is how you should build your story, ingredient by ingredient, for each scene. Some need more noise, others, touch. If you are living your character’s life, you’ll know intuitively.

Of course I could be blowing smoke, so let’s take a look at Dare Me. The following excerpt is from the first few pages, where Ben is about to perform the first dare.

I turn and look. Nothing but cornstalks and pavement, blue sky and puffy white clouds. Perfection. I focus on that image and the stillness, the quiet. If I don’t, I’ll chicken out. My mind’s already filling with scenarios for how this will end badly. But school starts tomorrow, and I agreed to this, however it goes.

I pull the ski mask over my face and slide out the window.

The wind whips even though Ricky’s only going like thirty miles per hour. I can’t hear what John’s saying. His mouth’s moving, but it’s like being in a dream, all background noise, nothing real. He jacks his thumb into the air, an obvious sign for me to get on the roof. I take a deep breath, steady my elbows, and push myself up.

My feet tingle and my heart hammers, but I keep going. I grab the roof rack and pull and am flat on top. The wind pours over me now, but the space around my face is calm. Unreal.

I would suggest that as a reader you were very much with Ben there, not merely watching him. You felt his anxiety, juxtaposed to the beauty of the day. He’s doing stupid things and you understand his terror as it unfolds against the whipping wind.

So, if that works for you, Dan, and any others, cool. If not, there are excellent books out there like Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Pick one up and see if the advice there strikes a chord.

If you liked this advice and would like more, please don’t hesitate to ask.

And, as always, keep writing.

 

On Offering Advice to Teen Writers

 

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Recently I had a conversation with a teenager who is interested in writing as a career. This was doubly cool for me, because one, she was asking advice because of my merits as an author. Two, and possibly more importantly, our conversation raised an issue I haven’t given much thought since I was a teenager.

After I had offered suggestions about where to seek critique for her work, and possible courses she could take, and, of course, various authors to read, I asked, “So what’s your writing schedule like?”

She stated that it was mostly hit or miss and with how busy she’s been lately, there’s been little time.

And then I said the wrong thing: “Well, the best thing you could do is create a schedule for yourself. Write at the time of day that works best, for twenty minutes or an hour, or some amount of time that you can stick to.”

She sighed and shrugged and then said what every teen writer should say, “See, I don’t want to make it a chore, something else to do. I want to enjoy it.”

I immediately felt my stupidity. Here I was talking to a teenager the way I normally offer advice to adults who write. I immediately backtracked, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because she had hit on something I’ve long ignored: the love of the moment, the novelty of creation.

Here I was, a professional, thinking like someone who is paid to write. Someone who no longer subscribes to the “write when I’m motivated” philosophy, because with my life and responsibilities, those moments might never come. I was talking about writing as a job. I had forgotten about the thrill of all thrills, those my-hand-can’t-keep-up-with-my-brain writing sessions where you start to understand why people commit themselves to this craft. Because it is so liberating.

When I was a teen I never saw myself as an author. Hell, I have trouble seeing myself as one now. Back then I wrote when I was moved, when I knew I had something to say and no one to say it to, or at least who would listen. I was never concerned with shaping a story, just telling it. I never cared if anyone else saw my work or if it made me money. I loved putting pen to paper and just getting my feelings into words. I loved that I could do something that felt good. Period.

And now?

I still love writing, but not in the same way. I have a much more nuanced relationship with the muse and think that is necessary for my success. But the start of all this was from the place of the teen writer I spoke with. The one who really, I believe, wanted to know that she was headed down the right path.

And she is. Because she reads, she writes, she seeks criticism of her work. She wants to grow and push herself. But at her own speed. On her own terms. That is the exact way to proceed. She is wise to know what she needs and how to achieve such.

Therefore, I can’t express how awesome it was to have this conversation, to be reminded of that thrill, that moment. And now it is in my best interest to remember that beginner’s mind when offering advice. Even when it is to myself.

*Quick reminder* My cover reveal and giveaway runs until Wednesday. Don’t forget to enter for multiple signed books and author swag 🙂

You Just Gotta Go There

Bennington Battle Monument Photo, Click for full size

My wife and I had a date night over the weekend. This is a rare occurrence, made all the more so by the fact that we traveled close to an hour to get to our destination: Bennington, Vermont.

We went to a local brew pub, had dinner, saw the sights of downtown, checked out the battle memorial and then made one last stop at a classic dive before heading home. Nice, right? But what’s the connection to writing?

Five years ago I joined a critique group based out of Bennington. I stayed with them for over two years, traveling close to an hour each way, twice a month (weather permitting). This was back before I had anything published, before I had an inkling that I was even good enough to seek publication.

As my wife and I traveled and saw the sights, I remarked about the time I spent with the group. It was well worth it. They brought my writing to the next level, and without them I don’t think I would be published. But at the time, my wife admitted, “I feared for your sanity.”

And she was right. I was spending time and gas money we didn’t have, chasing down this elusive dream on dark back roads between New York and Vermont. The commitment was exhausting because of the demands of my young children, my full-time job and life in general. But still, I went there, as often as I could, armed with whatever I was working on, prepared to be cut down and prepared to provide as much constructive criticism as I could muster.

I don’t offer much in the way of writing advice, here–unless I do and don’t realize it. But this trip suggested to me the most valuable I unconsciously pursued: Go there.

There doesn’t need to be an hour away. It doesn’t even need to be outside your home, but I suggest it. For any craft, for any business, for any career you want to advance in, you must sacrifice. The same holds true for being a good parent, educator, human being. If you want to move from writer to author, I believe you must make a concerted effort to become that idea, and that takes a willingness to get outside your comfort zone, and to allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Now, this doesn’t mean you throw yourself on the altar of writing. Don’t be the sacrifice and have nothing left of yourself, but put up your ego, your preconceived notions of your talent, your whatever-stands-in-the-way and let others have a look see.

If you intend to write for the public, critical feedback is inevitable. And often there is too much of it. But if you went there and you became accustomed to such, you’ll come to understand what voices to trust, especially your own.

P.S. Thanks, Carrie, for taking me out. I can’t promise I won’t turn our next date night into a blog post, but I’ll try not to.

P.P.S. The most recent review of Dare Me, from Publishers Weekly.