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Category : The Writing Craft
Someone just wrote to me and asked, “What’s your best advice for writing fiction?”
I’ll offer mine if you’ll share yours…
Here is my best writing advice: Write with verbs and nouns. I read that in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style back in high school, and it’s still the best writing advice I know. Too many new novelists think they’re going to flower things up with lots of adjectives and adverbs. That’s a trap. Just tell your story, stick to verbs and nouns, and spend enough time selecting the right word that you don’t have to prop it up with extraneous verbiage.
That’s my wisdom. (And it’s brief, since I’m pulling jury duty all week.) What’s your best writing advice?
A prospective author wrote me a note and asked, “What is the main reason you choose to accept or reject an author?”
An interesting question. The “rejection” part is easy: Most of the people whose projects I reject are NOT turned down because I don’t like them, or because they’re unknowns, or even because I dislike their ideas. Most authors are turned down because they can’t write. Simple as that. Not all, of course. I just saw a very good nonfiction idea, but I’m already trying to sell a similar project and felt it would be unfair to take on something so similar. And with the advent of so many good writing resources, I’m often seeing novels that are well-done, but not of the knock-my-socks-off quality. So a bunch of things I see aren’t bad, but they aren’t great. Or they are 70% done, and they need to be 100% done. I’d say under-writing and under-finishing and under-editing are the reasons so many projects with some merit don’t get picked up. The author gets started, but can’t get finished — or perhaps he or she doesn’t know now to finish. That’s why having a critique group or writing partner can help offer you perspective on your work. Another set of eyes can really make a difference on a manuscript.
Still, I do get sent some really crummy stuff. Bad ideas. Projects where the author doesn’t speak English. Proposals written in crayon (presumably because the wardens won’t let them play with anything sharp). I hesitate sharing some of them, since I’m always afraid I’m going to really tick off someone who sent me an idea they thought was brilliant, and I found laugh-out-loud bad. But…
A while back I got in a proposal for a book called “How to Make Out With Chicks.” The author was apparently thirteen, or at least stopped growing emotionally and intellectually at thirteen. (From the tenor
Someone wrote to ask, “So what do we need to keep in mind when creating memoir?”
Fist, keep in mind there’s a difference between “memoir” and “autobiography.” An autobiography is a straight retelling of one’s life — what happened, what were the events/decisions, what did those result in. A memoir is a more personal narrative of the significant change points in one’s life. It doesn’t have to be linear, whereas an autobiography is almost always linear. And the focus of a memoir can be more on the effects in your personal life — what you were feeling, what you learned, how you changed. The end result is almost always on a catharsis of some kind. So while the goal of autobiography is to get the facts straight, the goal of memoir is something more akin to “revealing myself and my story, in order to reveal principles that will help others live more effectively.” (This isn’t a dictionary definition, it’s a MacGregor Definition.)
Second, people understand the world best through story, so that’s how you have to think. What are the stories that reveal your life and your character? What stories happened to you that changed you? You see, if you’re not a celebrity, nobody really cares about your everyday life (and, to tell you the truth, I’ve never cared to read celebrity biographies very much because…well, I don’t care about THEIR everyday life either). If someone wanted to understand my life, to see who I am and why, they wouldn’t care about a cold retelling of the facts. They’d rather hear some of my story — my dad’s conversation with me one morning just before he committed suicide, the person who told me I could write, my success as a writer, my failure as a publisher, my mom’s ugly death, the miracle that occurred in my car, the fact that people have stayed with me when I was a jerk,
Someone wrote and asked, “What is the one thing I can do that would most help me grow as a writer?”
May I offer more than one thing?
1. Write a lot. Most writers are really wannabes — they talk about writing a lot more than they actually write. But if you wanted to be a better pianist, would you TALK about playing the piano, or would you sit and PRACTICE? The same goes for dance, or painting, or singing, or baseball. Or writing. The best thing you can do to improve is to write more. (You want real-world advice? Set a goal of 1000 words a day, 5000 words a week, and get busy.)
2. Find experienced writers. For some, that means joining a writing group, in which you all write something and share it with each other every month. The critiques of others will hurt, but they will often help you improve. For others, that means finding a mentor — someone who may not have hit the bestseller lists yet, but he or she is a bit further down the path than you are. A mentor can offer advice, perspective, and wisdom to help you grow. For still others, it means simply making friends with a writer who is more or less on your own level and asking him or her to be your accountability partner, reader, and sometime counselor/shrink/psychic/motivational speaker.
3. Hang out with writers. We all get better by spending time with a diverse group of people who share our interests. Here’s a suggestion: If you’re a novelist, consider signing up for a good fiction conference (I’m heading of to the ACFW conference tomorrow). A good conference offers some of the best training in craft outside of personal coaching or college classrooms, and spending a week with good writers is a great investment. If you’re a nonfiction writer, consider going to one of the big
Someone wrote and asked, “As a beginning writer, is it really important I participate in a critique group?”
I highly recommend newer writers join a critique group. Often times at writing conferences I’ll have someone come up to me clutching a manuscript to their chest. “Here,” they whisper, looking around furtively. “It’s my manuscript. It’s fantastic. And no one has ever seen it.”
So I’ll look at them and ask, “And how do you know it’s fantastic?” They invariably answer with something like “I just know” or “people have been encouraging me to write for years” or“my mom loves it.”
Sorry, not good enough. I don’t trust your personal instincts unless you’ve had at least one bestseller, and your mom loves you too much to view your piece objectively. Every writer needs a critique group. New writer or experienced hand, you gain wisdom when you have other writers looking at your work. A critique group offers you an honest appraisal, and provides an on-going learning experience. The best groups have a nice mix of people, so that your group provides you with a variety of experiences, interests, and personalities commenting on your writing. People get together and offer insight into your work, which will help you improve your writing. It also gives you a place to hang out with like-minded folks — other people who also want to be writers. There is support in the group, and a sense of identity. Get thee to a critique group.
Now, at the same time, I’ve had a couple dozen people write to ask a related question: “When do I know it’s time to leave my critique group?”
I suppose it’s time to leave a group when you’ve absorbed what your group has to offer you. This may eventually come when you think you’re experienced enough and confident enough to go it alone — and, in fact, the others in your group
Someone wrote to ask, “How does a critique group work in the real world? What should one of our meetings look like?”
I love this question, since writers are often encouraged to start a group, but don’t have specifics on how to do so. Some thoughts… Let’s say you have a group of four to ten people. You agree to meet once per month, somewhere in the middle of the month. On the first of the month (roughly two weeks before your meeting), everybody submits their work to the other members of the group. All the documents are emailed to one another in a Microsoft Word attachment, double-spaced, 12-point font, with plenty of margin space around the words. You may want to limit the page count to five or ten or even fifteen pages (though I know of one group that asks for a chapter per month, leaving the page count to the individual writer’s notion of what a chapter length should be.) There’s a hard and fast rule that you receive it by the first of the month or you ignore it until next month. So you receive everyone’s writing, print it out, read each one, and edit it. You ask questions. You point out things that aren’t clear. You write comments at the end. You try to be polite but honest. If you really want to be professional, you all use the “track changes” feature to make your comments, so that everything is legible.
Keep in mind that the criticism is of the work, not of the writer. And, as my friend Cecil Murphey likes to say, “Members do not make value judgments — they don’t say ‘this is bad,’ but instead offer suggestions for improving the work.” Participants in a critique group are criticizing your work.They are NOT criticizing you. And on each piece you say at least one nice thing, since everybody needs to hear
Years ago, in another life, I made my living doing dopey magic tricks and telling jokes. (Really.) I played some nice places (the Comedy & Magic Club of Hermosa Beach was one), and I played some awful places (insert the name of any smoky bar on the west coast where the customers are more interested in Budweisers, Camels, and the opposite sex). One thing I noticed about the venues: Even if the place was a dive, there were lessons to be learned. Being in front of a living, breathing audience forces you to change your act. You have to work really hard to get people to laugh. All the rehearsal in the world wasn’t going to cause me to perfect my act — for that, I had to be bad in front of people.
There’s a lesson for writers… A lot of potential authors are simply too sensitive. As a writer, you need a place to bad, so that you can learn to be good. So if your ego is too fragile to allow someone else to read your work, it’s time to learn this lesson. Allow yourself to be bad. Give somebody else (preferably not your mom, your spouse, or your best friend) the permission to be honest with you about your writing.
Yes, this takes courage. And it means you’re going to have to find a couple people you trust. If you get into a large crit group, chances are you’re going to have one person you don’t like, who always hammers you for something. Learn to live with it. Paste a smile on your face, say “thanks very much,” and move on to somebody whose opinion you actually care about. BUT somewhere, in the midst of all that fake niceness, be willing to at least hear what that individual has to say about your writing. A fresh set of eyes is exactly why you joined the group,
Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the author of the award-nominated novel My Hands Came Away Red. A memoir, Love at the Speed of Email, will be released in June 2012. She lives in Laos with her husband and infant son. To learn more, visit www.lisamckaywriting.com.
When my first book, My Hands Came Away Red, was published, I fell prey to an addiction that afflicts many authors at some point during their publishing career. It’s a behaviour I now call amazturbation – obsessively checking your own Amazon ranking to see how your book is stacking up sales-wise against the hundreds of thousands of other books that Amazon sells.
I visited Amazon to check the rise and fall of this number first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
I checked it when I was feeling glum and when I was feeling all right.
I checked it at work and I checked it home. I even checked it on my phone.
I checked that number at breakfast and I checked it at lunch.
I checked that number a whole, whole bunch.
My Amazon addiction started the way most addictions do – with a rush. Right after the book was released I was in Ghana, traveling for work. When I got access to the internet for the first time in a couple of days I dropped by my Amazon page to see if anyone had left a new review, and was amazed to see that my sales ranking was way higher than it had ever been before.
After an exhausting and stressful week of leading workshops on trauma, seeing that happy number was a huge rush. And I wanted more of that feeling.
Understandable? Yes. Dangerous? Also, yes.
We authors have never had so many ways at our disposal to track and quantify our own popularity. We can find out Amazon sales rankings as well
Danielle wrote to say, “I know there are contests going on at this summer’s conferences. What contest advice can you give us?”
I’ve made my living in publishing for about thirty years now, which means that sometimes I get asked to be a contest judge for a writers’ conference or contest. I don’t generally enjoy it — not because I don’t like participating, but because far too many newer writers have a bit too much confidence in their own work. While I love teaching younger writers to help them improve, I hate having to explain why I ranked one author a “ten” and another author a “two.” In my view, it should be obvious.
Things like voice and theme and clarity and focus stand out in some writers’ works. Their use of words and clarity in point-of-view are crisp and interesting. The characterization is strong, the story holds my interest, and the overall style makes the piece something I want to read. But that’s what a contest judge does — make evaluations of writing, in order to determine which pieces are strong and which are not. I’d encourage you to view a contest as a learning opportunity, rather than simply a competition that is won or lost.
So, in case you’re one of those people who may get discouraged over not winning every trophy in sight, let me offer some thoughts…
1. If you only want to hear good things said about you, buy a round of drinks.
2. If you only want to hear good things said about your writing, show it to your mom.
3. If hearing something critical about your work will crush you, consider a career change. (Okay…maybe that sounds too harsh. But to be a writer is to be a learner — all of us are seeking to improve, and that means all of us have to hear another criticize our work. There’s no getting
Okay, I’m back from my vacation (a bit of free wisdom: Given the chance, move to Kauai), and I realize I need to catch up on a BUNCH of questions from people. This one seemed appropriate — Denise wrote to say: “I used to work as a waitress. After my shift, I would go home, cozy up to my laptop, and write. Writing became a sanctuary, and I filled pages effortlessly. Now I work at a busy office job, so I spend the better part of my day staring at a computer screen and contracting carpal tunnel. I come home from looking at other people’s writing all day, and I don’t have any energy left to spend on my own writing. You’ve just had a vacation, so you know what it’s like to have free time to do what you want. What advice would you give a writer who seems to spend everything on other people’s projects?”
You know, I went through that same thing, Denise, and had to ask some writing buddies what to do. They gave me advice that I hated…but it worked. The suggestion? Get up early. Spend two hours on your OWN work before heading to the office to work on somebody ELSE’s stuff. That way you’re mentally charged when you do your own writing.
So I did. And trust me, it was hard. I’m not a morning person. But I got up early, before my kids were awake, and wrote for two hours every day. EVERY day. Then I’d leave for my office. I hated it, and wanted to take the first hour to make coffee, look at headlines, whine to friends in emails… but eventually I started writing. And with the combination of no interruptions and a clear mind, I finished my book in about four months. No kidding. Two hours of focused writing time to try and finish a thousand words per day.