Writing tips – every writer I know seems to have some. You have to have some ready, because people ask you for them. I’ve published three books, ergo people think I’m qualified to give out writing tips. Doesn’t seem to matter, as I frequently point out, that I’m no smarter at this business than anybody else. That’s not a lie; I fumble my way around in the dark, just like the rest of the world. People don’t seem to get that. They still ask me for tips, and because I’m chronically polite, I try to give them.
Best writer’s tips I ever read were by Stephen King and Margaret Atwood – obviously, cos they’re both geniuses.
King’s tip was: ‘Bum Glue’. That’s right, just stick yourself to that chair and don’t get up until it’s goddamn finished. Sticking yourself down until it’s finished can be really hard. Sticking your mind in place – in the age of YouTube, and DMs, and livetweets, and Netflix, and eBay, and all the rest of that shit – can be almost impossible. But if you want to write stuff, you have to do it.
Margaret Atwood’s tip was related to Stephen King’s. It was: ‘Get A Good Chair’. Because, as she pointed out ‘pain is distracting’. She’s onto something there.
So I’m not going to supersede these two excellent pieces of advice with my own twaddle. What I am going to do is go through a list of writing tips I read recently and tell you which ones work good and which ones don’t. Because there’s so many tips and suggestions and sure-fire-absolute-hundred-percent-if-you-do-this-you-won’t-fail recipes for writing. And it can get confusing.
Please keep in mind that ‘what works good and what doesn’t’ is entirely arbitrary. It might work good for you but not for me. It might work good for this book I’m writing now but not for the next one. Mileage may vary, as they say.
I got these tips from the internet, which is naturally where all writers of sense go for research.
Never open with the weather
It was a dark and stormy night… Probably one of the most famous opening lines ever. Actually written by a really awful author: Edward Bulwer Lytton. Bulwer Lytton has an annual ‘bad writing’ competition named in his honour. So take that as a caution.
But yeah, you can write weather – if you really want to. You can write about scenery, too. I mean, think about it: Star Wars started with a scene-setting view of a starship. But if your story is about an actual person, I suggest you start with them.
See Star Wars, mentioned above. That long scroll of writing at the start of the movie? Most everybody read that.
Never use adverbs
Y’know, Stephen King always says he hates adverbs and avoids using them. For years, I have tried to follow this advice. And it’s been largely beneficial for my writing. Adverbs are qualifiers. They place conditions on the words around them. ‘He said gravely’ or ‘She coughed delicately’ or ‘It writhed awkwardly’ (like: ‘Jesus, that sentence writhes awkwardly’). But then years later, I re-read one of King’s books – I think it was The Shining. And you know what I found? Adverbs. Adverbs all over the fucking place.
If you must use an adverb, go ahead. But use them…sparingly.
Always use ‘said’
I agree with this. ‘She said’, ‘He said’ – it’s neat, it’s clean, it’s unobtrusive.
I do, however, have exceptions. The exceptions are – whispered, screamed/yelled/shouted. Sometimes I use ‘panted’, but only, like, once in 300 pages.
Never use clichés
I use clichés sometimes. It’s usually when I’m trying to paint a picture of colloquialism. Rural Australian people use a lot of clichéd slang, and sometimes I need to say that out loud. Or maybe I’m taking the piss – as they say – or I’m trying to make a point about the personality of a certain character: that they’re unoriginal, unimaginative.
I really like using clichéd Australian slang. It’s enjoyably familiar – like a comfy pair of Ugg boots – to Australian readers, and unfamiliar (and therefore, not clichéd) to international audiences. So I could say (although I’m still unlikely to say) he went ‘flat out like a lizard drinking’ and people in my hometown would get it, and US/UK readers would be all, ‘oh gosh, isn’t that quaint?’ and I would still have achieved my aim.
I never use ‘G’day’, though. That is just lame.
Avoid detailed descriptions
It used to be okay to do this. There’s a scene in Les Miserables (you know the one, but if you don’t – spoilers) where Hugo takes his characters through the Paris sewers. So the characters are being chased, they’re desperately running, in fear of their lives, and one of them is wounded, and it’s all hugely dramatic and tense – and then Hugo breaks off to describe the sewers. In fact, he gives you the whole history of the Paris sewerage system. It goes for, like, 40 pages.
Hugo published Le Miz in 1862. You can’t get away with that shit now. And I’m betting that half the people who read it in 1862 skimmed that part anyway.
Don’t write detailed, 40-page descriptions in your writing.
Have two or more projects on the go
Are you fucking insane? You think I can concentrate on more than one imaginative project simultaneously, while working two other jobs, and parenting, and householding, and blogging, and doing my taxes, and all that other shit? Seriously, people.
I know folks who can do this. More power to them. They are usually unencumbered people, though, so there’s that.
I mean, I will sometimes have another thing I’m fiddling with, that I can poke with a stick while I’m working out what went wrong with the first thing. And I will jot things down for other projects. I do that a lot. But to write something well, I usually need to devote my whole mind to it, and think about it all the time. That just seems to be the way I work.
I want to write more than one thing at a time. Believe me, I’d love to. If I’m ever unencumbered*, I will be totally on that.
Yes, you need to be disciplined. You need to just sit yourself down and write that shit. With a good chair.
But don’t beat yourself up about it, either. I know lots of writers who are parents – I am one of them. It sounds great to say, ‘oh, now I’m going to sit up until 2am every night and get this novel finished, goddamnit!’ or ‘well, yes, it’s school holidays, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to break my writing discipline!’. Yeah, that sure sounds dandy. But in reality, my kids get up at 7am, so I can’t write until 2am or I’ll be a zombie (ie. a crappy parent) the next day. And sticking to my writing discipline in holiday-time means that my partner is the one who copes alone while I’m pursuing my writerly dream. That’s not fair.
I’m sure Stephen King has discipline. I’m equally sure that sometimes, in the early days, Tabitha King hauled him up from the doorway, saying ‘Stephen, if you don’t get out here and do the dishes while I sort out these kids, I’m going to bang on your head’, or something similar.
I woke up early in the morning to finish my first novel. But I don’t always have a set writing-time discipline. I have to make time, scratch it out of the margins. The discipline part is in your mind. You have to keep part of your mind partitioned for the work. Write when you can. Don’t torture yourself and your family by insisting that ‘no one is going to the beach/Disneyland/whatever until you’ve finished this four hours of writing, by god.’
Be pragmatic. When you have time, use it. When you don’t, work around it.
Think about structure
Or don’t. Y’know, it’s flexible. I wrote my last book with a plan in mind. The three before that, I had no fucking idea what was happening. I made it up as I went along. That’s what fiction writers do.
It’s different for every project. But nine out of ten times, I structure it in the edit.
Have your own workspace
Oh, I like this one! ‘Have a door you can close’ and all that. Which is always a hilarious little piece of advice for writers who are also parents. Writers-who-are-parents know that, sometimes, you can’t even close the door to the toilet. Closing the door to a writing studio sounds so wonderful! It’s the promise of a private creative space. But to many people, it’s like Middle-earth. It only exists in your own mind.
I am, for instance, writing this in bed, in my pajamas, while my kids are bugging me to come make them breakfast on the last day of school holidays. I do have a place I can go – out in the shed – but it is frequently impractical to work there when I’m supposed to be parenting. Not everyone has a workspace – Fleur Ferris, for instance, writes at her dining room table, surrounded by kids who are doing stuff. Stephenie Meyer did this too, apparently.
I also know loads of writers (*cough* – Sean Williams, Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff – *uncough*) who go on tour, and have to work on planes, in hotel rooms, on trains, in cafes, in waiting rooms. You work where you can. Like I said, the workspace is in your mind.
Never kill the dog
I killed two dogs in my first book. Yep, just killed ‘em outright.
It was for character development, which I’m sure was the excuse Patrick Ness used. In what will no doubt be the only time I ever have anything in common with Patrick Ness, I got distressed letters from people saying that I was a terrible person for killing the dogs. I apologised to those people.
But they were readers. If you’ve made it to the end of this article, presumably you’re a writer. So here’s what I reckon: if you need to, kill the dog. People will get upset. That’s too bad. But if you really give a shit about what people think, you probably shouldn’t be in this writing business anyway.
That’s it, that’s all I’ve got
Like I said, these are not tips or suggestions. I’m sorry if I’ve horrified anyone by my laissez-fair attitude. But writing is not a prescriptive exercise, and everyone and every situation is different. If we all stuck to ‘the Rules’ we’d never get anything done. Be flexible. The only real rule is: if you want to be a writer, write.
For more details on writing tips by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, read this by Matt Haig (he still advises you not to kill the dog, though).
*Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha *laughs forever*