Not one person has ever asked me for my top 10 writing tips. (Nine tips maybe, but not 10.) But if you think that’s going to stop me, you’ve got a horse of another thing coming. (See tip #6.)
Most of these came from other people. I’ve tried to give them proper credit where I can. Others I think I thought up by myself. Regardless, you could do worse than following this advice.
- “If you write yourself into it, you can write yourself out of it.” – Anonymous. As a writer, you are the creator of your own universe. Which means you’re in control here. Allow yourself to get as inventive as you need to be to find the solution. It’s fun. Don’t be like the actual Creator who summons a flood or other calamity when he’s written Himself into a corner, which is His way of hitting the Delete button. (PS Anonymous is one smart dude. Must have been Greek.)
- “Sprinkle.” – My friend Bob, although he probably heard it from someone else. It means don’t barf up every single detail of a description or explanation all at once. (That’s how they did it in the old days. You know, in those classics you traded for Cliff’s Notes.) Spread it throughout the story. Your readers will thank you for it. This leads to . . .
- “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard. Put another way, “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out.” Some dude named Hitchcock said that. They’re both right. Especially if you want to write a page turner.
- “The villain thinks he’s right.” – Lots of people. The bad guys or gals are easily the most interesting people in your piece. So elevate them above Snidely Whiplash status by making them 3-dimensional characters, starting with their internal beliefs, motivations and rationalizations. I’m reminded of Thomas Gabriel, the baddie in “Live Free or Die Hard,” an ex-DOD consultant who hacks into government computers and screws up the country’s infrastructure to teach the powers that be a lesson. Or, in his own words, “I’m the good guy here. I told them this could happen if they didn’t prepare. Did I get a ‘Thank you’? No, I got crucified. But, they wouldn’t listen. . . I am doing the country a favor.”
- “Sharing is caring.” – Me. Take time to develop characters your readers will care about. Otherwise, why will they give two craps about what happens to them? It’s like the difference between a George Carlin story and some hack comic’s joke.
- “Cut the clichés.” – Every editor everywhere. Cliches have a way of sneaking in without us knowing it. When you complete your first draft, go back with a scalpel and slice them out. Better yet, come up with your own way of saying it. You know, write future clichés.
- “Ship.” – Seth Godin. In other words, finish and send to an agent. Or your editor. Or your first readers. Or your mom. Don’t keep fiddling with it forever because it’s easy to fall into that trap. Don’t be like the Grady Tripp character in “Wonder Boys” and his 2,601 page manuscript. You know how that turned out.
- “Get in late and get out early.” – William Goldman. Also known, for you Latin scholars, as in medias res. In the old days, a character would travel from one place to another by getting in his car, taking a leisurely drive up the coast, parking in a circular driveway, shambling to the front door of the stately mansion, knocking on said door, giving the comely maid the once-over, engaging in a brief conversation, lighting a cigarette while waiting, and finally being escorted into the sitting room or library or whatever. Bored yet? Of course you are. Modern readers and viewers don’t have the patience for that. Start your scene in the middle of the conversation with whoever your hero came to see. Know who was good at this? “Friends.”
- “Writing is rewriting.” – Hemingway. Your first draft will suck. So will your second. As Nicholson said in Terms of Endearment, “You’re gonna have to trust me on this one little thing.” So be prepared to write it so many times it makes you sick. And then write it again. Until you do that, you’re just playing.
- “Watch for identical duplicates.” – Me. Or Steven Wright. We all have a word or phrase we subconsciously fall in love with. Sometimes a lot more than one. Be on the lookout. I’ve seen authors use the same word four times in one paragraph. A long paragraph, but still. And if you can’t wire your brain to search and destroy, turn it over to your editor. (The manuscript, not your brain.) That’s what they’re for.
- “Write as if your parents are dead.” – Anne Lamott. I know, I can’t count. Consider this a bonus tip. Good writing is honest, authentic, real. You can’t hold back. Even if you’re lucky enough to have both parents, every single aunt and uncle, dozens of cousins, your entire high school graduating class, and two of your exes above ground, pretend otherwise. Or you won’t be able to include the one story that makes your material special. And isn’t that why we do this in the first place?