I get asked about writing tips a lot. It’s strange because I’m hardly Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but I’m making a living from writing so I suppose that’s something. We can’t all be literary billionaires (oh, the dream), but success comes in all sorts of wrappings these days. It all depends on how you define it. I’ve still got a lot of milestones to go before I’ll be able to rest on my laurels and say “Yep, I’ve made it” but I’m happy with where life is at right now.
My third book comes out the second weekend in October. Its the second one with my name on the cover. The one that doesn’t have my name on the cover is starting to change lives and put people back in control of their health. Its thrilling.
ANYWAY! I get asked for mentoring a lot. I find that many people don’t like having their work critiqued, or hearing the tough love from another author, so I say ‘no’ most of the time. But I sometimes dish out a few hints for people to think about while they find their own way through to success. Here are some of them.
1. The first draft of everything is terrible. Don’t get it right. Just get it written. I’ve heard this said various ways by many big-time writers over the years, and its just so true. The first draft is just the thing you have to get done and out of the way in order to get to draft number two, and three and four. These later drafts are where the magic happens.
2. An excellent way to destroy your momentum and end up with three chapters of extremely polished manuscript that never gets finished…is to edit as you go. Get to the finish line on the first draft, work out your plot, characters, and such, then go back and edit. Trust me. A bad first draft is a million times better than three perfect chapters that never develop into a finished manuscript.
3. Don’t use three words when you could use one. This brings uniqueness to your writing and keeps you away from the plague that is melodrama. You don’t need words like ‘really,’ or ‘generally.’ Be specific. Find the perfect word you need to express something rather than using three inferior words to do it.
4. Edit yourself harshly, then get someone else to edit you harshly. Yes, I get it. You feel naked and out of control when you hand over your manuscript to someone else. You’ve still got to do it. As horrible as it feels, its worse to present an unedited manuscript to the world and have it panned by critics. Editing matters a lot. We tend to think this isn’t as important in long-form writing as it is in short-form but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Even in long-form writing, every word matters. Ever read Dickens? The guy didn’t waste one! Amazing!
5. Good writing isn’t about flowering words and complicated sentence structure. Its about clarity in communicating a message. Sometimes less is more. Over-the-top language can sink a manuscript and make it seem more melodramatic than it needs to be. The ability to write succinctly is a powerful arrow in a writers quiver.
6. The only way to write better is to write more. You might not notice the steady improvement in your writing, but your readers will. Good writing takes years of practice. You can’t put it off until retirement and then expect brilliance from your pen. Its a skill that needs to be grown and practiced.
7. Read critically. What do you hate about other peoples writing? What do you love about it? These are the things you need to know in order to improve your own writing. I’ve heard it said that writers do two things: They write a lot, and they read a lot. Both matter.
8. Give yourself space. Sometimes you get too close to your manuscript. You’ve read every word so many times that you can’t truly see what you’ve written any more. You’re so attached to your characters that you don’t want to hurt them or throw them into turmoil. Your writing is stagnant. You’re stuck. Times like these, the only thing to do is take a week off! Keep your hand in by writing other things – journal, blog, write anything thats not your big project.
I used to work in a department store and I remember filling a shift in the fragrance department. The first thing I had to do was familiarise myself with the product, but after smelling a few fragrances I lost my nose. I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. A colleague handed me a jar of coffee beans. “Stop and smell them” she said. “They’ll give you your nose back.”
I inhaled the coffee and presto! I could smell again.
Yes, that is your permission to take a day off and head out for coffee with friends. Sometimes its the best way to give yourself much needed space, and return to your manuscript with fresh focus.
I’m off to finish draft 2!