Writing Advice: How Do You Separate the Good from the Bad?

Writing Advice

Seeking Words of Wisdom

I enjoy learning about various writing techniques and tips from other writers, especially those who have tried various methods and figured out what works best for them. Sometimes the advice I read comes through loud and clear (and it’s usually the common sense advice, like outlining your novel and doing a crapton of research BEFORE you officially set pen to paper–or fingers to keyboard). But there is some advice out there that I take with a grain of salt, such as the following:

Tip 1: Never start your novel with a prologue.

This tip can be taken however you’d like, as gospel or as crap. I can think of instances where a prologue would be a bad decision–but there are also instances where a prologue properly executed does its job well. Just don’t use the prologue for info-dumping purposes. Don’t use anything  for info-dumping purposes. I don’t particularly like the word “never” in the tip; it is far too definite in a field where anything, creatively speaking, can happen.

Kristen Lamb has an excellent blog post, “7 Deadly Sins of Prologues” that lays out the “to prologue or not to prologue” question that a lot of writers ask themselves.

If you’re still not sure if your novel needs a prologue, try starting it both ways, with and without, and gauge which one starts your story better. Prepare your beta readers to give you a response about both story beginnings, and prepare yourself for their inevitable opinions, one way or the other.

Tip 2: You have to read widely in order to become a great writer.

This piece of advice is priceless. The more you read, the more power you have in terms of your writing prowess. Writing a novel without reading voraciously is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. You have to know what it is you’re doing, don’t you? And how better to gather up your arsenal than to read the very thing you’re setting out to write?

Imagine, if you will, that you are a Doom’s Day Prepper set out to safeguard yourself and your loved ones from the potential (some say inevitable) apocalypse. What is your first step? RESEARCH. The more you read about the field, the more you will learn about how to prep. What is your next step? SUPPLIES. From your research, you will learn how to gather supplies, how to self-sustain, and how to properly fend off would-be attackers and pillagers. You will also learn how to properly use the tools at hand, how to build your fortress in the most cost-effective way, how to live off of the land, and scores of other tidbits that you will need to know to ensure your survival.

How is being a Doom’s Day Prepper like being a novelist? Precisely this: You are not a Doom’s Day Prepper if you do not know how to prep. That knowledge is power, one gained by research and practice and failure and starting over. It is the same for writing. The best possible tool in your literary shed is the understanding of books and writing that only reading them can provide.

You can never read too much, but you can read too little.

“Oh, I don’t have time to read,” you say.

Then you do not have time to write.

So make time. Don’t be a slacker, pick up that book you’ve been planning to read since before you can remember, and read the darn thing. It’s that easy. Turn your phone on silent, tell everyone to give you an hour of peace and quiet, and allow yourself the opportunity to be swept away by a great story.

And read everything–good novels, bad novels, funny novels, serious novels, short stories, philosophy, poetry, the works! You are adding to your literary database all of the writing tools that you will need in order to properly execute the novel-writing process. Yes, even reading bad novels helps–they teach us what NOT to do, don’t they? (Plus it may prove to be more entertaining that you initially anticipated.)

Tip 3: Don’t plan your novel. Just sit down and write.

Honest to goodness, I remember reading this somewhere. I have tried this little tip, and, while the writing adventure was a fun one, the story that I started didn’t get very far. I wrote the first things that came to mind, having fun and feeling the joy of how quickly my fingers were moving on the keyboard, but there was no end-game, no goal. What was my character’s motivation? What were his/her obstacles? How was he/she going to run into obstacles if I didn’t know what those obstacles were?

That story wound up in some writing folder on my computer’s hard drive, nearly forgotten about until I started writing this blog post.

I am not saying that this tip does not have its merits. A lot of writers have unplanned writing sessions for brainstorming, to release writing frustrations, to assuage the pains of writer’s block, or for various other reasons. NaNoWriMo has a fun Word Sprint exercise on Twitter to get the writers writing, and these sessions comes from random writing prompts to get the brain flowing with ideas.

But when it comes to a novel, I am of the school of thought that says, “Planning is best.” I am an anal retentive outliner. Every chapter, every scene, and every character gets an outline. That’s not to say that my outlines are set in stone; every writer knows that a story, once it is being written, is liable to in a direction that the writer did not foresee. Outlines can be tweaked and adjusted as the story progresses. But a writer who is serious about getting that novel finished knows that the story’s goal is priority, and an outline is one way to ensuring that the goal stays at the forefront of the writing process.

Tip 4: Take creative writing classes to become a better writer.

This one I take with a grain of salt, most definitely. If you are serious about being a writer, the greatest thing you can do for yourself is to WRITE. Practice, screw up, try again, and all that mess. Getting an education that is formally structured around writing is one way to add weapons to your author’s arsenal–but it is not the ONLY way. A creative writing class would be a fun way to interact with other writers who are all learning the same material that you are, and it’s a great opportunity to help you lose the sensitivity to criticism (something from which I still suffer), but having a degree in Creating Writing does not mean you’re a novelist. It means that you went to college and majored in Creative Writing. The “novelist” part of that equation comes from actually writing a daggum novel.

Paste Magazine has a great list of 10 authors who never graduated from college–and three of them are among my all-time favorites:

  1. Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451 is #2 on my personal Top Ten List of Favorite Books)
  2. Mark Twain
  3. H.G. Wells

How, then, were these writers successful if they did not endeavor a formal higher education? BECAUSE THEY SAT THEIR BUTTS DOWN AND WROTE. They wrote, they rewrote, they got rejected, and then they got published, and the literary world was never the same after that.

School is but one way to learn.

Just like playing a musical instrument, practice makes perfect. Try writing in different genres, with different POVs, and even different verb tenses (although present tense does not sit well with me, personally). Practice! Learn! Write!

Tip 5: Write the story you’d most want to read.

Absolutely. This tip is a great one. Don’t try to follow any trend in the literary world, as trends come and go. Always remember this: If you’re excited to write it, someone will be excited to read it. If you’re excited about writing stories filled with vampires, forest elves, or pandemics, then write them! Don’t give a hoot about what types of books are selling. You never know–your novel could be a trendsetter!

But commercial success should not be the goal for a novelist, as capital gain from writing is as fickle and as hard to come by as a unicorn in your front yard on Christmas Eve. Writers like JK Rowling who have achieved incredible success from writing are one in a million. While it’s a great ideal to have for yourself, do not get discouraged from writing if that ideal is not achieved. Writing is about the art and the craft, not about green dollar signs.

Write the novel that is in you to write; don’t try to write someone else’s novel. If you’ve been heavily influenced by Rowling or Tolkien or Austen, fantastic. They were brilliant writers who are still prominent in the literary and academic world today. But don’t try to be Rowling or Tolkien or Austen–you’ll be written off as a copycat or a hack. Love their writing, let their passion for storytelling influence you, and then write your own story.

There you have it.

Those are but a few writing tips that I have come across in my explorations of the craft. What are some that you’ve encountered?


**This post was originally published on November 17, 2014**

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