I guessed asked a lot by beginning writers what they should do to get better at writing. Some are teenagers, some are adults. But the answer is always the same:
If you want to be a better runner, would you listen to someone who told you to watch other runners on videos, to do yoga and to only do a little running a day? Let me tell you, I wouldn’t. As a runner myself, there is nothing better to improve your running that running. A lot of running.
If you want to be a better swimmer, swim. Put in those 10,000 yards a day.
If you want to be a better cyclist, you spend a lot of time in the saddle. Every day.
If you want to be a better musician, practice.
If you want to be a good cook, do it. A lot.
Writing is the same. If you can’t write every day, write as much as you can. Write while you’re on the train. Write when you’re walking to school. Plan things out. Play with bits of dialog. Lay out the perfect plot.
But you’re not going to escape doing the writing. Just sit down and get it done. They say you have to write a million bad words before you’re publishable. I’m sure it’s not true for everyone, but it was true for me.
Let yourself write what you feel like writing. Let yourself write badly. But I think there is nothing so good for a writing career than getting into the habit of writing even when you don’t feel like it, even if you think it’s crap.
Stretch your legs and put your hands on the keyboard. Write.
Working on a revision a number of readers told me that my ending felt “rushed.” I was sure that the fix would be addind a chapter to the climax. It wasn’t. I ended up adding a bunch of chapters in the mid section.
Another revision, I got the advice that a certain character needed to be more sympathetic. But instead I had to increase the conflict between that character and another one.
A third example, I had to add more tension to the novel by adding backstory. I kept thinking it would slow down the plot, but it only added to the stakes.
You can hope for that reader or editor who understands how to tell you in the right way or you can have a more flexible mindset and the willingness to try lots of different fixes.
Basically, you say no to your characters just like you say no to your kids.
I want to be special.
I want to have magic.
I want to be important/famous/popular.
No, no, no.
I want to have friends.
I want Mr./Ms. Hot to fall in love with me.
I want life to be easy.
I want people to do what I tell them to do/what I want.
I want my ending to be what I expect.
Now, of course, your characters aren’t really your children. If you tortured your real children the way that you tortured your characters, you’d probably get put in jail.
However, do consider the delights as a parent of watching your children make mistakes, especially if you already told them not to. You can totally use this for your next book. I give you permission.
It can be easy, when you’re waiting for a book to come out, to let your imagination spin out realities where you become rich and famous. You think about what you would spend all that money on, if you become a mega bestseller. You think up all the sequels or prequels or related stories you will write when this book is the next big hit. You think about interviews on TV, about old friends who will suddenly be proud they know you, that your parents will suddenly relate to you in a different and better way. Your neighbors will offer you respect, and maybe your kids will, too.
But after a number of years of these kind of hyped delusions before the publication of a new book, I have learned to damp them down a little. And to think more carefully about why I write what I write. Why I think almost all writers write what they write.
I don’t think many writers write for money. They’d be crazy to, honestly. There are just so many jobs where you have more control over hard work leading to tangible results. You’d be more likely to end up a millionaire investing yearly money in the stocks. And it would probably take less time and energy.
I think that writers write ultimately because they want to connect with people. We write because we love books ourselves, and because we have books that matter to us in our lives, books that changed us, books that saved us, that made us feel like we had a place in the world. We know books that got us through a hard spot because they were sheer fun, and books that made high school English a little easier because there were some beautiful passages in them. We know books that we HAD to read the sequel to, and waited day by day for the release. And we want that for our books.
We want readers out there to love our books in the way that we once loved someone else’s book. We want to write a character who feels like she could step off the page. We want to make someone’s terrible life a little easier. We want to say, you’re not alone. We want to create a fictional world, at least, where people like us exist and find each other.
So today, as I think about my upcoming book, I am thinking about readers out there who need the character in that book, and who need to believe that the world of that book is a real one. As writers, we don’t have control over this. It’s always a mystery to me why people connect with certain books of mine and don’t with others. It can be a crushing disappointment when people hate a book that you wanted to connect with them. It’s not just that bad reviews hurt. It’s that they make you see that the book’s feelers reaching for that connection were severed somehow.
When a book does connect, it’s like a secret club of people who will find each other, not just the year the book comes out, but for the rest of their lives. In college, when their kids are on the playground, maybe even in a retirement home. That’s what I write for. I write for readers I have never met and may never hear from. I write for readers who need a connection, not to me as a writer, but to my world and to my people.
It occurred to me, after reading this excellent post on women in fiction and the Bechdel Test, that perhaps you could construct one to address issues of POC and race. The analog seemed obvious, so I just wrote it out.
1. It has to have two POC in it.
2. Who talk to each other.
3. About something other than a white person.
Now, you see the obvious issue there, right? Yeah, it has to do with number one. Even in stories that feature prominent POC characters, it is so rare to find more than one present, let alone who know each other well enough to talk to each other… — Alaya Dawn Johnson on The Bechdel Test and Race in Popular Fiction (via richincolor)
My simple answer to this is that voice is the mistakes that you make on purpose. When you have run-on sentences, or fragments. When you don’t have subject/verb agreement or you use colloquial phrases or you use the wrong word for an effect—that’s voice. Voice is when you deliberately choose to annoy your copyeditor and when your mother, who is an English teacher, will frown at you and correct your sentences over and over again, trying to be helpful.
But voice is more than just sentence choice. It’s also the choice of the story you tell, the characters who inhabit your story, the metaphors you use, the feeling that your reader gets when opening the book. Voice is all the other authors that you have read who come through when you make allusions. Voice is you believing that you have the most important story in the world to tell. Voice is when you’ve read everybody else and you know why they are the greatest writers in the world, and you still are arrogant enough to think that you matter even more, that your story is the story that people should be reading today.
A man once asked me … how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. “Well,” said the man, “I shouldn’t have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing.” I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also. —
Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human?: Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society
Book Geek Quote #445
I am tired of token women being strong in a man’s world by taking on male attributes: strutting around in black leather, spike heels and wraparound shades, killing people; or riding a horse, swearing a lot, carrying a big sword, and killing people; or piloting a ship through hyperspace, drinking whatever pours, slapping boys on the back, and killing people. I am equally tired of women-only worlds where all the characters are wise, kind, beautiful, stern seven-foot-tall vegetarian amazons who could never dream of killing anyone. I am tired of reading about aliens who are really women, or women who are really aliens.
Women are not aliens. Take away men, and we do not automatically lose our fire and intelligence and sex drive; we do not form hierarchical, static, insectlike societies that are dreadfully inefficient. We do not turn into a homogenous Thought Police culture where meat-eating is banned and men are burned in effigy every full moon. Women are not inherently passive or dominant, maternal, or vicious. We are all different. We are people.
A women-only world, it seems to me, would shine with the entire spectrum of human behavior: there would be capitalists and collectivists, hermits and clan members, sailors and cooks, idealists and tyrants; they would be generous and mean, smart and stupid, strong and weak; they would approach life bravely, fearfully and thoughtlessly. Some might still engage in fights, wars, and territorial squabbles; individuals and cultures would still display insanity and greed and indifference. And they would change and grow, just like anyone else. Because women are anyone else. We are more than half of humanity. We are not imitation people, or chameleons taking on protective male coloration, longing for the day when men go away and we can return to being our true, insectlike, static, vacuous selves. We are here, now. We are just like you. —
Nicola Griffith, talking about writing Ammonite (via limousine-eyelash)
Twenty years ago, as she pointed out on Twitter, and still something we need to hear.
Just one of many reasons why Nicola is one of my favorite writers in the world. Read her books; they are amazing.
(Source: dont-deconstruct, via gwendabond)
"Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different… They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it."
From David Brooks
I liked a lot of what Brooks said here. Tthere is something incredible about people who find a way to bring good out of evil. I don’t think that’s *why* evil things happen, though.
The climax of the book is the event which makes certain whether the protagonist wins or loses.
The climax should also be the event in which the emotional change of the protagonist finally connects and there is no turning back after that.
The climax should reveal the full growth of your protagonist. The world should have opened up, and the rising stakes allow the protagonist to become larger and more important than ever before.
The climax must hold within it the possibility—nay the likelihood—of failure. And yet it must move forward inexorably.
And don’t forget that after the climax, there must always be a resolution, at least one scene which shows the protagonist in her new place in the new world, at peace once more (as at the beginning) at least for a moment before the next chapter in her life begins.