On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… twelve pieces of writing advice for the start of 2018.
It’s a new year and all sorts of people are likely to have all kinds of New Year’s Resolutions to do with their writing. You might be determined to finish that damn book this year, or to get an agent and head down the road to traditional publishing, or to finally self-publish your novel. Or maybe just to write a few more stories. But whatever you are doing, here are twelve pieces of writing advice that I think will be invaluable for the year ahead. Most of it has been covered in a variety of different places in this blog, but for me, these are some essentials to remember.
1. Plot Is Character
When you are writing and planning your stories, always remember that plot is not a thing that exists on its own. The idea of a plot is secondary by-product to character development. In the words of Stephen King, "Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice." Great stories, regardless of genre, are about character first and foremost. For those of you struggling to fit to piece together your plot, go back to thinking about your key characters.
The recipe for character development is as such:
Your character needs a goal, whether physical or metaphysical, that they need to be trying to achieve.
Your character needs to face obstacles that force him to question their world view, their assumptions, and their beliefs.
Your character needs to change in order to achieve their goal, or fail at their goal, but achieve another more intimate goal.
Plot should be subservient to the above. If you are unsure about where to take your character next, this is one of my favourite pieces of writing advice: what is the one thing that your character would absolutely never ever do? Right, you’ve got it? Good. Now make them do it. What happens to them now?
2. Your Protagonist Must Be Active
One of the biggest issues with stories is that the protagonist is not active enough in the story. Things happen to them, rather than because of their choices. Remember that the protagonist is the driver of the story. Throw obstacles at them, sure, but make sure that they make the choices that lead them through the story and the choices are not made for them. Make sure they make the mistakes. Make sure they provide the solutions.
Frodo ends up taking the ring to Mordor because he stands up and says “I’ll take it.” Not because it is forced on him. He is offered a way out. Make sure your protagonist is ‘taking’ the story themselves.
There is nothing more boring to read than a passive character that gets dropped into situations they haven’t caused, aren’t responsible for and then get out of it thanks to someone else. That isn’t a protagonist. That’s furniture.
3. Fiction Is Not Life
This applies to characters, plots, dialogue and just about everything else. Fiction is stylised. As much as it is important to try to make your fiction realistic and believable, life can also be very boring. You don’t want your characters talking to sound exactly like a normal conversation you would have on a normal day because it’s boring. We don’t need to go through the motions of normalcy in a story if it isn’t directly necessary to character growth or development. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
A corollary to this this is that you should not stick to the advice “write what you know.” It’s nonsense. A writer is an explorer. Use your empathy to discover what is interesting, what is conflicting, what is disturbing and use your writing to explore it. Find inspiration in what you know, sure, but don’t just stick to it.
4. It’s Not The Tropes That You Use, It’s The Way That You Use Them
Tropes and genre conventions are not inherently bad things. Nothing is inherently bad in writing. Everything is in the execution. Don’t be so determined to do something different or to subvert every trope that it just becomes jumbled, a mess or silly.
As an example, everyone talks about how A Game of Thrones is great because it subverts tropes of the Fantasy genre. It does, but it also embraces a lot of them. Nothing is subverted about the inclusion of dragons, or the medieval swords-and-castles setting, or the face-changing ninja assassins. These are fantasy conventions that are embraced and executed well.
Be aware of your genre. Read heavily in your genre. Know the tropes and expectations so you can use, subvert or ignore them as you wish, but do so consciously. Decide what works for your story. Don’t avoid genre conventions just to be different.
And always keep in mind that your story is your story, and you can do what you want with it. This is wonderfully summed up in a conversation with Max Landis and his father John that goes something along these lines:
John: "Max, how do you kill a vampire?"
Max: "Holy water, stake through the heart, etc."
John: "No. You kill a vampire however the fuck you want, because vampires aren't real."
The moral of this story is that everything is in the execution. Every time you find yourself asking "is it okay if I...?", "Could I get away with...?" The answer is always always always: YES, if you can execute it well.
5. Keep The Stakes High And Personal
High stakes are key. At almost any point in your story, stop and ask yourself: what would happen if my protagonist just stopped what they were doing and went back to their normal day-to-day life? If the answer is not much, you don’t have stakes.
Make sure there are real, lasting consequences to choices. If any time something bad happens it gets fixed a couple of chapters later, your reader is going to stop caring.
Make sure the stakes are personal. It isn’t about the size of the stakes, it’s about the importance and impact on the protagonist. Stopping the end of the world is all well and good, but it’s nowhere near as compelling as saving your daughter’s life. Worrying about if you're going to get enough credits to graduate could be more compelling than exposing a world-wide conspiracy if it’s more personal.
6. Ideas Are Cheap, Words Are Gold
Sitting and thinking and plotting is all well and good, but you need to write. Words on the page is everything. Ten words written is more valuable than four hours of thinking about your story. You can’t redraft, fix or improve until you’ve written. Write first, even if it’s rubbish. Even if you don’t know where it’s going. Write and it will come to you.
7. Writing Is Practice
If you have just started writing, you won’t be very good. You might be better than other novices, but you won’t be great. Thinking you are is like thinking you can pick up a guitar and play it perfectly without lessons. Or that you can step onto a tennis court and go toe-to-toe with Roger Federer without ever having picked up a racket. It’s absurd.
As you write you will improve. There are four stages of mastery that you will go through:
You aren’t that great at it, but you aren’t sure why. You can’t see what’s missing. Keep writing. Keep reading. Look for writing advice and blogs and youtube videos and read more fiction.
You understand what your writing is missing, but you can’t quite seem to implement it. Again, keep practicing, but focus on these particular things. If it’s dialogue, write lots of dialogue. If it’s action, write more action as practice. Read authors who do these things well. Try to copy their style for a bit until you learn how to incorporate it into your own.
You can see yourself improving and you can see your writing getting better because of specific things you are doing. Keep working on those things. Pat yourself on the back that your writing is improving. Don’t think you’ve made it yet, always try to get better.
You are now naturally writing better than you were without thinking about it. You have better flow, characters, etc. because you have it ingrained in you. This is what separates established, professional writers who have written many books from you. It takes time and work to get here. Lots of it. There is no magical way here but practice. Also remember: this is a great place to be, but don’t stop here. Identify other things you need to improve and work on them. No one is perfect.
8. Get In Late, Get Out Early
Cut filler wherever possible. Start each chapter, scene, and book as close to the necessary incident or development as possible. Get out soon after and move on. This keeps pace taut and pages turning.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have slow moments or introspective moments. They are, of course, necessary developments too. But make sure you know what the point of those scenes are and cut the filler that doesn’t add to it. They say that every scene in your novel should advance plot or characterisation, but given that plot is character… every scene in your novel should advance characterisation. To some degree, at least.
9. “Therefore,” and “But,” instead of “Then
Make sure every new thing that happens in the narrative can be connected with the previous scene by either ‘therefore’ or ‘but’, not ‘then.’
‘Therefore’ means that the next scene happens as a direct consequence of the choices made in previous scenes.
‘But’ means that the next scene produces a direct obstacle to what the characters are trying to achieve in previous scenes.
‘Then’ means that another unrelated thing just happens. Don’t do this. This is not forward momentum nor is it a story. Stories are about cause and effect, not collections of unrelated events.
10. Characters Should Have Wants Distinct From The Protagonist
In the word of Vonnegut, “every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” If your characters share exactly the same goals and wants as the protagonist, they aren’t characters, they are extra limbs. Make sure you know why all your characters are in the story and what they want to get out of it, even if you don’t directly tell the reader.
11. Simple Is Good
Express your ideas in the simplest way you can. Sometimes, it takes long and complicated sentences to express long and complicated ideas. But it should never take long and complicated sentences to explain simple ideas. If you ever find yourself looking for a thesaurus to find a bigger word just because, you’re doing it wrong.
Clarity and coherence are the number one goals, everything else comes after. If you lose clarity and coherence, you have nothing.
12. If You Write, You Are A Writer
Keep writing. Keep plugging away at it and getting better. Don’t fall prey to imposter syndrome where you feel like you are just amateur faking at writing, while all the other writers are out there achieving things. Everyone started where you are starting. Brandon Sanderson wrote 13 books before getting one published.
If you want to write, then write. But don’t find excuses not to. Of course, you don’t have time. Nobody has time. JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter while struggling with poverty. Almost all writers start out with day jobs. If you find yourself making excuses not to write, maybe you just don’t want to write.
If you want to be a writer, all you need to do is write. Write, write, write.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.