Writing is a skill that you never stop learning. Over the years, I’ve found that sharing what I know about the craft helps me reinforce positive ideas, reframe my own thoughts, and keep me motivated to sit down and crank out pages.
That said, I want to start sharing my “general writing tips”, with the added goal of avoiding things that you’ve probably heard a million times. These will be unusual tips based on my own experience.
So, your mileage may vary. As with any of my advice, these are not going to work for everyone in every situation. Enjoy!
Don’t Read So Much
Yeah, I’m starting off with a controversial one. This one is geared toward aspiring writers who spend hours a day reading novels.
My reasoning is simple: Writing takes a lot of time. Time you spend reading could be spent writing. Writing will make you improve as a writer, while reading may help you, but only tangentially.
I like to wrap this advice in an anecdote. I took piano lessons for years when I was a kid. My piano teacher told me to practice at home several hours every day, but she never once told me to listen to music.
(If memory serves, she told me not to listen to the songs I was learning, because I was supposed to learn how to read sheet music, not imitate what I’m hearing. Same goes for writing.)
Consuming content doesn’t improve your ability to produce that content. It may help you understand it, or appreciate it, but it won’t improve the hard skills involved in creating it. If it worked that way, everyone who binge watches Netflix could be a screenwriter, and every human in a developed country would be a latent advertising expert.
Read less, write more.
New Ideas Come from Synergy
Where do ideas come from? For the most part, they come from mashing together things that already exist. You see it everywhere. Combine samurai movies and sci-fi to get Star Wars. Combine Star Wars and western movies to get The Mandalorian. Combine fantasy with a heist movie and get that awful Excalibur film from years back (but you also get the far, far better D&D movie that just came out, so execution is still what matters).
Ideas need raw materials, so a fiction writer should absorb them from a variety of sources. If you write fantasy, but only read and watch in that genre, your pool of ideas won’t be very fresh. You’ll only be able to combine things that have already been done in your genre.
Personally, I get a ton of my ideas from video games. I’m pretty sure it’s because video games often have really interesting premises, lore, etc. but are often only able to scratch the surface of their potential. (Not the case with cRPGs, which I love. But I’m inspired by them for other reasons.)
Write a Lot (With a Caveat)
This one is simple but important. Writing a lot does not mean “spend ten years working on one book”. An aspiring author’s early work should be thought of as practice. Get through a novel, then write another one. Write some short stories. Try different genres and POVs.
That’s where growth comes from. I knew a guy who did spend a decade working on one book, and by the time he let anyone read it, you would have thought it was an amateur’s rough draft. That’s because he didn’t grow from working on it.
I wrote four novels (not counting throwaway stuff), countless short stories, and six screenplays before I felt comfortable enough to really try making it as an author. And I’m still not sure if I’ll make it. (Fingers crossed!)
How much is “a lot”? I honestly think that writing 2000 words a day should be a self-imposed requirement. 2000 words of anything. Sometimes, I don’t feel like working on a novel, so I write a review or blog post.
Just write, evaluate, make improvements. Don’t obsess over a single work.
Find a Way to Get Paid for Writing
This one won’t apply to everyone, but I try to help people down this path if it suits them.
A lot of my writing skill comes from a decade of freelancing. I’ve worked on everything you can think of — press releases, speeches, thesis papers, film adaptations, blogs, catalogs, emails, instruction manuals, ghostwritten books, and probably stuff I’m leaving out.
Did I enjoy all of it? Nope. Part of the reason I’m spending 20 hours a week to break into authorship is because I’m tired of copywriting. But I’m eternally grateful for the experience that it got me. Paid experience.
Remember, you want to write as much as possible. That’s how you improve. Why not get paid for it? Even if it’s just a few bucks, money is a strong motivator to slog through the boring years of practice writing.
It will also get you used to feedback and deadlines. 😉
I can’t get into stories with characters that are one-dimensional or behave in unrealistic ways. For me, they’re impossible to engage with. I pull my hair out trying to watch some of the newer streaming shows because so many characters seem to be based on storytelling requirements, not people.
The deeper your understanding of human behavior, the better your stories will be. Even if you’re not a character-driven writer, your characters still need to pass a minimum threshold of quality to not break your fiction.
It’s okay to model characters after those you’ve seen in movies or in books — but try not to model after shallow characters. Go for ones with emotional depth, flaws, and so on. If you say “this one’s gonna be like Tony Stark” and you stop at that, you’re going to have a pretty boring carbon copy of a character that’s already been done a thousand times. (And I didn’t even pick the most cardboard example from the Marvel Universe.)
Most importantly, allow them to behave like a person rather than letting your plans for the story dictate their behavior. The latter is a dead giveaway of writers who phoned it in, and it happens all the time on TV.
You’ve seen it. A character does something that makes no sense because…the script needed them to.
Not only would their character not say or do that thing, but no living human in reality would.
Try to avoid that.
That’s it for now. I’m going through some older posts that have been sitting in the cloud, while also resurrecting the posts that were lost when the old site died. Forgive this unceremonious outro…I got a lot of stuff to get through!