Useful Hints for Writing
more or less everything I know, in two pages
1. Write a story that means something to you; that you care about. Write a story only you can write! Otherwise you will not enjoy what you are doing, and you will not bring anything special to it.
2. You don’t have to know everything that happens before you begin, but it’s useful to make some kind of an outline, mapping where you want to go, and to keep filling it and changing and rearranging as you go along, so that you do not lose sight of your intentions, and so that you have the confidence to keep going.
3. Write more detailed instructions to yourself at the end of each bit you’ve finished writing so that you know what to do when you get back to it. Especially if your schedule doesn’t permit you to write every day, it will be a huge relief to read: “Now he has to go into the restaurant and try to guess which of the middle-aged ladies picking at their salads and sipping iced-tea is his birth-mother. Unfortunately, the restaurant is full of middle-aged ladies. He is, in fact, the only man there.” Or whatever.
4. Having an outline will also prevent “writer’s block” because you will always be able to write a bit that takes place earlier or later if you’re not comfortable with what comes next in the linear progression of the plot. But in order to write a random bit out of sequence, you have to know, at least roughly, what the sequence is!
5. Write sketches of all your characters. Make family trees. Get everyone’s ages right, and link their chronology to the time-line of your plot. A lot of this may never get into your finished story, but you still have to know it. It makes a difference whether your character was 5 or 15 when his parents split up, or if she was 14 or 20 when she ran away from home. It makes a difference whether your protagonist had siblings, or grandparents, or lived in the city or on a farm. And so on.
6. And about that city or farm – imagine it fully; again, more fully than necessary. When you see your character stepping outside to get a breath of fresh air, is she on the balcony of a 12th floor downtown condo or standing in a wheat field under an endless prairie sky? You need to be able to see the world of your book, to smell it, and to taste it, not only so that your characters behave appropriately but also so that your readers can inhabit it imaginatively.
7. If you are writing a story set long ago or far away, you may have to do a lot of research. Let the research inform your understanding of the setting and fill you with confidence but don’t let it weigh the story down with tedious exposition. Don’t forget, the people in your story already know all about the place and time they inhabit! Only put in whatever information is necessary so that the reader can understand what is going on too.
8. Avoid clichés not only of speech but of thought; not only of character but of situation. When you reread your work, be vigilant. Consider revising whenever you find laziness and shortcuts; always try to find fresh ways of seeing things and therefore of saying things. AT THE SAME TIME (and this is important) don’t strain after novelty when it isn’t required. Being fresh doesn’t mean using bizarre, ornate, or improbable imagery and obscure language. Sometimes simple language is a knife to the heart.
9. Accept that it may take you a very long time indeed to arrive at a story you are satisfied with. But enjoy the journey! You are getting to improvise, to play make-believe, finally, again, after all these years. Let your mind wander and go down weird digressions; give your characters freedom to become who they must; write descriptions of what fascinates you. And then accept that you will have to trash a lot of what you have written, and start over. As Samuel Beckett says wryly, "Fail again. Fail better."
10. Don’t be precious. Don’t hoard what you’ve written. Know that there will be more where that came from. Respect the story, and let it become better, no matter how much it costs you. Remember: No effort is wasted. You are serving an apprenticeship to a craft. You can only learn to write by writing.