Writing Advice to Myself

man writing at desk

I’m working on a bit of fiction and as such find myself experiencing soul-crushing doubt. I understand this means I am doing it correctly. It turns out there’s a whole world of aspiring writers doing this terrible thing to themselves. What pathos.

Part of what makes this hard is that I’m not other people. I never have been. There is some fraternity of other people that all seem to know what is happening. They know the steps to the dance. And I’m just faking it — looking around trying to copy the moves. Sometimes I trip. That’s my life.

This leads me to a lot of questions of “Is what I’m doing OK? Do other people do this?”

This scene reads well, but it’s only 300 words. Does that mean I’m very, very stupid?

Is it ok to write out of order? Just picking out scenes that I like? Or is that the number one mistake of people who do everything wrong?

I have a secret weapon, however, which is that I’m getting older. I’m not a young writer except perhaps that my writing is young in its writingness.

And with age comes a certain level of DGIAF which directly opposes my innate desire to understand and be part of the group. Please accept me, but if not you can go to Hell.

I’ve managed to do quite a few interesting and good things. And almost without exception, despite a complete lack of knowing how to do it. In fact that may be my defining characteristic — that I won’t let “I don’t know anything about this” dissuade me from doing it anyway.

I’ve also learned a neat trick. I’m pretty good at coaching and giving advice. I’m actually better at that than deciding what to do for myself. I could wrestle with a problem all day long, but if someone else came to me with that same problem, I could easily help them sort it out. I’m also much more gentle and forgiving with other people than I am with myself.

So this is my cheat code. I’ll write advice to myself as if it’s coming from a place of great knowledge and wisdom. Publishing this makes it more real. Then maybe I can read it and listen to myself.

Just Write

The most important thing in writing is to write. Do so regularly. Every day. Set a goal. Try really hard. Put down something. Anything. Even if you hate it. Poop it out. The more you get your ideas out, the more they will build on each other. The more it will clarify things.

Maybe you’ll delete it, but you’ll have a better basis to know what you like and what you do not. Maybe you’ll go in the wrong direction or at the wrong time. Maybe you’ll have to move scenes around. You can fix it later. Just write.

Spend More Time Writing than Fretting Over the “Writing Process”

There are a lot of excellent resources for fiction writers; Stephen King’s On Writing, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Writing Down the Bones, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Writing Fiction Step By Step. These are all great books.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to podcasts like Writing Excuses and Story Grid. I signed up for MasterClass and am going through lessons with Neil Gaiman. I’m excited about the classes with Margaret Atwood and Dan Brown.

And of course there are a bajillion articles about writing. They’re all fighting over the google-search results page to redirect your self-doubt into paying for their services.

These things can be helpful, but they can also be a never-ending tool for procrastination. It’s so easy to fall into them and spend your time learning about writing and thinking about writing instead of writing. Try to avoid this. Spend more time writing than thinking about writing.

For what it’s worth, of all these resources, I think On Writing and Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass have been the most helpful to me. Everything else is just practicing scales to get really good at jazz. Maybe it’s helpful, but to become great your best bet is to play a lot of jazz.

It doesn’t escape me that I am ironically writing about writing instead of writing the thing I want to write. Don’t be so judgmental, reader-me.

Some Days Are Good, Some Days Are Bad

I have learned this about my life in general. Maybe I have one of those uppy-downy things going on in my head. I dunno. Never been diagnosed. Maybe everyone has that and it’s all just a spectrum.

But some days it’s just bad and I hate it. Everything is stupid. I can’t make myself do a thing. Nothing feels right. I can’t pick up where I left off. I can’t fix a scene. It’s a bore. It’s a chore.

When this happens, it’s helpful to recognize that I don’t always feel this way. I also have times where things are falling into place perfectly. So maybe take it easy on myself just a bit. Pick something easier to do. Write out notes on character arcs. Document some of your world-building. Start a new scene.

Write Scenes

I’m definitely a “pantser” rather than a “plotter.” That means that rather than having a very clear outline of what will happen, I am writing by the seat of my pants. I have a general idea of the story, the conflict, etc. But it’s evolving and changing.

I started writing chapters that fell clearly into three main acts. Something about this is just chafing me though. And when mixing different characters and different scenes, it’s not always clear which scenes belong in which chapter. Something inside me just resists putting it down in an outline.

So I’ve let that go. And instead I’m focusing on writing scenes. What might happen for this character? What would be fun? Don’t worry too much about how we got there or where we go after. Just write the scene. It will add to the world, make it more clear, give your characters flesh, personality, bad breath.

And just let them live somewhere. I have a folder called “snippets” and that’s where these scenes start when I’m not sure where they go. I can order them later.

Let Striking Visuals Lead You

I like to think of interesting visuals as inspirations for where the story can go. What is a fun and beautiful backdrop where I can place a scene? From my own life, what stands out as a nostalgic memory?

When I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin we put up a snow fence in our front yard. The drifts were enormous. I created worlds burrowing in those drifts. The snow captured the noise around me. The ice on the power lines created the noise of lasers. When it got dark, I was a spy racing around, trying to avoid the searchlights. I can feel myself there.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a pretty terrible movie. You’re free to disagree. But the battle scene that took place on the salt flats… boy oh boy, that was beautiful. Vehicles racing on the dry white flats trailing plumes of red. Use that inspiration.

What is a fun geography? A striking visual that I can hold in my head? Where have I been? Swimming in a cenote in Mexico. Walking along a barren pathway in the hills of California. The scrub of Texas desert.

What places have I read about that sound interesting or foreboding? The Broomway in England. The River Wharfe, which looks like a small bubbling stream but is one of the deadliest rivers in the world. England is pretty good at drowning you.

Can I take one of those and turn it on its head? Can I picture it in my mind? Do I want to put my characters there? Is it fun to think about?

Don’t Write Everything

We don’t need to see the characters every second of their day. Don’t know how they got to the next scene? Maybe it doesn’t matter. If someone shows up at a store, I can imagine they probably drove there. I can trust that something reasonable happened. It’s a living breathing world. Focus on the interesting bits.

Write a List of Problems in Your Story

I find it helpful to make a list of things I need to fix or address. We should revisit this character. This character hasn’t explained herself yet. This character doesn’t have a very clear point of view. What does this person want? Why do we care? How did they get out of this situation?

I put these in a bulleted list. Then just brainstorm some possible solutions to the problem as indented bullets.

Then just pick one and write it. Don’t spend too much time debating over it. Just pick one and write it. Maybe you’ll throw it away. But maybe it’ll help you understand something better. Maybe it will lead you to a different idea. Write the scene and see what happens.

Don’t Worry About Throwing Stuff Away

It’s ok to write things you may not use. It’s ok to write things that are directly opposed or won’t make sense together. You’ll have plenty of time to pick and choose. Let them both sit there and keep going. Maybe you can make them fit together. Or maybe with more content and more time you’ll figure out which way you want to go. No worries. Having to throw away parts of your story is a better problem to have than not having enough written.

Characters: Wants, Whys, and Needs

Compelling and interesting characters really need to want something. Try to give your characters very clear and strong wants as early as you can. Conflict will come from the characters having opposing wants. Put them in a situation together and see what happens.

Mystery and suspense come from showing a clear want but withholding the why. This character obviously wants this thing, but why? Why is it important to them? That’s interesting. There must be something there. I’ll keep reading to find out.

And of course character arc comes from the character working towards their want but eventually getting what they need. Something I’ve realized is that the need may actually be what the story needs, or what the reader needs. Justice or punishment of a villain could actually be the need that resolves the arc for the reader. That’s what the character’s story was driving towards.

If It Flows, It Goes

If I read it and I like it, then it’s good enough. Don’t get hung up on the meta. If a scene is only 300 words, but it reads well to me, then it’s awesome. Move on. Don’t worry about what other people do. If it works well then it works.

Writing isn’t the time to worry about this kind of thing anyway. That’s editing. Don’t edit when you write. You’ll take forever. When you have everything together you can review for flow through the entire novel. Then if you have too many short scenes, you’ll see it in the flow of the whole story. Then you can add more.

Get Back to Writing

That’s enough for now. Publish this and get back to writing.

2 responses to “Writing Advice to Myself”

  1. Great advice Bob! As I get older, I too worry less about what others think, and just do what I want.

    As for getting good at jazz, playing a lot of jazz certainly helps, but for me, when I felt like I really got good at jazz, it was combined with listening to a lot of jazz. My library in college had a listening library where you could go listen to any of the many CDs, records, and tapes they had in a little booth with nice headphones. Sitting down and actually listening – not just hearing – but really paying attention was really key for me. I think that for writing, the act of reading is likely just as important. I recently started replacing my tv time before bed with reading, and I really enjoying it. I am re-reading the A Wrinkle In Time series by Madeleine L’Engle. I read the first three when I was 12 or 13 or so. I am enjoying them just as much now as I did then.

  2. I’m definitely a “pantser” rather than a “plotter.” That means that rather than having a very clear outline of what will happen, I am writing by the seat of my pants. I have a general idea of the story, the conflict, etc. But it’s evolving and changing.

    RR Martin has this concept of an “Architect” writer and a “Gardener”. It’s a nice methaphor, but it ends up in horrible season 7 finally when you try to wrap all the plots :D. Still like it.

    These things can be helpful, but they can also be a never-ending tool for procrastination.

    I love the concept of “do 100 things”. Instead of thinking your way through improvement, you just do something 100 times and that tight feedback loop will ensure improvement


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