Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My top 10 Tips

Writers often get asked what are our ‘tips’ for people who want to write. Usually we say fairly general stuff like ‘Keep practicing’ and ‘don’t get discouraged’ and ‘learn to accept criticism’. These aren’t always the most useful or practical bits of advice so, for what it’s worth, here are…

Tony’s Ten Writing Tips:

1. Never start a story / chapter with a rhetorical question.
They’re a really boring and predicable way of trying to get your reader’s attention.

2. For that matter, don’t end your story / chapter with a rhetorical question, either.
Cliff-hanger endings are great, and can be very useful, but if your reader isn’t asking the important questions about your story on their own, then there’s a problem with your writing, and just telling them what to think won’t solve it.

3. In fact, let’s face it – for the most part, rhetorical questions suck, anywhere in your writing. Avoid them like the plague.
They’re a lazy way to make your reader engage with your story. Be more subtle. Use characterisation and make your reader wonder about what your character really intends when he / she / they / it does or says something unusual. Then leave them wondering for a while.

4. First person point-of-view is easy to write, but hard to write well.
A lot of people like first person POV, and that’s cool. But you have to be a really disciplined writer to avoid your first person story becoming a completely passive telling of events, rather than a more interesting showing of them. It’s easy in first person writing to keep repeating your ‘I’ pronoun; “I walked down the street, I saw a dog, I spoke to the dog, I said, ‘hi dog’…” and so on…

5. No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to write Lord Of The Rings in 1000 words.
You might have a great idea for an epic fantasy covering the entire history of the land of Central-Earth and involving dragons, elves, swords-with-names, amulets, evil magicians, faeries, and a quest to retrieve the amulet of (insert-amulet-name-and-powers-here) and throw it into a far off volcano / distant gully of fire / ocean / impossibly large frog. Unless you resign yourself to spending the next three decades or so of your life writing it, you probably won’t do it justice. If this is for a school assignment where your teacher has set a word / page limit, then chances are you’re not going to fit it in. Write about something you have actual experience of, instead. Which brings us to #6…

6. Write about something you have actual experience of.
No, I don’t mean write ‘What-I-did-on-my-holidays’ stories. (Generally speaking, nobody really cares about them, either), but remember that all good writing needs to have some element of truth in it. This is what readers pick up on and relate to. Even if you decide to ignore #5 and go for the epic fantasy story, this rule still applies. Perhaps more so. Readers don’t say “Hey, I totally understand what it’s like to be a dragon with no wings and so I’m really enjoying this nine-page description of the history of wingless dragons!”, but they might say “Hey, I really understand what it’s like not to fit in when all your peers are different to you” so it’s this aspect of your wingless-dragon character that you probably want to spend your time developing. This is the stuff that readers will get. This is what will make them like or dislike your characters. Think about the things you know about. Use them in your writing.

7. Learn to edit.
Seriously. Accept the fact that you probably won’t write a masterpiece in your first draft. I never have. Most writers don’t. Also accept the fact that most writers spend about 90% of their time rewriting and editing stuff they’ve already written about a hundred times, and only about 10% actually creating new material. In my experience, it’s editing, not talent / genius / inspiration that makes the difference between a good story and a great story.

8. Less is more.
Not all the time, but most of it. Readers are often more interested by what you don’t say than what you do. Long descriptive passages might sound pretty, but they can lose you a reader. Long and detailed explanations of why everything in your story has happened might seem important to you, but for a reader they can get dull. Trust your reader’s intelligence and imagination to fill in the gaps for you.

9. Sentences, Paragraphs and Dialogue are your friends.
Learn to use them. Then use them well.

10. Learn to accept criticism.
Okay, I know I said I wasn’t going to do this one, but it’s a Reeeeealy important one. All the good writing I’ve ever read has come from writers who are prepared to listen to other people’s opinions – even if they don’t necessarily agree with them – and at least consider the possibility that their own writing or story might not be perfect. A good friend of mine once told me that ‘just because you’ve written it, doesn’t make it good.’ It’s the best advice I’ve ever received. As a writer you also need to accept that fact that not everyone is going to like everything you write. It’s part of the deal you make when you put something ‘out there’ for other people to read.

So there you are. Ten writing tips. In no particular order. The other thing I’d mention is that you could ask 100 different writers for their top ten writing tips, and you’d probably get 100 different lists. Some of them will probably contradict everything I’ve said here. It’s part of the joy of writing, really – finding out what works for you.

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