Tim Chapman Says Don’t Write Drunk

Tim Chapman Says Don’t Write Drunk

Tim Chapman is a former forensic scientist, English teacher, and martial arts instructor. You can read more about him here, see his books here, and read his last post here.

Not long ago, I was asked by the Mystery Writers of America to yak about the writing advice I’ve received over the years from professors and fellow authors. In thinking about it, I realized I’ve received LOTS of advice—some useful and some, like WRITE DRUNK, EDIT SOBER, not so much. Here are the tips I think are worth sharing.

  • PRACTICE: One of the fiction writing classes I took was an independent study in which I had to write 3 to 5 short stories a week. My instructor would meet me at Starbucks every Monday and tell me which stories were worth revising and which ones should be taken into the woods and buried. There’s a forest preserve in Chicago where I’ve dug a very deep hole.
  • WORKSHOP: Show your work to someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings. Friends and family don’t count. And don’t try to defend your work during a critique. Just take good notes so you can review them later when you’re alone with a bottle of wine and a box of tissues.
  • WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW:  Often misunderstood, it doesn’t mean you have to be a doctor to write about a doctor. You can research how to remove a gall bladder. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW means dig deep. Like a method actor, find the source of your own joy, heartbreak, fear, etc., and imbue your characters with those feelings.
  • Likewise, SHOW, DON’T TELL means avoid info dumps. Keep your reader in the action. It doesn’t mean describe every character’s clothing, hair and eye color, and the pattern on the wallpaper. Look at the difference between: Fran was a retired schoolteacher who treated her husband like one of her students. vs “I never had as much trouble with my third grade students as I do with you, Bob.”
  • READ YOUR WORK OUT LOUD: This can help you find the flow. Writing should have rhythm. Experiment with short, punchy sentences for suspenseful scenes and longer sentences for romantic scenes.
  • KILL YOUR DARLINGS: You might be enamored of a scene or passage you’ve written, but if it doesn’t advance the story and/or help establish a character’s personality, get out your red pen.
  • HIRE A PROOFREADER: I taught writing at Malcolm X College for ten years. I graded thousands of papers. But I still miss plenty errors in mi own wok.

So for my fellow Blackbirds—what writing advice have you received that made you a better writer?

Tim Chapman

Tim Chapman is the author of thrillers A Trace of Gold and The Blue Silence. You can find out more about him on his website, timchapmanauthor.com/, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Ah Tim, this is such a great post! I love the list that you came up with! One of the bits of advice that has kept me going through the years is to show up every day and write, whether you feel like it or not. I can’t always do this, but when I’m writing my first draft of my next novel, it really helps to remind myself to keep going. You can always give yourself permission to write that crappy first draft, but you can’t revise and improve a blank page.
    Thanks for this list of reminders!

  2. Laurie Buchanan

    Tim — Great list! I learned from my writing coach/mentor to start and end a scene with the same character (the one who “owns” the scene). And to launch the scene with that character’s worry, dread, or goal first, then give them their actions.

  3. Sheila Lowe

    Excellent advice, and reminds me of one of my favorite lines: There are three rules to writing, but nobody knows what they are.

  4. Sherrill Joseph

    Great post, Tim. I learned from one of my editors to avoid the passive voice; bring action and visualization to the scene. For example, I’ll use one of my detectives, Moki. Instead of saying The snacks were eaten by Moki in record time, say Moki stuffed a ginormous chocolate chip cookie into his mouth, eating three in a record time of two minutes.

  5. Sharon Lynn

    Fantastic advice, Tim! Proofreaders are invaluable. For me, I fall in love with a word and use it sixteen times on one page and nowhere else in the entire novel. And I NEVER see it. Proofreaders – use them!

    1. Tracey Phillips

      Sharon, same here! the mind id funny that way! LOL! I love finding the highlights that my critique group adds to my pages.

  6. I love most of this. However, I must take issue with the “Kill your darlings” thing. I *know* when my writing is good. Yes, it is true that I will occasionally fall in love with a turn of phrase or something. But I also know, in my gut, when it’s not right. So, for me, a lot of times, it’s not the darling that’s the problem, but something else. The fact that the darling isn’t working doesn’t mean that I need to kill it. It usually (although not always) means that something else isn’t working, and I do need to pay attention to that. Loved this.

  7. Joy Ribar

    I never get tired of being reminded about good writing advice. I’ve given so much to my own students and have to be smart enough to know how to take it myself. I love “write what you know” but I appreciate what you added to that idea, of being authentic about the feelings of the characters and keeping them real.

  8. Tracey Phillips

    Tim, I love how you interpret “Write what you know.” It’s something that always trips me up, as in: too much? not enough? Does anyone really care what I know? How do they know if it’s me or what my character knows? Maybe this is a better conversation over drinks. . . (laughing imogy here!)

  9. Tim Chapman

    BTW- the text on my typewritten sheet reads “All work and no play makes Tim a dull boy.” ala The Shining. ;^)

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