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?