Holed up in the Ozarks for Thanksgiving this week, I had occasion to meet a new step-niece from my brother’s recent marriage. She is engaging, geeky, obsessed with the Potterverse, and drawn to but nervous about writing. From the other side of my mother’s house, I could hear a whispered conversation between my sister-in-law and the young writer: Show him your story. No, no, I can’t. Come on, he can give you pointers. He’ll laugh at me, she said, the common worry of all writers who haven’t reached a minimum threshold of confidence in their craft. Then her mother’s reassurance, and a grudging, I’ll let him look at it tomorrow, from the girl.
Fifteen minutes before they left to go home after the holiday, her mother brought in her notebook computer to my room, and quietly asked if I’d read it. It was the kind of exchange more often reserved for clandestine deals in an urban alley. I squinted at the tiny screen and scrolled through the prose in a few minutes.
It occurs to me after speaking with my niece that my advice is helpful for more than junior scribes. Or at least I’d like to think so. Here’s what I told her, in no particular order of chronology or importance:
- Stay away from adverbs, especially if they’re a usual part of the verb and noun pairing. For example, readers don’t need to know that the “cloud floated slowly by,” because clouds are prone to slow movement, and floating implies little to no speed. Clouds racing above the horizon, however, is interesting.
- On that note. . . in description, write against reader expectations. To do this, you have to know what those expectations are, so. . .
- Read, read, and read some more. Rereading is fine, but reading widely and across genres and eras is better.
- List out idioms and common sayings and then rewrite them in new ways. Play with language so that the characters are as alive as possible and the story prose is crisp and interesting. But don’t get so into word play that it detracts from the story.
- Observe someone out on the street for a couple of minutes, and then write a 1,000-word flash fiction story about them. It must have a beginning, middle, and end, and not be a vignette. Then write out what happens in the next 250 words.
- Remember that the real work of writing–and the joy–comes in the rewriting process. And don’t be so attached to anything in your story that you can’t change it, because then you also prevent the story’s improvement.
- Even bad writing can lead to good writing if you look at the life of a writer. Bad writing only hurts when it’s the reason you stop writing.
- Be prepared to set aside stories that just don’t work out, that you find yourself not connecting with well enough, or that lose your interest. These also contribute to you becoming a better writer.
- Find honest and supportive people with whom you can share your work.
- Join workshops, take classes, participate in critique groups, and get to know other writers. You can support them, learn from their mistakes, get inspired, and receive great feedback, even if only 50 percent of that feedback is helpful.
- Never get caught up in your own ego. Conversely, never let your insecurities stop you from writing.
- Be grateful for whatever words come out of you on any given day. They may be rough, or unbelievable, or trite, contrived, shrill, pretentious, hard, or anything else less than amazing. All of those words, however defective, get you closer to becoming a better writer if you let them, and all of us have written total garbage on more days than we’d care to remember.
I hope she goes back to her story and finishes it. And then gets started on the next one.