I was recently scheduled to speak to a creative writing class at my college alma mater about my first novel and writing in general, so I’ve been debating how best to impart advice. I had to learn a whole lot of writing techniques the hard way, sometimes because I was a little oblivious, and sometimes because I accepted conventional wisdom about writing topics without scrutiny. In the hope that it will be useful to other writers, I thought I’d present the same writing truths I’m planning to cover for those students, a few kernels I wish I’d had when I first got serious about the craft.
1.) “Write what you know” may be trumpeted a lot, but you can’t apply it literally. Otherwise you end up with nothing but stories about grad students struggling with collegiate life. That’s fine if student life is what you really want to write about, but some institutions hand off that sort of expectation like a weighty anchor, effectively sinking poor students so deep that they can’t surface to master the strokes they’re most interested in. Write what you know shouldn’t mean only what you have personally experienced, it should also mean to write what you love. If you want to write about gangsters or spaceships and you’ve done the research, then you can be said to know it. If you need to do more research to better know what you love, make it so. You can then apply your personal knowledge of, say, human relationships, to inform your topic.
2.) Know what every character wants before they walk on stage. I repeat this one all the time because I was so slow to learn it. I used to write little morality plays that required me to position the characters at the behest of the plot. I moved them about like cardboard cutouts until my point was made, rather than letting the plot arise from collisions between character motivations. Once I finally figured out the latter, my writing grew far more interesting almost overnight.
3.) It’s vital to understand the background of your world (be it invented or not), as well as the environment and characters, but just because you have pages and pages of notes it doesn’t mean you need to tell your readers all about them, especially in an information dump at the start of your story. You may never even use the information at all within the finished text. If you know those background details, they can inform the behavior of your characters without squishing the reader flat under a ton of data. Let that information out gradually.
4.) You should understand your weaknesses and work to improve them, but you should still play to your strengths, especially in rough drafts. Does dialogue come easily? Frame a whole scene out like a play and throw the description in later. If dialogue’s the hard part, block in the description first and then hone the speech of your characters.
5.) There is no “one way” up the mountain, no matter what you’ve been taught by teachers or read in books. If you think of “finishing the text” as the mountain’s summit, you need to find a way there. Don’t think that means you must always climb the same way, or that you must always imitate the methods of a favorite author. You must find your own path. Some people have to write everything chronologically, but others write best out of order, or draft the key scenes first and then fill in the gaps. Some outline heavily, and some lightly, and some not at all. And just because you’ve found a particular writing method that’s worked well for you doesn’t mean that, when you get stuck, you shouldn’t experiment with another path up the mountain. Different ways work at different times and in different circumstances. Writing is an art, after all, not production line work where the procedure has to be followed the same way so that an identical product is constructed. I don’t think any of us are striving to craft identical products, no matter what genre we’re working in.
6.) Don’t excuse a plot flaw in dialogue. Sometimes during early revisions I’d notice some small issue that I’d try to fix with an exchange that would let the readers know I had seen the plot flaw myself but mumble mumble handwave it didn’t really matter. That’s a poor solution. If you’ve found a fray in the plot, you may have to pull the thread up all the way back to where it starts, and fix it there. Otherwise you might as well be using duct tape to repair a crack in your window. It might hold things together, but it sure won’t be pretty.
7.) If you’re writing adventure fiction, provide a clear throughline from act to act and scene to scene that can be summed up in a few lines—if it takes longer than that to explain what’s going on, it’s probably too convoluted. A good for instance of a clear through line can be found in Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indy’s after the headpiece to the staff of Ra so he can find out where to dig for the Ark of the Covenant.
8.) Know the difference between procrastination and incubation. In other words, sometimes you’re not working because you feel lazy, and sometimes you’re not working because you haven’t hammered out the problems with the upcoming scene yet. Sometimes you need to retreat from the work a bit and go do something completely unrelated. Robert E. Howard referred to this retreat as “filling the well” and recognized it as a necessary phase of the writing process.
I’m still struggling with this one, for I have a hard time remembering that the muse needs downtime. I’m trying to get in the habit of stepping back when I have trouble focusing on a manuscript. I ask myself what the real problem is, sometimes by exploring it with a few questions about the plot that I jot down in my writing notebook. This helps me break up the knot. But sometimes I just need to walk away for a few days, and not feel bad about it.
Surely there’s much more that could be shared, but that’s probably enough for my lecture. I can’t predict if I could have used this information as a young writer without experiencing the hard lessons myself; I’m just hopeful that it can make a difference for some of the students in attendance at my talk. And maybe for some of you out there in the wider world.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of The Desert of Souls (Thomas Dunne Books 2011), a historical fantasy set in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate featuring Dabir and Asim, characters who’ve appeared in a variety of short fiction venues since 2000. His Pathfinder novel, Plague of Shadows, is set for release in March of 2011. Jones was the driving force behind the rebirth of interest in Harold Lamb’s historical fiction, and has assembled and edited 8 collections of Lamb’s work for the University of Nebraska Press. He has served as Managing Editor of Black Gate magazine since 2004.