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Top Five Writing Tips

I was recently giving a talk about my books and an audience member asked me for my top writing tips, the ones I have come to after a lot of trial and error. It was a great question, though I had to think hard to come up with them on the fly. This is not an exhaustive list and I really believe we all need to learn what works for us as individual writers (see tip#1). But here they are, my greatest hits of writing advice:

1. Don't try to be someone you're not. Instead, learn about yourself as a writer and what works for you. I see a lot of very prescriptive writing advice — Use My Surefire Six-Step Process and Write a Novel in a Month! — out there and it makes me uncomfortable. Outlining a book down to the tiniest detail might work for some writers, but for others it's just wasted effort because everything will change once things are underway. If you know you need to be surprised and to have a sense of discovery as part of your creative process, then detailed outlining won't work for you. If you have to know where you're going in order to settle into your story, then planning ahead will likely help you be more productive. The only way to learn about yourself as a writer is to try a few different approaches and see which one fits you best.

2. If you're not sure where your story is going, ask yourself if you have a plot or a premise. Often, we start writing novels or stories with a premise. A woman discovers that her brother was actually kidnapped as an infant by her parents. It's exciting and promising, but it's not a plot. The plot is all the things will happen when the woman decides how she will respond to this new knowledge. What actions will she take that will change everything in her family? How will her brother and her parents respond to her actions with actions of their own? Plots are like trains traveling down one branch of a multi-track rail system. Each choice your characters make leads to other choices that irrevocably change the path they travel through the story.

3. Spend some time with your characters. When I find myself stuck, it's often because I don't know my characters well enough. I don't really understand their choices and motivations. Spending some time working on the characters' backstories — where were they and what were they doing before they walked into the book? — can help shake plot possibilities loose. I also like to spend some time asking myself what my characters want. What does she want out of her life? What does he want out of his marriage? What does she want over the course of the novel? What does he want in this scene?

4. Take a break. When you've finished a draft or reached an important milestone in the writing of the manuscript, take a break and give it some time to settle. Time is the best writing tool and walking away from a book I've been swimming in for months is my most surefire method for solving problems and coming to understand what I'm actually writing about or which character's story is actually at the center of my plot. I find long walks are the best way to figure things out. Hot baths are a close second.

5. In a perfect world, I would write every single day. The world is not perfect. While I do need to put in six- or seven-hour workdays at least five days a week in order to get a book written, I also know that there are days where I'm just not going to be able to write a lot of words. What I've learned is that if I can't put in a real writing day, I can keep the momentum going by making contact with the manuscript every day. If I open it up, read the last scene I wrote, work on one paragraph in the time I have, then my brain keeps writing, even while I'm away from my desk.


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