The internet abounds with writing tips for new writers and everyone has a take on how you “should” write your book. Always plot. Never plot. Write at the same time everyday. Don’t wait for inspiration. Grind it out. There are thousands of them. In this post, I’ve narrowed down my favourite writing tips for new authors. But, take them with a pinch of salt because your process may be different.
My biggest tip? Don’t let other people’s ideas of how you should write get in the way of your writing. Build your process to suit the way you like to work. However, if (like me) you like to dive into other people’s processess or need a gentle nudge, read on.
The first draft is where you tell yourself the story; the second is where you tell it to other people
Thanks Neil Gaiman.
If you’re struggling through your first draft, this tip will change your life. When you approach your writing with this mindset, it becomes easy to reconcile the bumps, inconsistencies, and banality of those first efforts. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter that your character’s name changes halfway through, or a new antagonist seizes the reigns at 50,000 words. It’s your story, run with it.
The second draft is where it’s at for actually crafting your work. And the third. And the fourth…
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” — Richard Bach
This is a fundamental truth of writing (and everything else). New writers are rarely told that writing, more than anything else, is an exercise in dogged determination. It’s a willingness to fix what you hadn’t seen as broken and change what you thought was perfect.
Your first draft isn’t ready to send out to a publisher, and it’s likely your second won’t be either. And while it’s tempting to send your shiny new story out into the world, you’ll be grateful you persevered through a round or two (or three) more of edits.
Don’t edit while you write
Don’t. You’ll go round and round in circles making a few pages perfect that you’ll end up cutting out later. See tip #1.
Over time, you’ll find that the quality of your early drafts will improve. You’ll subconsciously edit your work as you go and make fewer obvious mistakes. Let this kind of self-editing develop naturally.
Plot your story
This is a surprise addition to the list because I’m a pantser from way back. As a new writer, I never plotted. I hate plotting. It gets in the way of writing. Whenever I start, I get excited about the story and can’t resist diving into the writing way before I’ve worked out any of the details that a traditional plotter would be across. However, lately I’ve found that pants/plot hybrid works well for me (you might be different). I don’t need to delay gratification for too long, but I don’t stumble around blind for months on end either.
Life is about compromise, right?
I’ve also done a few time-based, subject-restricted writing competitions and found plotting invaluable when there’s a tight deadline, a word count limit, and a set of parameters that have to be met.
Kill Your Darlings
You’ll hear this piece of advice from every writer you’ve ever met and as a new writer it can be a near impossible feat.
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”—William Faulkner
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”—Stephen King.
Your darlings are those beautiful bits of prose that came to you in a moment of inspiration and made you feel special. They flow and flutter, dip and dive across the page in a flurry of whimsy and playfulness. Kill them. Do it. They’re dragging you down. Lock them away like Bertha Rochester if you must, but they’ll burn your house down if you don’t (oh wait… she did that anyway didn’t she?). See advice #2.
Be a reader; you can’t write in a vacuum
One of the best writing tip for new writers isn’t to write at all, but read. Reading other people’s work is the best way to educate yourself about writing. You know a well-written book when you see one, the next trick is to figure out how they did it. This means that you need to read asa writer. Look at language, structure, voice, plotting, setting, characterisation—all the ‘ations’. Many new writers worry that their work will be derivative or that they need to ‘be original’. Your words are always original and every piece of work is derivative, so put that fear aside and get reading.
And, who doesn’t enjoy reading?
Aim for rejection
This may seem an odd tip for successful writers because who wants to expereince that sinking, disappointing feeling over and over? But aiming for rejections means you’re writing. The more the better. After all, a rejection is a ‘not here right now’ response rather than a ‘this is no good’ response.
You can’t fix it if you haven’t written it, and like anything, writing takes practice. Not only does your writing improve the more you do (who’d have thought?), but you build a body of work that shows you what kind of writer you are. Plus, publishers like writers who have a publication history (a real Catch-22, thanks Joseph).
This tip is also a variation on the ‘don’t edit while you write,’ and ‘the first draft is where you tell yourself the story’ tips above.
Hang out with other writers
Seriously, they’re the only ones that get it. That doesn’t mean you have to join a writing group if that’s not your thing, but just being able to talk to someone who understands the ups and downs is incredibly helpful.
Use less words
This is one of those tips for new writers that isn’t true for everyone. Some people love flowery, poetic language. I prefer simple, straight-forward language with details expressed in as few words as possible. This is as much a reflection of personality and preferences than a steadfast rule. However, as a reader, I often skim the sections of description and jump to the action and dialogue. I know I’ve found a gem when I gush at the beauty of a simple sentence that still portrays the complexity of place and emotion.
Hopefully, these tips will help you get stuck into your writing. Take out of them what works for you and throw away anything that doesn’t. Writing is a mix of black magic, stubbornness and luck, and you never know what tip or trick will be the one that gets you through your next piece of work.
Looking for more inspiration?
The internet is a veritable rabbit-hole of ‘how to’s’ and ‘rules’, and ‘tips’ for new writers. Here are a few I think are useful.
Louise Allan’s ‘How to write a book’ series.
Writing in isolation, tucked away in a cabin in the woods, slaving over the burden of a manuscript.
This is what writing retreats are, right? Literature and film has done much to portray the tortured artist – be it writer, sculptor, painter, musician. But is that actually the case?
I’ve been home for two weeks from my great adventures in Japan and have had time to reflect upon the experience and how it will change the way I work.
Creativity – and I don’t limit the notion of the creative to artistic endeavors because great scientific thought, social works, good parenting, great management (all facets of life) require creativity – is by necessity sparked by others. I think we all recognise those moments in our lives when a great idea hits, when the solution to our problem presents itself and the way through the tangled path clears. They might come in the shower or the bath, but does that mean that the solitude is the tinder to the spark? Or is it that the physical and mental space give us time to process and articulate something that was already brewing?
The idea that isolating yourself – either socially or intellectually – doesn’t work is not new. There is a saying in the writing world that goes roughly like this: you can’t write in a vacuum.
I believe you can’t do anything in vacuum – it’s impossible. You need a space suit and and a whole complicated mechanism for survival, tools, tethers, points of reference and so on. And all of those things weren’t created in a vacuum but rather through collaboration and teamwork. (Don’t worry, I know I’m not meant to take the saying literally.)
From a writing perspective, I’ve always taken this to mean you can’t write if you don’t read. You have to study the masters, so to speak, to know where you fit into the world, like any apprenticeship. It would be ludicrous to expect a carpenter to design new furniture with no prior exposure to the craft, or a CEO of a company to just ‘wing it’ with no prior experience or advisers to rely upon.
But it’s more than that. You can’t write if you don’t watch, listen and experience. Obviously it doesn’t mean you need to literally experience everything you write about because our brains are exceedingly good at extrapolating one experience to imagine another. I can imagine (roughly) what a rocket launch might feel like because I’ve ridden a roller coaster … and so on.
The next saying that most people will be familiar with, is: there are no new ideas. If you’ve thought of it, chances are someone else has already written it, thought about it, discarded with the compost and made a self-deprecating joke to their family over dinner with it. So why bother? You can’t insulate yourself from repeating the same idea by isolating yourself.
What you can do is bring something else to the table. The idea might be the same, but the execution can never be identical (unless you plagarise). Why do people continue to read crime fiction? Why do I gorge on every science fiction TV show? The concept (woman found murdered, crew stranded in space) is the same, but every new perspective brings something unique to the story. If that wasn’t the case, there would be no differentiation between individuals in any job. We all know from experience that one person can be an amazing leader, while another – maybe even more qualified – flounders.
What does any of this have to do with writing retreats?
I learned a great deal about my personal process by taking the time out to be alone. And I like to think that what I discovered about myself is applicable to more than just writing.
I’m a social person. I get lonely and grumpy if I’m left out of things and have found years of motherhood and study psychologically challenging. I’ve lost the knack of being in a group, yet at the same time I crave company – in the right doses, at the right time, for the right duration and with the right people. (I’m a difficult person.)
Yet, at the same time I crave the freedom and solitude to follow my pursuits without distraction – writing, photography, reading, craft (yep! I like sewing and spinning wool.) However, often I find when I do get the time, I wander around listless and lost as though unable to focus.
When I set out for Japan I was terrified that I would squander the opportunity to do some deep, meaningful work. I didn’t want to edit old material because I felt like I could do that at home. I wanted to create something new and fresh in the luxury of isolation.
I did write new material and the time was helpful to immerse myself in a new world of thought. I found these times were where I floated the most. If I’m honest, the most productive element of the trip was spent editing. This was a surprise. I’d imagined an intense and steamy love affair with my new material (insert writing montage here). Instead I had a nostalgic and wistful anniversary trip with my old work – and it was incredible.
The take-away? Isolation only works if you’ve done the groundwork beforehand.
Would I go again? In a heartbeat.
What work would I plan? A mix of old and new – but do some solid prep work in the company of others to generate all those juicy ideas. I need a mixing pot of life to get everything working, then the focus of isolation to hone it.
Length? Ten days. Two and half weeks was luxurious but exhausting and I’ve come home with no reserves at all.
Collaborate? Definitely. Shared time sparks creativity no matter what work you do.
Recommendation? If you get the chance – do it. No matter what field you work in, you will benefit from the head-space and intensity of solitude. It will make you appreciate both your own company and thoughts, and the positive contribution other people make to your creative life.
The divide between plotters and pantsers is well known within the writing world. To the un-initiated, these terms indicate a writer’s underlying approach to their first draft. Plotters meticulously lay out their entire story – index cards, cork boards, timelines, character profiles, story arc, subplots, B characters, turning points … – I’m exhausted. Pantsers on the other hand, like to throw caution to the wind and let the story take them where it wants.
I’m a panster. I get an idea, bounce up and down in my chair for a bit, bore my husband to death with it, then (just as his eyes start to glaze over) I go away and start writing. I don’t have time to waste worrying about plot consistency or whether the story actually makes sense.
I’m an artist, damn it, and I’ll find a way. The story will grow organically, and bloom like a beautiful, vibrant sunflower – tall and elegant. (Visualising readers gasping with delight…)
As an example, the novel I’m currently editing started from an overheard conversation at the airport where a couple in their sixties were complaining that their daughter never makes them pudding when they go to her house for dinner. By the last draft, I’d written a story about a woman who time-travels through her mother’s memories to unravel a family secret.
Pantsing in action.
Some writers use a combination of both approaches.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you write so long as you write. We all get there in the end. Only writing creates writing. You can’t fix what isn’t there. A bad draft is better than no draft. Do the work and fix it later. Write. Just write. Be a slave to the desk. Be a slave to the process … and so on.
Apparently, no amount of downloading the latest writing app, reading books about the writing craft, lying in a hammock with a glass of wine imagining your new universe, or telling your long suffering partner about your great idea will put words on the page. (Neither will writing about said method in a blog post.)
So, I find myself away on my writing retreat, wanting to get the most out this precious solitude. I have aspirations that I’ll come away with a chunky body of work to show for the expense and inconvenience I’ve put my family through.
I arrived with about twelve thousand words of ‘pants’ work for a new novel that has been swirling around in my brain for the past 12-18 months. Swirling is about the sum of it. It’s a mess. There are contradictory plot lines, overlapping characters, and it appears I’ve written the same events more than once, but for different characters. And no, not the specky same event from different perspectives trick, but literally the same thing happening to different characters.
In the past, I’ve found pantsing works well. I often ‘hear’ my characters chatting in my head. Most scenes start from a conversation and I find building a scaffold of dialogue lets me get the backbone of the story out. Once that’s down on the page, then I worry about fleshing out the backstory and spending time on world building.
But this approach has its limits. Particularly, as this time I’m writing a science fiction novel which requires a large amount of world building in order to understand how the characters act, move and live. The environment directly affects every element of their lives and needs to be carefully considered first. In other words, the world needs to make sense.
Therefore, I have embarked on the audacious quest of plotting this novel. (Cue dramatic music. Some applause would be quite nice right now too.)
My brain hurts.
Plotting is really hard. I have a new-found respect for those writers out there that can build a whole universe in their head and see their story from start to finish – even loosely. So far, my plotting hasn’t been the best. I’ve done a lot of staring out the window under the pretence of thinking (not sure who I’m trying to fool, because I’m alone), I’ve consumed a tremendous amount of coffee (that burns up a few minutes in the making), and already I’ve changed my plot at least ten times because I’ve realised my ideas don’t make sense. Hence the need to plot.
But that’s a good thing, right? Maybe these plotters are onto something.
In the past I’d plough on, hit a roadblock, come up with a patched solution, then blunder ahead hoping it’ll all work out in the end.
To a certain extent that’s still going to happen. It’s inevitable, because the thing I’ve discovered in my feeble attempts at plotting is that I’m not capable of micro-managing the nitty-gritty of the story. I freeze up, and those character voices still jabber away inside my head with their own ideas about where the story needs to go.
What I do have after hours of contemplation, however, is the skeleton of a plot. It’s not pretty and it’s not perfect, but I think I’ve ironed out the worst of the pitfalls (famous last words anyone?) Who knows?
I suspect that I’ll always be a pantser. I love the high you get when you’re writing and the solution presents itself – as if unbidden – on the page. But I don’t love the writing in circles, the repetition, the rabbit-holes of no return, and the inevitable re-drafting and systemic repair that’s needed to fix my short-sighted bursts of enthusiasm along the way.
Maybe this new venture into plotting will bear fruit. Maybe it won’t. But at day 8, I’m ten thousand new words into the novel and I know what I’m going to work on tomorrow. So, something is going right.
This week I’m in Sydney for the Feminist Writer’s Festival and I had planned to repost an older blog post that pretty no one read. It’s lazy, but practical in the midst of an incredibly busy and blustery week. However, last night as I flew over from Perth I watched The Incredibles 2 and was so taken with this lovely little film that I changed my mind and decided to write about it.
Confession: Life is tough at the moment. I’m in The Queen Victoria building, waiting for my coffee to arrive. I slept in until 9am. Seriously, 9am? And am a free agent until six when the first lecture of the festival starts. Pity me.
The Incredibles 2.
The first Incredibles movie is one of my favourites. Anyone with small people in their lives will know what it is like to have to continuously watch the same trite, vacuous and irritating animated films on repeated loop for say… ten years? The Incredibles was one that I got into. It’s take on life after superdom. That is, life after the romance, the adventure, the thrill of the chase. Married life. Family life. How do we reconcile our young, beautiful former selves with this ragged person just trying to hang on. This, all mixed in with a super cute super-hero storyline.
The latest iteration of The Incredibles somehow does it better again. This time we follow the rebooted career of Elastogirl (The mother, wife and carer of the Incredibles family). The husband and wife team reverse roles and while there’s nothing new in that plot-line it is handled so beautifully and poignantly that I almost forgot I was watching a kids’ film. The film begins with the family saving the city from “The Underminer” (where the first film ended). When the action scene ends, the family is arrested. Superheros are still illegal. The insurance won’t cover the damage of their intervention. Now homeless and unemployed the family is destitute. This is when Elastogirl is offered an opportunity to raise the image of superheros through a suit-cam and PR campaign. Like the first film, the superhero plot is an absolute aside to the relationships and identities this film is exploring.
It is overwhelmingly exciting that the protagonist of a kids’ superhero movie is a middle-aged mother-of-three who is trying to recapture her own sense of self as autonomous and important while balancing her need to care for her family. Layered over this is the equally amusing but touching narrative of Mr Incredible. He too struggles to give up his past identity in order to do maths homework, care for a baby and steer his teenage daughter through adolescence. COupled with this is his own identity crisis in which he must manage his ego and expectations as he is outshone by his previously second-fiddle wife. While the film draws on familiar jokes about a father’s inability to cope in the home it swiftly dispels the rather insulting notion that it can’t be done. Mr Incredible adapts, learns and copes in order to give Elastogirl the space and the time she needs to thrive outside the home.
This film is funny, beautifully made, and full of pop-culture references. It engages with the social and political sphere in its ongoing storyline about doing what it right versus what is legal and the way that governments and legislation can lose sight of people.
Why do I think this film is important?
This film is about family. It is about the relationships that make us who we are. It doesn’t valorise youth and beauty. Nor does it dismiss its young characters as incapable or reliant. Rather, The Incredibles 2 is a film I want my children to see because it shows a family working together to navigate life and reminds us that every member has value, both within the family and as a member of the larger community.
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Ok so I have downloaded a photo challenge app called “The Bigger Picture” and I am going to try and tackle at least one week. This is a great little app, providing task, pointers, examples of other people’s work and forums on Facebook and Flickr to share your work.
The first challenge was to photograph through a window. Sounds easy enough and the example picture given depicted a beautiful old pharmacy chest in black and white. Luckily for me, my daughter was doing some sewing this weekend and her machine happens to sit in front of a window in our lounge room. While she was concentrating I snuck outside and took a few pictures. Most of them didn’t work. It was mid-afternoon (the worst time to photograph almost anything), it was hard to find an angle that didn’t put me in the frame, and the colour in the lantanas and the bourgainvillia behind me were so vivid that they washed out my daughter’s skin. But I did manage to get a couple of shots that I was moderately happy with, and with a few tweaks—reducing the luminance and saturation of yellow and green in the feature image—shot on Nikon D5, 1/450 sec, f/5, focal length 70mm, upping the exposure over my daughter’s face to lift her skin, and finally applying an Alien Skin filter over my own edits—I was ultimately happy with the results.
In the end I opted for black and white to increase the contrast and (hopefully) draw Lily out from the busy-ness of the reflection. (Shot on Nikon D5, 1/400 sec, f/5, focal length 70mm)
I like the sense that she isn’t aware of the camera (of course she was! but she’s so used to me standing there pointing it at her). The use of the window gives the effect of an overlay, providing texture and depth on what is an essentially a simple and domestic image. I prefer the black and white edit to the coloured feature image, though I think they both have their merits.
If anyone is interested in undertaking these challenges with me I will be posting them weekly (hopefully!). Post your pics in the comments, or a link to your favourite photo display medium, I’d love to see them.
The next challenge is “Glow”: Shoot a glowing subject.