Part 2: The 40 Best Tips from Successful Authors & When to Ignore Them

Here’s Part 2 of my massive article on writer’s tips on writing. You can read Part 1 here.

21. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov, playwright and short story writer

Chekhov is widely accepted as one of the greatest writers in history. If you have his skill level, you likely have an innate sense of when to show (glint of light on broken glass) versus tell (moon is shining). You also probably know how to show lyrically and efficiently. Otherwise, you’ll have to learn it. Books that only show or do so in too much detail for too many things can get bogged down in detail, lose the flow, and get tedious. Readers will skip those pages. (For an example, see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) You can still earn a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize, apparently, but your book won’t be as fun to read.

Likewise, books that only tell seem simplistic and amateurish. The magic is knowing how to show what’s important, creating visceral imagery and emotion with your prose and tell what’s not important, so that the pace of the writing stays good. Do both, as appropriate.

22. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.” Elmore Leonard

Despite how pretentious this sounds to me, it’s not bad advice. I’d change the first sentence to read, “If it sounds like pretentious, pseudo-literary bullshit, I smack myself and rewrite it.” Other articles on writing advice include the first sentence of his second quote without explanation. This one’s simple: don’t add details that aren’t vital to the story. We really don’t give a shit what your main character is wearing, except when it reveals something about her character. We don’t need to know what’s on the suspect’s work desk or how glorious the flowers are he passed by. Too much detail is simply adding words to the book to make it look impressive.

See how that last sentence bored you? It was unneeded. Just leave out the  page fillers.

23. Write the book that you’re desperate to read. Fall in love with your characters. Finish the day’s writing at a point where you want to know what happens next. And keep writing every day. – Keren David, author of Cuckoo and others

Yes. Don’t write for money (you probably won’t make any) or fame (fewer will care than you hoped). Do it for the love. Write because other people’s books suck and yours don’t. Write because you might explode if you don’t. Then keep writing because you like your books, and just maybe others will too.

24. “One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
Lawrence Block, crime and mystery author of over 100 books

This is the secret to being prolific. Edit yourself after you’ve finished, but before or during. If you’re a bit off your game one day, you can always edit it the next, so write. One day we’re good at chugging out the plot in boring language, and the next day we’re freaking poets. Creating the balance is what editing is for. While you’re creating, let yourself ebb and flow.

25. Keep generating new writing and new ideas. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Oh, and make peace with the fact that (in your eyes) it will never be perfect, or finished. – Michelle Thomas, campaigner and journalist

We’ve said this before, but it can’t be emphasized enough. Don’t be your own roadblock. Perfection is death.

26. “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” —Neil Gaiman, best writing advice giver

Word-for-word truth. Get this on a tattoo.

27. “In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” —Rose Tremain, author, short story writer

 I included this one to poke at the plotter (planning out the book) vs. pantser (making it up as you go) debate. The answer is to do both. I can always tell a book that wasn’t plotted in advance, because the flow is uneven. It might devote 50 pages to the events of two days and then wrap up the next 15 years in the following 20. They aren’t bad books and equally likely to be best-sellers or award winners as those rigidly plotted in advance. However, in reading them, I’m always left with the feeling I used to get when my dad would drive us through back streets, and I was the only other person in the car, besides him, who knew we were lost. I hate that lost feeling.

This doesn’t mean you should plot every nuance of the book. That is way too limiting. It means you should have an outline and sort of a word budget in mind before you write. It might be something as simple as, “in this section, these two things happen, in around 1,500 words” I don’t start writing a book until I know the ending, but it almost always changes during the book. I can’t see starting if I don’t know when I’ll be done.

28. “It’s important to be inspired by other writers and sources, but when it comes to the actual writing, I swear by going into Tunnel Vision Mode. Pretend nothing else exists but you and your idea. Don’t compare and don’t despair.”
– Emma Gannon, author of Ctrl Alt Delete: How I Grew Up Online

Agree. ‘Nuff said. No one knows your book but you. The other guy’s book is his book. I’ve read Nobel Prize winners that made me want to puke and unheralded books I thought were magic. Own your magic and let no one take it.

29. “Make yourself write regularly. It’s like anything: The more you practise, the better you’ll get.”
– Jennifer Gray, author of the Atticus Claw and Chicken Mission series

This is the skill part. There are NO shortcuts, but any writing is good practice.

30. “Give yourself permission to be terrible. There’s nothing more paralyzing than trying to write a perfect novel in one draft. Do your best to turn off your inner editor and just write. Everything can be fixed later!”
– Sarah Rubin, author of Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue

Worthy of being repeated.

31. “Listen to the criticisms and preferences of your trusted ‘first readers.” —Rose Tremain

 If you don’t have any first readers, get some. Again, hear, “Something’s wrong here,” when they have critiques, but you decide how to fix it.

32. “You will inevitably be told be someone that you have to write a thousand words every day. You don’t, in the same way that you don’t have to run every day, or go to the gym every day. Your work is percolating at the back of your mind. So, going for a walk is writing. Watching TV is writing. Staring into the depths of a glass of rum is writing.”
– David Barnett, journalist and author of Calling Major Tom

Writing is the process of inventing a story and characters, including putting them down on paper, but not exclusively so.

33. “I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.”
Michael Moorcock, science fiction and fantasy author

Be really careful about the running the risk of copying ideas, characters, or styles. In fact, just don’t risk it. Read other stuff, and make sure your ideas are fresh.

34. “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
Stephen King

This is great advice if you don’t plot your books. They’ll be full of fat to cut. Ahem. I’ll just leave this at that.

35. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Mark Twain

Almost-good writing is bad writing.

36. “Beware of clichés. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.”
Geoff Dyer

Too much of today’s writing consists of carbon copies and formulaic genre fiction. For God’s sake, write something new or don’t write. Don’t use clichés and stay clear of idiomatic expressions (which are usually hackneyed and hard to translate once you’re super famous). Also, stereotypes are also clichés, so don’t get caught up in a “this one’s sort of true” bind. It may be true, but it’s also irritatingly boring, so leave it out.

37. “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”
Anne Enright

You. Damn. Skippy. If you doubt yourself, you’re probably skilled enough that you’re focused on the areas where you’re less-than-perfect. The reverse is likely true too, sadly. Bad writers don’t know enough about writing to hear the off-key notes in their poetry. Don’t be that guy.

38. “Write. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
Neil Gaiman

Preach.

39. “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”
Neil Gaiman

Y’all don’t hear me! We having church up in here!

40. “Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. And including this tip. Or at least take them with a big pinch of salt. I have never met two writers who work exactly the same way: One of the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, things about writing is that you have to work out for yourself who and what you are as a writer, and how you yourself work best. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to see a piece of advice by [insert your favourite author here] and think, If s/he writes like this, I must do it that way too. That can be unhelpful, and instead I think that every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or whether it sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice.”
– Marcus Sedgwick, author of The Ghosts of Heaven and others

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
Doris Lessing, novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer

“Beware of advice—even this.”
Carl Sandburg, author and poet

No one can tell you how to write. They can only tell you how they write. They aren’t you, don’t have your brain, imagination, or experience, and you likely don’t even want to write the book they wrote. Know whose book I wish I’d written? Mine. They aren’t perfect, but I did them the way I was supposed to and I broke every goddamned rule I could find.

Figure out your process, work at it, keep going. Beware of advice from writers with no social life or with substance abuse problems. Beware of advice from millionaire writers or those hoping to sell at least one book before they die. Beware of the experienced and the novice. Be wary of the falsely humble, the introvert hiding in their dim cave and venting that it’s where you must live. Avoid those who profess to know what’s right and wrong, and ignore anyone who is always negative, especially when it comes to you or your art.

In fact, now that you’ve read this, know that it now resides in your brain, and just go write. To hell with advice. You’re a writer; make shit up. That’s all you do. I hereby bequeath you with a degree from MSU: the school of Making Shit Up.

There’s life to be had out there. Go invent yourself some.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Arkenaten says:

    In the Pratchett novel The Fifth Elephant, there is a scene where three women who live on their own are called upon to help a naked and freezing Sam Vimes as he is being chased by a pack of Werewolves.
    When he pleads for some clothes one of the women says all we have is Uncle Vania’s old trousers.
    Years after reading this I was ploughing my way through a book called 20th century imaginative literature and I had just started reading Chekhov’s play, Uncle Vania when half way down the first page I remembered where I had read the name before…. in a Pratchett novel.
    I almost wet myself laughing, as Pratchett had taken the whole cherry orchard theme turned it inside out and used it for his novel. It is hilarious.
    And this is where I think the idea to read as widely as possible pays dividends as you never know what you are going to absorb and where or when that information will come in handy.

  2. Sometimes you need to read just so you know that the brilliant idea you just came up with was done a million times before. I like the idea of reading unrelated books and seeing if I can merge them into something new. For instance, I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and decided I wanted to write a southern-American, historical crime novel infused with perverse humor. It won’t be like any of the three books, but it might be a bit like what you’d get if you glued them together.

  3. I like number 40 the best. 🙂

    But seriously, trusting in your own process, and that you actually have a process – even if you don’t know what it is yet – is always a good place to start. Start with a dot. I like that.

    1. People get wrapped around the axle over starting. In truth, all they’re really worried about is that the work won’t turn out to be good. You have to convince yourself you’re starting something grand. If you do, odds are you’ll work hard enough at it that it will eventually become so.

      1. Yes.

        I’ve had the same issue with my own book. The self-doubt is just part of the process. To an extent I agree with writing regularly, if not daily, if it’s possible. But I don’t agree with those authors who believe that you should write even if you don’t feel like it, because chances are you’ll produce crap on those days. You do need to be in the right frame of mind, but what you need to nurture instead, and make a habit is being in the right frame of mind most of the time. It should be second nature to switch into writing mode – you should be able to just switch it on when you want. That however, is down to trusting in your imagination and ability, once again.

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