Even with a dozen published books to my name, I sometimes need a dose of inspiration when I sit down to write. Above my desk, I’ve posted a paper with various pieces of fiction-writing wisdom I’ve collected over the years. Some of the advice may sound odd, but I’ve found it all helpful. Here it is:
1. Write as if no one’s reading. If you always imagine a reader perched on your shoulder, you’ll be afraid to take chances. At least for the first draft, ignore that imaginary reader and free yourself to write whatever crazy, impossible, lousy things occur to you. You can always fix it later – in fact, you SHOULD fix it later. But you’ll have nothing to rewrite if you’re too intimidated to write in the first place.
2. Show up at the page. Writers write. They sit down – ideally every day but at least as regularly as possible – and write.
3. Don’t polish the turd. If you find yourself spending a lot of time trying to save an idea, a chapter or even a sentence, it usually means it’s time to move on. You’re wasting your time trying to beautify something that, well, just plain stinks.
4. Make bad things happen to good people. Novels are driven by conflict, and that means bad things have to happen to your characters – these people that you’ve created and have grown to love over the course of your novel. Your main character can have a happy ending, but along the way, he or she has to deal with sorrow, disappointments and possibly even danger.
5. Murder your darlings. That sentence you LOVE? The sex scene that you’re sure will win you the Pulitzer? The pages that moved you to tears? Be prepared to kill them. In a novel, it’s the piece as a whole that matters – not so much the individual parts. Sometimes your best writing will have to see the sharp end of your editing blade to make things work.
6. Let Sean Connery write your sentences. As James Bond, he’s a man of action: things are not done to him, he does them. That’s how you should structure your sentences. Jason did not get stabbed by Susan – rather, Susan stabbed Jason. The weapon was not found by police – the police found the weapon. Writing in the active voice keeps things moving…and your readers reading.
7. When in doubt, pick one, any one. At some point in your story, you’re likely to face a fork in the road. Should Marianne get in the car? Or should she take off running down the road? Should she slap the guy? Kiss him? Reveal that she’s always secretly loved him? When you’re faced with a decision you can’t seem to make, just make it. Pick one, start writing, and see where it goes. If it doesn’t work out, you can always cut it and try again (see #5).
8. Keep your friends close and your reviewers closer. It can be helpful to get feedback as you go, but choose your readers carefully. Giving your precious pages to someone who is frustrated at their own inability to write a novel is like handing them a loaded gun … pointed right at you.
9. Rewriting is writing. You may have heard the old saw that “writing is rewriting,” but I like to flip it. Rewriting is just as valid a form of creativity as your first draft. Sometimes it takes more than a polish – it takes reaching into your gut and daring to make whatever changes need to be made, no matter how extensive they may be.
10. Skip and go naked. Be free. Have fun. Through the hard and often lonely work that is writing, remember to feel the joy. Unlike money, fame or even publication, it’s the one payoff that’s guaranteed.