In October, I was lucky enough to attend two writing conferences (The Emerald City Writers’ Conference and the Surrey International Writers’ Conference – can’t say enough about either of them). I came home with craft and career information spilling out my ears and needing to be sorted into “keep”, “turf”, and “store” piles. This got me thinking about what writing advice has stuck the most since I’ve started writing. Picking means leaving out key tips from wonderful writers, but to follow the rule of three, here are my stand-outs:
“Only write if you can’t not write”
At one Greater Vancouver RWA chapter meeting I was chatting with Susan Lyons (who also writes as Susan Fox) when she mentioned something I’ve remembered for five years: “Only write if you can’t not write.” It’s a two-fold nugget. It reminds me that writing is work. Writing both rewards and challenges, and takes a hell of a lot of effort some days. But that’s where the whole “can’t not write” part comes in. Writing compels. The glory of falling in love with characters, of finding precisely the right word, of hammering out a plot point. Other than the few years when I was dealing with infants, I’ve been writing since junior high (including some stellar Vancouver Canucks fan fic at thirteen) and I don’t see stopping. I can’t not do it.
The “Swiss cheese” draft
Writing might be something that compels us, but some days it can be damned torture to get the words out. The temptation for each word to be perfect the first go-round can lead to a first draft that takes years to come out, or even worse, never gets finished. A class I took from Elizabeth Boyle slapped the need to be perfect on the first draft out of me. She described her first draft as looking like Swiss cheese, something I took to heart. (Anything cheese-related has to be spectacular, right?) Leaving holes and inserting XYZs to be dealt with later lets the story come out. Yeah, it looks like crap, but crap can be fixed.
Turning that first-draft ugliness into something worthy of being read by another human requires solid strategy. One of my revision mottoes comes from my stellar critique partner and copy/structural editor, Deana Holmes. Whenever anyone in our critique group runs up against a lull in a plot or a scene that’s lagging, Deana chimes in with “be meaner”. It’s simple, but effective. It ensures you’re bringing layers into your story and that you’re challenging the characters as far as they’ll go. Yeah, it starts with making the black moment as black as possible, but it’s also about making sure that scene disasters don’t let the characters off, either. It keeps the thread of tension taut and increases the chance of the readers turning the page.
I wouldn’t be writing if it weren’t for the advice and support of other writers, and I hope these unforgettable nuggets are useful to you, too. Big thanks to Susan, Elizabeth, and Deana for their wise words.
What advice has been unforgettable for you?