No, I’m not talking about the movie, The Craft, I’m talking about your writing, and I promise today isn’t a ramble. There’s real advice in here, so saddle up and hang on.
One thing you can do to improve your writing is lots of reading. Read inside of your genre, read outside of your genre – consume books like they will up your life force. Sometimes, the pages of a book will sweep you away; other times not so much. There are lessons to be learned from both. To experience the magic that happens with good writing teaches you things that can be learned no other way. If a book is hard to finish, take note of that, too. Why did you not enjoy it? These are things you should reflect upon and apply.
Another way to improve your work is by studying – put yourself in school again. Don’t just assume you learned all you need to know in high school or college. Continue to seek knowledge. Read books on writing fiction, read books on analyzing fiction, read books on language and vocabulary, read books that are genre specific, read books written by authors and agents and editors and journalists. Now, with the Internet, there are additional countless resources to help you online, too. No one is expected to be perfect, but the more you know, the more polished your MS can be by your own hand. (I will list some of the ones I’ve read at the end of this post.)
[sidenote: I am interested in how the mind works, so I have read many books on psychology and the way humans think. I believe all of it can be added to the author’s toolbox.]
It’s also imperative that you are passionate about what you’re writing. Not everything has to be cut from the heart; not everything has to have a deep, transcendental message, but if you love what you’re doing, if you enjoy what you’re writing, that natural passion comes through. Not only that, but it obviously makes the whole process more enjoyable. Don’t write something just because you feel like you should, or because you don’t know if what you really want to say is too intense or won’t be accepted. Do it, love it, make it shine.
Stephen King said this in his book, On Writing, and I’ll repeat it here. Once you’ve written your first draft, you need to let it sit. There is a connection you create with a work in its initial stages that needs to dissipate before you can give it a good edit. (Unless you are a writing voodoo wizard genius that follows no rules and churns out masterpieces before you’ve digested breakfast. You are magic; you have no use for my advice.) The amount of time you take off is up to you, but I wait several weeks in between my first draft and first round of edits. I fill these voids with short stories and lots of reading.
I mentioned this yesterday, but it’s important. Get feedback. Beta readers, editors, avid reader friends, anyone who is not obligated to tell you that it’s good, anyone who can offer you some critical advice on story holes and unbelievable characters. Sometimes its hard to spot these in your own work. No you aren’t broken. When the entire story lives in your head, it can be hard to have enough distance to see that things aren’t clear on the page. Don’t worry, betas and editors don’t expect perfection, so don’t let it stress you out if changes are suggested. That’s why we need them. We want our stories as whole as possible.
Last but not least for today, one thing you can do to improve your scene setting skills actually came from my college days. I was a journalism major and wrote articles for the paper, so I had to become good at scene setting – walk into a room and highlight the important details so that those reading the paper will feel like they were there. I would take note of the light, the crowd, the demographic, the visual centerpiece for the event, the smells, etc. You obviously don’t have to study journalism to achieve this, you can practice it everywhere you go. Next time you are out to dinner, in your phone or on a notepad, jot down a few notes on the environment, paying attention to all of your senses, and when you get home, write a few paragraphs, try to recreate the setting. Do this often, and the tactic will spill into your own work naturally.
That’s all I have to offer for now. I leave you with a reminder that this is your work, your writing. You can’t passively expect to do great things. If you want to really put a message out there, you’ve got a lot of ground work to lay. I love you and wish you all the best in your ventures.
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
- Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell
- Hooked by Les Edgerton
- The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
- Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell
- Archetypes for Writers by Jennifer Van Bergen
- Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from The New York Times