Writing Tips

“Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
~ Gene Fowler

My Top Ten Writing Tips

While I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil, I am by no means an expert on writing. (Just ask my poor editor.) But I have picked up a few things over the years that might help new writers on their publication journey. The tips below are based sometimes on experience, other times on logic or a personal philosophy, and entirely my own opinion. If you’re really serious about being a writer, consider a writing course (one where you have a tutor who will personally critique your work and help you improve), and read Stephen King’s On Writing.

Tip One

Read, read, and read some more. Reading will not only teach you what does work, it will teach you what doesn‘t. Ask yourself, what kind of books do you like to read? Why? Can you build that experience into your own stories?

Tip Two

Set goals to practice your writing. You could aim to write a little every day, even if it’s just a half-page entry in a journal, or pick a daily subject to inspire a few creative sentences. If every day is unmanageable, try once a week, or even once a month – just keep in mind that the more often you do it, the better you will become. Writing improves writing. You don’t become a master scuba instructor by taking a dip in the local pool every six months. If you’re serious about your goals, you need to be serious about the amount of effort you put in to achieve them.

Tip Three

Write what you would enjoy reading. If you’re writing a chapter that’s making your eyelids droop, don’t expect your readers to get excited. Every scene in your book must carry its weight and move the story forward. If it doesn’t, ditch it.

Tip Four

Know where you’re going before you start. All rules are made to be broken, but you will save yourself a lot of headaches (read: re-writes), if you nut out the beginning, middle AND ending of your book before you go diving into your first draft. Some argue that the most creative stories come from sitting down without a plan and letting the words flow. To me, that sounds like a great way to START a book and then NEVER FINISH IT. The first seven chapters would be spectacular, with a crafty plot and colourful characters bursting off the page amid non-stop action surpassed only by the surprise twist at every corner… until you realise that nothing is making any sense and the ending of your book is going to be either a) completely predictable or b) so very UNpredictable that no one will be able to take it seriously. It is much easier to weave your foreshadowing, your red herrings and clues and sub-plots, into your book, if you know what they all mean and what they are eventually pointing to. The author leads the story that leads the reader. If you leave it up to the story to do the leading, there’s a good chance everyone is going to get lost.

Tip Five

Do your homework. There’s nothing more embarrassing than someone pointing out a very obvious mistake in your book because you were too lazy to check your facts.

Tip Six

Watch your adverbs. A lot of writers and editors would say this should be tip number one. I struggle with this one a lot. Constantly. Incessantly. Unceasingly! (Here’s a hint: I’m doing it now.) When I’m editing, I allow myself one adverb per page at the most. Another great idea I’ve picked up from fellow Aussie author Karen Tyrell is to only use adverbs that are an antonym of the actual verb, as a tool to add some new information to the sentence. For example;

“I’m sorry,” he apologised sadly. (It’s common for an apology to be ‘sad’. There is no new information being added by using this adverb.)

“I’m sorry,” he apologised happily. (There is something else going on here, an agenda or motivation outside the norm.)

Adverbs have a sneaky way of sounding great when you write them down, but they are the quicksand of the written word, bogging down your writing and sucking your readers into reading the words, and not the story.

Tip Seven

Show, don’t tell. This one is a common editing phrase. Sometimes it’s easier to pump out essential story information in long chunks of prose, or just say ‘and then this happened…’. Sometimes, it’s even appropriate. More often than not, however, readers want to SEE your character DOING these things, step by step and through your character’s own eyes, rather than muddle through something that reads more like a historical essay. While it might be more convenient to fill us in about Jane’s divorce backstory / the origin of the magic sword / why the town pumpkins are evil in a quick couple of sentences, readers are much more inclined to care about what’s going on if they feel Jane’s pain, if they witness the origin of the magic sword, if they experience the reaction of the townspeople versus the Radioactive Mutant Fanged Pumpkin Clan.

Tip Eight

Let your characters shine with dialogue. Dialogue is a great tool to bring your characters to life without lumping your reader with a list of adjectives. In David and the Heart of Aurasius, we know Counsellor Asheigal is a rotten bully, not because I use those words, but because he sneers instead of speaks, and what he does say is never very nice. We know that Zandar and Thebes are a Monte Carlo short of a packet because of their language, and the dim-witted things they say.

On the subject of dialogue, new writers often seem to go out of their way to avoid using the word ‘said’. There is nothing wrong with the word ‘said’, so please don’t feel the need to replace all uses of it with verbs like ‘replied’, ‘commented’, ‘stated’, ‘questioned’, ‘cried’, ‘pointed out’, ‘exclaimed’, etc… Of course, all of these variations are fine IF they are adding new information to the sentence, and the flow is natural. Unless you are adding something new, your reader barely looks at the word ‘said’ anyway. Open a book and try it yourself … most likely you are only taking notice of who is doing the saying so you can get on with the story, not the word ‘said’ at all.

Tip Nine

Write first, revise second.

The best way to never finish a book is to criticise your writing even as it’s flowing from the tip of your pen. Your inner editor is telling you ‘that line is wrong, that’s a bad choice of words, why are you using adverbs? You’re not ALLOWED to use adverbs’. Stop for a moment. Take a breath, sit your inner editor down and tell them, it’s not their turn yet. There is nothing to edit, if nothing gets written. It doesn’t matter if the first draft is rubbish, the point is to get it down in the first place.

The science behind this is simple. The right side of your brain manages creativity, intuition, emotion and connections. The left side rules by logic, analyses facts, and provides criticism to help us make decisions. Which side do you think should be behind the steering wheel during a first draft? The one that wants to stop and start 50 times to check that all the directions are exactly in place before proceeding? Or the side that can provide sudden hits of inspiration and lead you down the wonderful garden path of your own imagination? Those golden nuggets of amazing prose and dialogue we find ourselves writing sometimes; albeit, too rarely; those hit-the-nail-on-the-head phrases that seem so right and so natural, ALWAYS come when the right side of the brain is dominant and our inner-creator is dancing around the limitless fields of our mind with a big fat paintbrush, pulling all the levers and pushing all the buttons.

The left side of your brain will get its chance to fix up the paint splatters later. Until then, accept the mess and keep going.

Tip Ten

Get your writing read. Enter short story competitions, write for magazines and e-zines, and build up your writing biography. Publishers almost always ask for a biography with manuscript submissions, and your writing credits will suggest to potential publishers that you take your career as a writer seriously. Not only that, it’s a great boost to your confidence when someone else believes you can write, and this in turn will encourage you to write more often, which can only do good things for your craft.

© Copyright R.J. Timmis, Australia, 2019