Since I love talking about writing advice, and I love pointing out that all writing advice should be taken — but only if it works for you, welcome to my new, irregularly scheduled feature, where I’m going to be talking about my favorite snippets of writing advice — and why they’re both right… and wrong. Or, you know, basically what the title says. I’m gonna talk about how they work for me personally, plus, exactly where they break down (for me).
1. Write What You Know
Authenticity sells. If you know how something works, or what this character would sound like, what that character would eat, and all the little things in between, then your story is going to flow more easily. You don’t have to do research for things you already know. You’re already immersed in this aspect of your story.
I write fantasy. I’m nudging my way into science-fiction. Some of you write thrillers and crime novels — and not all of you who do are killers and criminals! I’m pretty sure.
Where this piece of advice shines best is when you take aspects of things you know fully and integrate it into your story. Maybe it’s giving a character your own day-job, or a character with your sister’s personality. Perhaps it’s adding your own dislike of baths for a character, or that thrill of a beautiful sunset while taking your dogs for a walk. Something that lets your reality into your story world, so it will ring all the truer for it.
But, what if your world is vastly different than the one in which you live? You might be writing in some caveman level fantasy world, or the future where the last of humanity leans on powerful machines for survival when our sun burns out, but there’s some things that will still hold true. Humanity. You know people who are kind, or mean, are clever, or just go with the flow. And by incorporating that level of humanity into your characters, making people in wildly difference scenarios react like people your readers know and love (or hate), you’ll be writing what you know, and making the story that much more accessible for your readers.
2. Write Every Day
While some writers can get away with only writing when inspired, for most of us, finishing a rough draft — not to mention the revisions and edits and polishes that take it from a concept in your head to a polished novel — takes a lot of application of butt-in-chair.
One of the best ways to get in the habit of writing is, surprisingly enough, to write. This is the theory behind NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. You’ve got a daily and monthly wordcount target to meet, and that encourages you to prioritize your writing. The best way to create a writing habit is to write every day.
And for some of us, it works. They writing like breathing.
The rest of us are not automatons. Life happens. Family happens. If we prioritize our writing over our day jobs, our families, and our health? We’ll end up burnt out and living alone on ramen.
For me? I’ve learned how to get 50,000 words written in November and it involves letting a lot of things in my offline life slide — like laundry, dishes, and socialization. Especially since I still have a day job. For me? It’s doable for a month, but then I’m typically burnt out and catching up on what I let slide until at least January.
So, in the off-season, you’ll find me working on my writing 2-5 times a week, not every day. Letting the habit slide can make my writing struggle, but when I get back on track, a slower pace is healthier for me. It’s up to you to know what works for you — and recognize your circumstances can change. What worked for one story, one time in your life, might not work today.
3. Show, Don’t Tell
You might be telling a story, but you want to show the readers what’s happening, not tell the readers about what’s happening.
You want sentences like:
“Jaime,” she said, shaking her head, “why can’t you ever be on time?”
Jaime’s teacher was fussing that he came in late.
Not everything has to be on the page. The reader needs to see when things change, when decisions are made, when characters are pushed toward the tipping point. They don’t need to see every last meal and potty break. Sometimes, it’s okay to tell a little. In brief sections.
Here’s an example from one of my works in progress. I used to show a lot more, but in this example, I’m telling:
The air smelled crisp and right when I woke, with the muffled sound of a heavy rain pattering into the ground above. Pilgrims were expected to work for their bed and board on late harvest days like this, so we spent the day cleaning, canning, and helping the Lunadats lay in stores for winter.
Sure, I read up on how to can fruits and vegetables, but the scene showing it happening only showed off my research, it did nothing to advance the story.
Those are the top three snippets of writing advice I keep hearing, plus how I’ve made them work for me. I infuse my writing with aspects of reality to ground it, I write when I can and try to make it a priority — in ways that don’t leave me burnt out, and I’ll tell instead of show when the scene won’t advance the plot.
Are there any bits of advice that you swear by? Any that are never right for you?
Let me know in the comments below!