A Nickel’s Worth of Free Advice

I have very strong opinions about books on writing. As far as I’m concerned they’re a great way to feel like you’re writing without actually writing. I am keenly aware of the many ways one can get out of writing and still feel like they’re working on it, and this is one of the best.

Here’s the thing: I love storytelling. I love coming up with ideas. I love lying awake at night, an hour after going to bed, while I work through plotholes in my head and connect seemingly random scenes about people that no one else has ever thought of. That, and there’s nothing more satisfying than having written something. But the act of writing itself is frustrating. It’s arduous when it doesn’t go right, slow even when it does, because what really gets me is how time-consuming the process is. I’ve spent most of my adult life making clerical jobs interesting by figuring out how efficiently I can get my work done, but there’s no real way to cut corners when putting 50,000 words down on paper. Unfortunately, it turns out that the only way to have written something is to actually write. And yes, I’m projecting, but reading a book on writing is a great way to keep on procrastinating nearly guilt-free.

That said, have a steaming pile of hypocrisy: I have always wanted to write a blog series on writing tips. And because I’m putting off writing the first chapter in a novel I’ve been planning for five years, I’m going to finally do it. Not all at once but in pieces, as bits of unsolicited advice strike me.

My first tip on writing is the easiest and the hardest: just write. Sit down and do it. You want to write a book? The only thing stopping you is you. (That and probably a tendency towards perfectionism; here’s a great article on how to deal with that.) No one will write your story for you. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. How do I know? Well, because I’m insane and I once googled my own book idea, just to see if someone had already written it for me. I was…disappointed, to say the least. A little relieved, but mostly disappointed that someone hadn’t beaten me to it.

My second show-stopping piece of advice for improving your writing is this: read. You’d think it would be to write, but that comes in as a faraway second. The absolute best way for you to improve your writing is to read. There are benefits to reading both good and bad writing, though I ultimately recommend a range of styles, just to keep yourself from falling into someone else’s specific habits.

(Actually, I’d make a strong case that even watching movies and TV shows helps. While the medium is different, the strength of good programming is still in the writing. Though it uses camera angles, facial expressions, body language, and the like to evoke feelings, you have nothing to build on if you don’t start your foundation on a decent script. You can pick up on natural sounding dialogue, how to tell a story around visual cues – even book writers build their stories around pictures; a thousand words and all that – and, if you’re watching a Marvel movie, things like how to balance five thousand characters in a scene without shafting any of them.)

My style of reading happens to be intense: I analyze. Deeply and thoroughly because it’s in my nature. I’m borderline obsessive compulsive (this is not anyone’s professional opinion, just an anecdotal one: when I was young – preschool age, maybe, or possibly Elementary – I’d squeeze my eyes shut as hard as I could every time I blinked because it felt wrong not to do it the same way every time, when I was in middle school I compulsively washed my hands – how I stopped is a story for another time – and I still fold straw wrappers into neat little squares because the sight of one crumpled up in a wad on the table makes my hands feel dirty), so when I read a story or watch a movie, I first pick out what I loved and hated, then I figure out why I loved or hated it, and then I spend hours (off and on, over the course of weeks, months, and occasionally years, depending on how strongly the story hit me) picking apart how the writing pulled – or didn’t – pull it off. I love to do it. Absolutely and completely, though I never really realized how not fun that sounds until I explained it. Ah well. My thoughts are never quiet, but they make good company.

If you don’t like to dismantle a story into a pile of critically analyzed plot points over the course of years, don’t worry, let alone force yourself: a lot of what you pick up from writing happens subconsciously. For example, my grammar is excellent. It always has been. I’ve had the highest grade in my English class since Elementary school, and yet I can’t tell you a single grammar rule off the top of my head. I never could. The fact is I did so much reading when I was younger that I could look at a sentence and tell you immediately whether it sounded wrong. When I wrote a sentence, I just wrote it so that it sounded right. I was correct 99.something% of the time, and because American public schools aren’t into classical education anymore – which typically lay the groundwork for learning through rote memorization of facts and rules – none of my teachers ever figured out that I didn’t have the first clue as to why.

This is the other reason I hate books on writing: their advice usually comes across as do or die. That point is you learn differently – and you’ll write differently – based on your personality and your likes and dislikes. You’ll find your own voice without meaning to. People write what they want to hear. They can’t help themselves.

So my writing tips work for me. I have no idea if they’ll work for anyone else. Many, many writers – many of the creative types – work by feeling and intuition. I work by demanding that the process explain itself me, as clearly and succinctly as possible, without stuttering or apology.

Good night, I have just now realized that I even like thinking about writing more than writing. I need to go have my head shrunk.

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