Thursday, 12 July 2012

The 5 Best Pieces Of Writing Advice


The following are the five best pieces of advice to do with writing that I have come across. Obviously there are many excellent tips out there and how useful they are depends on the kind of writer you wish to be, but these are the ones that made a big difference to me and seemed to make the most sense.

1. “What does a character want? What happens when they don’t get it?” - David Mamet

I had a tendency to have characters sit about shooting the breeze when I first started writing. The idea I could write Tarantinoesque dialogue was very beguiling, but it never seemed to go anywhere. It was only after I put the focus on what the characters wanted and put those things out of reach, that things started working. It made a big difference. Really big. There are still times when I work in a bit of banter, but now it’s very much the last thing I think of, not the first.

2. Action reveals character.
I’m not sure who said this originally, probably a lot of people. You could even say it was The Bible (By their deeds, you shall know them). I heard it in a talk by a Star Trek writer (DS9 if you were wondering). He explained that no matter what the problem in an episode, shooting aliens or fixing the warp drive, each character behaved in a them-specific way that showed the viewer what kind of person they were. For the writers that was the only purpose of creating the problem in the first place.

3. Always finish the draft.

This piece of advice was given to me by a screenwriter, although you can find it pretty much everywhere, so I don’t think he came up with it. I like to blast through quickly and do numerous drafts, some people prefer to fiddle as they go along and have it pretty polished by the end of draft number one, but how you get to the finish line isn't the issue, just that you get there. While it’s often suggested a writer is someone who writes, I would suggest a writer is someone who writes all the way to the end. Yes, it’s often difficult and obvious that you’re writing crap. Doesn’t matter. Complete crap you can work with. Incomplete crap is worthless.

4. Writing Is Rewriting

Occasionally, I come across an aspiring writer who loves writing... the first draft. After that they lose interest. They resist making changes, they may even resent you suggesting any, and they’re very quick to assume you just don’t appreciate their genre/style/genius. Personally, having worked on pieces over months and sometimes even years, and seen both the change on the page and the change in the faces of the people I’ve shown both before and after versions, anyone who doesn’t revel in the revision process, and hunger for people to criticise their work and criticise it hard, well, I have no idea what those people are doing. Wasting time?

5. Easily the finest—both in its meaning and its execution—most succinct and self-evident piece of advice I’ve ever read, courtesy of Gary Provost:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.

42 comments:

Brent Wescott said...

I will be sure to complete my crap from now on. Thanks for the advice. :)

Sarah Anne said...

"Complete crap you can work with. Incomplete crap is worthless."

Love it. That's the exact attitude that got me to finish my last chapter. I just had to accept that what I was writing wasn't as good as I wanted it to be, but I had to finish it anyway or I wasn't going to get anywhere.

Susan Roebuck said...

yes, yes, yes, and yes! To all of the points above. Excellent advice - I tend to go rushing ahead and then go back and fiddle a bit, but that's just my (sometimes odd) way of working. Yes, finish the damn thing (I'm telling myself that right now). Thank you!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Action reveals character - excellent! And I don't think I could put more than two five word sentences together if I tried.

Ted Cross said...

Funny that you mention Tarantino, because I've been thinking about a lot of his stuff (mainly True Romance) recently in regards to my WIP. I'm not great at the witty banter, but I want to improve on imaginatively bloody scenes!

Rachel said...

I just stumbled across your blog, and love the advice. Thanks for sharing!

mooderino said...

@Brent-maybe i should get t-shirts made.

@Sarah-next draft is always going to be the good one.

@susan-cheers and you're welcome.

@Alex-a man of many words?

@Ted-he does like the blookdy stuff.

@Rachel-glad to have you here.

Fairchild said...

I agree with your list, as I have found the very same ideas to be the most important, to me.

@Ruby_Barnes said...

Good collection there, thanks. I shall carry them in my bag of magic tricks ;-]

mooderino said...

@fairchild-excellent, you can back me up when the fighting starts.

@Ruby-a bag of magic tricks would probably make writing a lot easier.

nutschell said...

great advice. Writing is certainly rewriting. I know I wouldn't be content with just one rewrite on my manuscripts:)
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@nutschell-me neither.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Love that last bit by Provost.

Oh, and this needs to be on a t-shirt or a mug for writers or something -"how you get to the finish line isn't the issue, just that you get there...it’s often difficult and obvious that you’re writing crap. Doesn’t matter. Complete crap you can work with. Incomplete crap is worthless."

mooderino said...

@Madeline-they'll be ready for Christmas!

kenebaker said...

Sentences can have rhythm. I've always felt that :)

Annalisa Crawford said...

Tarantino and Palahniuk both write great dialogue, but it's very hard for mere mortals to emulate, so your advice is by far superior!!

I got into the habit, with one (unpublished) novel of redrafting the first 5 chapters... they are the most over-worked chapters in my collection, and the rest of the novel is a bit pants - hence 'unpublished'!

Bryan Russell said...

One of my favorites was always: The character must always want something, even if it's only a glass of water.

mooderino said...

@Ken-yes, language is a form of music, or music is a form of language. One or the other. Or maybe both.

@Annalisa-no point putting up the wallpaper before you've finished building the wall.

mooderino said...

@Bryan-of course Vonnegut would then send his character to Jupiter to get the water. So it goes.

MaryAnn Pope said...

Excellent advice. Definitely the top five in my book as well. Thanks for sharing.

Clarissa Draper said...

I love #5. How better to get the point across than to see it first hand.

wordyliving said...

I love this: "a writer is someone who writes all the way to the end" Probably because it's my main problem but it really grabbed my attention. Great advice!

mshatch said...

I am actually looking forward to revisions for a change. Excellent list.

Wodke Hawkinson said...

Very inspiring! Especially interesting is the one about varying sentence length. Sometimes a long sentence is an intimidating thing to a writer.

Jackie said...

Love this! Especially #5. Very helpful and true!

mooderino said...

@Mary Ann-my pleasure.

@Clarissa-if only all advice was that way.

@wordy-hope it helps.

@mshatch-cheers.

@Wodke-true.

@Jackie-glad you liked it.

LD Masterson said...

I saw a t-shirt that said "Even if it's crap, just it on the page."

These are right on target. Thanks.

Nick Wilford said...

Nice to read this post. Good reminders. "Action reveals character" - simple but so important! A book can have the most thrilling plot on paper but if the characters are flat it won't really matter will it?

mooderino said...

@LD-Welcome.

@Nick-"simple but so important" story of my life.

Margo Berendsen said...

I love that factoid from Star Trek! Now I want to go back and watch some episodes and see how they do that..

Rusty Webb said...

Amazing! Color me convinced.

mooderino said...

@Margo-like anyone needs an excuse to watch old Star Trek episodes. Make it so!

@Rusty-what is that colour, like an orangey brown?

booksbyjason said...

This is good, with a few items bordering on excellent!

MC said...

Wow, this was an amazing list.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Amazing list. Write all the way to the end is what I believe in.

Donna Hole said...

Finishing the draft is the hard one for me.

......dhole

Masquerade Crew said...

I love number 5. What a great paragraph to show the true meaning of the tip, which could easily have been said in three words: vary sentence length.

mooderino said...

@jason-thanks very much

@MC-cheers.

@Rachna-me too.

@donna-grit your teeth and go for it!

@Masquerade-it is an impressive way to do it.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Is that a picture of Jesus?

mooderino said...

@Michael-No, Jesus has a beard.

Deniz Bevan said...

Those are great pieces of advice. I like this "For the writers that was the only purpose of creating the problem in the first place."
Each story begins with a problem...

KO: The Insect Collector said...

Excellent advice, Especially #s 4 and 5!

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