I’ve been writing for over ten years now and am finally beginning to actually break into the industry. I have a fully edited novel for sale, I’ve written four television scripts (none have aired yet but still), and edited various short stories, scripts, and novels from others. I’m finally starting to feel that I have serious work which represents myself as an author.
Oh, so my 600,000 words of fanfiction don’t count? Whatever.
What I’m trying to say is that while I’m just getting into the industry, don’t have a large audience, and only have a couple official works to my credit, I have a ton of experience and feel that I’m a competent writer. I would by no means say I’m the best, but I feel like I’m in a position to help out people who are just getting started writing.
So I figure’d I’d list my biggest tips on the subject. Whether you’re just starting out as a writer, are experienced but want another author’s opinions, or have never picked up a pen in your life and are just curious how writers do what they do, I hope you’ll enjoy this post. Some of these are my own observations, others are just obvious tidbits, and a few are things I’ve been told by established people in the industry. But I think all of them will help you out.
- Practice. This is as simple as advice gets, but it’s also the most imperative and helpful tip that I have. Becoming a good writer takes an enormous amount of time. I didn’t even begin to be happy with my own work until I’d written over 325,000 words.
It was still very rough, but this is my first story that I think was at least solid most of the way through.
I never had any formal training in writing other than English classes in high school and college, but after writing hundreds of thousands of words and reading a ton more, you start to pick up things. So the best way to get good is simply to write as much as possible.
- Accept criticism. This is probably the next most important thing a successful writer needs to do. Even the greatest writers’ first drafts need tons of work. You need to be able to hear that your work is not perfect, that often times it isn’t even good. If you aren’t willing to accept this and learn to not just tolerate but welcome criticism, you won’t make it as a writer.
“First, right off the bat, this story is just relentlessly bleak and depressing.”
One of the editing notes I received on an earlier draft of Paranoia that I needed to hear.
- Know your characters inside and out. Your stories or scripts will simply not work without strong characters. You have to truly understand every one of your characters, no matter how minor. One of the biggest issues I had when writing early drafts of Paranoia was that I didn’t have a clear understanding of each characters’ motivations. Whenever one of them faced an obstacle or argued with another person, I had to make sure that I completely understood what each character was feeling and what they wanted to get out of this situation. If you don’t understand this, then you can’t accomplish anything with your scenes.Another reason knowing your characters really well helps is because this in itself helps create strong scenes. What I mean is that you may have an idea of how you want to start and end a segment of your story, but don’t know how to connect these two points. If you have a solid understanding of your characters, you can simply place them in these situations, then let their reactions organically unfold and lead you through the scene.
- Read dialogue out loud. This is an incredibly easy thing to do and has enormous benefits. You may write a conversation that seems super intense and dramatic, but very often it isn’t how people actually talk. Read your dialogue out loud and listen to see if it sounds like something people actually say.
- Act scenes out. For me, shower time = creative time. This is where I act out all the scenes I have in my head or that I’ve written down. I’ll read all the lines, make all the movements, and just try to bring my words to life. This especially helps out with action scenes. Maybe while acting out a gun battle that I wrote I’ll instinctively throw my (imaginary) pistol aside and whip a (not really there) shotgun off of my back. I didn’t consider this when writing, but when I was actually in the scene it felt right.
Incidentally, this may also indicate I have schizophrenia.
Acting out your scenes will really help you get the staging down and come up with details you never considered while sitting at your desk.
- Fanfiction’s a great place to start. I’ve already written about why I think fanfiction is really helpful, but I’ll quickly recap it here. Fanfiction lets you practice tons of aspects of writing while letting you ignore others. For example, if you write a fanfic you don’t need to create original characters or (if set in the same locations as the show/movie/etc.) describe locations. This allows you to focus more on crafting dialogue, creating plots, and other issues. You’ll want to practice these things at some point to be sure, but I think fanfiction is a great “training ground” to learn how to become an author. It’s like a video game where you can dial up and down certain aspects of the difficulty. Character creation may be easy, but you can turn foreshadowing up to hard.
- Start writing mid-scenario. This is an amazing writing excercise and can sometimes even lead to a full-fledged story. I used this often in my earlier fanfics. Simply start your story in the middle of a crazy and dramatic situation. Maybe it’s a gun battle, maybe two characters just jumped out of a plane, or perhaps there’s a massive argument as someone’s adultery is discovered. It doesn’t matter. Just choose a crazy situation and try to work your way out of it. You’ll quickly learn how to write yourself out of any dilemma and immediately get across situations and characters. You’ll also learn which types of writing you’re drawn to. I’d never written an action story before I decided to start a fic by having a character run from gunfire and dodge sniper rounds. I quickly realized I loved writing action scenes and now utilize them whenever I can.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. Use the former often; work on the latter. Personally, I think my greatest strengths as an author are writing action scenes and getting across characters’ emotions. My weaknesses are writing good prose and bogging the reader down with unnecessary details. By recognizing this, I know to tailor my stories around action and emotion. I also keep a careful eye out for poor prose and overly lengthy sections of my stories when I’m editing. After writing for a while, take time to do an honest appraisal of your own abilities.
- Do your research! Nothing screams more of amateur, nothing is more annoying, than reading a book or script and finding ‘facts’ that just aren’t true. This doesn’t just apply to how time travel works or complex chemical reactions; research is necessary when you write about anything you don’t know about. For Paranoia I had to spend hours looking up how police stations are laid out, how exactly revolvers fire, driving distances between locations, how assets are passed down after a parents’ passing, and even how you go about breaking down a door.
I slipped one of the crowbar’s prongs into the exposed deadlatch’s hole. With the last of my strength I ripped it free and watched it slide away from the strike plate. I gasped for breath, kicked the door, and nodded in satisfaction as it swung open.
I had no idea what a dead latch or strike plate was before I wrote Paranoia.
- Get inspired. I’ve already written about how listening to music when writing is a great idea to get the creative juices flowing; check out my post “On Auditory Evocation” for some ideas for specific songs. But aside from that, there are going to be times when you’ll question whether you have talent or really want to be a writer. This is when you watch, read, or listen to something that you look up to and want to emulate. Something makes you go, “I want to make something like that!” For me, that’s Avatar: The Last Airbender if I need inspiration for my kids’ series. This can also hold true if you just need a blast of a specific emotion or genre. If you need inspiration for an epic action scene or film, watch Saving Private Ryan. If you’re working on a comedy, watch Airplane! If you need to get angry for a big scene…hmmm, what could you watch then?
I’m just kidding; there’s no reason to ever watch this movie.
- Do multiple edits and proofreads. This is the tip no one wants to hear. Not only do we all want to believe that our first drafts our perfect, but who was the time to keep going over and over the same project and make it perfect?
Not M. Night Shyamalyan, that’s for sure.
But the simple fact is no, your first draft isn’t good enough to publish. You are going to find plenty of room for improvement; there will be spots where characters’ motivations aren’t clear, your staging is wrong, or maybe you just took the whole story in a bad direction. Even more annoying but just as necessary is proofreading. You’re going to want to do this multiple times; our brains are just incapable of picking up all our grammar mistakes, spelling errors, and words we plain forget to type.
- Avoid saying names all the time in dialogue. Just like saying dialogue out loud, this is another issue you can easily fix during editing. Most authors (myself definitely included) often put the names of people their characters are speaking to in dialogue. (For example, if Jacob is asking Sarah what time it is, authors will often write, “Sarah, what time is it?”) This is fine once in a while, but we writers tend to do this every few lines because it just sounds cool and dramatic to say someone’s name in conversation. But this isn’t how people talk. You very rarely say the name of the person you’re speaking to unless you are trying to seriously get their attention or you’re trying to address a particular person in a group.
- Have multiple people look over your work. This is easier said than done because it is hard to find a lot of people willing to spend time editing for you. But it is necessary, especially for important projects. We’re simply not capable of judging our own work objectively; we’ll think some things are awesome that no one else will. Be sure to get other people’s opinions. It’s even better to get a wide variety of people. Get a male and female perspective. If you’re working on a script, see if you can get feedback from not just another writer, but also a director.
Because obviously we all have director friends lying around.
Seriously though, try to find one if you’re writing scripts. It’s incredibly helpful. (Thanks Mike!)
FICTION WRITING TIPS
- Be prepared to trim a lot. A lot of what you write in a first draft is unnecessary and slows the story down. My first draft of Paranoia was over 86,000 words. The final version is just over 69,000. That means I cut out nearly one-fifth of my book, and this made it better. The numbers will vary individually, but it’s incredibly rare to make a first draft longer. Be ready to slash a ton of pages from your novel.
- Avoid repeating words. This is another thing you can easily fix during editing. Keep a close eye out for repeating words in back-to-back sentences or even the same sentence. Use synonyms or different phrasing whenever possible. For example, don’t use these two sentences. “Jake marched out the front door into the rain. He swung open his car door and rushed inside to keep dry.” Instead use, “Jake marched out the front door into the rain. He rushed inside his car to keep dry.” Not only did we make it a little shorter, but we got rid of the repeating “door.”
- Always try to improve your prose. Not every line of your story needs to tickle the tongue and be music to the ears, but you don’t want every line to be basic and ugly either. With everything else equal, the better your prose, the better your novel. Try to make as many of your lines as poetic and creative as possible. Why say, “The rain made Jacob wet,” when you can say, “Every inch of Jacob’s fabric was drenched by the hellish downpour.”
- Have a general outline but be prepared to deviate from it. I said before that just writing without a plan can help you learn how to write, and that’s definitely true. But when it comes time to pen something you want published, it helps to have some idea of what story you want to tell.
What’s not good enough? – “I want a story where characters actually do things and stuff happens.”
I find it’s really helpful to break things down chapter by chapter before I start writing. For me personally I also think it’s okay to have some blank spots; a couple of chapters where I’m not yet sure what will happen. But I need more than just a beginning, middle, and end to write well. I also think it’s a good idea to write a couple paragraphs about each of your major characters before starting out; like I said before, you need to know your characters inside and out to tell a good story.
- Balance realism & keeping interest. It is hard to keep your characters and story realistic while still being interesting. Again, let me draw from experience with my novel Paranoia. This story’s about a teenager whose parents are murdered. Obviously this teenager needs to be depressed and the mood should be dreary. But like I said above, I took it too far in my initial drafts. The atmosphere was so bleak that it made the book depressing to read, and the main character was so whiny and distraught that he was unlikable.
So always keep in mind that your setting and characters have to hold the reader’s interest. Yes, it may be accurate that a victim of domestic abuse would cry whenever their husband leaves the house. Yes, a man wrongly convicted of a crime may just sink into complete depression in prison. But those don’t exactly make good stories.
It’s also accurate that rocks sit there and do nothing. But we don’t write about rocks.
(Please note that while I only have a couple year’s experience and much less words written with screenwriting than fiction writing, I’ve also had more interaction with people in the television industry than the publishing industry. I think it balances out.)
- Use simple scene descriptions. I’ve already mentioned this in detail in my post “On Screenwriting,” so I’ll just quickly repeat it here. You should not be using flowery prose and complex descriptions in screenwriting. Your job is to get across the absolute basics of what a scene will look like and then trust the other members of the show’s / movie’s crew to bring your production to life. As a writer, focus on doing this and creating great dialogue.
- Every line should be professional and have a purpose. The greatest piece of advice I got from long-time screenwriter Andrew Nicholls is that every line needs to earn your paycheck. You are a writer. That means you should be crafting things that a layman can’t. Always keep this in mind when looking over your script. There should not be anything that a layman would write. That means no lines like, “You go girl!” or “Oh, snap!” This is obviously 10x as true if you are trying to break into the industry. There’s thousands of other people trying to do what you’re doing. Prove you’re better than them.The larger rule that I made for myself is that every line should either be funny, expand the show’s / movie’s universe, or get across something about the characters. If it doesn’t, it gets thrown out.
- Shorten everything as much as possible. While you want to trim things in a novel to keep the flow going, there’s no limit to how big a book can be. This doesn’t hold true for movies or (especially) television. If you’re writing a TV script, you need to get your story across in either 22 or 44 minutes. You just can’t go more than a minute over. Write whatever you want in a first draft, but when you’re editing you need to cut out everything that’s not absolutely necessary. And never, ever repeat things. If you established something earlier in a scene, (say a character is trembling from fear), don’t waste time establishing it again later on, (for example, having that character tell another person they’re afraid).It’s not just a matter of cutting things, it’s using as few and as short words as possible. Every single second counts and none can be wasted. When Ed and I went over our pilot script, every syllable or word that we removed was a victory. Those all added up and let us keep or add in the jokes and lines we really love.
- Be prepared to kill your babies. This goes along with the shortening. You have to learn to accept the fact that you’re not just trimming certain unnecessary words or repeated phrases. You are going to have to cut out jokes, touching lines of dialogue, and even whole scenes that you love. Maybe it’s for running time or maybe it’s because they’re not working the way you expected. But there’s no way around it, you are going to have to remove stuff you wrote that you absolutely loved. There were some real touching scenes in our pilot that we had to cut, and it devastated me. There were moments I had loved writing and thought made the episode, but they just didn’t work quite right and made the script too long. So I had to let them go and just focus on the things I got to keep that I liked.
- Make sure staging is possible. This is also true for fiction writing, but plays a much bigger role in scripts. You have to make sure that what you are describing is actually possible, specifically what occurs in between dialogue. I think for this one it’s best to give an example from an early version of my pilot script.
Jason walks with his mother towards her car.
I’m sure he’ll love it. I’ve got to run, but I’ll see you tonight. Good luck, honey!
Ms. Savage kisses her son goodbye before hopping in her car.
Thanks, mom! Love you too!
Jason watches as his mom pulls out of the driveway.
I didn’t see anything wrong with that staging when I first wrote it, but Mr. Nicholls told me there’s no way you can portray two people walking towards a car, and then two lines later one of those people is driving away. After that kiss on the head, it would take way more time for Ms. Savage to start the car and pull away than it does for Jason to say those five words. We’d be watching Ms. Savage start up the car, get ready to pull out, actually pull out, and start to drive away in silence for way too long.
So watch your staging!
I hope these tips are helpful and interesting. Even though it’s a ton of hard work and requires a lot of practice, writing is such a blast and I can’t imagine not doing it. Let me know if you have any questions about the subjects I raised and thanks for reading!