Probably like most writers, I often read through my favorite quotes on writing when I’m stalled on a scene or plot point, and very often it really is a great cure for whatever the trouble is. But sometimes, even when the writing is going well and I’m nowhere near stalled, I still like to just flip through my favorite words of advice on writing. Writing can be such a solitary profession, and I love the feeling of connection that quotes from other writers about writing give me. The feeling that I’m not alone in any of the issues I may face in crafting a book. The feeling that others besides myself have felt the same joy, discovered the same truths when they’ve embarked on the journey of being an author.
So here are my favorite kernels of writing advice, the ones I constantly come back to, whether I’m at a sticky point in my WIP or just needing to pause for a minute, take a breath and remind myself of the most important building blocks of my craft and tools in my writer’s toolbox.
First–and this for me, is the most important thing I’ve ever learned about writing and the advice I need to remember most often–is summed up in a quote from Jacques Barzun: Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper, not eternal bronze: let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. No one will rush out and print it as it stands. What I take from that is that I need to give myself permission to make mistakes. Mistakes can always be cut, edited, revised or improved. What can’t be made better, though, is a piece of writing that’s been internally censored before it ever makes it onto the page. Nothing will crush the life and passion out of my writing faster than worrying about getting a book or a scene or even just a sentence perfect on the first try.
Second is a piece of advice my dad gave me when I was first starting to write. (I think some Hemingway guy may have said something similar <grin>, but I’m going to credit my dad since he’s the one who first told me): Stop when you still have something to say. Don’t write until you’ve completely run out of steam and have no idea what comes next in a scene or a plot. Always stop when you can see exactly what comes next–and you can’t wait to write it–because that excitement will make it so much easier for you to sit down and write the next day. You won’t procrastinate or waste time checking e-mail or staring at the blank screen. And often I’ve found that the simple trick of stopping mid-scene–mid sentence, even, if the end of the sentence is all I can actually see forward in the plot–will give me enough momentum when I sit down again that suddenly I’m over a writing hump and on to something I hadn’t planned before at all.
Third is something that Dr. Seuss once wrote: Virtually every page is a cliff-hanger—you’ve got to force them to turn it. WU’s own Donald Maass has written some great posts about the art of creating tension on every page of your story, and this is the same idea. You always want to give the reader a reason–a need, even–to turn the page and keep reading, find out what happens next. For me, this boils down to a general rule: never end a scene or a chapter on a note of complete resolution. If every scene and every chapter is built around a particular one of your protagonists’ needs or desires, you never want to let them completely achieve that need or goal until you reach the end of your book. End scenes or chapters on a no, and even worse–i.e., no, the protagonist didn’t find the cure to his daughter’s disease, and even worse, he now finds out she has only two weeks to live. At best, you could end on a yes, but. Yes, the protagonist manages to steal the submarine plans. But now he’s on the run with the villain’s henchman in hot pursuit–and furthermore, the bridge he needs to cross in order to reach safety has just been bombed. Of course, yes, these are really corny examples, but you get the idea. I try to think of the lines of tension in my plot as arrow points stretching all the way from my first page to my final one, carrying the reader constantly forward until they reach the end of the story.
So what about you? What quotes on writing do you revisit time and time again? What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?