So recently, when guest speaking at a college creative writing class, I was asked for ten writing tips I’d like to pass along to students. My first impulse was to run screaming from the building, but, when I thought more about it, I realized that the one sure thing I’ve gained in knowledge is an understanding of my own writing process, something I didn’t have a clue about while working on my first two novels.
Today, I thought I’d pass those tips along. I’m not suggesting you adopt them, just telling you what works for me. After you read, I hope you’ll share some tips of your own.
1. Ask the question, but don’t necessarily answer it: “What if?” is almost always the question that inspires my stories. As I work, I usually find that this initial, situational question leads to a deeper, more philosophical one, which becomes the theme of the novel. I don’t try to answer that deeper question. I don’t presume that I could. I hate to see the ego of the writer in a story, and I’m not fond of stories that tie things up too neatly. Certainly plot must be resolved and characters must arc, but I believe that writing and reading are collaborative, and I leave the larger question for my readers to answer for themselves.
2. Write a mess of a first draft and never show it to anyone: The initial pages I write are almost always discarded, but somewhere among them, I discover the beginning of my story. The first draft is where I begin to hear the voice of the main character and allow myself to follow her for a while, never knowing where she might lead. If I thought I had to show those pages to anyone, I’d probably stop writing. I think first drafts should be messy, like finger painting. When I finally finish the book, I burn them.
3. Write detailed biographies for every character: For me, character creates story, so I always do this first. If I get stuck, I generally find the answer by going back to the biography. As I write each character’s backstory, I sometimes try to become that character, as an actor might do to prepare for a role, venturing out and behaving as the character would. Warning: This kind of behavior can cause a number of problems, depending on who your character is and where you live, so, if you try it, be careful. In my town (Salem, MA), just about anything goes. People barely notice, or, if they do, they’re not mentioning it to me.
4. Listen to the Characters: What does each character want? What’s keeping her from getting it? If I put the right characters in a situation and understand what motivates them, the plot seems to develop naturally. If I’m trying to control the outcome instead of listening, the story always falls flat.
5. Treat place as Character: I create biographies for location, asking and answering the same questions I would ask my human characters.
6. Is the action of the book in the right order? This is a weak point for me. Sometimes I find myself writing very fast, following an idea in order to capture it. When I look back, the progression of paragraphs almost always needs reordering. Or, I might have a character skipping steps by taking an action early on that shouldn’t happen until later in the story, a sure way to leave the character with no options going forward.
7. Study psychology: I always say that if I hadn’t been a writer, I would have wanted to be a psychologist. A great deal of my leisure reading is about human psychology. For me, this has been an invaluable tool for character development.
8. Outline, but not too early. Then follow the outline: I don’t outline until I’m well into the first draft and certain I know my characters well enough to understand their motivations. If I outline too early, I become blocked.
9. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite: I’m never happier than when I’m revising. There may be bits of good writing that come earlier, even ones that inspire the story in the first place, but the poetry, if there is any, comes at this stage for me. There is something about having the initial story down on paper and knowing that it holds together that frees up my creativity.
10. Read aloud: I do this at least three times with different groups of trusted readers. First: to see if the story works. Does it flow? Do the characters ring true? The second time I read for rhythm: Is the dialogue of each character unique? Does the rhythm vary? The third time I read for continuity: Have the changes I’ve made necessitated other changes that I’ve neglected? This is something I have to watch carefully. I once changed a character’s birthday, which resulted in a pregnancy that lasted 15 months. Hopefully, this third reading is where I catch and correct that very embarrassing kind of error.
That’s what works for me. What about your process? Do you have any tips to share?