Holiday Post: My List of the Best Writing Tips


I have never done NaNoWriMo.  I know that there is an ongoing debate about its efficacy for aspiring writers, but I haven’t felt that I could stake out a position one way or another.  

Now, though, I am now in the midst of my own NaNo experiment.  I started City of Shades (Thieftaker Chronicles, book III, by D.B. Jackson) later than I had intended, which means that I was behind almost from the start.  So, I decided that I needed to crank out the pages in February.  If I could write 45,000 words this month, I would be back on track.  If I could get 50,000 words, I would be ahead of schedule heading into March, which would be good I’ll be taking a week off to travel with my family and celebrate my big milestone birthday.  That’s right:  I’m about to turn 21 . . .

Anyway, I work Monday thru Friday, which means I have 20 work days in February (including today, despite the fact that it’s a national holiday) to meet my goal.  And after eleven days, I am at 28,500 words, which puts me on pace to clear 50k.

I bring this up because I am following advice that A.J. Hartley first articulated on this site some time ago:  I am writing fast.  And this got me thinking about all the advice we offer here on MW, and about how much of that advice, my own and as well as the advice of others, that I actually put to use on a daily basis.

I thought it might be interesting to mark the President’s Day holiday as I do so many holidays:  with a list — specifically a list of the writing tips that help me most.  So, here it is, in no particular order.  Sort of.

1.  Write Fast:  I mentioned this one already, so I’ll discuss it first. (So this is in a particular order, but the rest isn’t.  Really.)  Writing fast is not only helping me to get back on schedule, it is also forcing me to make quick plotting decisions, and to worry (for now) more about character and narrative and setting, and less about wording.  I can clean up rough prose in revision, but those other elements I want to get right in the first draft.  And finally, it is keeping the book fresh for me.  I’m not languishing; I haven’t time to get bored with the project.  I may run into a wall somewhere along the way, and I may find that the finished product is too rough.  But for now, this approach is working for me.

2.  Keep Moving Forward:  A couple of weeks ago, I posted a rough draft of the opening to City of Shades.  You all offered some helpful advice and showed me that while the tone is right, and I have some good passages, it still needs tweaking and rearranging.  I was sorely tempted to rework it right away and then post it again, if for no other reason than to show that I really do know how to write.  But I followed my own advice and kept moving forward with my writing.  As I work, I make notes to myself about changes I need to make — I have a Scrivener file called “Editorial, City of Shades,” which is filled with things I need to consider as I rewrite.  But it is much easier to revise once the initial draft is entirely done.  And I do not want to lose the momentum I have going right now.  So onward!

3.  Create space between the writing experience and the revision process:  This one is huge for me, and something I’ve talked about at length in the past.  In order to edit my own work effectively, I have to put as much distance as possible between David the writer and David the editor.  So I put the book away for several weeks and work on other stuff.  Since I write on the screen, I edit on paper.  I read my drafts aloud.  In short, I do everything I can to make the reading-for-edit experience different from the process of writing the book, and this allows me to see problems and issues that I might have missed while writing.

4.  Outline:  Stepping into a hornet’s nest here . . . I know that many of you are dedicated pantsers, but I am growing more and more committed to outlining as my career progresses.  In fact, one of the reasons I have been able to write this book so quickly thus far is that I have a solid outline from which to work.  My outlines remain fairly loose and light on detail — maybe two or three sentences per chapter, just to give a sense of where the plot is headed.  But even that amount of guidance has been invaluable.

5.  Know your characters:  Also a big one, and very broad.  Knowing your characters means knowing their backgrounds and attributes, their best and worst qualities, their strengths and weaknesses, their dreams and fears, and their immediate wants.  And it is crucial for so many reasons.  Character lies at the very core of what we writers do.  Without characters who are compelling and convincing, our stories will fall flat.  And, like outlining, having a sense of who our characters are and what they need and want, facilitates our writing and enables us to work quickly.  So, get to know your characters, and remain true to them throughout the writing of your book.

So, there’s my top five list.  What are some of your favorite pieces of writing advice?  Your turn to play!

David B. Coe

22 comments to Holiday Post: My List of the Best Writing Tips

  • sagablessed

    Never stress over the writing. Stress shuts down your creativity.
    Tell the story. Work out the grammar and [sic] stuff later.
    Find an editor or beta-readers.

    Advice from personal experience: make a darn timeline if time is important. Pantsing is fine, but keep limitations in mind and timeline helps. Current WIP has time-limits, and going over it, I goofed.

  • Hands down, “You can’t edit a blank page.” But I strung it together with my absolute favourites on that e-card some months ago, and I keep that image on my desktop to remind me of all of them. (“Butt in chair. You can’t edit a blank page. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right. And there is no one right way to do this!”) It keeps me grounded sometimes.

    Early happy milestone birthday!

  • Ken

    In no particular order:
    -Write something, every day, even if it’s a single word. At least you’ll be one word closer to being done.
    -It’s ok to write a less than perfect first draft.
    -You can’t edit a blank page.
    -Know. Your. Characters.
    -A Writer’s job is simple: Find some characters. Find a story. Keep writing.
    (Yes, that last one is a blatant Firefly rip off…and I’m ok with that :))

  • Yes, the one major one that took me a while to realize with everyone talking about the right way to write back when I began, there is no one right way to do this.

    Another of my personal pieces of advice, write the best book you can but there must come a time where you have to take a leap of faith and trust what you’ve done. If not, you’ll never send it out. Don’t work the novel to death.

    And Excision for Concision.

  • Put your characters in the most trouble that you possibly can, right up to death and loss of everything, and sometimes including loss of everything. Characters who are forced into that kind of extremis and manage to survive are the best, strongest, most memorable characters. Don’t be afraid to make them suffer.

  • Mikaela

    One lesson I have learned is to not be afraid to step away from the computer if I am stuck. Most of them times when I get stuck, it is because my subconscious must work something out. Sometimes that takes 30 minutes, some times 12 hours or longer. I know that is a luxury many published authors don’t have, though.

  • Though it echoes yours, write fast. This is about the only way I know to write, usually. Lately, I’ve been writing more slowly. It’s taken me more time. I think, in the end, it’s been because it is harder, each word feels so much more painful, but early comments suggest that it is some of the best writing I’ve done. So, here’s one for you: It’s okay that it’s hard. In fact, it might be good if it is hard. I waver. Sometimes struggling means something is wrong. Sometimes it just means writing is work. Hey, if it were easy, everyone would do it. So, yeah, “it’s hard, keep at it” works for me.

    Totally off topic question (ignore freely): How do you outline on Scrivner? I’m using it for the first time, and I can’t quite figure it out. I’ve got lots of corkboard cards, but is there any way to see an outline? Or do you outline by hand or in another program?

  • Donald, yes, timelines are helpful. I learned that one early on — my first novel had lots of timing issues.

    Laura, thanks for the birthday wishes. I have a couple of weeks yet. –Shudder– Good advice there. I like the Ecard.

    Ken, nice list. And nothing bad ever came of emulating Joss…

    Daniel, that one (no right way . . .) is so ingrained in me that I don’t even consider it anymore. It’s like “Thou shalt not murder.” It’s a given. But yeah, it’s crucial.

    Faith, making characters suffer is what we do best, isn’t it. Fine advice.

    Mikaela, that’s a good one, though I have to be careful with it. Sometimes I step away too much, or for too long. Thanks!

    Emily, I like that. And though I know that people do outline on Scrivener, I don’t. I just wrote an outline in a regular .rtf file, and I refer to it as I write. But Scrivener is a terrific organizational tool (one that I do not use to its full capabilities). One thing I know you can do is write all your chapters and then re-shuffle them any way you like before merging them into a full document. There are other outline-ish tools in the program, and I am sure that someone better versed in the software could tell you more. You might also find tips on the Literature and Latte site. Good luck!

  • “Keep moving forward” is my favorite, although it’s not necessarily the one I’m best at following.

    “There’s no right way to write” is another that’s important to me. Right now I’m still a beginner, still learning what works best for me. I don’t even write the same way all the time! Maybe that’s not the most efficient way, but I know I wouldn’t be good at following any prescribed set of rules for “this is how you must write.”

  • “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Walt Disney

  • I’m stealing from Chuck Wendig on this one, but 1) Finish your shit. Finish it. Finish it. Finish it. Even if you end up hating the whole thing and wanting to burn it – finish it. I have to do this because unfinished stories haunt me – they make me feel like a failure. Also, you can’t sell an unfinished work and pros sell their work. So finish what you write.

    2) You can’t edit and write at the same time. Ignore the internal naysayer and keep writing.

    3) Write habitually – this is my version of BIC; when I make writing a routine and I follow the routine I write more and I write faster. When I let something interrupt the routine, it all goes to pot and it takes a lot of time to get my writing groove back.

    4) SACRED WRITING TIME!!! – when I write is when I write and God help the person (usually me) who tries to steal that time from me. There will always be other tasks to do. If I don’t protect my writing time, no one will protect it for me. (See also #3)

    5) Know what you are about to write and why – Before you write a scene, ask yourself “what is this scene for? How is moving the story forward? What needs to be accomplished here? When will I know the scene is over?” If you can’t answer the questions, skip ahead to the next scene that actually does something useful. This saves me hours of flailing around in useless dialogue looking for something interesting to happen.

    None of these are original to me, but they are incredibly useful.

  • quillet

    Definitely number one for me: “Take off the kid gloves.” If your characters aren’t suffering, and/or if they keep on succeeding at things and never really have to try, then your story’s going to be dull dull dull. So stop protecting them from harm. Make ’em suffer. (Hard to do sometimes with the characters I love!)

    Also definitely number one (it’s a tie): “Keep the writing and editing separate.” Easier said than done for me, a chronic perfectionist, but I keep trying.

    Note to pea_faerie: Scrivener does have an outline view. Its button is right next to the Corkboard view button (at least in my version). I don’t use that view myself, so I can’t give tips on its use, but I’d advise anyone not familiar with Scrivener to watch the videos on the Literature and Latte website; they’re really helpful. (Maybe watch the intro one if nothing else?)

  • Thank you Sarah for mentioning the name I’ve been trying to think of all day. Chuck Wendig.

  • SiSi, I think that taking different approaches to different projects, or even different parts of a single project, can be a great thing to do. No getting in a rut that way!

    Daniel, nice quote. And yeah, Chuck Wendig writes some great stuff about writing. So does Tee Morris.

    Sarah, those are great tips to remember. Thanks for sharing. I love the sacred writing time one — that’s big for me, too.

    Quillet, you and Faith have the Kid Gloves thing in common. I have the perfectionist problem, too. Anything I can do to get away from that is helpful.

  • Good post, David. It’s always nice to go back to the basic points. You can never really say them too much. It’s sometimes hard for them to sink in, even if you’ve read them a billion times.

  • Razziecat

    I’m learning the value of “Write fast.” I also totally endorse “Know your characters.” That works better than anything else, for me. And lastly, I’ll throw in “Don’t let the Shiny New Idea distract you.” Make a few quick notes if you really can’t get it off your mind, but then put it away and let it simmer while you finish the current work.

  • Right now I’d say, “Avoid getting pneumonia,” but since it’s too late for me to take that advice, I’ll opt for my second favorite:
    “If you have to get pneumonia, experience it. Capture it. Use it later.”

  • Thanks, Scribe. Should have had a special one for you: Write short fiction! Hope all is well.

    Razz, the new shiny one is very important. Just ask SagaBlessed, who was struggling with that a few days ago . . .

    Lyn, yikes!! Hope you’re feeling better soon. And yes, for now make the most of it!

  • I only outline when I get stuck, like I was a few days ago. During that process some very interesting things came up in my novel. I didn’t know how I was going to get Bethany to chase down a reason for wht the shadow man keeps followibg but I made it happen! Knowing Your Character was a tough one I experienced during last years NaNo. My character Jenna kept getting out of character. I had to face facts that she just wasn’t as demure as I wanted her to be. I have more grounding In Bethany’s character.

  • I *always* say I’m going to leave time between finishing the first draft and starting revisions, but I almost never do. (I’m trying to get a better handle on that with self-published work but, yeah, still not working so well…) Good luck in these final 9 days of the month!

  • Wait, I understand that approach, but what I would tell you is that outlining can help you avoid getting stuck in the first place. It can also help with the problem you encountered with Jenna, since it helps you keep your story and your characters on track. This is not to say that my characters don’t still surprise me and disobey me, but outlining has become very important to my process in recent years.

    Mindy, I try to build a cushion into my planning so that I’ll have time to leave the manuscript for at least a couple of weeks. I’m trying to get this book done by April 1, though the deadline isn’t until May 1. But I need that month to a) let it sit, and b) revise heavily (did I mention that I’ve been writing fast . . . .)

  • wrybread

    @Sarah: I hear you on not flailing over scenes that aren’t going anywhere except down the drain and moving on to the next one where something happens. I had a bad habit of doing this until recently, when I realized that often when I flailed over a scene that didn’t need to be there it was because, even if the scene itself didn’t advance the plot or the characters or anything else in the story, there was important information buried there. For example, I didn’t want to get rid of a scene in my current WIP even though I knew it went nowhere and did nothing. After going back and forth over it a few times, I realized it was because it was really the only place, thus far, where I develop my protagonist’s relationship with his mother, an important part of this character and his world. I realized that, even though I wasn’t keeping the scene, I needed to explore that somewhere, so I’ve gone back and added some scenes earlier in the novel that build the character’s relationship. Now, with the important character information extracted from that ultimately failed scene, I’m free to completely cut it and get back to the action.