In the interest of being more active on my website, and with NaNoWriMo right around the corner, I figured I’d share some pointers on how to improve as a creative writer.
I was recently speaking with a friend of mine who complimented my expansive vocabulary. They mentioned they also have a relatively wide-ranging vernacular, but had no outlet for it. I suggested they give writing a shot, but they replied that their skill level was low, and whenever they sit down and give creative writing a shot, their mind goes blank.
I definitely understand these challenges, and it forced me to reflect upon what got me through those earlier days of writing. That is where I realized that I’ve been following these four tips (though not in these words) for nearly two decades, and much of this advice was imparted upon me from my writing mentor, former Mack Bolan/Executioner ghost writer Doug Wojtowicz.
So, without further ado:
1) Always Be Reading
This is cliché writing advice. It is a cliché because it’s true.
As a writer, you should always be reading, whether it’s for pleasure, for research, or to keep up on contemporaries in your genre. It’s through reading that you learn what’s popular in the genre, what stories have been told, and find elements of writing that you like and dislike (more on that in a bit).
Reading sharpens the writer’s mind. It’s the equivalent of dry fire practice at home, whether it’s draw from holster, reloads, or focusing on the fundamentals of sight picture, breathing, posture, and trigger squeeze. Just as in the firearms world, practice makes proficient, and reading is a form of practice when it comes to writing.
Speaking of writing…
2) Always Be Writing…Mostly
There is no replacement for actually writing. Even if you feel that your writing is substandard, you must write more to develop the necessary skills.
It doesn’t matter if it’s J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or the late Tom Clancy. Everybody sucks at writing when they first put words on paper. It’s part of the process. It’s only through writing that one can develop their skills.
If reading is dry fire practice at home, writing is range time. There is no replacement for it.
Don’t let your fear of a substandard manuscript or story paralyze you from writing. If you need to just write a story and keep it to yourself to work on overcoming that fear, then do it. Just keep on writing until you reach a point where you feel comfortable sharing your words.
I do say “mostly” because I vehemently eschew the advice that one should force themselves to write. Real life takes its toll, and sometimes you just aren’t mentally in the right place to write. Take a break and come back to it when you’re refreshed and ready.
And remember: don’t strive for perfection. There is no such thing as a perfect manuscript. There is “editable” for rough drafts and “good” for final drafts. “Perfect” is the enemy of “good,” and if you strive for absolute perfection, you will never finish the story.
3) Develop Your Voice and Style
One might think this would fall under the above two tips, and in a fashion, it does. At the same time, this is critical enough that it merits its own bullet point.
There are four basic elements to a fiction manuscript:
- Character arcs/development
Finding your own is a combination of reading to see what you like and dislike about each element, and writing to iron out the kinks until your voice and style have developed to your satisfaction.
Developing your plotting skills requires knowing the tropes of your genre. I am of the belief that there is no such thing as an original plot. There are only original arrangements of tropes, augmented by the other basic creative writing elements.
To know your tropes, you must know your genre, and the only way to know your genre is to read.
This also goes for character development, as character traits are also tropes. Once you master your tropes, you can lampshade them, subvert them, invert them, or even play them straight for effect.
A word of caution: your character development can’t consist entirely of tropes. You have to know people and what makes them tick. If it doesn’t come from an authentic place, your reader will catch it. You don’t have to base your characters off of real people wholesale (though I have done that in the past), but you should absolutely base them off of elements of those people.
As far as prose, that’s really going to be genre and reader dependent.
What I’ve found worked for me growing up was if I found a particular piece of prose that spoke to me, I’d end up transcribing it, developing the muscle memory of how it was written. Once I’d end up committing it to memory, I’d rinse and repeat with other passages from various authors until I had an aggregate, and from there I would experiment to add my own twist.
Once can do the same with pieces of dialogue, though the best advice is to speak the dialogue aloud. If you can say it easily, then the dialogue is natural and solid. If you have to put some effort into it, the dialogue may be too stiff and artificial, and may require reworking.
4) Embrace Constructive Criticism
This may be the hardest step for some, especially if an aspiring writer is penning stories and keeping it to themselves as they build confidence in their craft.
At some point, though, to truly grow as a writer, the bird’s going to have to leave the nest. You’ll have to show your work to somebody.
Some are going to rave about your work. Others, not so much. Your default instinct will be to defend what you’ve written, as it is an extension of you.
Stop and listen to what the other person has to say. Contemplate the advice given.
Criticism is the friction of progress. It’ll be the pressure that turns your sand into a pearl, your coal into a diamond.
Having said that, have a discerning eye for what is constructive criticism and what is not.
If the criticism keeps the genre in mind or focuses on the mechanics or fundamentals, that’s constructive. Keep it.
If the criticism is mostly the reviewer’s personal preference and is tone-deaf to the genre, shut it out. It’s useless negativity.
Keep the constructive criticism near and dear to your heart; throw the non-constructive criticism in the trash where it belongs.
Writing is a continuous evolution. You must always strive to improve your craft. The day you become stagnant is the day your stories grow stale.
You improve your craft through reading and writing often. Those help you to develop your voice and style.
Above all else, don’t be so proud of your work that you refuse to accept constructive criticism. On the same token, don’t allow the negativity of small-minded people to drag you down.