Writing Advice: General Tips

Here are some general tips and tricks I’ve found helpful when I’m writing. In no particular order

  • When you are practicing your writing (or any other talent), THINK about what you’re doing before you’re doing it and as you’re doing it.
    • Don’t just practice what you’re already good at, practice what you’re bad at. Actively THINK about why you’re bad at it, and how you can improve. Then actively implement those improvements.
      • For example, if you’re bad at dialog, practice writing dialog. Read books with good dialog. If you’re bad at pacing, read books with good pacing.
    • I suggest you read “Hyperfocus” by Chris Bailey. I found it very useful for helping me improve my working methodology.
  • Read good books. Read bad books. Read mediocre books. Study them. THINK about what makes them good, and what makes them bad.
    • A lot of new authors are worried that by reading other author’s books, that they will be influenced by those authors. If an author is studying the books they read correctly, then yes that author will be influenced by it. AND THAT’S A GOOD THING.  If you’re reading a good book, then you learn by mimicry. If you’re reading a bad book, then you learn by avoiding mistakes they’ve made. Plagiarism is drawing influence from just one thing; drawing influence from a hundred things is Art.
    • A lot of authors quit reading once they start writing, and I think that’s bad. If an author doesn’t continually practice with the goal of improvement, then they will stagnate.
  • All fight scenes/conflict scenes should have narrative consequences. Don’t include random battles to temporarily make a story more exciting; inevitably once the fight is over, the reader will realize that that fight scene was empty calories. If the reader begins to think that fight scenes do no have consequences, they’ll think your characters have plot armor.
    • Here are some ways to add weight to your battles:
      • Have characters die, or sustain serious injuries.
        • If you go for the ‘sustaining injures’ route, it is vitally important that the taking of those injuries has consequences.
          • For example, a consequence of those injuries can be they are no longer able to participate in the next fight scene, or can never fight again.
      • Have a character switch sides as a result of the battle.
        • For example, the protagonist killed an enemy soldier, and that soldier just so happened to be a family member of an ally of the protagonist. This causes the ally to become an enemy.
  • When you begin the editing process, write a query letter and a synopsis for your book, even if you don’t plan on submitting your book to publication.
    • What is a query? It is a letter you send an agent, attractively summarizing the concept of your story in a tight, attractive package. Think about the words written on the inside jacket, tempting you to buy it.
      • It should be 350 words or less. 350 words is short, but that’s the point. Simplify, clarify.
      • Einstein said that if you can’t explain a topic simply, then you don’t know the topic well enough.
      • If you can’t summarize your book in 350 words or less, you aren’t an expert on your story… or maybe your story has problems surrounding a central narrative.
    • What is a synopsis? It is a letter you send to an agent, summarizing the plot of your story. In the synopsis you use plain language, with the goal of explaining the arc of your story to the agent. The purpose of a synopsis is proving to the agent that your story actually has a plot, before they invest too much time in reading it and finding it doesn’t have a plot.
      • It should be between 500 and 1000 words. (Though some sources say between 500 and 800 words). 
      • Again, Einstein said that if an expert can’t explain a topic to a child in thirty seconds or less, then that person isn’t an expert.
      • If you can’t summarize the plot of your story in 1000 words or less, you aren’t an expert on your story… or maybe your story has problems surrounding a central narrative.
    • Why should you work on your query and synopsis contemporaneously with your editing process? Because I find that (for me at least) the mere act of trying to summarize my story in 350 to 1000 words helps me understand what the central thrust of my story is, and helps me edit it.
      • I find editing my stories to be difficult, in no small part because it’s so HUGE a task. Query letter writing is also difficult, but it’s small enough that you can write a decent one in an hour or two. So by writing a query letter first, I’m able to prime the editing pump, and begin the editing process better able to understand what the point of my book is.
      • Chances are, this query letter will need to be re-written with each draft. And that’s good. Each new query letter is a new window of perspective on your story, helping you understand it from a new perspective.
  • Here are some questions I like to answer for every chapter/scene in the stories I write.
    • The questions
      • Does this scene advance the plot?
      • Does this scene advance the characters?
      • Does this scene draw the reader in?
      • Does this scene impart important information?
      • What is the subtext of this scene (both narrative and emotional subtext)?
      • What is the plain text of this scene?
      • What is the subtext of the dialog?
      • What is the plain text of the dialog?
      • Is this chapter good enough to be someone’s favorite chapter in the series?
    • Explaining the questions
      • Does this scene advance the plot?
        • Every scene should advance some aspect of the plot, even if it is in a small way. Plot focused readers will get bored otherwise.
        • You can advance any plot arc, including side arcs like character arcs or side missions. (It’s important to include side-quests in your fiction. Why? So your protagonist can learn important lessons by completing the side-quest and apply that lesson in order to defeat the main plot arc.)
      • Does this scene advance the characters?
        • Every scene should in some way advance the characters, or provide nuance to their description in some way.
      • Does this scene draw the reader in?
        • If you write a boring scene, no one’s going to like reading it.
      • Does this scene impart important information?
        • This one isn’t vitally important; you can have scenes where the protagonists don’t learn important information. However it’s good to spread out your important information throughout the novel, so you don’t infodump your readers all at once.
      • What is the subtext of this scene (both narrative and emotional subtext)?
        • In the best storytelling, subtext does a lot of the heavy lifting narrative wise. Sometimes the best way to tell a story isn’t by telling it, but to show it happening through the implications of the actions of the characters.
      • What is the plain text of this scene?
        • Be sure you fully understand the actual events which are happening in your book.
      • What is the subtext of the dialog?
        • Really, really good dialog can impart meaning on multiple levels. Two characters might be talking about one subject, but by paying attention to their tones of voice, dialog, and the pronouns/honorifics they use to address one another, the author can provide the reader with a lot of socio-cultural context to these characters and how they view/relate to one another.
      • Is the plain text of the dialog different from the subtext of the dialog, and if not why not?
        • Again, be sure you understand the actual words spoken by your characters. It’s not all subtext, yo.
      • Is this chapter good enough to be someone’s favorite in the entire book?
        • This is the big one. If a chapter is perfectly functional, fulfills all the above categories, but nonetheless just lacks the spark of *awesomeness*, it might be time to go back and rethink it.
        • Every chapter should be someone’s favorite in the book. You want your entire book to be of high quality, to shine.
        • I’ll use myself as an example.
          • In the stories I write I have scenes where I tend to default to characters talking to one another around a campfire, or in a board room. The scene might be filled with rich prose and characterization, but because the scene is just a bunch of talking heads it gets dreadfully boring to read.
          • To fix this problem, I usually rethink the context of the scene. For example, in one scene where I have to characters talking about their love life while walking down a street, I re-write it so they have that same conversation in high-stakes circumstances.
            • As those characters are both medical people (a medic and a nurse), I re-structure the scene so they have the conversation while treating someone’s injuries.
            • Because the injured person is someone the reader cares about, the reader is drawn in not just because of the emotional context of the romance discussion, but also because the reader is afraid for the life of the injured person.
  • Pacing and Characterization are linked inversely. In sections of your story which contain lots of characterization, they should be slower paced. In sections of your story which contain little to no characterization, it should be fast paced.
    • Why? Because characterization takes time and demands your reader’s attention. It is very, very hard for an author to direct the audience’s attention towards the nuances of characterization in a fast paced scene, whereas it’s much easier to control the audience’s attention in a slow-paced scene.
    • Take advantage of this. For example if you are writing a book which contain highly paced fight scenes, intermix the fight scenes before and after important characterization scenes. Use the fight scenes to link the plot between the emotionally investing characterization scenes.
    • It is possible to write a fast paced scene which advances characterization- indeed, this is something you should strive to do. HOWEVER, you need to be aware that the audience might be so caught up in the hype of the fast paced scene that they won’t notice the subtlety of the characterization. As a result, I suggest that when you attempt to use moments of characterization in fast-paced scenes, BE BLUNT. Go back to being subtle when you’re back in a slow scene.
  • I suggest that when you are writing a deliberately confusing story, write that story focused around a protagonist who is an audience-insert character who is also confused.
    • An example, look at Harry Potter from his series. Harry Potter is plunged into a genuinely strange universe of witchcraft and wizardry, and he is confused by it. But over the course of the novel/novels, he learns about his universe- and through the audience-avatar of Harry, the audience learns about it.
    • It is not always necessary to use an audience insert character. A counter example, look at the Malazan series. There is no audience insert character in this very strange universe; instead the audience is dropped into the strange universe in-medias-res and forced to put together the hints and clues from what the author has given. The Malazan series is very beloved for a lot of people. (The series also doesn’t work for a lot of people, so do be careful.) 
  • When it comes to characterization, you must do the hard work. What does this mean? You cannot shortchange characterization; it takes time and attention to detail on the part of the author.
    • Example: If you’ve read a lot of Tolkien Clones (a sub-genre of fantasy which was popular and became much reviled in the 1970-90’s), you’ll know that characters were frequently tropey archetypes more than they were actually people. The author would present a character as a collection of tropes, (The Mentor, The Ranger, The Rogue, The Chosen Farm Boy…), and would not deepen the characterization from there. This is bad. 
    • When you are writing, a trope is where you BEGIN describing who a character is; it is not the endpoint.
    • Counter example: Rand from the WoT. Wheel of Time is perhaps the pinnacle of Epic Fantasy/Tolkien Clones, where Rand was a Chosen Farm Boy. Rand only STARTED as a naive farmboy, but he didn’t stay that way. He rapidly got smarter, learned to fight, realized his ‘mentor’ character was taking advantages of him, set out on his own, established a petty kingdom, became jaded and angry, depressed, then insane, considered giving up, persevered, and ultimately accomplished his destiny of saving the world. He BEGAN as a the trope of the Chosen Farm Boy; the author used that trope as the jumping off point to tell the story of a man’s mental breakdown and renewal.
    • The moral of the story is that for every major (and some of the minor) characters, you must include multiple scenes of them being characters. Not them being tropes; them being characters with personalities, histories and motivations.
  • Let’s take a moment to explain the concept of A Plot and B Plot.
    • Your story should have multiple plot arcs. Let’s call the main plot arc the A Plot, and one of the secondary plots as the B Plot. This is true of your entire book, and possibly each individual chapter in your book as well.
    • Many episodic TV shows feature an A plot and B plot. For example,
      • in a crime drama, the A plot is the actual crime, while the B plot might be a story about the family issues one of the protagonists is having. That protagonist might use the knowledge they gained from the B plot to solve the A plot. 
      • in a scifi space drama a la Star Trek, the A plot might be about the protagonists trying to arbitrate a peace agreement between two warring factions, while the B plot is about an argument between two of the protagonists. The protagonists resolve their differences in the B plot, and use that insight to (try to) solve the A plot.
    • On the large scale, your entire book should follow this structure. You have major and minor story arcs, each one weaving into the others. The larger your story, the more story arcs you’ll naturally need, forming a tapestry of multiple plot arcs.
    • On a smaller scale, each chapter in your book should follow this paradigm. You’ll want to have your main plot and a character plot going on in each scene, or multiple main plots, or multiple character plots.
    • You’ll probably use one of the plot arcs to be in the text of the scene, and the other to be in the subtext. Usually the main plot will be in the text, and the characterization in the subtext, but this isn’t always the case.
      • For example, imagine writing a detective story where your detective characters must go to the morgue to interview the medical examiner to gain evidence for the A Plot. While there, the detective characters are feuding with one another over the B Plot. The medical examiner is the text of the scene; the passive aggressive detectives is the subtext of the scene. 
  • When you introduce a major concept of worldbuilding in your book, try to use that major concept twice in the scene in which it is introduced. (This is specific for fantasy/scifi, or any other story which involves major worldbuilding.)
    • Why? Because introducing the concept and using it twice in the beginning helps hammer home how it works in more than one circumstance. Additionally, using it in two ways up front helps disguise your long term plot by providing multiple possible plot threads related to your worldbuilding concept.
    • For example, in a recent story I wrote, I introduced the an important worldbuilding concept of ‘the medical ethics of healing magic.’ The scene introducing this concept took place in a hospital.
      • The A Plot in this particular scene was the protagonist having a conversation with the book’s main villain.
      • The B Plot in this scene was the protagonist having a second conversation with a secondary minor villain, an evil doctor.
      • In this scene I introduced the major worldbuilding concept of ‘medical ethics of healing magic.’ 
      • I advanced the A Plot of the book by having the main villain of the story state he does not care about ethical behavior.
        • This plot point was stated through the subtext of this scene.
      • I resolved the B Plot of this scene by having the secondary villain attempt to kill someone using healing magic. (Murder with healing magic is unethical medical behavior, obviously.)
        • This plot point was stated through the text of the story.
      • By intermingling the the A Plot and the B Plot in this scene,
        • I thematically cover a lot of ground very quickly,
        • I foreshadowed that the main villain was the main villain,
        • I disguised the main villain’s casual sociopathy by contrasting him with an outright psychopath.

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