Great Nuggets of Writing Advice

Maria Schneider of Editor Unleashed celebrates the one-year anniversary of her blog by sharing some great nuggets of writing wisdom collected from authors, agents, and editors.

What writing advice do you have?

“Never give up, no never means no. Keep writing. As my mentor Howard Fast (author of Spartacus and 80 other novels) used to tell me when I’d say I had writer’s block: “‘Plumbers don’t get plumbers block. A page a day is a book a year.’” –Susan Sharpiro

“In many cases, authors understand the market for their book better than the publisher and can do a better job of reaching that audience. But they first need to understand that it’s now part of their job to do that, and they need to embrace it. Marketing can be fun!” –Michael Bourret

“Be generous. Spread ideas. Give things away. Write, share and repeat.” –Seth Godin

“I love real life. I love finding and telling stories, with the deep hope that it will somehow change the reader. Fiction can do that too, of course, but I have always wanted to find real stories and draw people to them, reveal something of life to them that they might not otherwise have a chance to see.” -Susan Orlean

“If you are clever, you’ll share the information that’s important to the audience, and not necessarily the contents of your book.” –Chris Brogan

“When it’s time to think of a new book idea, sitting in front of my computer and trying to squeeze something out just doesn’t work for me. But, when I’m running or on the bus or supposed to be writing something else, that’s when the characters come to me and the plots form. I try to just let myself be open to the flow and carry a pen with me.”-Julie Kraut

“If you’re a writer, then blogging should be a no-brainer for you. Read all the available resources on how to have a successful blog, then get going. Target your blog toward the exact audience you’re writing your books for.” –Rachelle Gardner



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Five Questions to Ask about Your Fiction

Great advice here from novelist Charles Baxter on what you should ask yourself about your story.

There are about five questions you can ask yourself about stories, and they’re not foolproof, but they’re useful. One is, what do these characters want? Second is, what are they afraid of? Third is, what’s at stake in this story? Fourth is, what are the consequences of these scenes or these actions? And the last one is, how does the language of this story reflect the world of the story itself?

Now, if a writer is writing a story and looks at you and says, “I don’t know what my characters want; I don’t think they want much of anything,” then the story is in trouble. If you don’t know what’s at stake in the story, it means that nothing stands to be gained or lost in the course of it. Something has to be risked. The characters have to want something or to wish for something. They have to be allowed to stay up past eleven o’clock and to make mistakes. If there’s a flaw that many beginning writers have, it is that their characters don’t risk enough. They are just sitting in chairs having ideas. I had a student a few months ago, when I was in residency at a university, who said, I don’t want my characters to do anything, I just want them to think through the problem of nature vs. culture.

That’s not exactly a story, is it?

That’s what I tried to tell her. But she was determined to write a story about issues. I mean, this is an old thing to say, but if you want to write something about issues, write an essay. That’s what essays are for. If you want to see the consequences of ideas, write a story. If you want to see the consequences of belief, write a story in which somebody is acting on the ideas or beliefs that she has. But that’s why it’s important to have a sense of what your characters want.

(Via Jane Friedman)


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Trimming Your Writing to Make it Better

Maybe a fourth of the editing I do is cutting words, phrases, sentences, and sometimes paragraphs.  As good old Strunk & White says, just as a machine should have no unnecessary parts, so a sentence should have no unnecessary words.  Literary agent and editor Rachelle Gardner provides a nice list of items that are easily trimmed – which usually results in cleaner, stronger, more compelling writing.

→ Adverbs, especially those with “ly” endings. Ask yourself if they’re necessary.
→ Adjectives. Often people use two or three when one or none is better.
→ Gerunds. Words that end in “ing.”
→ Passive voice: Over-use of words like “was,” “were” and “that” indicate your writing may be too passive. Reconstruct in active voice.
→ Passages that are overly descriptive.
→ Passages that describe characters’ thoughts and feelings in too much detail (i.e. long sections of narrative or interior monologue).
→ Passages that tell the reader what they already know.
→ Unnecessary backstory.


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Creating a Plot for Your Novel

Daily Writing Tips shares some helpful hints for creating a plot for your fiction work.  The author makes a good point about the interplay between plot and character development, which meld together to carry the story.

Sterlin writes:

My girlfriend says plots are “a dime a dozen,” but I feel different. I am trying to write my story and I am loaded with themes, but no plot, nothing to drive the themes or story. Can you offer any tips or techniques for devising a plot?

In one sense the girlfriend is correct. The writing section of any library houses dozens of books offering ready-made plots.

One plot seems to be enough for many action stories: The hero is attempting to stop an assassination or foil plans to destroy the world. Reversals and disasters occur at predictable intervals before the action-packed climax and spectacular successful outcome.

There’s nothing wrong with stories like that. We all enjoy them, especially as movies, but they’re not especially memorable. If your ambition is to write a novel that will linger in the reader’s mind after the last page, plotting requires a less mechanical approach.

Many writing teachers describe plot as the “skeleton” of the novel, but I don’t think that’s quite the right metaphor.

Picturing plot as skeleton suggests that the other elements of the novel can be hung on it or peeled off. I think that creating the right plot involves combining character and story in such a way that the result is a fused whole. Plot, character, story, theme and setting should bond with one another like the molecules in vulcanized rubber.

What tips or techniques have I to offer? Only what I’m doing myself as I begin my newest fiction project:

1. Read one of the many books about plot, for example 20 Master Plots and how to build them by Ronald B. Tobias.

2. Describe the story you plan to write in one sentence. If you can’t say what your book is about in one sentence, you don’t have a clear enough idea of what you’re trying to do.

3. Decide what the main character wants more than anything else in life. The plot will grow out of this desire.

3. Write a character description of the protagonist that includes appearance, likes, dislikes, fears, childhood trauma, occupation, etc. Plot is behavior. The kind of experiences your character has had in the past will determine how he behaves in the future. What he fears will affect his actions. Plot grows from character.

4. Make a timeline for the events of the novel. This will give your plot anchor points.

5. Make a map that shows where all the action will take place. This will help you gauge distances and figure the length of time necessary to move your characters from one place to another.


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Before Writing a Book, 6 Points to Consider

White Books
Image by Vicki’s Pics via Flickr

Tony Morgan shares 6 points to consider before writing a book.  Good advice. (HT Michael Hyatt)

Since I’ve been involved in several book projects, I’m frequently approached by aspiring writers who are interested in the process. I’m certainly not the expert on getting a book published, but I have learned some things over the last number of years that might be helpful for you.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts for you to consider…

Don’t write a book. Begin by writing in your journal. Write blog posts. Get your article published in a magazine or on someone else’s website. If your idea and your writing aren’t strong enough to be published in a magazine or on a website, it’s not strong enough to be published in a book.

Don’t assume if you have a book, someone will publish it. People who get published rarely go looking for a publisher. Typically, the publishers go looking for the authors. Or, the authors have literary agents who handle those conversations. If a publisher isn’t approaching you about writing a book, that’s a pretty good sign that you probably don’t have a book to publish.

Don’t start out to write a book. Start out with something to say. For lots of people, the goal is to get a book published. That shouldn’t be your goal. Your goal should be to spread good stories or ideas. If you don’t have a good story or idea to spread, you need to start there.

Don’t write a book if you’re not a writer. At the end of the day, if you can’t write you can’t get published. And, just because you can get up in front of people and talk, doesn’t necessarily mean you can get behind a keyboard and write. There’s an art to writing. Some people have it. Most people don’t. (If you have a strong idea or a good story, you may need to find a writer to help you get it published.)

Don’t try to write a book if you’re not willing to get disciplined with your time. Manuscripts just don’t drop out of the sky. You have to outline. You have to draft. You have to rewrite. You have to edit. You have to promote. You have to sell. It takes time. If you’re unwilling to prioritize your time, you shouldn’t write a book.

Don’t plan on making money. Unless your name is Rick Warren or Joel Osteen, you’re not going to make money writing a book. At best, you may get a platform from writing a book. Of course, the challenge there is that you have to have a platform before a publisher will even consider your book.

I know. You’re skeptical. So, for those of you who write books or publish books, I’ll let you chime in and tell me where I’m wrong.

Until then, don’t write a book.

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Charles Dickens’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer

Charles Dickens
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Jane Friedman shares some words of wisdom here about the process of becoming a writer, illustrated by a letter written by Charles Dickens.  She’s right, you’ll have to be bad for a while before you become good.

Ira Glass has some of the best advice I’ve ever read for writers, at least in relation to great storytelling. He’s said that you have to be willing to be bad at what you do for a long time until you actually can achieve the vision of perfection you have in your head. He even puts himself out on a limb and offers recordings illuminating how bad he was at radio when he first started.

I was reminded of Ira when my writer-friend Teresa Fleming shared with me the following letter from Charles Dickens, where he responds to an aspiring writer.

Tuesday, Feb. 5th, 1867.

I have looked at the larger half of the first volume of your novel, and have pursued the more difficult points of the story through the other two volumes.

You will, of course, receive my opinion as that of an individual writer and student of art, who by no means claims to be infallible.

I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt. Evidences of inexperience in every way, and of your power being far below the situations that you imagine, present themselves to me in almost every page I have read. It would greatly surprise me if you found a publisher for this story, on trying your fortune in that line, or derived anything from it but weariness and bitterness of spirit.

On the evidence thus put before me, I cannot even entirely satisfy myself that you have the faculty of authorship latent within you. If you have not, and yet pursue a vocation towards which you have no call, you cannot choose but be a wretched man. Let me counsel you to have the patience to form yourself carefully, and the courage to renounce the endeavour if you cannot establish your case on a very much smaller scale. You see around you every day, how many outlets there are for short pieces of fiction in all kinds. Try if you can achieve any success within these modest limits (I have practised in my time what I preach to you), and in the meantime put your three volumes away.

Faithfully yours.

Yikes, right? (You can read more Dickens letters here.)

Here’s the secret, though: If you’re the writer, do you read this and think: I should just stop trying.

Or do you read this and think: He doesn’t know how wrong he is!

Writers in training know they’re not good, but they know they’re getting better. And they go on to fight another day.

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Stephen King and Jerry Jenkins Give Writing Advice

Great insights here from two very accomplished writers – in very different genres.  King and Jenkins have been friends for a while, and were interviewed together by Writer’s Digest.  Good advice and inspiration for authors and aspiring authors.

Some snippets:


JENKINS: We happened to have the same audio reader, a brilliant voice actor named Frank Muller. In November 2001 Frank was in a horrible motorcycle accident that left him brain damaged, incapacitated and barely able to speak. One of Frank’s brothers started a foundation to assist with the obscene expenses, and Stephen became aware that I was helping out.

Stephen was carrying the lion’s share, undoubtedly contributing more than half of the total the foundation raised, but he called me one day to thank me for my part and to suggest other ways we might be able to help Frank. Needless to say, when my assistant told me Stephen King was on the phone, I quickly ran through my list of practical joking friends to decide how to greet whoever was claiming to be him. But, just in case, I said my usual, “This is Jerry.”

I had to squelch a laugh when he said, “Steve King.”

Who calls Stephen King “Steve”? Well, Stephen King does. We learned that we read each other’s stuff and laughed about being strange bedfellows. Then we agreed to [meet to] visit Frank at a rehabilitation facility.


JENKINS: I write because I can’t do anything else. I like to say I don’t sing or dance or preach; this is all I do. But I [also] have a passion for my subject matter. I was a sportswriter as a teenager (after being injured playing sports), but felt called to full-time Christian work. I thought that would mean I’d have to give up writing and become a pastor or a missionary. I was thrilled to find out I could use my budding writing gift and accomplish the same thing.

KING: Jerry’s direct and correct: I can’t do anything else. And every day I marvel that I can get money for doing something I enjoy so much.


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What You Need to Know to Write a Novel — in One Blog Post

Novels and whatnot
Image by neil-san via Flickr

Some fine advice here from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog on making a novel work.

For example, on plot:

Plots are myriad, but plot structure is simple: hook, development (with backstory interwoven), climax.

Concerning character:

It might be your hook that catches the reader’s attention, but it’s the characters who drag them in and hang onto them for life. Know thy characters. They must be real people, not two-dimensional cartoons, with real bodies, real mannerisms and tics, real foibles, dreams, insights, and idiodicies to be ashamed of. Know them backward and forward. Then don’t tell it all. Hemingway said, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”


Exposition seeks not to just inform but to enlighten. Don’t waste your reader’s time with explanations. They’ve got brains. Let them use them. Leave out every explanation that can be inferred from the context. When you must cast light upon a scene, do it in context. Either you need to give the reader a breather between bouts of excitement or the tension can be heightened by knowing a little more about what’s going on. Take advantage of pacing to interweave backstory and exposition, but always keep up with your characters.

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Michael Crichton’s Top 5 Writing Lessons

Cover of "Jurassic Park"
Cover of Jurassic Park

Karen Dionne (author of Freezing Point) reveals to Writer’s Digest what she learned about fiction from her literary idol Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park, Congo, and creator of TV’s ER).

1. CHALLENGE YOUR READER. Don’t be afraid to tackle complex topics such as quantum physics or manipulating the genetic code. Readers love learning something new. Stirring their curiosity is just as important as grabbing them from the first page.

2. SURPRISE YOUR READER. No one reading The Andromeda Strain could have guessed the ending. Novels should be novel. Unpredictability is key.

3. KEEP THE CLOCK TICKING. Timing, tension, momentum, pace—Crichton set the bar. A pounding heart keeps the reader reading.

4. GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT. Whether the details pertain to science, history or setting, readers expect your research to be accurate.

5. PLAY FAST AND LOOSE WITH THE FACTS. Story trumps all. Crichton’s gift was making the impossible believable. Everyone knows that dinosaurs can’t be cloned from fossilized DNA, but if they could …

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5 Tips for Making Your Writing More Memorable

Title page of the First Folio, 1623. Copper en...
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Here’s some great advice by freelance writer Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen on making your writing more effective.

1. Picture your reader. Write directly to a specific reader or editor – try picturing him or her in your mind as you write. Whether you’re working on an article, pitch, or first novel, your writing will be more memorable if you can tap into the reader’s life. How do you get to know your readers? Study the magazine’s demographics, the editor’s blog, the publisher’s current booklist. Read and respond to your blog comments – ask your blog readers questions!

2. Relate to your reader’s experience. “[A message] has to make the reader nod in acknowledgement or laugh in recognition,” writes HuffPost blogger Bob Creamer in The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. “It needs to connect with the reader’s everyday experience.” He explains that memorable writing makes you feel, taste, smell, or hear the content…it’s the old “show, don’t tell” adage at work (it’s a cliché because it’s TRUE!).

3. Inspire an emotional reaction. To make your article, pitches, or writing more memorable you need to inspire laughter, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, curiosity…anything, really! If your readers react emotionally, they’re more likely to remember you…and if your readers are editors, they may be more likely to hire you.

4. Let your personality shine through. After a year of fulltime freelance writing, I’m finally letting my personality and voice bubble to the surface! One Reader’s Digest editor kept telling me to “have fun with it” when she assigned articles. I couldn’t forget her advice, even though I was too green to actually take it. Now, I’m letting my voice and style shine through in my articles, pitches, and blogs – and my writing is more memorable (and hopefully one day unforgettable! A lofty goal…).

5. Eliminate confusing thoughts or sentences. “If we don’t understand a subject or the relevance of what is being described in a subject, we begin to tune it out,” writes Creamer in The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. If you don’t get it as a writer, you won’t be able to explain or describe it to your readers. And if they don’t get it, then your writing is not only forgettable…it’s unread.

Thanks to Jane Friedman for the link.

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