In this final tutorial of this series, we’ll be taking a brief look at some essential habits and advice that underpins all good fiction writing – whether it involves a certain death-defying archaeologist-adventuress or not.
1. Punctuation, spelling, and grammar matter.
Language is constantly evolving – it is not a static object with immutable rules. Everybody will have their own style of writing and communication, which is all to the good; language cannot evolve at all without diversity. But – and I cannot stress this enough – this is no excuse to be lazy or condescending to your readers. I’ve lost count of the stories which I started to read but gave up on because the writer was too bone-idle to use a dictionary (or even click that little button called ‘spell checker’). If they can’t be bothered to look after the fundamentals of writing, why should I get my hopes up about the rest of the story? Is this attitude snobbish? Perhaps it is, but I prefer to think of it as demanding a high standard of the crafts we practise and not simply settling for mediocrity. Correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar are the infrastructure of communication; they allow for wildly-different people to convey their thoughts to each other as smoothly and efficiently as possible. When mistakes occur, they will jolt your reader out of the narrative just as surely as if they’d been peacefully driving along a road and struck a pothole or blown a tyre. At best they will be able ignore it and continue with their journey, albeit in a state of heightened alertness that distracts them from enjoying the ride. At worst, they will decide not to risk further damage, turn around, and go home. You owe it to your readers to provide a comfortable journey. To ignore the basic rules of communication shows laziness, insults readers’ intelligence, and disrupts the flow of your story.
There are countless online resources available to help improve your communication skills – including dictionaries, thesauri, guides to grammar, and even proofreading and plagiarism-detection software. It is also worth your while to recruit a few trusted beta-readers who can go over your work with fresh eyes (be certain to thank them and proofread their works in return!). There really is no excuse not to get it right!
2. Be an active, not passive, reader.
If there is one thing you can do to improve your own writing, it’s to read, read, and read some more. Try to sample every possible genre out there – science-fiction, romance, crime, thriller, horror, and fantasy to name but a few – because they all have something powerful to teach us as writers. This might mean that you end up with overflowing bookshelves and/or a season ticket at your local library, but these are really positive signs!
Literature enthusiasts love to take stories apart and analyse them from all angles. But you don’t have to have a degree in Shakespearian plays to recognise good writing from bad. Hopefully these tutorials will have given you a sense of how stories are put together; but even more importantly, they should have inspired you to always ask questions. That is the difference between active and passive reading. Passive readers enjoy being swept along by the narrative – they read purely for escapism. On the other hand, active readers will find themselves asking questions and analysing the text. It’s fine and dandy to pick up a new story and become totally immersed in the author’s creation, but if you are a writer you should also aim to be an active reader. Maybe read through the story several times – at first purely for curiosity and enjoyment, and then each time after that ask yourself how the author has tackled the same topics we have covered in these tutorials. For example, how did the author manage to hook the reader on the first page? Why was a certain character so engaging and vital to the story, even if they weren’t the main protagonist? How did the author tackle the balance between description and action? Was there anything that didn’t work – if so, why not?
If you can work out the answers to these questions, and expose yourself to as many styles of writing as possible, then you are equipping yourself with a vast toolkit and knowledge base upon which to build and improve your own storytelling skills.
For more discussion on this topic, see my previous blog entry: Reading for Writing.
3. Write drunk, edit sober.
This isn’t to be taken literally, but this quote (often misattributed to Earnest Hemingway) can be a useful guideline for how you approach your writing. If writing a story can be compared to making a pottery vase, then writing down your initial words is akin to gathering up lumps of clay and arranging them into the broad shape of the final vase. However, the real work comes afterwards in the editing process.
If you have a solid plan, then getting down your first draft should be a relatively easy process (emphasis on ‘relatively’!). Let your creativity flow. Don’t over-think or agonise too much about the quality of your prose at this stage. This is where ‘write drunk’ should more accurately be termed ‘write freely and without inhibitions’. You are piling on your clay – your raw material – in the approximate shape it needs to be to support itself.
When you are satisfied that your first draft has covered all of the bases it needs to, then you can begin to edit and refine it. This is the time to tune up and improve your dialogue; to trim away unnecessary waffle or fill in missing steps in your description; and to help breathe real life into your fictional world with specific, not vague, details.
It is entirely up to you how many revisions you make (though you do have to draw the line at some point, or you’ll never publish your work!) It’s good practise to leave your draft alone – at least for a couple of days – between revisions. This helps to clear your immediate memory of what you have written, which improves your sense of objectivity. ‘Edit sober’ could easily be switched to ‘edit without sentimentality or bias’. Never think that your words are set in stone; they are just as malleable as clay. If something doesn’t work, have no qualms about altering or removing it.
It’s also useful, if you have the facilities, to print out your draft on paper and go over it in another location. Take a red pen or highlighter so you can mark the bits that need alterations. It’s surprising how many more mistakes can be spotted on paper compared to on the computer monitor!
4. Find a time and a place to write – and WRITE!
You aren’t going to write a bestselling novel on the back of an envelope, in the kitchen during mealtimes, with young kids tugging at your elbow. Every writer needs to have some place, at some time, where they know they will be undisturbed. This can be insanely difficult, especially if you’re also juggling work, a social life, or other obligations. But if you don’t force yourself to sit down and write, all those stories that are locked up inside your imagination will stay that way forever!
If you live in a crowded house, try to make time for writing when everyone else has gone to bed, work, or school. Give yourself permission to metaphorically and literally close the door on the world, even if it’s only for half an hour every other day. Try to find one room, one corner, or one desk where you can keep your notes, computer, and other writing tools.
It should also be obvious that writers need the discipline to sit down and write regularly, otherwise their stories (or other works) will never see the light of day. Even if you only jot down your writing thoughts (e.g. observations and ideas) each day in your journal, make sure you set aside some time to your craft or it will wither and fade like any other skill. It doesn’t matter if what you write on that day is half a page of drivel. It’s still half a page that you can hold up as proof of your working attitude.
For more discussion on this topic, see my previous blog entry: A Writer’s Haven.
5. Observe everything – inspiration is everywhere!
Remember that description can be greatly enriched if you exploit strong sensory impressions – sensations, emotions, and situations we can all relate to. As writers, we should always walk with our minds and senses open to the world. Try to note down your observations and think about how you would convey them in your writing. This kind of constant mental practise will build muscles in your imagination and communication skills. Pretty soon, it will become difficult for you not to imagine how a conversation, a view, or an event would translate into the written word!
Inspiration is often labelled as flighty and random, but we all have certain things that are virtually guaranteed to help our imaginations take flight. Going for an early-morning walk, people-watching in a cafe or on public transport, and travelling to new places are all fuel for your muse. Many people – myself included – find that music and stimulating conversations are also potent sources of inspiration. Although we can find inspiration in strange and often random places, it’s always good to have a dependable muse that you can turn to again and again.
6. Tools for writers.
Writers are a diverse bunch, with many different ways of approaching their craft. Some prefer straightforward word processor software (e.g. Microsoft Word or Open Office Writer), while others stick to pencil and paper. The bottom line is to find what works for you. As a sample, here is what I consider my essential physical toolkit for writing:
- Notepads and pens: spiral-bound, hardback pads (size A5 or A4), plus soft-grip pens work best for me.
- Scapple: mind-mapping software from Literature and Latte. I’m a great fan of mind-maps (or spider diagrams, as they’re sometimes known). The trouble is, I often run out of space on my notepad and get frustrated with crossings-out and other editing mess. Scapple is a very simple but highly-intuitive mind-map creation program that never runs out of space and allows for infinite formatting and editing. Perfect!
- Scrivener: there are word processors, and then there are document or project processors. Scrivener (also by Literature and Latte) makes writing and organising stories a doddle. Normally you’d have to scroll through endless pages (or manually create bookmarks) to get to particular scenes or chapters, and make liberal and clumsy use of copy&paste to organise a story – particularly novel-sized ones. Scrivener, however, is more like an infinite binder and index cards system and is astonishingly straightforward to use. You can write and format as you would in a word processor, but you can also split your writing up into scenes, chapters, parts, or whatever strikes your fancy – and organise those components as easily as dragging and dropping. Another thing I really love about Scrivener is the ability to include other files – pictures, .pdfs, character or location guides, you name it – into your ‘research’ folder. Now you can have just one program open for all your research and reference material instead of five separate programs and multiple tabs. Bliss!
- Online and hard-copies of a dictionary and thesaurus: simple but indispensable.
- Coffee: this should go without saying!
7. Remember to have fun and learn from your own experiences
If writing just isn’t clicking with you, or causes you more angst than pleasure, then perhaps you could try a new writing style or an entirely different kind of creative outlet. There cannot be any illusions: writing is tough. There will be days when nothing seems to be working, and when you just want to throw your notes out of the window and quit. If that happens, turn off your word processor and go somewhere else or do something to recharge your batteries. Even the most disciplined writers will sometimes run out of juice for a while. That’s fine. But if your muse is repeatedly going off in a huff when you sit down to write, then perhaps it’s time to change your tactics or try something new. Why not try poetry, or script-writing for TV, film, or radio-plays?
Above all, it’s important to remember that nothing beats experience. There is no right or wrong way to write. Despite the advice in these tutorials, remember that it is only advice (except the bit about spelling and punctuation – Lara will kick your ass if you skip those). It may turn out to be completely wrong for you and what you want to write. The same goes for all guides on writing that have ever been published. But that’s okay. Do your research, absorb as much information and guidance from as many different sources as possible, but then go and find out how that applies to you and your work style. You’re in charge of your own writing, so find a method that works for you.
8. Live well, write well
Finally, just like Lara stuck in a remote and dangerous environment, you need to look after yourself properly in order to get the job done. Writing is great fun – and highly-addictive when the muse is in full-flow – but sitting still and typing in front of a computer monitor for hours on end isn’t going to be good for your health. You deserve and need to take care of your physical self. These habits apply to just about everyone who works at a computer, and include:
- Eat well – keep healthy snacks around so your energy levels stay nice and stable. Concentrating uses up more energy than you think!
- Stay hydrated with plenty to drink.
- Get up and move your body at least once every hour.
- Make sure your chair, desk, and computer are arranged so that your posture is upright but relaxed.
- Invest in a wrist support or cushion for your mouse mat and keyboard (or use a rolled-up towel).
- Remember the 20-20-20 rule: every twenty minutes, look away from the screen at something else twenty feet away, for twenty seconds – this helps to avoid eye strain.
- Get plenty of good-quality sleep.
- Stay in regular touch with friends and give yourself some time off to recharge your spirit (a visit to my local country park works wonders for me).
- Try to keep your notes and workspace organised so you don’t waste time and generate stress hunting high and low for the equipment or information you need.
Now, Miss Croft. Grab your passport and twin pistols, lace up your boots and strap on your gloves. We can’t wait to come along on your next adventure!
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 8: Survival Skills for Writers (and Raiders!) by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.