Reader Friday: Advice

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker

What advice would you give an aspiring writer today?


16 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Advice

  1. You may have used words all your life; you may even be able to write wonderful sentences, but writing fiction requires a knowledge of the craft if you want your stories to speak to readers.

    So, study the craft, and write, write, write so that you can find your writing voice. Great fiction doesn’t happen overnight.

  2. Start with mastering language.

    I think the “craft” that you guys teach presupposes a command of language. But I’m not sure that can be “taught” in the same way.

    Reading, of course, is where it starts—reading good writing, of course.
    But, somehow, one has to become aware of what makes it good writing. I think the dozen or so courses I took in English and German lit made a big contribution here—analyzing with a professor how the language is working.

    But somehow, one also needs to know what makes bad writing “bad.” I remember what we used to call “bad poetry sessions” in college, where, with a bit too much hubristic mocking, we noted things that, of course, we would never do. Cliché. Banality. Excess. The “false” word. There’s a sense in which one needs to be a nattering nabob of negativism about one’s own writing. Maybe a good way to get there is to practice it on some bad writing.

    Another key element is mastery of grammar. Studying Latin and German helped me here, giving me awareness of language structure that is hard to get if one only knows English. “What’s water?” the fish asked. Different people master grammar differently. But it has to be done. A basketball player can’t be thinking about and struggling with the mechanics of her shot during game time. A golfer can’t be thinking about and struggling with the mechanics of his swing when trying to craft a difficult shot.

    And returning to reading: Vocabulary is the other key tool, along with grammar. This, too, requires a certain amount of active/analytic reading. One can’t always rely on context to understand words. Over the years I’ve been too lazy about this. So I haven’t always understood what I read, and I’ve passed up opportunities to get words accurately into my active vocabulary.

    I’ve read thousands of descriptions of people over the years. Yet when I come to describe one of my characters, I find that either I don’t have the words or I don’t know exactly what they mean. For example, describing someone’s face, or hair style, or clothes.

    My wife was recently reading Marilynne Robinson. It’s clear, she said, that Robinson has always been in love with words and with how words relate to reality. That prompted me to be more active when looking—at the world around me, at people. Not just to look, but to be asking myself how would I describe.

  3. Have realistic expectations. You won’t become an overnight sensation, you’ll have long (and unglamorous) hours invested, and you are a business–some of your time must be spent on non-writing work like promotion.

    Be prepared for your greatest reward to be fulfilling your dream–getting your words from your head and heart to the page and (hopefully) the public.

  4. Great advice, all, especially about READING. I don’t see how anyone could be a writer without a long background of nose stuck in book. What that does is get the “sound” of sentences into the head. That’s why I love Dr. Seuss for young people. Fun to read, and the joy of language is so evident.

    Then books, books, books. Hardy Boys for boys, Nancy Drew for girls … for plot love.

    Then getting a library card. Book love!

  5. I agree! All great advice in these comments. I have had a love of words and how they fit together from very young. I went through a stage where description was everything, like I was rewriting Wuthering Heights. But over the years, with practice and listening to critiques, I have found my writer’s voice. Now, I carry on with reading, reading reading, followed by writing and more writing. I also advise finding or creating a writing group. To meet with like-minded people and help each other through the ups and downs of putting together an engaging story has been valuable to me.

  6. I always say: Find a good photographer and get your head shot done today. By the time your book gets published, you won’t look so young.

  7. Never write about your family members in a way they will recognize. If you write about stuff you’ve done that may border on illegal or possibly stupid change a lot more details that you might think you’d need to…especially if the witnesses stand any chance of being readers.
    And never, ever, under any circumstance write a romance short story that includes anything that vaguely resembles anything like the neighborhood you live in, or the road you drive to work on, or for that matter resembles anything whatsoever in any town within a 100 miles radius of your own town, especially if said romance short story contains even the slightest hint at adultery…especially especially if one’s spouse is an avid reader.
    no amount of “But honey! It’s only fiction!” will save you.

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