I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember—since before I knew how. I made up stories all the time as a kid, and when I got too old to play pretend without it being weird, I started spending most of my free time daydreaming. I then decided that if I was going to live my life in my head, I should get it down on paper and try to make a career out of it. After lots of creative writing classes at NYU, I started freelancing, ghostwriting, and am currently editing my first novel. I certainly don’t know everything about writing, but here’s my two cents. Things that I’ve learned and found helpful as far as writing fiction—
Write what you know, and be ridiculously detailed about it.
Not that it’s not completely possible to write something amazing based on research rather than experience, but particularly if you’re writing something longer (a novel), it can be very hard to be 100% accurate if you aren’t all that familiar with the setting and main characters’ backgrounds. In general, you’ll have more to say, and you’ll say it better if you write from experience. Plot points may come off as unrealistic to those who have been through something you’re writing about solely from secondhand knowledge. For example, if you’ve never been in a fight, ask someone who has been punched in the face what it felt like. Don’t guess. Maybe avoid writing details you’re uncertain of altogether. As far as setting, I tend to write things set in New York City (where I live) or New England (where I grew up). Not to toot my own horn—I know I have plenty of room to improve as a writer—but agents and clients I’ve worked with have commented that my settings feel like characters in and of themselves. This is because the background to my stories comes from years and years of emotional personal experience and attachment to my city. It also helps me to include in my writing things I see every day—details that are specific, and give the reader a true sense of place and the aesthetic you’re aiming for. Considering incorporating elements of your personal history into your writing.
Write a lot, and some of it will end up being beautiful.
So important. This is essential as far as improving as a writer, which is a process that never ends. It’s also just a natural rule of productivity that if you produce a LOT, there will be some good stuff in there even if there’s also a lot of crap. Don’t overthink it—you can edit later. Just get those ideas down.
Read and research a lot. Take notes.
All different topics (although it’s obviously particularly useful researching a topic you’re writing about). Use facts and bits of non-fiction to boost your writing. Also read about the craft of writing. Learning from better writers than myself has helped me grow creatively, in a huge way. But in general, the more you know, the more interesting your writing will be.
Find a balance between detailed descriptions in your fiction, more simplistic prose, and narrative commentary on the events of the story.
I like the pattern of including some extremely detailed, lush imagery and anecdotes, interspersed with simple lines that still pack a punch. Include impactful emotional truths, following moments of raw description and feeling. I might describe a summer night in Brooklyn in great detail then bring it all together with a single sentence on whatever general sentiment or idea I’m trying to get across in the scene. It reads well, and keeps people engaged. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about (from Call Me by Your Name, one of my favorite books). The first part of the quote is pure imagery. At the end, the author (André Aciman) connects it back to the story with a clear, and poignant, statement about the nature of nostalgia.
Over the years I’d lodged him in the permanent past, my pluperfect lover, put him on ice, stuffed him with memories and mothballs like a hunted ornament confabulating with the ghost of all my evenings. I’d dust him off from time to time and then put him back on the mantelpiece. He no longer belonged to earth or to life. All I was likely to discover at this point wasn’t just how distant were the paths we’d taken, it was the measure of loss that was going to strike me—a loss I didn’t mind thinking about in abstract terms but which would hurt when stared at in the face, the way nostalgia hurts long after we’ve stopped thinking of things we lost and may never have cared for.Call Me by Your Name (André Aciman)
On this note, just describing stuff around you is a great way to build the background for your story and provide details to bring your writing to life.
If I’m in an interesting place, or people watching, sometimes I’ll just write down what I see then use it later. I recommend having a document full of little observations and vivid details to pull from when you have a picture of a scene in your head, but can’t find the words to describe it.
Avoid cliches (unless you are using one for a very particular reason).
Overused phrases and idioms (ie. sleeping like a baby, caught red-handed) are usually pointless and only serve to make a piece of writing feel trite and contrived. In rare cases, ironic use of a cliche or cliches used to develop a character’s pattern of speech can be good. But try to think of a unique way to describe whatever you’re trying to describe, if at all possible.
Finish it. Even if it sucks.
Not much to elaborate on here. Almost nobody can write a perfect or near-perfect story on the first try. This is why editing is important. Even if a piece of writing is beyond saving, finishing it will help you learn and (duh) teach you to finish what you start, which I think is a good rule to live by.
Write what you want. Even if it’s not publishable, you’ll be able to use it for something.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. It’s like pulling teeth to write something you’re completely disinterested in. It is also usually obvious to the reader when you don’t really care about what you’re writing. On the other hand, when you’re really passionate about something, it’s likely you’ll be able to write at least a decent story about it. At the very least, parts of it will be usable. And if you care about your characters, it’s likely other people will too.
Have multiple people look at your writing.
While learning to self-edit is important, you’re also not the best judge of your own work. Especially if you’ve spent a lot of time with it or have already done multiple rounds of edits. Sometimes, you lose some ability to be critical of yourself because you know your own writing SO well. It’s hard to get outside your own head. Sometimes I feel like what I’ve written sucks and someone else will feel the opposite. Other times I feel pretty good about where a story’s going, and my beta reader will tell me the plot is an absolute clusterfuck. Another reason having an editor is so important, whether they’re a professional or just a friend who likes to read, is that evaluating writing and determining what needs to be fixed is by nature incredibly subjective. I recently had a story rejected by a couple places I submitted it, only to be published by one of my favorite lit magazines (link). Some people just aren’t good writers (although I believe most people can become good writers)—but it’s quite likely that whatever you write, some people will hate it, and others will love it. Get multiple perspectives.
Don’t over-describe / over-explain.
I love intense, lyrical descriptions in fiction. Within reason. You want to bring the story to life for your reader, and this necessitates some degree of detail. Sometimes a lot of detail. But I often see authors overdo it. Most people have some imagination and will fill in the blanks themselves. As a rule, don’t describe something that is a normal part of everyday life, familiar to most people. Describing the nuances of life at a British boarding school will likely improve the story, because a minority of people have any idea what that life is like. Describing in great detail somebody doing the dishes then driving to work is probably less necessary. Descriptions of the most mundane parts of life are not always a bad thing, but if you include them make sure they add something to the story. Also be careful about too much physical description of characters. I think it’s good to give a few vivid details about a character’s appearance, particularly ones that also develop their personality. But too much doesn’t add anything and can be awkward. I often start picturing a character (cast them, if you will) before the author even gives a physical description.
Metaphors are great, but only within reason.
Another thing to use in moderation. I love metaphors and similes. They can bring a scene to life or connect the events of a story to an underlying theme. But when there are ten on each page, it starts to sound overly flowery and detracts from the impact of the writing.
This is a common rule of writing that I try to hold firm to—if you mention that a gun is hanging on the wall, it should go off at some point in the story. Essentially, don’t include pointless shit that only serves to make the story messier and more wordy. No filler.
Write dialogue first!
I think exclamation points are usually unnecessary and use them extremely sparingly, but I’ve used one here because this is (!) my single favorite writing strategy to use when writing fiction, especially longer works of fiction. After I plan out a chapter, I’ll write all the dialogue first, like a script, then fill in the details later. It’s a quick way to make a lot of progress and outline a scene in a concrete way.
Plan EVERYTHING ahead.
Don’t just start writing on a vague idea and run with it. More often than not, it will drag and the plot will go in unwanted directions if you don’t have a clear and detailed plan as to what you want to do with your story. I usually spend as much time preparing to write a story as I do actually writing it. Get your characters developed in great detail. Plan your plot out by the chapter, and flesh out subplots. Outline general themes and what motifs and events you’ll use to get them across. Even when it comes to planning a single chapter or scene, plan how to address / include the necessary plot points in a way that gets across the emotions you wish to evoke, and the information you wish to impart.
Learn to connect motifs to themes to plot. Everything has to fit. Subplots should not be pointless.
Motifs, which are particular things / characters / places / ideas (nouns!) intended to further a theme or develop a certain mood in a story, do not have to be obvious. They can even be ambiguous and open to interpretation. But they do have to have meaning. Otherwise they’re just scattered, usually pretentious details that don’t actually do anything for the story. Come up with a theme. Flesh it out, then figure out how to express it. Subplots are another great element of fiction writing that can easily be done wrong. A subplot should only be included in your story if it improves the main plot in some way, emphasizes the theme, or develops a main character’s story arc in a way that feels cohesive and natural. These are all things to plan before you start writing.
Theme is secondary to plot is secondary to character development.
Another thing during remember when planning and writing a story. I love a well-written, character driven story, even if the plot isn’t super strong. As long as I feel like I know the protagonists, like they’re my friends—I’ll happily and hungrily read a book that’s short on action. In my experience, a lot of literary agents feel the same way. That said, a fully developed plot is important, even if the plot is not the most important part of the story; even if there’s not a lot of drama, there should still be a strong, tight story arc. Honestly, this is what I struggle with most as a writer. It’s not easy to cut material out of your story in order to improve the plot when you feel like it detracts from character development to do so. But sometimes you have to. Lastly, a note on theme—theme is important, but not top priority. I prefer a book with a message, but most people, myself included, are very capable of enjoying a fluffy beach read that isn’t intended to express some deep emotional truth. Just decide what kind of book you want to write, make sure the characters are amazing, and that the plot is, at the very least, neat.
Plot can come from characters. What does your character want? What problems are they dealing with?
Have strong characters but struggling with plot? I often come up with a character before I think of an actual story. In that case, I ask myself what motivates that character, and what they’ve experienced in their life. Most stories stem from the protagonist encountering a problem they cannot solve.
Make sure you’re not assuming the reader is smart or good at drawing conclusions.
While you don’t want to overdescribe, there has to be a balance between being too detailed and leaving the reader confused. Most people aren’t that smart. That has become increasingly clear to me in recent years. Knowing where to clearly spell something out is a very important skill to have as a writer.
Remember that you’re more interested in yourself and your thoughts than other people are.
People are self-centered. This means two things (at least as it pertains to writing )—you are naturally inclined to think your writing is more compelling than it is, and people reading your writing will only stick with it if it’s actually good—strong characters, interesting story line. Back to the importance of a beta-reader. Before you make edits, I strongly advise having someone else read your work.
Title will come later. As will the story actually being good.
Don’t bother with a title. It will come. It’s pretty common for agents and publishers to re-name a book if they think your title won’t sell. If something jumps out at you as the perfect title for your story, use it. But don’t get too attached to it. And as far as the quality of your writing, don’t expect perfection before you edit it. This is something else that will come later on.
Final words—my single favorite quote on writing:
“It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” (Robert Hass)
This is so true it hurts. Seriously. Even if you’re passionate about writing, you may sometimes struggle to actually write. But having just written, especially something good, is more than tolerable—it’s incredible.