Wicked Wednesday — Best Writing Advice

By Sherry — in Northern Virginia where we are still digging out.

As authors we hear lots of writing advice. Things like sit your butt in the chair, have a daily word count, and set regular writing hours — advice I often ignore. I was wondering, dear Wickeds, if there was some piece of advice you’d gotten that took your writing to the next level.

IMG_7469Sherry: I’ll start. One year at Crime Bake I was lucky enough to have Hallie Ephron read part of my unsold manuscript. The book features a protagonist who is a gemologist. My protagonist was searching for someone and enters a dark alley to look for the missing person. Hallie asked me why she would go into a dark alley with a murderer on the loose. I had no answer. Hallie said to keep her smart. In a rewrite my protagonist thinks she sees the missing person enter the alley. My takeaway was that if someone is going to do something dangerous/risky/foolish they’d better have a great reason for doing it! I try to keep that bit of advice at the forefront when I’m writing and editing. For those of you who want to hear more of Hallie’s great advice try her two excellent books on writing — The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel and Writing And Selling Your Mystery Novel.

Edith: And you definitely do, Sherry! How many times have you added a comment to my manuscript to the effect that, “She wouldn’t do X. She’s smarter than that.” I didn’t realize I needed to thank Hallie, too (I’ll remedy that at my next opportunity).

Manuscript critiques by established authors are priceless. Hank Phillippi Ryan critiqued Speakingthe first twenty pages of my first mystery, Speaking of Murder. She said, “Nothing happens.” Whoa – she was right! I guess I fixed it well enough because she later gave the book a glowing cover endorsement. I also submitted a number of short stories to local anthologies in my early years of writing fiction — all rejected. Editor (and author) Susan Oleksiw remarked that I had set up a good story and drawn several intriguing characters, but I’d ended the tale before anything happened. So the piece of advice that changed my writing was: Something has to happen. Seems obvious, right?

Barb: I’ve mentioned that I’ve been in a writers’ group for twenty years, right? One piece of advice I quote all the time came from my colleague (and all-time critiquing great) Mark Ammons. “If you’re going to tell a lie, tell it fast. Don’t elaborate, don’t apologize and don’t look back.” What I take this to mean is that in every manuscript there is a “gimmie,” a plot point, action or decision the reader must buy for the story to work. Lots of times it’s just better to put it out there, without over-explaining, contexting, or rationalizing, before or after. It’s often when you pick at the point again and again, particularly if you give multiple, differing justifications, that the reader begins to question it. To me, voice is confident story-telling, and a strong enough voice can get you to believe just about anything.

Jessie: I would credit the agent we all share, John Talbot, with a piece of advice I tell myself at least once during the course of writing every book: “You can fix anything except a manuscript that isn’t written.”

Julie: What a great question! For me, it is trust your reader. I tend to over explain, and have learned to trust my readers to understand the journey without me explaining every single step.

Readers: Do you have a piece of advice that changed how you write? A wise word that changed your life in some important way?

50 Thoughts

  1. You all inspire me! What a great way to wake up on a Wednesday morn: to revive advice from the Wicked Wednesday Cosy Writers. You are all givers, not takers. I value your professional advice from yourselves and other great SinC published authors. See you at Malice in April! Beth, who is in rainy FL relishing a historical novel about Mozart. “Vienna Nocturne” sings!

  2. I am fortunate to have the women in this group as friends who support me. They are wonderful at reading and feedback and a good kick in the pants when I need it (Jessie!). Writing can be a lonely job and I believe having a group, or even one person, to be your reader or give you encouragement is important. I think each of the Wickeds have given me the same piece of good advice at one time or another; stick with it. Write it until it’s done without looking back. That’s the best advice they have given me.

  3. Great idea for a blog. My contribution? Stephen King wrote a classic column about writing rules that has been reprinted and revised many times of over the years. There is an outside chance I even read the very first version in The Writer magazine…too many decades ago to admit to! They are good words to write by, and it all worked out pretty well for him. 🙂 There are many versions out there, but I think this is the original: https://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/135/King_Everything.html

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Triss! I liked what you wrote over on Ramona’s page – even if you don’t have time to write, print out some pages and read over what you have written, because it keeps your head in the story.

  4. At a conference session years ago, Nora Roberts once told a packed room, “Just write it. You can’t edit something that isn’t there.” She called the first draft “the vomit draft.” (That means you have to tell your finicky internal editor to put a sock in it for a while.)

    1. I love this and know it in many versions. I sometimes get asked by aspiring writers how I did it and this is pretty much the advice I give. I’ve seen several get completely stuck on their inability to accept that you have to write badly at first and then write it again. Better. It isn’t always “inspired”, and it isn’t always fun. And Nora Roberts said so!

    2. My favorite piece of advice is similar. Friend and fellow mystery writer Lary Crews told me years ago “Just keep telling yourself ‘it’s only a first draft. It’s only a first draft. It’s only a first draft. . .'”

    3. I love the term “vomit draft” — I’m going to use that from now on! I’m working through my first novel, going back and realizing that of course everything I did in the first few months was terrible. But hey, I’m getting every newbie mistake out of the way the first time, right? RIGHT? I’m always amazed when I tell people I just finished my first NaNoWriMo and got 60,000 more words written and they come back a few weeks later and ask if it’s published yet. What? From now on, I’ll tell them, “I don’t even have the Vomit Draft finished yet.” 🙂

  5. This is so great…and thank you! (I put my books through that same filter, Edith!) And another bit of Stephen King’s advice–he said “The hardest part is just BEFORE you start.

    Finally, as I say to myself every day: Just go on. Just go on.

  6. I love this post! Mostly because I just finished revising three manuscripts myself, and you each bring up points my editor did. Mostly, something has to happen, and tension should be sustained to keep the reader invested, and to trust the reader. Thanks for sharing–it’s always so nice to hear you’re not the only one out there toiling away with these kinds of things.

  7. Thanks, Sherry! I remember that manuscript. And I remember you didn’t argue the point… you said, Ah, I can fix that! And you did. RIght now I’m trying to follow that advice John Talbot gave Jessie: “You can fix anything except a manuscript that isn’t written.”

  8. Great advice!
    I love E.L. Doctorow’s quote, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” Sometimes I forget that what’s in my head isn’t in everyone’s. This quote reminds me that if I want my readers to be in the same place I am, I have to write it so they can see it, hear it, smell it and be in it with me.

    1. Oh, I love that one! A great reminder! Barbara Ross wrote a great blog post about thinking how the words make the reader feel. I’ll have to try to find it.

  9. I was nodding my head. As a reader, you have all gotten and shared some great advice, and it shows in your books.

    Which I guess brings me to my biggest take away today. Listen to advice you are given and don’t dismiss it because you think you know best.

    1. This is the problem with shouting out one person — all that other good advice gets left out! I also remember someone talking about coincidences and that you are only allowed one per book. Was it Dennis Lehane or someone else? But yours was definitely the best short story writing advice!

      1. I was just kidding. And you’ve probably heard the no-coincidence advice in many places, including from me.

  10. And, mystery writers, one must not forget Chekhov’s quote, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Just get rid of everything that isn’t essential to the story.

  11. Great advice and just in time. I’m writing a first draft and will have a sticky note with the main points of your post beside me. I can tell you something that gets me in trouble: I’m writing merrily along, winging it and throw something in I think will work. Then I do the RESEARCH and have to totally rewrite it.DO THE RESEARCH FIRST. (:

    Nancy G. West

      1. I love Chekhov’s quote, and Susan Elia MacNeal’s post on Jungle Reds was really comprehensive. Common threads seem to be: do gobs of research, think about a theme, make some sort of outline (which you do not have to admit to yourself) start writing and pray.

  12. Wonderful subject for a blog, Sherry. I think the most valuable advice is just to keep pounding out that crummy first draft without looking back till the end. Stephen King also offered this re: telling vs showing: “If I have to tell you, I lose.”

    1. Thanks, Marian! The tell vs show is another very interesting subject! I have this Chekhov quote on my desk: Don’t tell me that the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

  13. I am late to the party but this is all such good stuff!
    For me, the best advice came from an anonymous fellowship juror. He/she wrote that my story worked but it resolved a little too neatly at the end, and I should avoid ending my stories tied up neatly in a bow. It was great advice, because it makes me rethink my endings before I got there. Now I look for endings that leave a bit for the reader to decide..

  14. I really needed to hear all this advice today as I work on a story that’s been like slogging through mud–until I finally figured out what was wrong with it, LOL! Now it can be fixed. I can’t remember who told me this, but it was to the effect of: don’t make it too easy for your main character. We’re nice people. We want to be nice to our characters, give them easy outs, not throw enough rocks to hurt them (you know these novel-writing instructions: Put your character up a tree. Throw rocks at her. Get her down). Being too nice makes for a boring story, one that’s unsatisfying at the resolution. So I condense to: Throw Bigger Rocks.

    1. Donald Maass said something like that at a seminar a few years ago. But I think the entire audience cringed when he added “Kill the puppy.” You don’t need to go that far!

  15. PD James told me “the real writing gets done in revision.” I always think of that when starting a first draft. It gives me the freedom to throw everything at it, then sculpt it into something lovely and readable– I hope!

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