A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to hear Jodi Picoult read from her latest novel LEAVING TIME, and to meet her for the briefest of moments while she signed my book. She was funny, and gracious, and quite down to earth despite her 23 books – the last 8 of which have made it on the NYT bestsellers list.
And while I loved learning about the book, her research, and some amazing elephant facts, as well as hearing the characters’ voices come to life, what stuck with me is what she said during the Q&A portion of the night:
“You can edit a bad page but you can’t edit a blank page.” Though I’ve seen this particular nugget fly across my Twitter stream more than once, hearing it from Ms. Picoult that night solidified something for me. It didn’t hurt that I was about halfway through my first draft of book two, and ready to sell my soul for the mystical writing elves to visit me one night while I slept and finish the damn thing. So whenever I find myself staring at a blank page in my Scrivener doc, I think about trying to edit said blank page and force myself to get the words down.
Shitty first drafts. Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD felt in many ways like a mug of hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire on a cold day, but nothing was more comforting than her statement about first drafts – mainly that we all write “shitty first drafts,” and that’s just fine. As a journalist, I have a lot of experience with shitty first drafts. I also know the fear that comes with a mess of words and no direction, and the worry that you’ll accidentally hit ‘send’ and your editor will see just how much you suck at first drafts. But miraculously and without fail, once you add some spit and polish those shitty first drafts (nearly) always turn out shiny and solid. The trick is trusting that will happen, and allowing yourself to write something really crappy first.
Keep it simple st*pid. At least when it comes to dialogue tags. When I read ON WRITING I wasn’t expecting to have quite so many epiphanies, but Stephen King’s book about the craft of writing remains THE BOOK that changed how I write. Before I read it my dialogue (tags) went something like this:
“Why aren’t you keeping things simple?” she shrieked loudly and stormily.
“Because simple is boring,” he shot back heatedly, staring her down.
Before reading ON WRITING I thought more was better when it came to dialogue tags. Variation, yes! Adverbs, give ‘em to me! But as soon as Mr. King pointed out ‘s/he said’ worked just fine and kept the readers’ focus where it needed to be – on the action – something clicked and I’ve never looked back.
Say it out loud. On the topic of dialogue, I love this piece of advice from John Steinbeck: If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
I’ve always done this – much to the annoyance of a Starbucks patron here and there – and it’s the single best way in my opinion to ensure your dialogue feels genuine. The key is to say it out loud as you write (I have, on occasion, had entire conversations with my characters in my living room) versus reading it out loud after it’s written – it makes the cadence work and the dialogue feel natural.
And finally, this from Larry L. King: “Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”