We’re talking advice from veteran writers this week on The Ball. Bookstores, libraries, and the internet are full of wisdom from writers who have been there. Here are a few of my favorites.
“You can fix anything but a blank page.” – Nora Roberts
I’m a reviser. Writing that first draft is pure torture. I enjoy taking my story apart and putting it back together, finding better word choices and imagery, and flushing out my characters. This nugget from Ms. Roberts reminds me during that first brutal draft that I only need to get it down, I can change it later. If I don’t love how a plot is evolving or a scene is unfolding, I can change it later. Just get it down.
“It’s never too late to be what you might have been” – George Eliot
My husband hates this quote. He insists that there are plenty of situations where it’s too late, like a post-menopausal woman wanting to get pregnant. And if you take it literally, sure, it falls apart pretty quickly. But I like the spirit of it. I see Eliot’s words are a reminder that it’s never too late to find your dream. It reminds me of Julia Child who didn’t start cooking until after she turned 40. Up until a few years ago, I never envisioned writing as a career, at least not creatively but I knew I had a passion, I just didn’t know it was writing. Once I started, my dreams clicked into place. Now I have a book coming out in a little over eight months with years ahead of me to create and improve.
“I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.” -Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird
When I’m writing the painful first draft, or I’m revising a tricky scene, this nugget from Annie Lamott gives me a starting place. Sometimes it’s just a matter of starting, and looking at a scene from the viewpoint of a one-inch picture frame helps me focus on what’s important or interesting. That’s usually all I need to get over a rough patch. It also reminds me to look at the small picture. I tend to write in broad swaths of color, and viewing a scene through a tiny lens forces me to look at the details which add depth and realism to my writing.
“Omit needless words.” and “Use definite, specific, concrete language.” – William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE
I love this small, black book. When I first bought it, I read it cover to cover like a novel. It’s full of useful bits that give writers a little guidance on improving the technical side of their craft. These two gems are ones I hold dear. It’s easy for writers to needlessly complicate our writing with superfluous words and flowery language. Perhaps it’s the former tech writer in me, but I love clear, specific sentences. If I can say the same thing in five words rather than ten, I’ll use the five words every time. I love the challenge of choosing better words to make my writing more vivid and interesting.
“Real human beings don’t behave in big broad strokes. They behave with tiny, exacting site-specific details. Your stupid McDonald’s employee should be different than mine.” – Merrill Markoe from AND HERE’S THE KICKER.
I found this tip in a collection of essays on humor writing, and I love it. At the time I worried my manuscript wasn’t original because it’s a common enough story of mistaken identities, but Markoe’s words reminded me it’s the HOW I write my story that makes it special. When I write, my job is to make my story uniquely mine through the specific details.
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