5 Best Writing Tips From Famous Authors
When writers ask for advice, they tend to get the same line, over and over again. “If you want to be a writer,” says Stephen King, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Just do it, they say. And the advice stops there. Yes, a large problem with writers is that they simply have trouble putting their pen to paper. But there seems to be some misplaced blame here on the writers themselves. You can’t simply sit a novice writer down, tell them to write, and expect the next great American novel. Just like you can’t tell a beginning dancer to simply dance or a new singer to simply sing. Writing, like all other art forms, has to be practiced. There are techniques, tricks of the trade, and skills writers develop with experience. With that in mind, here is a compellation of five important writing tips from famous authors that every writer should have in their back pocket:
1. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” –Kurt Vonnegut
From the man who wrote Breakfast of Champions and Slughterhouse Five comes a tip that most beginning writers (and even some experienced writers) easily forget. A passive character who doesn’t have something motivating them weighs down the tension of the story. They slow the forward momentum of drama and often read like cardboard stick figures. It’s in human nature to want, so give your character something to strive for.
While this is a big point for main characters, it’s also a helpful tip to keep your minor characters interesting. The waiter who impatiently wants to end his shift so he can go home livens up a scene and gives the characters who are dining, something to react to rather than a waiter who lists menu items mechanically. Naturally, your “extras” don’t all need expansive backstories, but the more human everyone is, the more life your novel has.
2. “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” –Kurt Vonnegut
I had to do back-to-back Vonnegut because both of these words of wisdom are essential to character building. As writers, we tend to treat our characters like our children. We want to pamper them, give them the best of everything, and make sure they ride off into the sunset. While this might keep your character happy, it’s putting your readers to sleep. The more the character has to overcome, the more satisfying the happy ending, that is, if you’re generous enough to give them that ride into the sunset.
3. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov was famous for his ability to create beautiful imagery with his words, so it’s not surprising that his word of advice is about Show, Don’t Tell. A novel can have an engaging plot and riveting characters, but unless the readers can see them and visualize the events, the story will fall flat on its face. We live in a visual age and it’s important for writers to keep their stories engaging.
4. “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” –Billy Wilder
In keeping things visual, a word of advice from screenwriter Billy Wilder, who wrote hit moves like Some Like It Hot. Though writing a novel isn’t exactly the same as writing a movie, there are definitely lessons writers can take from film. For example, while all novels may not have three defined acts, it certainly makes for a strong novel if, by the end of the book, you’ve taken all of the characters and plots full circle and completed any arcs. That way, there aren’t any loose threads that leave the reader wondering.
5. “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. [Rewriting during the initial writing] process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm, which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.” –John Steinbeck
In the spirit of Billy Wilder, we come back around to the beginning of this article. The only way to get a novel is to write. However, Steinbeck (Of Mice And Men) brings up a good point about first drafts. It’s easy for writers to get anxious about their novel and eager to start the rewriting process mid-novel. However, the first novel is all about finishing. There will be time to go back and fix the plot holes and loops. Finishing is the hardest part, and it’s important for a writer to throw away any preconceived notions of their perfect novels and just get out the first draft.
Keep these words of wisdom with you as you go forward in writing and rewriting your novels. There is, however, one last word of advice (and one of my favorite) from modern bestseller Seth Godin, author of Unleashing The Ideavirus. “Pay for an editor. Not just to fix the typos, but to actually make your ramblings into something that people will choose to read.”
If you want someone to work with you to help you master the techniques that famous authors have impressed upon us, email our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 678-691-9005.