The Best Pieces of Writing Advice I've Heard - Part II

#6. Start with Character, Not with Traits

Every now and then there is a piece of writing advice I’ve found that applies universally to everyday life as it does to writing. This is one of those.

What it means to start with character, not with traits, is exactly how it sounds. And it is especially true when talking about the relevant issue of representation in art and media.

When coming up with a character, your first thought should never be “This character’s role in the story is to be the girl in the group,” or “This character’s role is to be trans,” or “This character is the one with a haunted past,” or anything of that sort. To do this is to define that character by that trait, to decide: This is what makes my character matter.

In my opinion, this is wrong both in writing and in life. For one, it’s going to make for bad characters whose dynamics stem from a single dimension. In real life, people are deep, complex, and multidimensional. Only in identity politics are people defined by single dimensions of their identities. And two, no character whose role is more than a passing side-character should be doomed to serve as a tool within a story. Although some will disagree, I believe characters should be treated as people in a story, with their own weaknesses, desires, flaws, and inner worlds. Just as people in life should be treated as people.

When it comes to representation in writing, it means simply this: Start with their character, their personality, and whatever comes after is simply whatever else makes them human. Their traits are pieces of a whole, not the things that define them.

On this issue, it’s another thing if, within the story, the other characters around them define them by those traits. That is realistic. But you, the writer with your own perspective, should be above that. Representation for the sake of representation is going to feel empty (ex: “This is the asexual character”). Representation for the sake of telling the story of human beings (ex: “This is a character who, for the longest time, wasn’t sure why she didn’t feel the same way as her friends when it came to romantic situations or talk of boyfriends and girlfriends. At some point she discovered what asexuality was, and despite many people around her thinking all she’d have to do is have sex to discover otherwise, she knows she’s asexual and has found contentment in that”) … that’s where good character writing comes in. It’s the same regardless, really. Putting any character in a story for the sake of putting a character in a story (ex: “This is the token comic relief character”) is going to feel empty. Putting a character in a story for the sake of telling the story of human beings (ex: “This is a character who was raised very differently from the people around him, so he makes jokes more frequently to feel included and because making people laugh is one of the only things he thinks he’s good at”) … you know the rest.

#7. Your Day Job (and other parts of your life) Are Not Interruptions to Your Art

I’m guessing everyone has heard the line “Don’t quit your day job,” typically used as a joke or even as a demeaning comment. And not that this phrase needs to be reclaimed, but this advice, which I’ve only encountered a few times (including in the excellent little book, The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell), is an intriguing and important variation of that idea, one I find empowering in how it embraces the virtue of everyday life.

Among those who are disenchanted, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that if only you didn’t have to go to work, you’d really get some good work done in your art. Or, if not exactly that, then it is a mindset of complaint and negativity, and things like work and the obligations of regular everyday life can become tedious or maddening or can feel like interruptions to the important things you otherwise want to be doing.

I have days like this. I’m sure everyone does. But, to me, the important thing is that these are just days. They come and they swiftly go because I do not invite them to stay; I don’t allow myself to think like that.

For any artist, and this is especially true of writers, the importance of something like work, like your day job, cannot be understated. I say this from personal experience, and I say this as a regurgitation of some of the best advice I’ve heard or read on this very subject.

It sounds cliché but it's no less true that a great deal of inspiration is going to come from the intricacies and encounters and experiences of simple everyday life. To work toward something, to sustain oneself or a lifestyle, it may feel as though that work is in the way of that lifestyle, but really it is a relationship between the work and the lifestyle, and it can be a beautiful relationship. Where is the true reward in something if it isn’t something you earn? But there is, of course, far more to it than that. For example, people are not something you have to put up with. People are… well, they’re people. And the artist that does not have a sense of empathy or compassion for others, or does not have some kind of deeper-than-surface connection to humanity… well, what is that artist doing making art in the first place? In the same way that people give symbols power, so do people give art power.

Plenty of writers, especially aspiring writers, don’t commit to a serious, disciplined writing practice even with their day jobs, but still think that if they could write full time, then they would find that discipline. For some it might be true, but I know it isn’t true for myself, at least not yet, nor for many others that I know. It’s a nice dream to have, something to imagine, but it isn’t the case. From a personal point of view, I think it’s more important to start where you are. Carry that discipline into the job you have now and into the work you do, and carry it equally into your writing regardless. Understand the relationship between having two jobs, and make sure those two jobs aren’t at war with each other. There can be a harmony between them so that one feeds the other. Carry that dedication everywhere you go and into everything you do. This connects to the first piece of advice I shared in the previous post, about how it really isn’t about being inspired, it’s about the constant choice you make, the discipline you give yourself. To do this is a choice, one you have to make every day. Not that it’s going to be easy every day, but I think it’s more than worthwhile.

Don’t take for granted the position you are in. You are exactly where you need to be, doing exactly what you need to be doing. Start where you are. Everything and every person you meet is not an interruption on your way to your art, it is a teaching, something that can feed you, something you can learn from, both as an artist and a person.

#8. Compete With No One but Your Past Self

Sometimes I come across a writer, or a book, that is so good in every aspect, I can only describe the feeling as being close to envy. It’s the “I will never write anything this good” feeling, and it’s fairly common when there are so many truly great writers out there, each in their own ways and in their own genres. It is also a perfectly valid feeling, because chances are: You’ll never write anything that good. Mostly because whatever it is, it isn’t your story. It’s theirs. I’m experiencing this very feeling right now, having just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. I know for a fact that I am never going to write anything that good, but rather than descending into resignation and envy, I’m trying to channel that feeling into a motivation, a willingness to strive for more, to tell my story the best way I can, because that’s what Rothfuss did, that’s what all the great writers did. They told their story the best they could.

That’s where this piece of advice comes in, and it is as applicable to everyday life as it is to the artistic and creative process. It is delightfully simple, if difficult to put into practice.

The only other writer/artist/person you should be in competition with is your past self.

To be in competition with someone else—anyone else, be it another author, a friend, a family member, a loved one—means that everything you do through the filter of that competitiveness will be in the shadow of the thing you are competing against. Your every action will be dictated by that competitiveness. What you imagine is an act of freedom and independence will instead stem from that mindset. This can be observed in real life, not merely art, in brokenhearted people seeking happiness in the wrong places, thinking themselves free when really they are running away from something, their actions dictated by needing to distance themselves from the one who broke their hearts; it can be seen in people trying so hard not to be like their parents, not realizing that the choices they’re making or the beliefs they’re forming are acts of rebellion or defiance.

In the same way, in your writing, if you are in competition with another writer, all the writing you do will be through the filter of that competitiveness. You will be creating a cage for your writing that constrains it, ties it to something else, and what may feel like originality will be mere subversion that exists in the shadow of what it is trying to subvert. And not that there’s anything wrong with subversion—in fact, subversion itself is a powerful tool—and satire can be an effective genre. But, at least in my opinion, it isn’t somewhere you want to live. To be in competition with no one else puts you outside of disappointment and inadequacy. It is freeing, and it is peaceful.

If you put yourself in competition with your past self, then you are doing something different. You are challenging yourself to grow. You are striving to be better than you were, and that is something no wise person would advise against. And it is more than worthwhile to decide to never stop growing, both as a person and as an artist.

#9. Remember the Power of Context

For these last few rules, I want to get a little more specific and a little more practical.

This is one of my favorite things to keep in mind. The power of context.

Another way of saying this: Do not let things happen in a vacuum.

Let’s make up an example.

Say you want to portray a character having a mental breakdown related to other people around him—some kind of agoraphobia nightmare or something. What do you think is the most effective way to do this?

You could lay out all of this character’s thoughts, a stream of consciousness that serves almost as a rant in text about how there are too many people and they’re all in a hurry and it’s maddening and it’s ruining the world and it’s driving this character crazy. That could work on its own. Done right, it could be something unique.

But if you’re aiming for effectiveness as a scene, wouldn’t it be better to put those thoughts into context? To put your character on a crowded street, to describe the whooshing of cars on all sides, the chattering sounds of dozens of voices, the footsteps and the cell-phones ringing or buzzing, the smells—some cologne and perfume, some putrid—and to interweave the same aforementioned thoughts into this scene and within the details. I think it spices it up a bit, grounds it, makes it more effective. The context makes it what it is.

You can also use context for seamless transitions into little segues. Say you want a character to start a conversation about marijuana. You could have it pop up randomly in conversation, because that happens all the time: sometimes there’s no telling where our thoughts go, or where a conversation flows. But for the sake of fluidity, it might spice things up if you have this character smell a whiff of marijuana while walking someplace, which then segues into a conversation about marijuana.

Context is a very simple, powerful thing. And reminding yourself of it can bring a scene to life in ways you never could’ve imagined before.

Sometimes context comes in the form of mere small details that flesh out the setting of a scene. Sometimes context will drive the entire scene.

And this is true, in my opinion, for poetry as well.

#10. Reveal Character Through Action and Image

This is an obvious one, very simple, but it’s never wrong to repeat it, because it is so important. It’s something I struggle with but am learning to recognize in my own writing so I can put it to use. Rather than go on about it, I’ll use a vague example from my own writing.

There are two characters—Wes and Alicia—who are newly together. They’ve been together for no more than a week or two even though they’ve been friends for much longer, so they are still getting comfortable with each other. In the early drafts, I introduce these characters in the way I just did to you. I basically explained, “They’ve been together blah blah blah,” in about a sentence or two, before moving closer to them and into the details of the scene.

In a more recent edit, I got rid of any of that stated exposition, and replaced it with this: “Wes is standing by the small iron fire pit that’s been set up in the middle of the deck.  There’s a red plastic cup in Wes’s hand and he’s talking with Alicia. They’re standing close together. When Wes makes a joke and Alicia leans forward with laughter, she puts a hand on his arm.”

This ties into context, but in my little writing journal, it’s its own separate reminder, so that I can always have it in mind: Reveal Character Through Action and Image.

#11. Conflict is a Driving Force

For the last piece of advice, something simple, fundamental, and endlessly practical.

You always want your characters to have weaknesses and desires—and yearnings, in a broader sense—simply because that’s how it is with real people. And it is immediately compelling even before any major plot points come in. Within scenes where nothing dramatic may be happening on the exterior, having some sort of conflict, some sort of unmet desire or yearning within your character(s) will compel the reader forward regardless. In fact, there are great books—truly great books—where the plot IS the character and their inner world. Done right, it’s all you really need. And it’s important to remember the importance of conflict in this way.

All the better is when you can meet the interior conflicts with the exterior. Always move the writing toward something, even if it must be the most minuscule of things.

That’s all I have for now on the best pieces of writing advice I’ve heard. I hope you find this helpful in some way, productive in others. And do feel free to let me know what you think! What you would add, what you would take away. And thank you for reading.

The Best Pieces of Writing Advice I've Heard - Part I

As with any artist or fellow writer reading this, I’ve accrued a considerable collection of writing advice over the years. And as with any collection of advice, there’s the good stuff and the bad.
Now, I may not have an actual collection of advice, but when something resonates, it sticks. I wanted to share and elaborate on some of the best pieces of writing advice that I’ve heard—the stuff that has stuck with me and which I try to carry with me into everything that I write. This is some of the good stuff. Rest assured, there will be a follow-up post for the bad.
(Note: As much as any piece of writing advice can, I hope many of these can be applied to more than just writing. Many of them can and will apply to any creative process, and sometimes to everyday life)

#1. It’s Not About Inspiration

I first heard a version of this advice years ago. It wasn’t until more recent years, when I began to truly integrate it into my creative process, that it made any real sense to me.

I don’t know how far back it goes nor how relevant it still is, but there is an idea—more a stigma—that paints an unfortunate picture of writers as these romantic figures who seek muses or dire situations that will ignite the flame of inspiration inside of them. This is the idea, the cliché, that a writer cannot truly create nor be competently productive unless something or someone motivates or inspires them.

This certainly doesn’t sound harmful on the surface, in fact it may even sound normal. That’s certainly what I thought for a long time. Of course you have to be inspired to write. Isn’t that obvious? However, I believe it is more harmful of an idea than it is a helpful or useful one. It’s an idea that could potentially be detrimental to a person’s creative output.

The advice is this: The writer, or artist, must self-motivate. It’s that simple—and when it comes to the blank page, or the blank canvas, or even the beginning of each day regardless of any art, it’s that difficult. If an artist relied solely upon exterior sources for inspiration and motivation, when would those moments come? They would surely come, probably out in someplace beautiful, or maybe in the shower, or while on a long drive—none of which are ideal places for actually creating. Not to discredit the importance of the kinds of things that do feed motivation, but relying on any kind of outside source for motivation is the same thing as substituting a drug-trip for looking at the world with wonder and curiosity. The experience becomes inseparable from the substance in your mind and you come to rely on it.

Ever since I began to treat my own writing as work, my productivity has seemed to skyrocket, and my writing and editing process has transformed. And it’d be easy to think of this as boring or insulting to an “inspired artist” who doubts this piece of advice, and I understand. It doesn’t sound like fun. It doesn’t sound wondrous. I used to think that having a committed writing practice was a stilted and actually boring idea. By writing process I mean not necessarily a schedule, but at least a semblance of structure which, for me, is simply this: write every day. It doesn’t matter when or where, just sit down at one point and write. Little by little I’m shaping this self-motivation, hoping I can structure it all the more: write for at least two hours every day; write a few lines when I’d usually be waiting for the next thing; take some notes for characters or the story when I’d otherwise be scrolling through my phone.

There are plenty of writers who will scorn this in the same way I used to, and I say again: I understand. But I can assure you of what I’ve learned in my own personal experience: doing this will not demystify the wonderful mystery that is the creative process; doing this will not trivialize your art or somehow make it banal or uninspired. On the contrary, I have fallen in love with the discipline that taking this advice has given me, because it is turning me into the kind of artist I want to be. It is not a limiting construction around the process of writing, it is a launching pad.

I’ll summarize in this way, as I’ve heard it put this way before: An artist turns pro not by monetary validation, not by success from an outside source, but by deciding they are pro and carrying that attitude, that approach, that decision, into their artistic process.

#2. Be Ruthless but Forgiving

This is a simple one. I encountered it in a book called The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch, one of the best and most comprehensive books on writing that I’ve read.

It comes into play when talking about another piece of advice that I don’t strictly agree with: Write every day. Now, personally, I do write every day, or at least try to. But to claim that this is an absolute, as far as advice goes, is ridiculous. From a practical point of view, it isn’t always possible. And in the context of mental health, it isn’t always healthy or productive. So I prefer: Be Ruthless but forgiving. Strive to write every day. Self-motivate and make yourself write as much as you can, because that’s what it’ll ultimately come down to: You have to make yourself sit down and write. Be ruthless. But at the same time, be forgiving. You have to give it your best, but understand that your best is going to change from day to day, from hour to hour. In that sense, you have to learn to forgive yourself as effortlessly as you push yourself.

#3. Never Stop Learning Your Craft

At some point in my developmental years as a writer (though, really, all our years should be considered developmental), I adopted the attitude that books on writing were stupid and bullshit and that nobody could teach or “learn” “the craft of writing.” I add an extra bit of angst and quotation marks to that sentence because this was high school. And I was a very angsty high-schooler.

I don’t know where this attitude came from, but it seemed to stem from a denial of authority. I was a young existentialist before I knew what existentialism (as a school of thought) actually meant, and in my now retrospectively amusing angst and ground-stomping naivety, thought there was nothing about the writing process that could be learned from a book or taught in a class. I look back now and shake my head and think, “I was an idiot.” And I was, and I’d love to buy my English/Creative Writing teacher a beer sometime and properly apologize for him having to put up with me for so many years. If you’re reading this (which is possible, though I doubt it), Mr. Phillips, that’s you.

But I digress.

There has always been a rebellious nature inherent in me personally, and I learned a lot by growing up with that in me and in many ways—ironically—rebelling against that very nature to realize that being contrary for the sake of being contrary is a cul-de-sac of self-congratulating thought. Which is to say, I don’t truly regret ever having had this attitude, since there is a wisdom in overcoming it that was necessary for me to experience, but it held me back in so many more ways than I ever could’ve realized before. If I may be sarcastic toward myself and perhaps overenthusiastic in simplifying this aspect of this advice: Be open.

I won’t say that every writer needs or should seek out more conventional means of self-education in their own craft. There is so much more to be learned simply by writing than most books or classes could probably teach. But seeking out ways to better learn your own craft will introduce you to things you may not have known before, or perhaps you knew but didn’t know how to apply. It will provide for you a necessary foundation, even if that foundation is strictly grammar.

And a writer is going to write anyway. Why not absorb what you can otherwise? Why not hone and refine your craft? Why ever settle? It is the same in everyday life, I think. It is so important not to lose your sense of curiosity and wonder. In the same way, in my own personal interpretation of this advice, I intend never to grow stagnant in my craft.

I now own a small number of books on writing, handpicked of course and skimmed beforehand to ensure they’re the kinds I want to invest in. And though I’m terrible at reading non-fiction, what I’ve learned from these books so far has been invaluable and even wonderful. Many of the pieces of advice in this blog post incorporate versions of what I’ve met in the pages of these books. And it’s easy to forget that although an artistic community can be a wonderful and enriching thing, the creative process—for artists such as writers—is primarily a solitary thing. It’s easy to get stuck in your own head, to create an island for yourself. I’ve found that the right books on the craft can provide a bridge from that island. Plus, there’s nothing like learning. Like really, truly learning, especially when it’s about that thing—that art, that craft—that gives your life so much meaning.

#4. The Importance of the First Draft—and of the Second Draft

This is another short and simple one—and an incredibly important one. Neil Gaiman has talked about it, Stephen King has talked about it, so on and so on.

It is incredibly important to finish your projects. There is the common advice to plough through the first draft and finish it without doing any editing, which I still maintain is impossible, but it’s something to strive for. By impossible, I mean specifically the editing part. I often edit sentences as I write them, and it works for me because it doesn’t interrupt my flow, and part of the sheer joy of the writing process is, for me, the construction of sentences. But the idea remains the same: if the story is working and moving, finish it. Keep a notebook handy for large-scale edits that come to you as you go, and if you absolutely must go back and edit, then do what you must. As long as you finish it. Once you’ve finished it, you have something to work with as a whole. You can then shape it, reshape it, reorganize and deconstruct and reconstruct.

And that’s where the importance of the second draft comes in, just as important as the first. No draft is more or less important than the last, just make sure that you give yourself to each one and see it through.

#5. Your Art is Not a Hobby

For this post, this will be the last piece of advice--though there will be subsequent posts, and of course a “Bad Writing Advice” to go along.

And this piece of advice ties directly into the first in the most wonderful of ways.

It is maddeningly common, as a writer, to hear some variation of this: “Oh, you’re a writer? You know, I’ve always wanted to write a book, I just never had the time.” Or, “Maybe when I retire I’ll finally write that book.” Or anything of that sort. At this point it’s a cliché to say I’ve heard this a lot, but only because it’s true: I’ve heard this a lot, from a lot of people. It’s ultimately harmless and I know it’s someone’s way of trying to relate, or of trying to get on the same page. But there is an underlying, hopefully unintended message to this: That your art is something done in your spare time. That it’s a hobby. That it’s easy, because obviously they’d do it too if only they had the time.

That’s how this ties into the first piece of advice. A true artist makes their time. It isn’t about having the time, it isn’t about “having a book in you that you’ll get to one day,” it’s about making the time. Or, for some artists, myself included, it’s that you can’t even help yourself from doing it. It’s what you can’t keep yourself from doing, and you probably happen to love it so you discipline yourself into doing it as much as you would be doing it anyway.

In our world it’s very easy to believe those external sources and stigmas and ideas about art and artists, and it’s very easy to fall into despair or resignation. That’s why taking this kind of advice is so important.

Your art is not your hobby. For some it is, of course, and that is more than perfectly okay. I’m with… Ray Bradbury? I think it was Ray Bradbury who said something about how we should all create art, even if it’s terrible, because it is a beautiful way of being human and taking advantage of the simple, amazing fact that we can express ourselves and make art. So yes, create art, even if it’s a hobby to you. It is a beautiful hobby, and it makes you no less an artist.

Even so, there are those of us who create art not as a hobby, but as a passion and a way of life. Do not let anyone make you believe your art is a hobby. This doesn’t mean it has to be all that you do. You may have a day job or a career that sustains you and allows you to make art, but if your art is what you really want to be doing for a living and the rest is there to support and sustain that, still: do not call it a hobby. It is your passion. It is your lifestyle. It is the fire underneath everything else. And because that fire is inseparable from you, it’d be a shame to let any external source extinguish or dim it.

And now we’re getting cheesy, so I’ll leave it at that.

What do you think of these pieces of advice? What else would you add or take away? Let me know! I hope you found some of these helpful in some way. There’ll be more to come soon.