A while back someone on Tumblr asked me how to get better at writing. This is what I replied.
It’s been sitting in a text editor window ever since. I decided to post it here before closing it and consigning it to the aether forever.
Read great stuff. Read garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage even though they sell a ton. Read stuff everyone says is great that you think is garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage that you think is great. Read your favorite genre. Read other genres. Read that tedious shit they put in the New Yorker where nothing ever happens except for some white people not quite getting a divorce. Read stuff you think is great now that you’ll think is garbage in ten or twenty years.
And don’t just read it. Think about it. Ask yourself why the stuff you think is great is great, why the garbage is garbage, what appeals in the terrible best-sellers, what appeals in the great best-sellers. Develop a sense of what makes writing, plotting, characterization, and storytelling good or bad. Then apply that sense to your own writing. If a piece doesn’t pass that test then fix it until it does, if you think there’s something worth salvaging in it. If you don’t know how to fix it then ask how one or another of your favorite authors would fix it.
Read that book you loved ten years ago and read every few years and still love. But don’t just read it. Get a paper copy of it and start *dissecting* it – take notes in the margins. This bit supports this major theme of the story. That bit is an awesome grammar trick you didn’t notice until the third time you read it. This bit is just fucking amazing writing. This bit touched something important in your budding pre-teen sexuality. This bit contradicts that other bit (intentionally?). Here’s a major turning point in the story; here’s a major turning point in this particular character’s story. Flense the story’s skin and muscle off its bones, think about how one supports the other and how badly it would work without some part.
(Doing that is why the last third of Rita is shaped the way it is – I picked up *Use Of Weapons* to re-read as a way of saying goodbye to Iain when he died far too early; I started asking myself how and why he twisted the timeline into knots in that story, and what he had to do to make it work, then applied that to my own story.)
There’s lots of books on How To Structure A Story. Some are shit. Some are great. Read some of them. Personally my current favorite is the one Film Crit Hulk wrote a while back. Be warned: if you’re reading screenwriting manuals, do not try to fit your seven-act story into the Procrustean bed of a three-act screenplay. Let your story be the shape it needs to be. (But keep in mind Vonnegut’s dictum to respect the reader by starting the story as close to the end as possible; you have to *earn* the reader’s attention if you want to tell the six hundred years of Madeupistan history leading up to the point you want to make.)
Do not get lost in “worldbuilding” and “backstory”. Do not skip it, either. Stories and characters grow out of them. But it doesn’t all need to be on the page. I’ve seen the metaphor of an iceberg: maybe 10% of the shit you come up with for a novel ends up on the page. The rest? Save it for the RPG worldbook.
Getting lost in TVTropes is part of your job. It’s a great resource of common building blocks of stories. But you can’t just mindlessly put tropes together; think about which ones work, which ones you should bend, which ones you should avoid entirely, in service to the *theme* of your story and the *characters*.
Having a theme helps a lot too. Whenever you’re stuck for the next thing to aim the narrative at, you can ask how you can bring the theme(s) back to the fore.
The hardest part: figuring out how people act. I mean fuck I’m an involuted freak who spent twenty years of her life hiding from any and all social interaction and learning how to draw and program. The best background is nothing without characters, full of dreams and goals and successes and failures and foibles. Give them things they want, put obstacles in their way, and then story occurs.
Some people will divide writers into “planners” and “pantsers”: one makes elaborate plans of how the whole plot will unfold before they write a single paragraph, the other just starts writing shit and just goes where instinct takes them. Personally I tend to go back and forth; it’s worth noting that both Stephen King and George R R Martin describe themselves as firmly in the “pantsers” camp, and they’ve sold a fuckton more books than I’m ever likely to. Pantsers tend to be about dropping a bunch of characters into a situation, and seeing how they work their way out; this can involve going down a lot of dead alleys as the characters try things that don’t work out.
Personally, Rita started very pants-y: here’s this robot lady infiltrating a building, why? An assasination, apparently. She’s talking to someone, who? Carol. What’s their relationship? I had some vague ideas for visual tricks I wanted to pull with the multiple-story trick but no real clue of the story; it didn’t really start to come together until a random obstacle I dropped in to stop a Relationship Conversation from going on forever opened his mouth and said he was Rita’s psycho ex, and shattered her reality for her. Then I knew a lot more of how it was going to end; once I knew that, I could say “okay, I’m here, and I want to get here – what’s a midway point?” Then repeat: what’s about midway from the latest page to that midway point? To there? Eventually I get down to having a handful of sentences describing what needs to happen in the current chapter, then to what needs to happen in the next page or two, and then I just start plopping words and doodles onto the page in Illustrator. Absinthe’s been similar, albiet much slower. Parallax is super-planned – we’ve turned to TVTropes, we’ve got a list of Common Star Trek Episode Types we made, we’ve spent a whole year kicking back and forth a framework for a multi-season TV show.
It’s okay for first drafts to be terrible. Now you have something to fix, and that’s a lot easier than having the story burst forth fully-formed like Athena from Zeus’ brow.
If you find someone who you collaborate well with, hold onto that for dear life. I would not be half the writer I am without Nick there to help me. We broke up during Absinthe, then got back together during Rita, and now we’re collaborating both on Parallax and Absinthe. Having another pair of brain hemispheres to toss ideas back and forth is wonderful; they’ll bring in a similar-but-different set of references, loves, inspiration, and knowledge.
But mostly: read a lot; turn off your internal censors and write some absolutely terrible stuff. Then either fix it, or write some more terrible stuff until you have something worth fixing.
Also: go ask someone who knows more about writing than me, 99% of my longform writing output is volleying crazy smut fantasy paragraphs back and forth over a furry muck until someone came, fell asleep, or had to go to work the next morning. honestly I’m not sure they’ll have that much more to say, I mean King’s “On Writing” is basically him saying “read a ton, good and bad, and write a lot while applying the critical eye learnt from your wide reading to your own stuff” plus an assortment of anecdotes from his much longer writing career, just do it again and again until people are willing to pay you for it or you give up.