Every day at Writer’s Digest, I’m particularly thankful that I get to read about writing and edit some really skilled teachers and experts. The varied perspectives, voices and authorities on the craft keep me on my toes and enrich my experience as a writer and a reader. Today, I pulled five perspectives that I’m especially thankful for—five writers who have a powerful voice and great style for instruction—and some of their insightful takeaways on writing.
1. Affinities & Motivations That Explain Why Writers Create in a Particular Medium
by Susan Reynolds, from Fire Up Your Writing Brain
Why you write novels, poems, or self-help books may be another question that seems simplistic, but even if you’ve always been a memoirist or you’ve always been a journalist, it can be helpful to revisit the whys and wherefores. Did you consciously choose a medium or fall into it somewhat haphazardly? Do you feel that you have certain affinities or certain abilities you feel compelled to use or find easy to maximize and that, therefore, determine which medium you choose: dialogue (scriptwriters), action (anything from comic books to action films), characterization (novels), high drama (plays), feelings (poetry), and so on? Do you feel you’ve found your niche, or is a large part of your struggle to write (or perhaps even your resistance to write) based on perceived weaknesses that you feel you have to conquer?
Let’s discuss various mediums and the affinities or motivations that may reinforce your decision.
- Nonfiction: You have the expertise and/or you like working with an expert to educate people on science, art, music, or anything, really. You possess an analytical brain that likes to burrow into topics that fascinate you, and you are adept at then explaining them to others. You have a fresh perspective on a subject that needs exploring.
- Historical: You want to record events as they happened or to revive stories that have been forgotten. You’re inspired to capture the essence of people who have greatly affected the world; or you lived through something monumental (like being a soldier in a war) and have a unique contribution to offer.
- Novels: You long to capture essential knowledge about people and situations. You enjoy inspiring and entertaining others via storytelling. You want to create a work of art that is at once unique and memorable. You want to write stories that help individuals and society come to realizations about what was working, what wasn’t working, and what might be needed. You want to shine a light on travesties or to inspire others to create a better world.
- Memoir: You lived through something that will offer others a way to navigate dangerous waters or that will inspire others to rise to new heights. People are wildly curious about you (for whatever reason). You want to make sense of what happened, find a silver lining in tragedy, and finally appreciate or release past events.
- Comedy: When you talk, people laugh. You have a unique perspective and a razor-sharp, wickedly fast wit. Your lighthearted perspective needs expressing. You feel most alive when making people laugh. The world needs to lighten up. Humor is a healthy coping method.
- Poetry/Lyricist: You enjoy mining your inner thoughts and feelings. You’re passionate about the gracefulness of language and the use of metaphor to communicate deep thoughts and resounding notes of spiritual ascendancy or decline. You’re deep and intense and have something remarkable to express.
- Nature Writing: You love bringing the beauty of the world to the forefront. You want to honor the beauty around us all and to help others see with new eyes, understand with fresh knowledge, and respect all the darlings of our universe. Everything in nature is a marvel to you.
- Science Writing: You want to bring new knowledge to the forefront and to defend or uproot practices that hold the potential to foster life or lead to death. You’ll do whatever it takes to promote science.
You get the idea … choosing your medium is a reflection of personality, affinities, perspective, philosophy, and opportunity—and ideally it should be something you consciously consider. Recognizing your strengths should inform your choices but not necessarily restrict them. Maybe you’ve been a successful poet but you now long to write a novel (or vice versa). Noting the affinities you already possess that would support experimentation could inspire you to new heights.
2. Commit to Your Writing
by Jennifer Probst, from Write Naked
In the beginning, books are like affairs, because excitement drives you forward. But the deeper you get into the book, the more you discover hidden problems.
The conflict wasn’t pressing enough. The spark between the hero and heroine was electric, but they can’t seem to have a meaningful conversation. The secondary characters are cardboard, without real emotion. You bump along and hit the potholes, and you’re forced to stop and examine the road. Did you go the right way? Should you have turned left at the corner instead? Will you run out of road before the planned trip is over?
This is the serious stuff you need to deal with to make a great book. By the time you near the finish line, you’ll fall back into a full love affair. The kids are grown, you’re retired, you’re rich, and you finally get time to yourself. You see the threads coming together, and you can soar to the end.
Giving up too soon is dangerous. If you chase the shiny, new idea each time, you lack staying power and you won’t be able to write a full, meaningful book because you only write the easy parts. How can you create a proper character arc without some degree of growing pains for your characters? And for yourself?
Now, I’m not saying your book sucks if there aren’t bumps or bruises. Some books are just gifts. But if you’re jumping ship each time you encounter problems, you need to look at your motivation.
New writers: Finish the book you’re working on. It’s the only way to find out that you can do it again. It’s a way to earn your Scout badge and to show you have the perseverance needed in a world that may eventually rip your heart out and do a happy dance all over it.
One of the most beautiful phrases I know besides once upon a time is the end.
Pick the story that pulses in your gut. Then do everything in your power to finish the book. Even if you realize you made a mistake. Even if you realize it’s a sucky book, it won’t sell, or you’ve suddenly lost all interest.
Finish the book. Then make your decision to revise or move on to the next one.
A story unfinished is a sad thing. It screams of potential not realized. It sobs with what could have been. Stories need closure, for readers and the writer. Since you are the only one to see this story, do what needs to be done.
Finish the damn book.
3. Learn to Fail Better
by Gabriela Pereira, from DIY MFA
Failure and rejection are not just part of being a writer; they are essential ingredients to your success. Yet knowing this doesn’t make it hurt any less when you fall short of your goals. No one likes to fail, and rejection is downright painful. This is why you need a system to cope with failure and bounce back from rejection. I call it “failing better.”
F = Face Your Fears
A = Assemble Your Allies
I = Initiate and Iterate
L = Let It Go
The sooner you know something isn’t working, the sooner you can eliminate that option and find another that works. Fail fast and fail often so you can establish a creative process that moves you closer to success.
Resistance and fear are closely tied. After all, we often resist what frightens us, so fear can be a good indicator of where you should concentrate your actions and attention.
But fear is more than just a signal for resistance. Fear stimulates our fight-or-flight response and pushes us to take action. We might be tempted to ignore our fears, to keep a stiff upper lip and push forward despite our instincts, but remember that fear exists for a reason, and part of honoring your reality is admitting when you are afraid. Fear makes you pay attention. It makes you sit up and take note. It is not a sign of weakness but an essential component of courage. Courage is not the absence of fear; rather, it allows you to take action—a leap of faith—despite all the things that might terrify you. Without fear, you can’t have courage. This is why facing your fears is the first and most important step toward learning how to fail better.
Assemble Your Allies
On the journey from idea to finished book, the writer meets many colleagues and trusted readers. Aside from the obvious allies like an agent and editor, many other people can be involved in a writer’s success. You might find allies among your writer friends. These colleagues will read your work and give you honest feedback, flag problems, and offer suggestions to solve them. Bookish nonwriter friends can also give you feedback but from a reader’s point of view.
You don’t need to wait until the revision stage to enlist the help of your allies. They can also help you beta-test a story or brainstorm project ideas with you. This early feedback can help you course-correct before you’ve invested so much time and energy in a project that you’ve passed the point of no return.
Initiate and Iterate
Now you must cross the threshold and start writing. Don’t worry about getting it right on the first try. Embrace the probability that you will mess up, and that these imperfections are simply part of the process. This will free you to take the first leap and start on a project, even if you don’t feel ready. Some writers waste months—even years—planning and preparing to write. If you do that, you’ll never start. Remember, there will never be a perfect time to write your book, and you will never be completely ready. Stop waiting for the right time and just write. Now.
Remember that mistakes and failure are part of the iterative process, and while they are inevitable, you cannot take setbacks personally. When something goes wrong, don’t say, “I failed.” Say, “This failed,” and then try something else.
Let It Go
The best way to deal with failure is to let it go. This doesn’t mean living in denial and ignoring your mistakes. Letting go means you must first honor that failure and then set it aside where it can do no further harm. Acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, but don’t carry that experience with you as excess baggage.
We writers are perfectionists, and we often make our failures worse by agonizing over them. We pick apart rejection letters looking for hidden clues. We relive the drama of mistakes we made both on and off the page. Just like compounding failure with guilt, when we agonize over our mistakes, we make an already-painful experience worse.
Letting go of failure allows us to recognize and accept our mistakes without wasting additional energy on them. When we obsess over our failures, we use up precious mental real estate that could be better spent on creative endeavors. The more angst and worry we carry with us, the less space we have in our brains for creativity and writing.
4. The Three Questions That Will Solve Every “Plot Problem” You’ll Ever Have
by Steven James, from Story Trumps Structure
Initially, most authors land somewhere on the continuum between outlining and organic writing. If you try to fit your story into a predetermined number of acts or a novel template, you’re more of an outliner. If you don’t care how many acts your story has as long as you let your characters struggle through the escalating tension of your story in a believable way, you’re more organic.
Both organic writing and outlining have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. (Yes, even organic writing can, in some cases, lead you astray if you don’t let all three questions listed below guide your writing.)
Outliners often have great high-concept climax ideas. Their stories might escalate exponentially and build to unforgettable endings. However, characters will sometimes act in inexplicable ways on their journey toward the climax. You’ll find gaps in logic. People will do things that don’t really make sense but that are necessary to reach the climax the writer has decided to build toward.
Organic writers are usually pretty good at crafting stories that flow well. The events are believable and make sense. However, sometimes the narratives can wander, and although the stories are believable, they might also end up being anticlimactic as they just fizzle out and don’t really go anywhere.
So outlining often results in problems with continuity and causality, while organic writers often stumble in the areas of focus and escalation.
Outliners tend to have cause-effect problems because they know where they need to go but don’t know how to get there. Organic writers tend to have directionality problems because they don’t necessarily know where they’re going, but things follow logically even if they lead into a dead end.
- “What would this character naturally do in this situation?” This focuses on the story’s believability and causality—everything that happens in a novel needs to be believable even if it’s impossible, and because of the contingent nature of fiction, everything needs to follow causally from what precedes it.
- “How can I make things worse?” This dials us in to the story’s escalation. Readers always want the tension to tighten. If the story doesn’t build, it’ll become boring and they’ll put it aside.
- “How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable?” Here we’re shaping the scenes, and the story as a whole, around satisfaction and surprise. So the story has to move logically, one step at a time, in a direction readers can track—but then angle away from it as they realize that this new direction is the one the story was heading in all along. However, readers don’t want that ending to come out of nowhere. It needs to be natural and inherent to the story.
The first question will improve your story’s believability. The second will keep it escalating toward an unforgettable climax. The third will help you build your story, scene by twisting, turning scene.
Organic writers are good at asking that first question; outliners are good at asking the second one. As far as the third, organic writers will tend to have believable endings and outliners will tend to have unpredictable ones.
The way you approach writing will determine which of those questions you most naturally ask and which ones you need to learn to ask in order to shape effective stories.
5. The Most Important Rule of Story
by Chuck Wendig, from Damn Fine Story
That’s it. That’s the rule. It’s law, it’s holy writ. It’s undeniable.
Stories make the world go around.
Stories can get a politician elected—or bury him after he’s in office. Stories sell us products, they convince us of lies or share with us vital truths. Narrative is all around us. The entire Internet is made up of narrative after narrative—some of it nonfiction, some of it fiction (and, ahem, some of it is fiction parading around as nonfiction the same way a wolf might shimmy his ass into a set of sheep’s clothing).
We tell stories about our families and our loved ones, and we share tales of what happened at work and at school. When we have a bad day, we turn to movies, books, games, plays, and comics. And some of those movies, books, games, plays, and comics will outlive us, and may even outlast our civilization when it’s gone and replaced with the next set of people (or sentient cyborg dinosaurs). Some stories come out in their time but speak to us timelessly—The Handmaid’s Tale or Casablanca or the canon of Shakespeare. Some stories are decidedly products of their time, and we use them to understand the period from whence they came.
Stories teach us.
They persuade us.
They dissuade us.
Stories are the backbone of mythology, religion, history, sociology, literature. Culture as a whole is composed of countless threads of narrative.
This thing we do, it has meaning. But it doesn’t always feel that way. When you sit down, and you’re about to put a pen to paper to write that next book or short story or script, or whatever it will end up being, you’re going to experience that twinge called “impostor syndrome.” We all feel it. I get it even still, even after writing over a dozen books and some comics and some film and TV scripts. I get that feeling of being an impostor. I feel like I don’t belong, as if I’m secretly a stowaway on a boat that belongs to other, greater people.
And that feeling and fear of being an impostor is just the gateway: I start to worry, what’s the point? Who’s reading? Who’s listening? And somewhere in the back of my brain, I’ll hear the echo of that oft-repeated nonsense phrase—“There are no original stories, stories, stories”—and I’ll clench up even further. My fingers will pause. My mouth goes dry. I’ll feel nervous and anxious and woefully unsure of myself and the mission I’ve given myself. It happens every damn time.
And every damn time, it’s bullshit.
Storytelling is not special. I don’t mean that as an insult. I mean that storytelling is not some precious, unique thing. The role of storyteller is not a guarded, privileged soapbox. You don’t get an official podium with a sanctioned seal of approval. It’s not just for them. It’s for all of us.
Storytelling is a shared tradition. We all get to pass around the talking stick and the magic witch’s eye. It’s not just for the priests or the chosen few. Telling stories is a powerful common denominator. And listening to stories is as vital and as common as breathing. We are bound together by our stories. We share traits and tales through those narratives—and we also help to spread empathy and compassion and critical thinking through them. Stories are the ripples that carry water from my shore to yours, and yours back to mine. They are a form of echolocation, cultural and emotional and sociological. Narrative forms our shared tapestry. You at one end, me at another, and all the threads in between connecting us.
Don’t be afraid. You can’t be an imposter because storytelling isn’t for the few. It’s for the many. Stories are for everyone.
If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at firstname.lastname@example.org.