7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Mike Chen

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Mike Chen) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

Mike Chen is a professional copywriter, and
also has his own blog on writing. He loves
hockey and writes for several sites about
it (including FoxSports.com).


1. You don’t have to write from beginning to end. I know some writers that start a story at the very beginning and build and build upon it until they hit a wall … and because they force themselves to write chronologically, the whole thing stops dead in its tracks for months. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was the idea of mapping a rough outline with key scenes; when you get stuck, grab one of those pivotal moments and write it. You’ll be surprised at how the different perspective can get you going again and it might even give you a new perspective on characters and events.

2. Extreme moments define characters. How does your character act when the world is collapsing upon her? Sometimes, we never know because we don’t get that far. One lesson that’s always stuck with me is that characters are defined by how they act in conflict. When I feel like a character isn’t working, I stop the manuscript. Instead, I throw the character into an extreme circumstance (either related to the plot or not) — amp up the conflict and see what happens: how they react, how they choose, what their voices sound like. Whenever I start a new project, I do a bunch of these scenes to help me learn about my main characters before I throw them into 90,000 words.

3. Inspiration comes from everywhere. My crowning achievement in college creative writing was a satire on Hollywood and pop culture called How Brad Pitt and I Saved The World. The story came from sitting next to a Fed Ex truck at a red light, and I randomly thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if a celebrity was actually kidnapped in the back of the Fed Ex truck?” (which perhaps shows how twisted I am). Normally, these silly thoughts pass in and out of my head, but I decided to try and run with this one and it became a 20-page story for a class. To this day, I try to gather my random thoughts and apply them to a story whenever possible, even if they seem totally absurd. You never know what will work!

4. Even idiots have some valid points. I was once in a workshop group with the most stubborn, close-minded writer I’d ever met. He was writing historical fiction in a very, er, straightforward style (passive voice, no metaphors or imagery) … and he wanted every writer in the group to write exactly like he did – even the woman who wrote obtuse literary fiction. I filtered out most of his comments, though he made the occasional interesting point. It took me a while to deconstruct it among all of the crap he threw out, but it pushed my characters in different and unique ways because his thinking was so different from mine. So even the most dense, unimaginative criticism is worth checking out.

5. Keep your influences close. When I hit the block — and we all do — one of my tricks is to re-read my primary influences. This isn’t reading for pleasure; it’s to examine pacing, structure, prose, point of view, all of the things that might open (or re-open) my creative drive. For me, that means keeping a copy of About a Boy and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby within reach and flipping to a random page whenever necessary.

6. Writing can heal the soul. Each of my stories means something different for me, but they’ve all helped me grow as a person. Sometimes, it’s the exploration of wish fulfillment (Local Band explores the musical heights I’ll never see, barring a miracle); other times, it can deal with more serious personal issues. In those cases, I find that writing from the perspective opposite of my real-life situation helps me understand the real world better — and that more well-rounded perspective helps me think more creatively. It’s a win-win situation.

7. Get writer friends who respect you enough to be critical. This one’s a no-brainer, but I’m surprised at the amount of feedback I got in workshops where people offered a gentle, “I like it, it’s good” and not much else. Fortunately, I’ve built a strong circle of writer friends that can provide criticism in an effective and respectful way. This goes for both fiction and nonfiction essays. I think some writers worry too much about hurting feelings, so they stay on the safer side of criticism. However, when respectfully done, constructive criticism can spark creative thoughts, solve plots points, or flesh out character quirks. It’s incredibly important to have those reliable people that can push you to be better.



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0 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Mike Chen

  1. Laurie

    Great post, Mike! I love my writers’ group, but we have become close friends and our friendship is getting in the way of truly critiquing each other’s work because everyone is afraid of hurting each other’s feelings. I would much rather have someone give me an honest and tough critique than a vague, "I like it," which doesn’t help me at all.

  2. Mike Chen

    Livia, I go in with the attitude that any first draft requires heavy, heavy editing, so it’s best just to get the content down first. If I write out of sequence, I might create a character quirk that I’ll have to reincorporate later, but I just create some notes to make it easy to remember what to look for. My basic philosophy is this: if you write in sequence, at some point you’re gonna get stuck. If you pick and choose what parts you write, you should (assuming you have a reasonably complete outline) be able to always find something that sparks your creativity so you keep going. The rest can be edited later!

  3. Livia Blackburne

    Mike, great article! I like the tips. I’ll have to give #2 a try. Regarding #1 — I wrote that way for the first few scenes of my WIP, and then since I joined a critique group, I’ve been trying to go sequentially so they don’t get lost. It’s definitely easier to pick the scenes out of order, but as I work thruogh my novel now, I find that I’ll have to completely rewrite most of the scenes I wrote before, because characters have developed in a way I didn’t forsee when I wrote that scene originally. This has made me think that maybe I’ll just write sequentially for my next WIP — although I dunno, maybe writing those first few climactic scenes out of order set a framework that I’m currently taking for granted. What has your experience been like?

  4. Kristan

    Great advice all around, but I wanted to highlight #5 as being particularly awesome! So many writers talk about how they never read while they write because they’re afraid they’ll lose their "voice"… I gotta say, if you can lose it, then it probably isn’t yours anyway.

    (If you don’t want to read while you write for other reasons, then okay. I just think that one’s silly / a sign.)

    Thanks for the great tips!


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