Writing Advice From Fiction Writers

Writing advice can be easy to dole out—sometimes too easy. At WD, we’re always on guard against relying on those hoary old cliches like “Show, Don’t Tell,” “Write What You Know” and “Writing Is Rewriting.” Those writing truths are legitimate and helpful, of course, but even folks just picking up the pen are jaded to such pearls of wisdom.

What you need is new set of know-how. The following success-tested tips and techniques have proved victorious on the writer’s field of battle—in the slush piles and on the steep climbs up the bestseller lists.

We asked several fiction writers two questions: “What is the one technique that makes your work stand out?” and “What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?” Their answers:

Sara Paretsky
Ghost Country (Delacorte)

The Technique: I listen for voice. I start with how the character speaks and everything evolves from that—appearance, occupation and personal history. I believe that to create real-seeming characters, the writer must be willing to go on a voyage of self-exploration. It can be revealing and even painful to explore your own weakness, but it gives you genuine emotion. Characters in fiction come alive because of the believability of their emotional lives and that is what I strive to create.

The Advice: The best piece of advice I’ve heard is from singer Maria Callas. A student once asked her what piece of advice she would offer someone trying to master a particular song and Callas said you have to live the music. Unless you can create the feeling in yourself that you are doing something for the glory of its creation, you might as well be selling computers to insurance agents—the work I did before I was able to work full-time on my writing.

J.A. Jance
Rattlesnake Crossing (Avon)

The Technique: I try to understand my characters’ motivations. Until it’s believable to me, it won’t be believable to my readers.

The Advice: The man who sold me my first computer in 1983 fixed it so that when I booted up these words appeared on the screen: A writer is someone who has written today.

Jane Yolen
Armageddon Summer (Harcourt)

The Technique: I read everything out loud, so the walls of my office are my first (and fiercest) critics.

The Advice: Editor Linda Zuckerman, then at Viking and now head of Brown Deer Press, said of my young-adult novel, The Gift of Sarah Barker, that I needed to slow down. “Trust your audience,” she told me. “They will go where you want them to go.”

W.P. Kinsella
The Secret of the Northern Lights (Thistledown Press)

The Advice: Offered by Lawrence Russell, professor of creative writing at the University of Victoria: “Don’t explain, just begin.” This advice is self-evident, and I look to it every time I begin a new story.

Elmore Leonard
The Tonto Woman (Delacorte)

The Technique: I focus on characters as individuals with attitudes and write each scene from a particular character’s point of view. That way, even narrative passages take on the character’s sound. I don’t want the reader to be aware of me, writing.

The Advice: In 1952 I suggested to my agent at the time that if she were to critique my manuscripts before sending them out, I could make revisions and we’d get fewer rejections. She said, “You learn how to write and I’ll sell it.

Diana Gabaldon
The Outlander series (Delacorte)

The Technique: I call it “underpainting,” because it’s done for the same effect (and is just as tedious to do) as the sort of work done when constructing an oil painting—the laying of sub-layers, half-transparent glazes, bits that aren’t seen directly, but add to the depth of the final painting. In literary terms, the technique involves a good deal of body language and inconsequential small actions. The reader is conscious of the main thrust of a paragraph, page or scene; the spoken dialogue, the main actions. Subconsciously, underpainting brings the scene alive in the mind’s eye.

The Advice: Oddly enough, I got this advice from the Bible: “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” In other words, concentrate only on what You’re doing—don’t allow yourself to be distracted from the work by worrying about whether it’s good/who will see it/will anyone buy it. If you just work, the world falls away, and the words on the page start to live.

Sandra Brown
Unspeakable (Warner)

The Technique: I try to weave a secret into each plot, and usually the secret belongs to the main character. It’s the thread that holds the rest of the story fabric together. In fact, it’s the reason for the story. I hint at the secret early on. Immediately I want the reader to get the feeling that something here isn’t quite right. Something doesn’t fit, doesn’t gel, something’s out of joint. It helps maintain the suspense if a puzzling element is introduced in the first few pages of the book, but the answer isn’t revealed until the final ones. Hopefully, readers want to know what the heck is really going on, and it’s the desire to find out that keeps them turning pages.

The Worst Advice: The worst piece of advice I was ever given was to write about what I know. I took stock of what I knew and, from a creative standpoint, none of it was very stimulating. Nor did it have much potential for being engaging and entertaining to a reading audience. I have no personal knowledge of, or experience with, paramilitary hate groups, or heart transplantation, or escapees from maximum security prisons, or what it’s like to be profoundly deaf. But I’ve written about all these topics, and the books became bestsellers. I figure that if something interests me, there’s a reasonably good chance that it’s going to interest the reader, too. As I approach my keyboard each day, I remind myself to have a good time—as good a time as one can have doing the hardest work there is.

John Morgan Wilson
Revision of Justice (Doubleday)

The Technique: I try to talk directly to the reader as naturally as possible. This conversational quality is what I think of as my Writer’s voice; it reflects me emotionally and conveys my attitude, mood, feelings and viewpoint. I read my work aloud, again and again, listening to how my writing “sounds,” and then I rewrite accordingly. The more you write, the stronger your voice becomes, like a muscle developing.

The Advice: Years ago I clipped an article from WD full of advice from editors. One simple quote jumped out at me: Really mean every word you write. I have it taped to the wall above my desk.

Nicholas Sparks
Message in a Bottle (Warner)

The Technique: A novel needs a single, cohesive theme that operates as the guiding force behind the story. For example, the theme in Message in a Bottle is the question, “Is it possible to fall in love a second time, after losing your one true love?” Everything in the novel—the characters, the plot, the pacing, the style—all revolve around this theme, which helps hold the story together.

Marion Zimmer Bradley
editor, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine

The Advice: Jerome Bixby of Planet Stories told me, “Damn it, Marion, stop showing me how beautifully you can write and tell me a story!”

John Jakes
American Dreams (Dutton)

The Technique: I make heavy use of the five senses to give life and immediacy to everything from physical descriptions of characters to the weather and the quality of light. Sensory details should be used judiciously throughout a piece of fiction—walking, always, the fine line between use and overuse.

The Advice: The following, drummed into yours truly by Dr. Raymond Pence, a remarkable creative writing teacher who headed the English Department at DePauw University in the 1950s: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait—above all, make them wait.”

Richard North Patterson
No Safe Place (Knopf)

The Technique: Writing is akin to method acting. Before the writer can render a fully convincing world, he or she must inhabit that world, and every major character who lives there. For my new political novel, No Safe Place, I traveled with the presidential campaigns in 1996, spent time in the US senate, and attended a national political convention. My more than 50 interviews included a former president; presidential candidates; US senators; a cabinet member; numerous political consultants, press secretaries, pollsters and campaign managers; members of the national press; Secret Service agents; and representatives of numerous interest groups. I’m not suggesting that one always has to go this far. But I truly believe what makes the setting for my novels come alive is that I’ve lived there first.

Read the advice from nonfiction writers.

Read the advice from poets.

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