I'm just wrapping up my tenth novel and so I have writing and fiction on my mind which led me to deciding to write this today. The internet is glutted with writing tips, most of which are confusing and contradictory when compared to each other, so I hope that this attempt might offer aspiring writers some more practical suggestions than the usual run.
This is not meant to be business writing advice, most of which in my experience sucks the joy right out of the process of writing. This is advice for how to write good stories and still like doing it ten years later.
- Write What You Want to Read - This is pretty straightforward advice but honestly its so important. When I wrote my first novel my friend Catherine Kane, who had encouraged me to give it a try, was the one who told me to write what I would want to read, and its advice that hasn't ever steered me wrong. If you don't want to read what you are writing why should anyone else? A lot of people will tell you to write to market, to avoid tropes, to write what's popular or going to be popular but ultimately you have to remember that you are part of the market too. If you love those tropes that other people say are tired then trust me so do plenty of other people. Everyone telling you that elves are overdone now? If you still want to read it then so do other people. Write what you want to read and you will find an audience for it.
- Research Matters - This is pretty obvious with non-fiction but even with fiction this is important. Some of the cringiest moments I've had as a reader have come from badly researched material in novels, whether its a book character supposedly from Connecticut talking about how 'new' everything there is compared to New Orleans (New Orleans was first reached by the French in 1690; Connecticut by the Dutch in 1614, for context), a book consistently referring to a town in Maine as a small town despite it having a population of 25,000 people (again for context 6 of the 10 biggest cities in Maine have less than 25,000 people), or books set in Ireland written by people in the US that have clearly never been to Ireland. Even in high fantasy take the time to find out how far a person can walk in a day or a horse can travel, or what you write is going to be unbelievable and not in a good way. And please if you are including foreign language material for a language you don't speak hire a native speaker to check it for you.
- Beta Readers Are Essential - A beta reader is someone who reads the early version of your story or book and offers feedback on it. This can be anything from pointing out plot holes or weak characterization, noting areas where a story drags or moves too quickly, or suggesting points where the story is weak. Some beta readers will also read for errors in the text, or anything else you specifically request. Beta reader feedback allows you to polish a story and fix details that you may not be aware of because you are so immersed in the story.
- Don't Worry About Having a Perfect Draft - Some of the best early advice I got (from Dave D'Alessio if you were curious) when I started writing was to look at the first draft as a rough product that was meant to be fixed later and not an instant finished project. When we expect our first draft to be perfect we are setting ourselves up for problems and stress. Get it written and then go back and smooth things out, add or delete as needed, address plot holes or any other issues you have. A book (or story) isn't done when you finish writing that first draft, its only beginning so don't treat the first draft as if it should be flawless.
- If You Get Stuck, Try Something Different - This is something I discovered really helps me when I get jammed up in a scene - which does and will happen. Sometimes things just stop flowing or you lose that creative momentum, and its easy to get frustrated and give up or put a project on permanent hold. What I do instead is switch to another section of the story, or go back and read from the start, or even just stream of consciousness write for a bit. This may or may not work for you too (see point 7) but I do think its worth suggesting here because its easy to let that frustration completely derail us, just like its easy to start to see word count goals as all important. But ultimately its okay to delete what doesn't work and its okay to switch things around if you need to, or anything else that frees up that creative block. And in the end if walking away is what you need to do then do that - go watch a movie or take a walk.
- Define Success for Yourself - I consider myself a successful author. Do other people agree with that? I don't know and honestly it doesn't matter to me. There will always be measures of success applied by others that we don't meet. Always. That's life. What matters is if we think we've succeeded. What is your goal with your writing? Have you met it on any level? Then you are successful.
On a related note I highly recommend setting up a variety of goals for yourself and celebrating every success you have, big or small. Its great to be called a best selling author, sure, but its just as great to see someone loves your story, or see your name on a byline, or simply see a something you wrote out in the world. All of those things are success and all deserve recognition.
- Find What Works For You - As I mentioned in the intro there is a lot of writing advice to be found online and its often predicated on what worked for the person writing it. And the thing is I could tell you what works for me and you could try it - and be absolutely miserable because my writing process is not what works for you. And I've seen that so many times, where someone reads writing advice from a famous author they admire and tries to follow it and finds that it absolutely kills their desire to write. Because the process that works for one person can be absolutely counterintuitive to another. Do you need to plan out plot points in a detailed outline before starting? Do that. Do you write best off the cuff with only a general idea where its all going? Do that. 3,000 words a day? Awesome. 100 words a day? Just as good. It really is wahtever works best for you to get your story down.
Ultimately we can't compare ourselves to other writers, we have to find our own way - and that means trial and error and work and failing and succeeding.
- Consider Sensitivity Readers - So, let's talk diversity. Yes its important (in my opinion) to include diversity in your writing but its so, so easy to mess that up because writing outside your own life experience is difficult to do well. Its worth considering sensitivity readers within any group you don't belong to but are writing about, although you must understand that a sensitivity reader isn't going to give you some sort of stamp of approval but rather will help you see areas that may need improvement. In other words a sensitivity reader is there to help you write more realistically about things you personally don't understand by pointing out places you may be reflecting stereotypes instead of reality, creating a caricature instead of a character, or leaning into race tropes.
- Content Warnings - if you plan to share your writing publicly and your work includes things that are common triggers for other people's trauma, such as sexual assault, suicide, disordered eating, you should use content warnings. These are just an easy way to signal to potential readers if a book might be something they shouldn't read. You don't need to and realistically can't content warning every possible thing that might cause an issue with someone but definitely make note of the common ones especially if they are unusual in the genre you are writing (ie you don't need to put a content warning for sex on a paranormal romance book where it would be typical content for the genre, but consider putting a content warning on animal death which isn't necessarily expected)