What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

Kate Flora here, starting a discussion with my fellow writers about the advice we’ve been given along the way. What are some of the things other writers, or writing teachers, have told you, that stick in your mind and inform your writing? For me, two bits of advice immediately come to mind. First, from my favorite writing teacher, Art Edelstein, a man I followed through a succession of church basements and nocturnal classrooms. Art’s advice? Presence your characters. Give them attributes and actions and attitudes and voices that make your readers see them. Art wasn’t talking paragraphs. He was talking a cant of the head, a style of speaking, an indelible world view. A way of making the character come to life in the reader’s mind.

The second came from mystery writer Jane Langton, a woman who could speak about washing the dishes and I’d hang on her every word. Jane read one of my early, unpublished books, and said, “Don’t give you. This world is hard, but you ARE a writer. And then she urged me to be sure that I made scenes. Until she said that, I’m not sure I understood what a scene was. Now I tell my students: make scenes, they are the building blocks, the jigsaw pieces, that you put together to build the whole picture.

Lea Wait:  I’m envious of you, Kate!  When I was starting to write fiction I was basically on my own — no critique groups, no writing classes, no writer friends, so no real advice except in the books I read. I learned most about writing from reading books by the authors I most admired. I think I took most seriously classic pieces of advice like, “show, not tell,” and “define your characters by what they do.” Setting is very important to me, so (in my mind) I made it a character, too, and found that worked for me, as long as I kept it a background character. I started out trying very hard to obey all the rules I’d read about. Now I gleefully break many of them. But I’m still reading; still learning from the authors I admire. But advice?  Keep reading, and keep writing.

Kaitlyn Dunnett: Like Lea I was operating on my own when I started writing fiction, but I did have access to The Writer and Writer’s Digest and I’m pretty sure that it was in one of those magazines that I found a tip that I follow to this day: Start with the day that is different.

This is sound advice. Take it from one who fumbles around every time I launch into writing a new book, trying to find the right place to begin isn’t easy. It always takes me awhile, because that “different” day isn’t always the most obvious. In Kilt Dead, the first Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage Mystery, the day that was different in the most significant way for Liss wasn’t the day she found her neighbor’s body in the stock room at Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. It wasn’t the day she returned to her old home town of Moosetookalook after ten years away. The day when everything changed for her, and the place this novel needed to start, was the day she blew her knee out during a performance, ending her career as a professional Scottish dancer. That’s why she returned to Moosetookalook. And because she returned home, she found a body. And because she found the body . . . well, you get the idea.


Kate: Despite following Art through those dusty church basements for a few years, I, too, was mostly on my own. I tried writing groups, but though I loved my fellow writers, they weren’t for me. I was very (and am) very solitary. And I wrote three entire novels before I wrote one that got published. A lot of writers give up long before that. But those words of advice, and encouragement when I did emerge, made a big difference. Now that I teach writing myself, I often wonder if anything I said remains and resonates in my students’ heads.

I really like Kaitlyn’s idea of starting with the day that is different. I also often share another piece of advice that is rather similar: Arrive late and leave early, meaning start as close to the necessary action as you can, and leave quickly when the story is tied up.

Barbara Ross: It’s the moldy oldies that sustain me. Anne Lamott’s “sh**ty first drafts.” I repeated that one to myself just yesterday. And whoever said, “You must write as if your mother is dead.” That’s another one I turn to whenever I’m inhibited about putting something on the page. To be clear, it’s not my actual mother who inhibits me–Hi, Mom.

Kate, I love “enter late and leave early.’ Works for scenes, chapters and whole books!

As for writing instructors, I have to acknowledge Barbara Shapiro who quite literally changed my life. She taught me all about scenes–how to structure them and how to get them on the page. She taught me how to workshop a piece, and through her I met the members of my writers group. She’s teaching a Master Class at The New England Crime Bake this year and I heartily recommend it.

Kate: Of course, the absolutely best advice came from my mother, the late A. Carman Clark, who was a newspaper columnist, journalist, home and garden editor, nature writer, mystery writer, and all-around amazing person. Her advice was simple, and I know we all follow it: Put your seat in the seat, and keep it there.

Readers, what advice did you get?

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5 Responses to What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

  1. John Clark says:

    #1. Write for yourself. The minute you sense the invisible person looking over your shoulder, go mow the lawn until they’ve gone away.
    #2. Be the best listener possible. Someone, somewhere, will tell you a story or give you an opening line that is perfect, but you can’t hear it if your mouth is flapping. This, BTW, is the ultimate renewable resource. (and one reason I love being a one person library staff).
    #3. Have a cut scene file. If you have a piece you feel needs to be cut from a chapter, book, or story, don’t destroy it, drop it in the cut scene file instead. Someday, it may be perfect in another piece of writing.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    So absolutely true, John…especially 2 and 3. I remember you saying before I left on a trip that I should be listening for the story…and you were so right.

    And I always tell my students never to throw anything away. You never know when that character who was left on the cutting room floor will be perfect for another story.
    I find, thought, that as to #1, now that I have readers, they do enter into the equation. I wonder if this is true for other writers.

  3. The best writing advice I ever received was very simple: “Just keep writing”.

  4. Henry Zecher says:

    One – Don’t stop writing.
    Two – Do what no one else has done, what no one else has done recently, or what no one else has done well.

  5. Some things you write that turn into novels don’t get published because they are way ahead of their time. Or the point of view is wrong. Or the critics are wrong. I worked on a historical biography for about 30 years, and it still sits in boxes in various incarnations. It will be published some day. In the meantime while I was fuming over that manuscript, I wrote a couple of other books, one a young adult coming of age story–with a fantasy twist. That one excited an agent I met last month at a conference. I have now finished the first edit re-write and have done new research and am on the second re-write, which may be followed by a third. Moral of the story: never never give up and never throw away anything.

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