The Best and the Worst: Advice for Writers

Kate Flora: Recently, I asked my fellow Maine crime writers, and some of my writer friends on Facebook, to share the best writing advice they’ve ever gotten, and the worst. It was a fascinating query, and here are some of the answers. Of course, any writer will tell you that what works for one person may not work for another, whether it is word of mouth or something read in a book about writing craft. You will always have to pick and choose the advice that feels right for you, and adherence to that advice may change as you evolve as a writer.

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So here you go:

From me, the advice I got from my mother, A. Carman Clark, a writer herself: Put your seat in the seat and keep it there. I’ve always embroidered on that to say that for my kind of writer—the disciplined, go to work every day kind—you cannot wait for that inspiring, fluttery little muse to come and land on your shoulder. You write when it is hard. You write when it is easy. You write on those days when it feels like you are scribbling the words on your arm and then peeling off the skin and sticking it to the page. That way, when the flow happens and the story begins to roll from your brain to your fingers, you will be there, and ready.

Worst? If something you’ve written makes you cry when you reread it, rewrite it. I absolutely don’t agree.

Maureen Milliken: 

Best? Sit down and write.

Worst? Outline the entire plot and book, including every chapter and scene and write in-depth character profiles before starting the book.

Brenda Buchanan: 

Best? Persistence pays off.

Worst? Outlines are absolutely necessary

Maggie Robinson:

Best and worst? Write every day. I have amended it with “don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.”

Charlene D’Avanzo:

Best? 1) Develop a daily writing schedule, make it work for you, but give yourself a break once in a while.  2) Speak with your own voice and from your own experience. Don’t try to imitate another author you may admire; but 3) read widely and consciously. 4) Develop a promotion style and mechanism that works for you. 5) Celebrate your achievements—writing and publishing books is a real accomplishment. 6) Realize that all of this may take a good deal of time.

Worst? (this is harder) 1) write only what you know. (Depends on what “know” means) and 2) Don’t use semicolons.

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Kaitlyn Dunnett:

Best: (concerning doing lunch with editors in NYC) Talent never pays

Worst: Any advice that starts with “You have to …”

And from my FB friends:

Chuck Greaves:

Worst? “Kill your darlings.” I say, make nothing but darlings and guard them with your life. But, from Randall Plattcommenting on that: I don’t kill my darlings but if they don’t add to the story, then I send them to my writer’s Green Room, where, if they are truly compelling characters, they will be used another day.

Jeri Westerson:

Mostly I don’t think a lot of people understand “write what you know.” It doesn’t mean if you’re a waitress to only write about waitresses. It means to write your characters with the emotional experiences that you know. My son, when he started to write in high school, took on a short story about someone far older with emotional issues that he obviously didn’t know about—and it showed.

Sue Ellen Snape:

Best? (from the late Bill Tapply) Don’t use a dollar word when a nickel word will do.

Worst? (advice on how to begin a mystery) “Shoot the sheriff in the first line.”


Matthew Mallio:

Best? It’s got to be your work with your voice.

Worst? Good luck. You’re up against trust fund kids.

Albert Tucher:

Best? Take out all the good lines and see if it still works

Worst? Write what you know (readers, you will see a consensus emerging here)

Meg Dobson:

Best? Butt in chair.

Worst? From 5th grade teacher—comma whenever you pause in reading.

Eileen Dryer:

Best? Just because the story’s been told before doesn’t mean it’s been told by you. Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story are the same story.

Worst? There is only one way to write. If you don’t follow those rules you can’t do it. When I teach, I always start with a Somerset Maugham quote: “There are three hard and fast rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one can agree on what they are.”

Diane Kane:

Best? Grow a thick skin.

Worst? You have to write with pencil and paper to be a writer.

Laurie LaBar:

Best? If it doesn’t flow, take out your favorite bit and see what happens.

Worst? Write what you think will sell.

I would add, regarding this last, that by the time you finish the book you’re writing to the market, the market will have moved on. There’s more, friends. Maybe some of it will appear tomorrow. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear some of the advice you’ve been given. What works. What doesn’t. What you’ve discovered on your own writing journey.

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2 Responses to The Best and the Worst: Advice for Writers

  1. Sandra Neily says:

    That was GREAT, Kate. Loved how most all the advice arrived as terse “get to it” bullets which was a message all its own. Thanks!

  2. Amber Foxx says:

    I love the phrase “writer’s Green Room.” I spent a lot of time in actors’ green rooms, a character waiting to go onstage. I like thinking of fictional characters in the equivalent of this space.

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