Let Yourself Cry: My Top Twelve Writing Tips
I was lucky enough to grow up with a writer mom, who taught me that I could be or do anything I wanted to be or do, and for as long as I can remember I've always wanted to be a writer. This was in spite of the fact that I saw first hand how hard it could be. Even during the toughest, saddest times of her life, my mother wrote. In so many ways, she was my hero.
Over the years, Mom and I created a stable of writing advice, inspiration for every occasion, and so I present:
A Niven guide to writing
A book should not be so long and thick that it has to be hauled around in a wheelbarrow. Historically, my mom (Penelope Niven) wrote very long books. At least three of them exceed 800 pages. Now, there is the rare exception when a book needs to be that long. However, most books do not. One of my high school teachers used to jot "pure economy of word" across the top of my essays, and I've never forgotten it. There's power in writing succinctly.
If you are bored writing something, people will most likely be bored reading it. I remember this every time I write a scene and find my attention wandering off. If you reread your own work and get the urge to skip through certain parts, you probably need to cut, edit, or replace.
Read. Reading opens your mind, shows you what's out there, and gives you ideas. That said, you have to be careful what you read when in the throes of writing because the last thing you want to do is become an unintentional mimic. (High school Jennifer, I'm talking to you. Stop reading so much Ray Bradbury!).
Don't enter your pin numbers all at once. Years ago, I was on a call with a department store, and the automated voice said, "Please enter your pin. Do not enter all the numbers at one time." New writers often ask the secret to writing a book because the idea of creating something so long is daunting. I tell them not to focus on the entire book because it will only overwhelm you. Instead, focus on one line or chapter at a time..
Count the pages. Back when I was six, my mom would hand me a stack of paper and I'd write until I ran out of pages. I would simply finish the story, no matter where I was in it (which made for some very rushed endings). Part of the challenge of writing is actually showing up to do the work. Try giving yourself a daily quota, no matter how big or small, by counting the pages or words..
Let yourself cry. You need to be willing to let yourself cry (or laugh or feel), because if you don't cry/laugh/feel while writing your story, how do you expect your reader to?.
Be willing to write garbage. Don't worry about being perfect because theree's no such thing. I know many talented writers who don't finish projects. The reason? At some point they become paralysed by trying to make it perfect. You have to be able to write garbage and leave it alone. Once you're done with a draft, you can go back, dig in, and make it all sing..
Know when to let the book go. There comes a time in a book's life, once the big edits are done, when it's easy to fret about every comma and word choice. This was always my mother's cue to say, "Am I going to have to fly out to California and take the book away from you?" At some point, you have to let the book be read by other people..
You can't freak out and write a book at the same time. There are so many reasons not to write. Writers are great at finding every excuse under the sun — I don't have enough time/energy/inspiration, I'll never be able to write anything good. But my mom always told me, "to write well, to do anything well, you have to be able to breathe." Remember that much of writing is play. Don't forget to enjoy it..
Learn to have the soul of an angel and the hide of an armadillo. When you're pouring your heart onto the page, you don't always think about the people in the world who are waiting to read your stories and maybe hate them and say critical or even untrue things about them in print. You have to be able to let yourself cry (see number six) and you also have to be able to — as Taylor Swift sings — shake it off..
Check it in the bus locker. Things (ie life) will always get in the way of writing, but you need to learn to compartmentalise. My mom wrote in her memoir, Swimming Lessons, "When I write, I write — focusing on that act as if it were all in the world I had to do.".
Write the kind of book you'd like to read. Every book Mom and I have written was a story we wanted to read. Write what inspires you, whatever that may be. Write what you love..
In August 2014, my mother passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly, and, for the first time in my life, I'm faced with writing a book without her. But I hear her voice: You can't freak out and write a book at the same time. Check it in the bus locker. Breathe.
And so — I write, trying to honour her with every word, knowing that — if not for her — I wouldn't be doing it at all.