Monday, April 19, 2010


by Pamela

Many people say, "I always wanted to be a writer."

I’m not one of them.

I’ll admit to a life of floundering. My résumé reflects a pattern of two- to three-year stints. In my defense, most of the job changes were beyond my control, even though I do feel restless after working in one place for a few years. But when I review my job history, a common thread has been writing—ad copy, marketing materials, newspaper articles, magazine stories. Every job I’ve had up until now has paved this path to writing.

One life-constant has been reading. I learned to read at the age of four and pretty much read whatever I could get my hands on. (Not all of it appropriate, I’m afraid.) And from this voracious appetite for stories, I developed the desire to tell my own.

And so, one day, I sat at the computer and hammered out A FORGIVING SEASON, the story of Maggie and Wade. And while I’m still convinced there is still a story there, I know now the execution was not well done.

Since that first attempt, I’ve read many books on the art of writing fiction and attended a handful of workshops and writing conferences—a self-education process that has made what I write today much better than that first attempt.

So, I thought I’d share here, the top ten writing tips I’ve gleaned that have formed my writing career—which is still a work-in-progress.

“In the beginning, when you’re first starting out, there are a million reasons not to write, to give up. That is why it is of extreme importance to make a commitment to finishing sections and stories, to driving through to the finish. …there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.”
Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life
, "Writer's Block"

“There are actually two beginnings to a novel: the first words the writer puts down to start the manuscript, and the first words the reader sees as she opens the completed book. These two…are not always the same…just start somewhere and sometime. You can always go back and redo the beginning.”
Bob Mayer in The Novel Writer’s Toolkit, “Tool 5: Your Story”

“Dialogue is to the writer what the veto is to the president: It gives you great power and authority. If you overuse it, people…will resent you for it; if you use it wisely, they will applaud your control, your willpower.”
Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages

If you feel a scene isn’t working, look at the point of view and consider changing it based on who has the most to lose/gain in the scene.
Sandy Blair, RWA Golden Heart winner, paraphrased from her talk at the DFW Writers’ Conference

“When you’re working on a story, remember the question that generated your story; let it be a chief organizing and focusing principle.”
Paula LaRocque in The Book on Writing, “Archetype, Character and Plot”

When you finish a scene or chapter and are ready to stop for the day, DON’T. Continue on and start the next section. That way, when you open the file again, you’ll find it’s so much easier to pick up and go on rather than start from nothing.
Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been, paraphrased from her talk at the Dallas Museum of Art

“A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, alive. If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander. There’s a fine line between precision and self-indulgence.”
Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones—freeing the writer within, “Don’t Marry the Fly”

“…stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
Stephen King in On Writing, section 29

“At some point, you have to put the writing books aside and just write. Otherwise you’ll be the best writer no one ever reads.”
Joan Mora, my writing partner and dear friend

“No matter how good you are, nobody is going to come knocking at your door. You have to take the risk of rejection and get that material out there.”
Elizabeth Berg in Escaping into the Openthe art of writing true

So, now it’s your turn. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?


  1. Best tip I ever received was at the first writing conference I attended: "Above all else, FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT." Now that I teach writing, I take that a step further to say: "Don't worry about perfecting the opening until you've completed your first draft---because until you know exactly how it ends, you don't really know how it begins."

  2. I think my best advice is an echo of what is already here, but still bears repeating: "It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be written." It is so important to get it down on paper first; you can edit later.

  3. I used to stress a lot about trying to be both a good writer and a good homemaker--at the same time. My husband (who was already well-published when I began writing) said, "You're going to have to decide if, when you're dead, you want people to remember your books or how great you were at cleaning toilets." I still struggle, but it always helps me prioritize.

  4. I love all these "pearls" too. Every time I read a great story and wish I had written it, I think, Well, what are you waiting for?

  5. Thanks for sharing your top ten writing tips. What author and teacher Maxine Hong Kingston said about the rewriting process continues to help me: "Each time you rewrite, you're going back into the tunnel,and bringing more knowledge out. You can safely examine the explosion again and again.You will see it more clearly, see more details, and make better sense of it. You shine more light on some question, problem, hard time, suffering, memory, ignorance. You will return to the core event, and you will return home a different person. The story changes and you change."


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