Writing Advice I Learned (and Re-Learned) In 2017

No writer is done learning, and some methods and "tips" we learn evolve over time and take on new dimensions. I did a lot of writing in 2017, not all of it as successfully as I wanted, but throughout the ups and downs I learned a few things (and re-learned even more) that might also help you too. Good luck in 2018!  


It’s Okay To Walk Away

My first car as a college freshman in Texas was a gem: a 1972 Ford Mustang V8. Yeah, that car kicked ass, even if it did break down a lot. It needed constant upkeep, and things kept going wrong, but I really wanted to drive that car. When I moved back north though, I had to give it up, and some advice my father's friend game me stuck in my head: sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to walk away from something you love, because deep down you know it's not right. How the hell does this relate to writing? In 2007 I started working on a novel, a sort of dystopian hard-boiled mystery, and I really liked it but it needed work. So I revised, and revised, and revised. Beta readers couldn't tell if it took place in the future or past or if it was based on a real setting or totally fictional. I wanted a Humphrey Bogart meets Fahrenheit 451 type of book, but it never felt right. I made it darker, made it more gas-lit Victorian, made it more sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, on and on. Every revision added or stripped a layer or theme and by the time 2017 rolled around I didn't know what the hell the book meant anymore. Plot holes never filled and character motivation still felt weak. It was maddening as hell, so I decided to walk away. Maybe it's not really dead, but sometimes no matter how much you love a thing, it's just not right. So I learned to set things aside and let them go. Even after a decade of work, it was for the best.        

Finish Something - Anything!

That novel never saw it's final revision, and the three novels I started from scratch afterward never made it past 10k words. As I said in another post, I felt like I hit a massive rut in 2017 and I wasn't able to finish anything I started. This can be a dangerous place for writers, a real quicksand pit where confidence gets eaten up in a heartbeat. So I decided to switch my focus from novels, where I was suffering, to poetry. It felt nice to sit down and knock out three or four solid poems a night, but it didn't feel as significant as finishing a novel. I'd finished a few other novels in the past and it's a massive feeling of joy and relief. So I upped the ante to flash fiction, which felt better, then a couple longer short stories, and soon I had a couple books of poetry and fiction ready for submission, one of which I published with Unknown Press on Halloween. It felt great to finish things again, even if it wasn't a novel. So if you find yourself stuck, unable to cross that finish line, maybe you need to switch races. 

Your Words Aren't Stone, They're Clay

Another trick that helped me feel more productive and kept my creative energy flowing was to take all my poetry languishing away in a digital drawer somewhere, poetry that had been rejected or cast aside, and strip them down to the choicest lines and begin again--but as flash fiction. You take those salvaged lines and build on them, flesh them out, and instead of 4-5 stanzas you keep going and give it 4-5 paragraphs or pages. I did the same thing in reverse, taking pieces of abandoned stories and grinding them through a free-verse wood chipper, and suddenly a little abandoned story had new life as 2-3 poems. Reshaping the clay of your original idea and molding it into a different form can work some real magic. It also helps you see flaws that used to hide in the original structure. Turning a story into a poem or a poem into a story can open those flaws right up, allowing you to strip them out and strengthen your piece.         

Long May Your Poems Run

When I was working on my latest book, We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine, my editor Bud Smith suggested I try turning all these free-verse poems into prose poems, just running blocks of text. I was apprehensive yet still curious, and after converting a few of them into these running lines of text with no breaks or paragraphs, I was hooked. Like I mentioned earlier, this reshaping opened up the poem and exposed any hidden flaws and made the lines stand on their own with no tricks to gussy them up. I had to get the flow and word placement and choice just right to make the poem work, and shifting styles made me look at them in a whole new light. Try this if you are ever feeling stuck or in a rut with poetry, or even if you're not. It's one more tool in your poetic toolbox you can pull out from time to time to keep your work fresh and interesting. 

Tell Yourself What Comes Next

I have always kept a running list of the various projects I'm working on in a Word doc right on my desktop that I open most days. Each entry has a few words to describe what I'm doing ("Keep submitting" or "Working on research, then revise") always summed up in very basic ways. But lately I have started to flesh that out a lot more, explaining how I aim to go about researching or submitting, what I want to say in the next revision of a story, a reminder about how I want a story to end and how to foreshadow this and this in clever ways. These descriptions for where I am and what I want to do next in a project are sometimes up to a page long now, and while that's a lot of extra detail, this document has become a invaluable repository of all my plans and ideas, so if I come back to something after a few days or weeks to pick it back up, I can scan through and not just know that I need to "keep researching" but I will know what exactly I want to research, why, where I planned to get this info, and so on. I don't miss a beat, and it's SO worth the time and effort to write it all out that. I can't believe I didn't do this much continuous detail work before now. Give it a shot!