In which I know a couple of things

This is one of those blog posts that usually gets an appalling title like “Advice to Young Writers”. We’ll call it something more modest—like “Stuff I’ve Figured Out Along the Way”. These are bits and pieces I’ve collected, parts of the picture that I’m assembling as I go. I’m about to release my seventh novel; I’ve been published for six years. I am no longer the newest kid on the block, and I have picked up a few shiny pebbles along the road. And I’m posting them here because there’s a chance they might be helpful to someone else trundling along the same path.

  1. If you want to be a better writer of prose, read poetry. Poets are my gods. As I’ve remarked before, they say in ten words what I say in ten thousand. They are precise as surgeons, wielding their scalpel-words to hurt and to heal. It doesn’t take much—even a single poem a day can pierce your subconscious, raising your appreciation of rhythm, metaphor, and language.
  2. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research. And then leave 70% of it out of the book. This is a bit of advice I gleaned from Persia Woolley’s book on historical fiction, and it’s brilliant. The criticism I hear most often of this particular genre is that readers bog down in the history bits. Yes, they love history or they wouldn’t read this type of fiction, but it must never supplant the story in importance. It is there to support the story, and if any fact—no matter how delicious—takes the reader out of the moment, it has to go. These are the cuts that hurt, but they are essential. There is an art to weaving fact into the fiction and achieving plausibility and readability at the same time.
  3. If a scene isn’t working, let another character drive the action. This is a piece of wisdom from Phillip Margolin that he shared when speaking to a Sisters in Crime meeting I attended donkey’s years ago, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy. Say you’ve written a scene that just isn’t working. Let’s further say it is between a mother and her teenage son and it’s about his girlfriend. The mother has reservations about the relationship. You’ve begun the scene with the mother haranguing the boy and he responded defensively. It evolves, quite naturally into a fight. Now, imagine you rewrite the scene and this time the son initiates the scene by telling his mother he can tell she has a problem with the relationship and he wants to clear the air. Instead of the expected dynamic of hectoring parent and sullen teen, you have a thoughtful teen and a responsive mother. The scene would be quieter, more vulnerable. Perhaps it would open them up to confidences, to mutual understanding. Now, that may not suit you at all, and all of this depends on the nature of your characters and how they need to respond to a situation, but it can absolutely shake loose a scene you’re having trouble with. It’s also a good strategy if you have a character who takes charge too often and needs to take a backseat once in awhile. And it’s fabulous if you’re suffering a wee case of block.
  4. “Write what you know” is bunk. This is the single worst piece of writing advice out there and it’s ubiquitous. It’s also limiting. Yes, I understand that you need to grasp something thoroughly to write it effectively, but this advice presumes that you can’t get to know something THROUGH writing it. And that’s how some very accomplished writers prefer to work. So toss this one out. If you want to write something and you don’t yet know it, be a Kipling mongoose and go and find out.
  5. The book you want to read is the one you need to write. Pretty self-explanatory. Don’t try to write something simply because it’s commercial or because “everyone is writing lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances”. Unless you LOVE lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances. In that case, rock on with your furry, fiber-loving, girl-on-girl self.
  6. Never take criticism from someone who doesn’t create. This is taken from someone entirely brilliant whom I have now forgotten—I want to say Aldous Huxley? Anyway, it’s worth repeating OFTEN. People who do not create are a species apart from those of us who do. They do not understand the work, the challenges, the vulnerability, the process, the discipline it takes to carry a project from idea to completion. This doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to an opinion about your work; of course they are. They are entitled to have an opinion, to share it, to discuss it. But they are not entitled to have that opinion living in your head. Keep it out.
  7. On a related note, be careful about giving away your power. It sounds cynical and gross, but the truth is there are people who will be happy—nay, GLEEFUL—to find you have an Achilles heel and will amuse themselves by poking pins in it. So be careful about where you reveal your vulnerabilities. Do not show your work to just anyone; do not confide in everyone. Choose your confidantes with consideration. It takes discipline and willpower not to spill your guts to everyone you know and not to share your manuscript with anyone who will read it. Exercise that discipline and willpower—it will be well worth it. I’ve seen FAR too many people torn down by snarky critique partners or jealous writing groups. It can take a very long time to build that confidence back up again when someone’s sharpened their claws on it. If you share with someone and never come away feeling better about yourself, this is a very good sign that you need to move on.
  8. Just write. You can enter contests, create your website, attend conferences, go to workshops, find a writing group, join writers’ organizations, blog about your goals, tweet until you’re blue in the face. But NONE OF THOSE THINGS IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR WRITING. ONLY WRITING IS WRITING. If you’re not sitting down at your desk putting words to paper, you are not writing. You are posing. Stop it. Writing is discipline and craft and about 2% as glamorous as non-writers think it is. If you’re not willing to put in the work, you’re not a writer. And that’s fine—most people aren’t. According to a recent study—I want to say New York University, but don’t hold me to that—writing a novel exercises the same mental circuits and makes the same demands as writing a symphony. I loved reading that because it’s the first example I’ve seen that illustrates clearly what it feels like to write a novel. Each instrument has its own part to be written then the parts must be combined into a harmonious whole. There are themes and counter-themes to develop, ideas to explore and refine. Thousands and thousands of notes, put into precisely the correct order not just to make sense but to make art. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But most folks don’t walk around thinking they have a symphony rattling around inside and they’d write it if only they could find the time. But this is what you hear on a regular basis about books. (An NYT article from 2002 said a recent poll revealed 81% of all Americans thought they had a book inside them. I’d say after the advent of self-publishing that number is up even higher.) Here’s the thing—that book is going to STAY inside you if you don’t write it. So write it and stop talking about it already.
  9. You’re never as good or as bad as you think you are. We are creatures of extreme. We believe the absolute worst of ourselves and sometimes the absolute best. The truth is usually somewhere in between. Don’t let your head get turned with praise that is too fulsome, but don’t believe the worst of yourself either. Now, if you’re a person who NEVER thinks poorly of your own writing, you need to explore the middle ground a bit because if you never doubt then all I can say is: WRITING. UR DOING IT WRONG.
  10. Nice matters. Publishing is a surprisingly small industry. SURPRISINGLY small. You can show your ass all you want, but eventually people will compare notes and it will come back to bite you on that same ass. The editorial assistant you abused today can be an executive editor tomorrow with the power to refuse your newest project at the acquisitions table. The blogger you got into a flame war with on Twitter could get a job writing a review column for a major online magazine. You never know. I’ve seen people time and again think they were getting away from working with someone only to have that same person crop up again. Bad pennies abound in this business and they do keep turning up. Reputations MATTER. Make sure yours is a good one. If you act like you are terribly special and important, nobody walks around saying, “Oooh, it’s the terribly special and important author on the phone.” They roll their eyes and avoid you and tell their friends. And word travels. So, be nice. It costs nothing and generates a truckload of good karma that just might come back to help you when you need it most. Besides, the world needs more nice. Why not let it start with us?


So, hope those were helpful. Now, about the contests—we’ve given away 65 books altogether! Thanks so much for all the enthusiasm and the lovely comments. MUCH appreciated! As some of the winners have discovered, Goodreads is permitting reviews to be posted, but Amazon and Barnes & Noble are not allowing them until April 30, the official release date. So, if you are inclined to leave reviews—and if so, yay you!—please mark April 30 on your calendar. (The easiest approach would be to save the review and just paste it that day. Three clicks and you’re done!) For those of you who won yesterday, I have received all addresses except two, so your books will go out TODAY. We’ve got books going to Canada, Italy, England, and Poland—how awesome is that?

Anyway, happy Friday, chickens!

ETA: Have received all addresses now except Pati’s. Pati, drop me an email at deanna(at)deannaraybourn(com) with your mailing address so I can get your book in the mail!

17 thoughts on “In which I know a couple of things”

  1. Maggie Bowling says:

    Great advice. Balanced, personal, and helpful. I love it when you guys share your wisdom with us. 🙂

  2. Stephanie Vaughn says:

    Wise words. Its not often I get to see someone encourage others to explore their inner Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. I love it. That shall be my motivation for today.

  3. Elaine Cohoon Miller says:

    Love this advice! You wrote about the switching character poverty once before and it helped me tremendously. Now I need to take the JUST WRITE advice. Spending too much time avoiding that due to a how -do – I -get – from – here – to – there dilemma. JUST WRITE!

    1. Elaine Cohoon Miller says:

      Darn auto-correct! POV not poverty!

  4. Ali says:

    Fantastic post — and very solid advice. Thanks for sharing this, D!

  5. Mallika says:

    Thank you for your shiny pebbles, they surely seem to be gleaming my way. I love all your books and ‘Silent in the grave’ is a book I have read and re-read so many times that I now know it like I would, a close friend. Thank you for a superbly executed book that came into my life when I was badly in need of a distraction and still is the book I go to, when I want to escape. I’m a first timer and the ‘after’ process seems to be daunting and terrifying, so I’ve left it for later. Publishing and editing would after all be pointless if I didn’t have a book to begin with!

  6. Christine says:

    I’m SO glad you said the whole “write what you know” thing is garbage. When I was in elementary school and we had creative writing time, the teachers kept saying that over and over. As the child of immigrants, all I ever wanted was to fit in and have a life more like my classmates, and my writing was my escapism and the chance to pretend that was all real. It would crush me every time the teacher insisted I should write about what I know. So, thank you for encouraging the use of imagination and research rather than relying on “what you know.”

  7. Terry Lynn Thomas says:

    Thanks. I’ll just print this out and tape it to my wall, or tattoo it on my forearm…

  8. Olga says:

    Deanna, this is wonderful. Thank you! So much rings true. I’m committing as much of it to memory as I can.

    When I “met” you (online), I didn’t think I had stories inside myself. (I say stories because I’m not sure if any of them are capable of becoming full length novels, so I content myself with the word stories for now.) I was a lowly publishing employee. When I read your first novel, I was transfixed by it. The kiss! It was such a simple act and it compelled me to text a friend right there because I HAD to tell someone about it. To this day, it’s still one of my favourite scenes in a novel, ever.

    Thank you for this advice. I hope one day I can stand beside you as equals in fabulous shoes. For now I’m going to continue to write.


    1. What a lovely comment–thanks so much, Olga! And all the best of luck with your writing. XO

  9. This is really great advise. Thank you for sharing it. I am a painter and I have to say that your advice applies to my creative outlet as well. I think we could safely say any creative person could benefit from these wise words. I have recently found myself stalled on a painting and I am going to use your advise about looking at the scene from a different perspective to see if that will jolt me out of my “stuck” place. I don’t think (and I could be wrong) that this is a concept painters typically think of. My usual approach is to interpret the scene I see. I just had a thought, that maybe I need to browse through my collection of illustrations to see other artists’ view points on a subject. I really like this idea of approaching from a different view within the painting though. Thanks!!

  10. Maggie says:

    I love reading your advice about writing – always rings true. But like many others, I’m sure, I always find my biggest challenge is to “ABC” (apply bottom to chair) and just write… and not get sidetracked into doing something entirely different and random!

    I was so distraught that I missed *both* contests, and you’re mailing overseas! Ah well hopefully next time 🙂

  11. Joanna says:

    I am a huge fan of your books. Thank you. I found your advice fascinating, although I am one of those who do not have a book in me screaming to get out. What I am is an enthusiastic reader, of prose and poetry. And I just wanted to mention, in accord with Advice #1, that April is National Poetry Month. So, for people who may not be use to poetry, this is a great time for an introduction. Many places have poetry events to honour this month dedicated to poems.

  12. Nicole says:

    I am NOT an aspiring writer, but I love to read. You have done #2 better than any author I have ever read. Ever. I am now annoyed when I read something else and the author does not manage to literally transport me to that particular point in history the way that you do. Perfect amount of historical detail in every one of your books! You are truly the Michelangelo of weaving fact and fiction.

    1. Thanks, Nicole–that means a lot! It is actually one of the times I am most conscious of “craft” during the writing. When I write a passage that includes historical facts, I go back through several times and keep editing them out! And since Michelangelo said he chiseled away stone to reveal the statue that was within it, I LOVE that comparison. 😉

  13. Thank you Deanna. Your words of wisdom are definitely pearls, not mere shiny pebbles (pish!)

    I must admit the lesbian werewolf knitting circle almost made me snort coffee all over my laptop! I love reading your blog posts – they are just as entertaining as your books.

    The biggest pearl for me is the push to stop posing and just write. To stop hiding behind excuses of not knowing how to get from A to B, and just start writing around it and see where it ends up.

    I’m off to post an inspirational wallpaper on my laptop – so every time I open it up it prompts me to ask why I’m not writing 🙂

  14. M.J. Rose says:

    This is the best advice column I’ve seen in years! Seriously. And contains so much I believe. It also contains the first contender to replace my own descriptor – I say ‘don’t follow trends and don’t write breast feeding truck driver thrillers just because they are the de jour runaway bestsellers’ – but ‘lesbian werewolf knitting circle romances’ – blows my truck drivers into the dust.

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