Monday, July 27, 2015

Patrick Hicks: 11 True Things About Writing

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Hicks, author of The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press), shares an odd number of writing tips.

1. Have a word goal
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s good to have a finish line for the day. For me, I sit down and won’t get up until I’ve written at least 750 words. Other writers shoot for 400. Some aim for 1,000. The important thing is to find a number that works for you and stick to it. Think in terms of words on the page rather than hours spent at the desk. However, I have to say that this can be a colossal pain in the butt because sometimes it takes me two hours to reach 750 and, on other days when I’m beating my head against the keyboard, it can take five or six hours. I slog on and don’t stop until I reach 750. For me, writer’s block is a myth, and it’s something only beginners say. After all, writing is my job. No one asks a plumber if he or she wants to go to work. They get up, they get under that sink, and they stay there until the problem is solved.

2. Rewriting is more important than writing
The first draft of anything is usually a big hot steaming mess, but at least the words are there and you’re now ready to start tinkering with them. I’ve always enjoyed rewriting more than writing, and I love the challenge of finding just the right word and just the right phrase. My first novel went through seven drafts before I sent it off to a publisher and most of my stories go through fifteen or twenty revisions. I keep on rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting) until it feels like someone else wrote the sentences. When the words feel like they don’t belong to me, that’s usually a good sign to let them go.
It's blue. We get it.

3. He said, she said
When it comes to taglines, I think you’re better off sticking with a simple “he said” or “she said.” Don’t get all flowery with adverbs and write things like “he roared aggressively” or “she bellowed pointedly.”

4. Readers are smart
Stories work best when readers have to ask questions along the way, and it’s good to remember that uncertainty is the lifeblood of narrative. Think about it this way: Pages will only be turned if a reader wants to know what’s going to happen next, so let them wonder. Trust your reader and don’t over-explain the plot. They’re smart. They’ll figure it out. I believe we read fiction in order to put ourselves in a different moral universe and then we compare the actions of the main character against how we would react to those very same situations. It’s therefore necessary to open up unknowns in a story so that readers are forced to fill in those gaps with their own imagination.

5. It’s okay to fail
This runs in such total opposition to our cultural beliefs that it seems un-American to even mention it. In the U.S., we love winners, and we don’t have much time for losers. But if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to fail, a lot—month after month, and year after year. It’s only by failing that you become better at your craft. Failure is your friend. It won’t feel like this at first (you’ll hate failure so much you’ll want to punch it right in the face), but as you write more, you’ll find your voice, and by finding your voice, you’ll discover what makes you tick as a literary artist.

6. Good writers start off as extraordinary readers
If you’re serious about wanting to become a writer you’ll need to read with great promiscuity. Read everything that comes across your field of vision. Even the books you don’t like are educational because at least you know you don’t want to write like that. Study cadence and voice and word choice and description and narrative perspective and pacing. Just as musicians listen to songs, and painters study shadow and form, you’ll have to bury your nose in a book. Writers begin as readers, and this is an unshakeable absolutely true 100% for real rule here. Read, read, read, and read some more.

7. Snow is white
Don’t tell the reader things they already know. By writing a line like, “the snow was white and on the ground” you’re not saying anything new. Tell the reader if the snow is yellow because there’s a story there, especially if a dog is sniffing around. Equally, don’t say the sky is blue—it usually is blue—but tell the reader if the sky is “green and boiling.” The same goes for green grass, and red blood, and wet water. In other words, don’t state the obvious.

8. The element of surprise
If I’m not surprised by what happens in the story as I’m writing it, readers will never be surprised by the story when they’re reading it. For example, let’s say you’re motoring through the first draft and then—what the hell?—your main character does something totally unexpected. Follow behind your character and see what happens next. If you’re not surprised by your story, the reader never will be. Go with the flow. Be surprised. Let your characters control you rather than you controlling your characters.

9. Find the “moment of crisis”
In short stories and novels, the narrative should zero in on a specific event that will forever change the main character. I call this “the moment of crisis,” and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the center of gravity around which the rest of the narrative should orbit. I often tell my students to rip off the first page of whatever story they are working on because the moment of crisis rarely reveals itself on the first page. Most of the time, it begins to appear on page two or three. Start there, I tell my students. Drop the reader into the crisis and they will start to ask questions immediately, which is exactly what you want to keep those pages turning.

10. Be kind to other writers
There are many wonderful things about being a writer, but it’s a life full of rejection letters and frustration. Other writers will understand what you’re going through better than anyone else. Plus, most of the writers I know are kind and thoughtful people who are deeply interested in the human condition. Be kind to your fellow wordsmiths. Support them. Don’t be a dick.

11. Get out of your office
You can only write about yourself for so long before you’ve exhausted your own stories. When this happens, get out into the world. Travel to a foreign country. Go interview a hospice nurse. Talk to a single mother. Meet someone from a faith group you don’t understand. Think of a weird job and ask someone who does that job about their hopes and dreams. Learn from strangers and widen your pool of stories. By doing this, you won’t make yourself the center of every narrative you write about and you’ll also find out new things that can spice up your work. In order to be a writer, you have to be curious about the world.