Gretchen Rubin is the author of multiple New York Times bestselling books including The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, is the host of a chart-topping weekly podcast, and maintains a popular website with hundreds of thousands of readers form around the world. When it comes to advice on being a productive writer, she is someone we should all be listening to.
One of the challenges of writing is…writing. Here are some tips that I’ve found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page:
1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)
2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”
3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.
4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought — even mid-sentence — so it’s easy to dive back in later.
A guest post Dan Peacock, 2014 Project Coordinator for The Novella Award.
1. Plan, plan, plan
Many writers think that because of their length, novellas are something they can just sit down and write. This is not the case. As with the novella’s longer cousin, the novel, it needs to be planned thoroughly beforehand. What’s the point of writing ten thousand words only to realise the story has reached its conclusion? Forward planning using any stimulus such as the snowflake method or a simple brainstorm can make the difference between a novella and another short story.
2. Describe your novella in one sentence
Novellas have simple plots and minimal characters. If it is not possible to describe this in a single sentence, the idea will likely become a full-blown novel when written. The key aspects of a novella are its simple plot and few central characters. If the plot can’t be described in a sentence, the idea may be suited more for a novel than a novella.
3. Start with conflict
Creating a conflict in the first few pages of a novella will draw in the reader and encourage them to continue reading. This could be anything from a battle of life and death or something going missing. Create a conflict that the character must face early on and the reader will be enticed to find out how this conflict is resolved, if at all.
4. Consider writing in the first person
Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites has been translated into twenty languages. It won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award and was shortlisted for Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
In May 2014, Hannah was a guest of the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne and appeared as part of a panel called ‘The 5 x 5 Rules of Writing’, where she and four other EWF ambassadors (Benjamin Law, Krissy Kneen, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Felix Nobis) shared the writing advice they wish we had known when they started out. We are delighted that Hannah has allowed us to reproduce this advice here.
Hannah introduced these rules by saying “These are five things I continually need to be reminded of, and they never fail to help me remember how and why I write.”
Photograph by Nicholas Purcell
Rule 1. Read
This is perhaps the simplest, most worthwhile piece of advice I can give any of you today, and this is why it’s the first of my five.
To be a good writer you must, first and foremost, be a good reader. How else will you learn what to do? Read as much as possible, as often as possible, and if you read something you like, or something that makes you laugh, or something that moves you in a strange, ineffable way, ask why. Re-read it. Read it aloud. Pay attention to the use of words, and the narrative voice, and the comic timing. If you don’t understand words, splurge on a really great dictionary and look those words up. The more words you know, the greater your control over language.
Read everything. How else will you work out what is good and what is bad? Give your time to Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Doris Lessing and Dickens, but also read debut novels, genre fiction, contemporary fiction, history books, plays, TV scripts, poetry and memoirs. If you can’t afford new books, buy second-hand books. If you can’t afford second-hand books, get a library card. Get a library card anyway.
I’ve always loved reading, but I don’t think I ever understood how crucial it is to bettering writing practice until now. If I’m writing and I find myself in need of inspiration, or renewed focus, I will always go and read. Nine times out of ten I return to my work refreshed and exhilarated.
Geoff Dyer was described in New York Magazine as being “one of our greatest living critics, not of the arts but of life itself, and one of our most original writers – always out there beyond literary Mach 1, breaking the how-things-usually-sound barrier.” He is the author of four novels, two essay collections, and six genre-defying titles (that generally find themselves shelved among the non-fiction). His most recent book, Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, was published in May of this year. In 2010 Dyer shared the following writing tips with the Guardian.
- Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over—or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.”
- Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés … Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.
- Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.
- If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto-correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche,” “phoy” becomes “photography” and so on. Genius!
- Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.
- Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
- Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.
- Beware of clichés. Not just the clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought—even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.
- Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.
- Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to perseverance. But writing is all about perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.
Read more writing tips from Hilary Mantel, Paulo Coelho, Teju Cole, Meg Rosoff, Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman.
Text via The Paris Review. Photo by Jason Oddy.
“Maybe nobody’s perfect but Billy Wilder comes as close to it as you’ll find among filmmakers in Hollywood today, and also yesterday.” – Jack Lemmon
Six-time Oscar winner Billy Wilder is one of the most respected and beloved screenwriters and directors of the twentieth century. In 1999’s Conversations with Wilder by fellow filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Elizabethtown), Wilder discussed his extraordinary career in detail and shared the following tips for writers:
- The audience is fickle.
- Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where you’re going.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- A tip from [Ernst] Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then –
- – that’s it. Don’t hang around.