by Shevi Arnold
1. Find your inner child, the one who had fun playing with dolls or pretending to be a superhero. That’s where stories start.
2. A fiction writer isn’t just a writer when putting words on paper or a computer screen. You should take your characters with you everywhere you go and experience your world through their eyes.
3. Read books in your genre, so you can understand the rules of your genre.
4. Read books in other genres, so you can understand the rules of different genres.
5. Read classics, so you can understand what makes something a classic.
6. You don’t have to like everything you read. Sometimes you learn more from the books you don’t like than the ones you do.
7. Analyze what you read. Ask yourself what works, what doesn’t, why, and how you would make it better.
8. TV shows, movies, songs, and even commercials are also stories, so analyze them too.
9. Read books on writing, editing, language, and literary criticism.
10. Read nonfiction dealing with the setting of your book, too. Just read, read, read.
11. To come up with story ideas, ask yourself, “What if?”
12. If your internal editor is getting in the way, write after it’s gone to sleep. Editing can wait.
13. Start with dessert. That means you should start with the scene you’re most excited about writing.
14. Continue with dessert. Just go from dessert to dessert.
15. If it’s fun for you to write, it will be fun for the reader to read, so have fun.
16. Where should your story start? The inciting incident is usually a good place. That’s the incident that incites your main character to action.
17. Hook your reader at the start of the story by planting a question in the reader’s mind. Don’t answer that question until the end of the book. “Will the main character survive?” That’s a good hook.
18. If your main character knows something in a particular scene, let the reader know it too. Show all your cards. Otherwise, the reader might feel tricked.
19. Hook your reader over and over by planting more questions, particularly at the end of chapters.
20. Readers pay the most attention to beginnings and endings, so put your important stuff there. That’s true of every story, chapter, scene, paragraph, and sentence.
21. If a scene is necessary but hard to write, make a note of it and skip it until you’re ready to deal with it. Don’t let it stop your momentum.
22. People like characters that are larger than life, so do not write a book about someone like you. Unless you’re a ninja. Or a princess. Or a ninja princess.
23. Don’t try to write a book that someone else already wrote. Write the book only you could have written.
24. Don't give your characters impossible to read names. I’ll just turn it into “blah blah” every time I read it.
25. Don’t have your characters refer to each other by name very often. Real people don't do that. Except for car salesmen. “Bob, may I call you Bob?” “Well, Bob…” Ugh!
26. Dialogue should sound the way real people talk, so pay attention to conversations around you. If your dialogue doesn't sound like something real human beings would say, fix it.
27. People tend to use a lot of unnecessary words, though, so keep it real, but also keep it brief.
28. Don't have your characters say how they're feeling. Real people don't do that. “ I'm sad.”
“ I'm scared.” That just ticks me off.
29. Don't have your characters say things that would be obvious to people really in that situation. “Look, there’s a pack of werewolves coming over that hill, and they’re after us!” “Really? I thought they were puppies coming to play. I have eyes, you know.”
30. If two people are having a conversation, you only need two speech tags or beats at the beginning to establish who’s talking. Stick in a few more beats if the dialogue is longer than a page.
31. What’s a “beat” you ask? A beat is a piece of action that implies who the speaker is. For example, “Roxie brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. ‘Here, let me help you with that.’” That tells us Roxie is the speaker without a speech tag. It also provides some action and paints a visual, killing several birds with one stone.
32. Speaking of which, avoid clichés like the plague.
33. Some people say a cliché is anything you’re heard before, but I disagree. A cliché is anything the reader is tired of hearing. I never get tired of hearing, “I love you.”
34. Only amateurs think they don't have to edit, so edit, edit, and edit some more.
35. Unless it moves the story along or reveals character in an important way, cut it.
36. Not sure if it needs a paragraph indent? Then indent it.
37. Even if you think you have a scene down, try writing it a different way. Explore all possibilities so you can choose the best one.
38. At the end, always reward the reader by answering the question you planted in the reader’s mind at the beginning of the book. The hook is an unwritten promise. Keep your promises.
39. Don't excuse bad writing by saying it's true to life. Life is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense, so make sense.
40. Writing is a form of communication. If you haven't communicated yourself clearly, that’s your fault, not the reader’s.
41. If the reader is likely to ask a question, try to address it on the spot. You don't have to answer it, but you do have to say something like “That’s odd…” If you don't your reader will be like that girl in the back of the class with her hand up who's unable to concentrate on the rest of the lesson because all she can think is “I got a question. Please call on me so I can ask my question.”
42. Ground your scenes, but don't go overboard with description. It only takes a few words to paint a picture.
43. If you've edited it for a year and you're still not sure, get a critique. The right critique group is invaluable, but it has to be the right one for you.
44. The critiques that are easiest to swallow are sandwiches with the negative stuff served between two slices of the things you liked.
45. Remember, you're not the one being critiqued; your story is. And you are not your story. So check your ego at the door.
46. When you critique, critique the story, not the writer. The only time you should say “you” is at the end when you say, “It’s your story, and you know best. Use what works, and forget the rest.”
47. The number one rule of giving and receiving a critique is respect: respect what the writer is trying to achieve; and respect that the giver is trying to help you achieve it.
48. The correct response to a critique is a “thank you” and one or two questions of clarity if there's something you don't understand. “I don't understand how you can be so stupid” doesn't qualify.
49. Join an organization for writers in your genre, like the SCBWI if you write for children or teens.
50. Don’t go to conferences expecting to land a publishing contract. That very rarely happens. Go to learn and meet other people who care as much about writing as you do.
51. If you intend to describe someone or something in a story, try to do it within the first few pages after that thing is introduced. I hate having to go back in my mind to redraw previous scenes because the picture I had painted for myself was wrong.
52. In first person, don’t have your character think things people don’t really think, like “I have hair as golden as the sun.” No.
53. In first person or third-person limited, use the character’s thoughts to show how they feel and how they see the world. Get in their heads and their hearts.
54. Readers can only care as much as your characters care, so have your characters care deeply.
55. Don’t have more than one point-of-view character in a scene unless there is a very clear transfer of point-of-view from one character to the next and with good reason.
56. The most important thing to remember about voice is to keep it consistent.
57. Want to make it funny? Just remember these two things. Take the scene as far as it will go, all the way to the edge of the cliff…then push. And…
58. …brevity is the soul of wit. Almost anything funny can be made funnier if you shorten it. Ever hear of the Reduces Shakespeare Company? If you haven’t, look them up. They’re a riot.
59. Don’t try to be the next J.K. Rowling or Susanne Collins. Try to be the biggest and best you you can be.
60. All those things you might dream of doing but never would make great building materials for stories. Where do you think murder mysteries come from?
61. Don’t do anything half-assed. It’s full ass or nothing.
62. Write the book you desperately want to read but can’t because no one else has written it yet.
63. The easiest way to write a new story is to take a very old classic and change just one element of it, like the setting or the main character.
64. You can also write a new story by taking a very old classic and asking “what happened after that” or “what led to that?”
65. If your book could have been written by someone else, there’s not enough you in it. Make it more you.
66. Don't go overboard when it comes to showing versus telling. Showing is good most of the time, but telling has its place too. Sometimes the only thing that matters is that your main character flew to Boston. It doesn't matter what he had to eat on the plane.
67. Don’t try to write like Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, or Doctor Seuss, or any other famous author. If readers want to read Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, or the Cat in the Hat, that’s what they’ll read, not your book.
68. If you write children's books, don't write anthropomorphic characters. Write human characters. Leave it up to the illustrator if he or she wants to turn them into bunnies.
69. Also, when people say a picture book shouldn't be more than 1,000 or 500 words, they mean it.
70. How do you write something that brief? By letting the illustrator tell most of the story. That’s why it’s a PICTURE book.
71. And don't include any illustration notes that aren’t necessary to the story. And do not include photos of your dog or your kids for reference.
72. No matter what you write, don't expect to make much. The average novelist earns a five thousand dollar advance on his first book, and that’s after ten years of trying to get published. Picture book authors earn even less.
73. Learn patience, because everything in publishing takes a long time. Indie publishing is much faster, but that doesn't mean you should do it quickly. It takes time to do it right.
74. Don't talk down to your readers. They're not stupid. This is doubly true when your readers are kids or teens.
75. Don’t use references that are too current or out of date. Only use language that’s likely to be around for a long, long time, so your book can be too. Unless, of course, it’s historical or nostalgic fiction.
76. To hold the reader’s attention, raise the stakes by turning the main character's want into a need and increasing related conflicts and obstacles.
77. There are three kinds of conflicts: internal, inter-personal, and environmental or societal. Internal is the best, but all three is even better.
78. I like a happy ending, but if you don't have a happy ending, at least have a resolution to the main conflict.
79. Characters should change along the way to the end of the story. Otherwise, what's the point?
80. You don't have to use all five senses in every scene, but it does help make the scene palpable. Ask yourself what the character sees, hears, feels, smells, and tastes. Use what will help the reader smell the air and feel it on her skin.
81. Limit your use of adjectives and adverbs. Nouns and verbs affect the same parts of the brain as seeing those objects or performing those actions, so use them to grab your reader by the arm.
82. Find out what words you overuse and see what you can do to eliminate all or most of them. Some overused words are “then” “that” and “very.”
83. Use active rather than passive tense where you can, unless passive really is the better option.
84. Short words, sentences, and paragraphs are usually simpler, which makes them easier to read. That’s good. Use them often.
85. Forget what your English teacher told you. If successful writers do something, you can do. Incomplete sentences, for example, can convey something complete sentences can’t.
86. Repetition creates patterns and rhythms. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times” is better than “It was the best and worst of times.”
87. Don’t start a sentence with something that happened after the thing you end the sentence with. Chronological order is easier to follow.
88. Every masterpiece starts with a crappy first draft, so don't let perfectionism stop you before you start.
89. An outline is like a road map. True, it can make the trip less interesting, but at least you’ll know where you’re going and how to get there.
90. Don’t make characters do things they wouldn't do just to suit your plot needs.
91. Characters are what they do. Want to make them extraordinary? Have them do extraordinary things.
92. Don't ask why. Ask why not.
93. When writing a synopsis, focus on the main character's emotional arc: what he or she wants, what stops him or her from getting it, and how this conflict is resolved.
94. Anyone can be a hero if they persevere when the odds are stacked against them, so stack those odds high.
95. People read books that give them something: hope, inspiration, love, friendship, an amazing experience, and more. So start with a promise to give something to the reader and then deliver.
96. If you don't give the reader what the reader is looking for in a book, the reader will find another book that does.
97. Kill your darlings means you should edit out anything that is so beautiful it sticks out and makes everything else look weak by comparison.
98. Above all else, aim for clarity.
99. Kids are more creative because they haven't learned the meaning of “can't.” So be like the Little Engine that Could. I think I can, I think I can…
100. Did you know that if you're a slow typist like me, you can still write 1,000 words in half an hour? At that rate, you can write a novel in a year by just devoting half an hour a week to it. So don't just dream about writing a novel. Do it!
Are there things you think I should add to this list? Do you have any questions or comments? Leave them below. Thanks!
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