As an aspiring author, it became very clear to me very early on in my first draft that I needed all the help I could get. I started taking writing classes and reading about writing. Out of all the tips and tricks I've learned from professors and other authors, one book stands alone in its ability to change the way I thought about writing. That book is Stephen King's "On Writing."
It should be no surprise that Stephen King has written one of the best books about writing out there; he's written over 50 novels, has sold around 350 million copies worldwide, and has a net worth of $400 million. If anyone is a worthy teacher of creative writing, it's unequivocally Stephen King, even if he admits he doesn't follow his own rules all of the time. So, for all of you writers out there who haven't taken a look at "On Writing" yet, I've cataloged the tips from the novel that I've found most helpful in my writing.
Tip #1: Your 1st draft has three months to live.
Three months - the length of a season. That's how long Stephen King believes you should work on a 1st draft; any longer, and the story can become stale. This also forces you to set up a daily writing goal. King says he tries to write at least 1500 words a day (although we all know he probably exceeds this goal by a large margin). For the beginner, he recommends at least 1000. It takes some practice to cultivate the habit, but once you do, writing becomes more natural, and you'll finish your 1st draft sooner than later.
Tip #2: Dig instead of plot.
"When, during an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn't believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren't souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible."
Although he admits that he has plotted some of his novels, he doesn't believe you need an extremely detailed outline to succeed. It's alright to just have a few main events in mind, and figure out the rest of the story as you go. This way of thinking about the plot changed everything for me. I was so convinced that I had to have a complete and rigid outline before I could start my novel. This is not so. Giving myself the freedom to breathe has made writing so much easier for me, and I'm no longer wasting time being hung up on my outline.
Tip #3: The 1st draft is exclusively for you.
"When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story." Don't worry about anyone else's opinions during the 1st draft. Discover the story you want to write, and then revise it for an audience.
Tip #4: Abandon your 1st draft after you've written it.
Don't panic, DON'T PANIC! You'll get back to it - in 6 weeks or so.
"If you've never done it before, you'll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It's yours, you'll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It's always easier to kill someone else's darlings than it is to kill your own."
Tip #5: Avoid the passive voice.
I know all of the English teachers you've ever had have tried to pound this through your head, but it's worth repeating.
"Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. The timid fellow writes "The meeting will be held at seven o'clock" because that somehow says to him, 'Put it this way, and people will believe you really know.' Purge this quisling thought! Don't be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write 'The meeting's at seven.' There, by God! Don't you feel better?"
Tip #6: Read people, read!
"You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write."
To remedy this problem, I'd suggest reading instead of watching TV. Although I do believe TV and film have something important to teach writers regarding storytelling, they can't teach you nearly as much about the craft of writing as reading can. I'd also bring a book with you wherever you go - you never know when you'll have some spare time.
Tip #7: Research belongs in the background.
"If you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That's where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you're learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story."
In other words, research should be used to enrich your story, not be the story.
Tip #8: Scrap the boring parts.
"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts."
Every detail included in your narrative should be beneficial in some way - whether it furthers the plot or is used in character development, every little event or description should serve a purpose. If it doesn't, feel free to go to town on that delete key.
Tip #9: Writing is what makes you a writer.
Pretty self-explanatory, I think. The definition of a writer is someone who writes.
Tip #10: Write for the happiness.
"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink."
Find these tips helpful? There's more.
Every tip and quote I used in this article can be found in King's novel "On Writing," and there's even more in the novel that I didn't include that's worth studying. I'd highly recommend grabbing a copy.