Roundtable: Favorite Writing Advice (2019)
We invited Joey Weiser, K.A. Reynolds, Laura Creedle, Lindsay Ward, Lyndsay Ely, and Melanie Conklin to offer up their favorite pieces of advice on each of ten areas of writing. Each topic below is followed by the participants’ answers. In reading through them we hope you’ll find some advice that resonates and helps you with your own work. There should be something here for everyone!
Joey – A great piece of advice that I once heard from Kazu Kibuishi, regarding comics, is to leave room every step of the way for creativity. From writing, to penciling, to inking, to coloring, you want to leave a little wiggle room for the next step in the process [to] make something new out of it, otherwise the work will stagnate.
K.A. – The best advice comes from Neil Gaiman: “…write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can.” It’s very simple. But the truest things often are. Drafting is not the place for second guessing or doubt. Let your heart write the story and the rest will follow.
Laura – I wrote my first completed novel during NaNoWriMo. Up until NaNo, I never finished anything. NaNoWriMo taught me to spit out a draft on a deadline without judgement or self-editing. It’s a great skill. I’m far from the only published novelist to get my start from NaNoWriMo.
Lyndsay – Don’t get hung up on revising too early on. It’s easy to get trapped writing and re-writing those first few chapters indefinitely.
Melanie – My favorite tip for drafting is to use placeholders. Often when we’re writing, we stop to think of a character name or look up the name of a thingamajig we can’t remember. Instead of stopping to open your internet browser, use a quick placeholder that is easy to search and replace, like WWW for a character whose name you think might start with a W. Or, XXX for everything, so that you can laugh at being triple-X rated and also replace all placeholders easily.
Joey – In comics, the art side of the process takes so much time and labor that you really want to get as many revisions out of the way as early in the creative process as possible. I write many, many outlines, moving from very basic swaths to more and more detailed looks at the story so that I feel very confident that I’ve got everything where it needs to be before moving on to drawing.
K.A. – My advice here goes against the theory that we should let our stories sit after drafting. That never works for me. The second I finish drafting, I go back to the beginning and start to revise. If I let it sit, I find the organic magic of the story slips away from me, and sometimes the voice as well.
Laura – I throw away at least 75% of my first draft on my first revision. Maybe 50% on my second revision. I wish I could say there was a limit to the number of drafts I do on a novel, but most of my best ideas appear like a bolt of lightning during revision. I don’t think I had the idea to have Abelard and Lily text each other quotes from The Letters of Abelard and Heloise until my sixth revision. Revision is an act of faith. You have to believe there is a better version of your novel waiting even if you can’t see what that looks like now.
Lindsay – The editor is always right.
Lyndsay – Make a plan. Also, get a good mix of beta readers; try to get a couple readers who will most likely enjoy the book, along with a couple who might not. A variety of feedback can be very helpful.
Melanie – The most important thing to do before you begin revisions is to outline your current draft. I recommend creating an outline scene by scene. My preference is to jot each scene on a note card along with setting, date, characters, and plot points (color coded if you want!). When I have all my cards written, I lay them out in order or pin them on a tri-fold board (which conveniently creates three acts). Then I can visually evaluate, rearrange, and adjust my plot as needed before I begin revising the document.
Joey – Whether it’s writing, drawing, or whatever your creative pursuit may be, do it as much as you can, and you almost can’t help but get better! Through analysis of what you’ve done before and sheer repetition, your skills will improve.
K.A. – Weave in snippets of backstory. J.K. Rowling is excellent at this. Read Harry Potter, and see how she drops small memories throughout. Not big dumps, sometimes just a sentence or two, but each is an intentional way to layer your characters and give them three-dimensional lives. Who they were and how they felt before your story began helped influence where they are now. Showing how they’ve changed, who they miss, their childhood hurts and dreams, and how far they’ve come helps me care about them and want to cheer them on.
Laura – If you multi-draft like I do, there is a tension between being open to introducing tangential ideas, and being willing to slice and dice existing text mercilessly. I could never do this in a vacuum. I belong to a 200+ person online critique group, and I trust them to shake out the bugs. If five readers tell you a section drags, that section drags. Cut it. Find something better.
Lyndsay – Don’t be afraid to Google what seems like something you should already know. (Like, how to spell a certain word or how to use a semicolon.) You don’t need to start out a technically perfect writer to be a good writer.
Melanie – The best piece of advice I’ve had on writing craft is to write layered scenes. Each scene should present a beat of action, mystery, and emotional development for the story. Sometimes you can’t get all three in a scene, but each scene must move one of these arcs forward in order to create a page-turning story. Scenes that work double or triple duty are more effective and engaging than scenes with only one beat.
Joey – I like to make a list of all my characters, what makes them distinct, and what they want/how they will change or accomplish something by the end of the story in my early outlining stages. This helps me define why they are in the story and cut or combine excess characters who might clutter the work.
K.A. – MAKE. THEM. BLEED. Haha. But seriously. Pull from your own history to create theirs. When your heart was crushed, how did you react? When you were madly in love, or hated, or rejected, or everything was going your way, how did that change how you saw the world? Give pieces of yourself to your main character and they become that much more real. Also, a good trick for secondary characters is to envision them as a celebrity — someone you’re familiar with who made a strong impression on you. Lend them their voice and mannerisms. Even if you change them later, it helps to find their beat and make them more real.
Laura – I write character-driven novels. The interesting thing about writing is inventing characters and putting them in difficult situations to see how they react. I don’t always know, which makes plotting difficult but fun. I think a character is well-developed when you have an idea of what a character should do in a given situation, and the character fights back.
Lindsay – Get to know them inside and out. That’s the only way you’ll be able to write/draw them.
Lyndsay – Think like your characters. The decisions they make in their world, or as a result of their experiences, may not be the same ones you’d make in their place.
Melanie – Every secondary character in your story should have a story arc, which means they should each grow or change in some way. Remember, every character is the star of their own story, so give every single person in your story a secret. What are they hiding? How can they surprise us? Giving every character a story arc (no matter how small) leads to more interesting plots and makes your characters come to life for readers.
Joey – Basic worldbuilding can be fun and interesting, but I like for details of the world to rise to the surface through the story rather than vice versa. Story comes first, world details second.
K.A. – Envision each moment like a movie playing out in your head and write down what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, and sense. Imagery and emotions and sense of place are so important to me as a reader in drawing me in. Put me in your main character’s shoes; show me in detail what they see and feel; make me forget that I am not them.
Laura – I write contemporary YA, but I do have a fantasy novel on the back burner. Holly Lisle is my go-to writer for world building. She is merciless about cutting the elegant world-building details that are fun to write, but don’t serve the plot. I use her system because I need the focus. My fantasy is still character-driven, but working within the constraints of a consistent world is another level of challenge.
Lyndsay – A few well-placed details — colors, smells, clothing, flavors — can do the work of pages and pages of exposition.
Melanie – I write contemporary stories, so I tend to start with character and conflict before world-building. Then I choose my setting and other world details to maximize the conflict in the story. Your main character can face many conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature. The more layers of conflict you have, the more compelling your character’s story will be. For example, in Counting Thyme, the main character moves from California to New York City, immediately putting her at odds with her new environment. The city functions as another antagonist in the story, giving my character that much more conflict to overcome.
Joey – I like to create plot driven by the characters in it, rather than just dropping characters into a plot. The plot is created by the characters within it, what they want, how they change, and how they interact with one another.
K.A. – What does your main character want and what stands in their way?
Before I begin drafting, I make a short pitch defining my main character’s motives, what I want them to carry to the end. For example, for The Spinner of Dreams, this was the actual pitch at the top of my document:
Annalise wants to be queen of her destiny and defeat fate. Allegory of what it’s like to follow your dreams and fail, time after time, and still get up to do it again.
I used that as sort of a ladder for the entire plot. As a pantser, this helps keep the story on track.
Laura – Spaghetti tossed at a wall. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t.
Lyndsay – It’s unlikely you’ll have your plot entirely figured out on the first draft. Be willing to keep writing along and giving yourself time to figure things out.
Melanie – For me, plot is a function of character. When I create a character, I ask myself these questions: What do they want? What do they need? How are their desires in conflict with their world? What lie do they believe? What truth do they learn by the end of the book? Once I know my character’s flaws and goals, I can design a plot that is best suited to test them. Plot is the external story arc that my character will endure while they make their internal journey to character growth. I’ve learned that plot can be stressful to figure out, but if you get to know your characters, they can create the plot for you.
Joey – I find that it’s best to be direct with agents and publishers about what your book is. A little flowery language to make it sound cool is great, but they want to know the basics: What it’s about, who it’s for, why it’s unique, things like that.
K.A. – Query widely! I wrote so many versions of The Land of Yesterday that by the time I’d found my agent, I’d sent over 200 query letters!
Query bravely! Don’t let so-called dream agents intimidate you. Life is short. Query anyone who seems a great match for your book. If you don’t have CP’s and beta readers, get them! Don’t query until they’ve ripped your book apart and you’ve put it back together. THIS IS MOST IMPORTANT. I’m terrible at seeing faults in my own work, but good at seeing theirs. This is mutually beneficial, and let me tell you, I’ve met The Best writer friends this way!
Laura – It’s no secret that querying is hard. I queried 90+ agents, and in the end, I got my agent through Pitch Wars. During Pitch Wars, I got requests from agents who already had partials or fulls from me. Imagine [requesting] something you’ve had on your desk for six months only you haven’t gotten around to reading it! Shows you how insanely busy agents are. You can’t take rejections personally. It doesn’t have that much to do with you or even your writing. A personalized rejection is a win. A personalized rejection with actionable advice is golden. Use it. You can always make a novel better.
Lindsay – Just be yourself. Don’t overthink it.
Lyndsay – Start with small batches of queries. If the first 5-10 don’t get any requests, consider tweaking it. And unless an agent gives very specific feedback, don’t practice rejectomancy (the practice of trying to divine deeper meaning from a rejection). A pass is a pass. Don’t sweat it too much, and keep going.
Melanie – It’s been a while since I queried, but I did sign with my first agent from a cold query. There really is no secret handshake in writing. Worry less about querying and more about pushing your writing to be the best it can be before you query. Draft, revise, get feedback, revise, get more feedback…keep doing this until you don’t know what else to do. Then it’s time to query. While you query, write the next project. You will never regret writing forward!
8. Debut year
Joey – Unfortunately, just because you have a book out doesn’t mean you’ve “made it!” Keep working on the next thing, and make sure to help promote the book that’s currently out.
K.A. – Lord Have Mercy. Debut year is bananas! My best advice? JOIN A DEBUT GROUP. The Electric Eighteens saved my life! What you know, you give to the group; what they know, they give to the group; everyone benefits. Now that you have a group, do not compare yourself to your debut year friends. Easy to say, not easy to do. But comparison is the thief of joy, and you’ll want to definitely remember to enjoy your debut year because YOU’VE WORKED HARD TO BE HERE AND DESERVE TO CELEBRATE YOURSELF! You wrote an actual book! And I bet the people in your life who aren’t writers (and those who are) are in complete awe of you!
Laura – Like being shot out of a cannon and landing in a pile of old comforters in an empty room with no one watching. The anxiety and weight of expectation is huge, but nothing really changes. If I could give any advice to a debut novelist it would be to relax. Only, no debut writer in the history of literature has ever taken that advice. Better advice — keep writing.
Lindsay – Enjoy it! It only happens once!
Lyndsay – A debut year can be an emotional rollercoaster. At some point(s), you may need to vent. Have a few friends you can trust implicitly with your writing/publishing fears, frustrations, etc.
Melanie – I really underestimated how much debut year would take out of me. Basically, it took me all year to realize that I had a new JOB and that my life needed to change to accommodate my new responsibilities. After I hit my limit and had my first-ever panic attack, I quit a bunch of other things in my life, said no to more book stuff, and only went to the book events that made me personally happy (about one per month). Use your debut year to explore the possibilities, but also embrace saying no to anything that doesn’t ring your bell.
Joey – Different publishers have different levels of marketing power, so talk to them about what they are going to do, and what they need from you to promote the book. An author’s secret second job is actually in marketing their book to the world!
K.A. – As a middle grade author with little money, if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t bother with a pre-order campaign, ordering postcards, expensive swag, or an annotated ARC. It was a lot of time and energy to do this that [would’ve] been better spent writing my next book. The bookmarks and stickers were a hit though!
If you have anxiety, depression, PTSD, or panic like me, don’t stress about Skype and school visits, cons, events, panels, etc. Your mental health is more important than these things, no matter what anyone says. If you can do them, awesome! But if you can’t, honestly, from all I’ve heard from even big-name authors, it doesn’t move the needle on sales too much. What helped me was using social media as a tool for marketing. Have giveaways. Make friends. Promote their books, and they’ll promote yours. Be a good person! Share bits of advice and news, and like in Field of Dreams, the people (your readers) will come.
Laura – I’m severely ADHD, and my novel is about a girl who is severely ADHD. To prepare for my debut I upped my ADHD medication and read extensively on self-marketing and platforming. I took classes. After months of tying myself in anxious knots around self-marketing, I began to hate the idea of being a writer. I developed an obsession about a career shift into long-distance trucking. I have some of my best ideas while driving down the road, particularly the empty space between Waco and Dallas where there’s nothing much to look at, except the vast rolling prairie stretched out like a blank sheet of paper. And I came to realize that what I really missed was the empty computer screen and the feeling of an endless horizon. I missed writing. Also, after months and month of reading about “platforming,” I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing, marketing-wise. I wasted an anxious year on something I was never going to master no matter how hard I tried. I should have kept writing instead. If you are a novelist, and you find this mediation on the craptacularness of platforming deeply discouraging, I will point out that I didn’t graduate from high school, either. You are bound to be better at self-marketing than I am.
Lindsay – Be your book’s biggest advocate.
Lyndsay – Be judicious in where you spend your own money on marketing. (And always put things like rent and groceries first.)
Melanie – Frankly, the only marketing plan that’s going to make a huge difference for your release is the plan that comes from your publisher. Do the things that you enjoy, and skip the things you don’t. If you want a website, make one! If you love Twitter, tweet! If you hate Facebook, quit it! There is no one thing you are required to do as an author other than WRITE THE NEXT BOOK.
10. Writing in general
Joey – Write what you love. When you enjoy the work, readers can sense it and will enjoy it as well. Every piece of writing is not necessarily going to be a financial and critical success, so you might as well enjoy the process.
K.A. – Try to remember during your lowest points on this journey why we do what we do. That a book is a small world spun by many fingers, each leaving their prints. That reading is finding ourselves through others, reaffirming our experiences as human beings, glimpsing the perpetual uncertainty that we are not alone. That stories link the minds and hearts of readers and writers with characters who end up feeling like friends. I mean, how awesome is it that?!? The art of writing ignites something universal inside authors and readers — something true, something that connects us to the world. As an author, it’s easy to forget when we’re scared and worried if people will like or hate our book, but try to remember how magical writing and reading is. That we are so lucky to do what we do. That there are people out there that desperately need your book. That it will be just what they needed at just the right time, as other books have been for you. 🙂
Laura – My favorite quote on writing comes from Toni Morrison: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” As a kid, I would have killed to have known there were other girls who struggled with impulse control and wild mood swings like I did. I felt so alone. I was at a Teen Book conference shortly after my book came out, and I met a girl who said she’d read my book three times. She said she would finish the book and then start over immediately. It blew me away. “Why?” I asked. “Because Lily is the voice inside my head,” she replied. As a YA writer, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Lindsay – Pull the goalie. Always. Writing is risky. Embrace it.
Lyndsay – Be persistent. The best “advice” I ever got was from an award-winning author whose writing course I took. She said she’d seen talented writers fall short of their goals because they gave up, and okay writers go on to great success because they never did.
Melanie – Being a writer and an author are two different things. Publishing demands a lot of different things from us as authors, and those pressures can be intense, but publishing is NOT writing. It’s so important to preserve and cultivate your little writing bubble separate from the world of publishing. You need a safe space when you can play and explore and learn. Try to keep publishing in the corner where it belongs and remember how much you love to write!