The Best Advice I (finally!) ‘Got’

I always hated it when writing instructors told me to 1) write what you know, and 2) follow a formula.  How, I wondered, could I write what I knew when I didn’t know anything interesting, and when the only formulas I remembered were from high school math class? I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to be much help in writing anything other than a final math exam.

Now, having finally decoded those two pieces of cryptic advice in the course of my own writing career development, I have only two words to share with would-be novelists: read and outline.

Read books (all kinds!), but also read everything you can get your hands on: newspapers, magazines, the backs of cereal boxes, newsletters, church bulletins. I even read vanity license plates, which inspired me to give one of my series characters distinctive car plates that have played into more than one mystery plot!

The purpose of all that reading is twofold: 1) you accumulate a storehouse of information about the world; and 2) you never know what word, image, or idea will catch fire in your writing process.  Reading feeds you with new material – like ongoing brainstorming.

As for reading books in all genres, I find it’s a great way to broaden my experience. I may not be an expert on scuba-diving or anti-matter research, or know one end of a knitting needle from the other, but if I’ve read about it, I at least have some familiarity with it. And if it might fit into something I’m writing, I can go back for more reading or research.

It wasn’t until I figured this out – that I didn’t have to be an expert about something to write it into a story – that I finally really understood why my teachers insisted you had to ‘write what you know.’ Write what you know – not necessarily what you yourself have experienced. What a relief to know I didn’t have to commit a murder to write about one!

The most important thing I ever did when I was writing my first novel, however, was to outline. And I’m not referring to the outline of my book, either (though I do work from a rough outline when I write). The outline that I found most helpful was the outline I made of my favorite author’s best-seller.

Yes, you read that right – I outlined a book by my favorite author.

It was a tedious task, to be sure, but by the time I finished that chapter-by-chapter outline, I knew more about pacing and plot development than I had ever learned from any teacher or class. My secret was to use a different color marker for each subplot, so that by the end, I had a notebook in which I could visually trace how story threads flowed together and how the notorious ‘red herrings’ of successful plots operated. Deconstructing a best-selling novel taught me how to write my own ‘formula.’

What are you reading/outlining today?

4 Replies to “The Best Advice I (finally!) ‘Got’”

  1. How fun! Agatha Christie is the murder master, but once you read her books, you do develop a certain way of looking at mysteries (and figuring them out before anyone else—this trickles into TV shows and movies, when you tell your spouse after the first scene who did it and why…). It would be cool to outline her, but very TRICKY. She does frequently rely on disguise, I’ve noticed.

    Good idea!

  2. I do the same thing, Heather – solve the mystery right away. But I’m learning to keep my mouth shut so my husband won’t ask me to leave the room/theatre. Thankfully, this was the only downside to outlining, although I rarely read mystery anymore for that reason. Fortunately, there are LOTS more genres to read! Thanks for commenting!

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