Well, maybe just a few.
Here’s a real lode of good advice from The Guardian—10 rules for writing fiction from each of a bunch of prominent writers.
And here are five tips of my own, something I recently added to advice emerging from a Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop (which I didn’t actually participate in, aside from posting my two cents worth on their blogsite):
1. Ignorance can be a real virtue. Don’t collect too much in the way of information and ideas before you begin writing. With academic theses, feature stories and science fiction alike, it’s often best to spin as much of the story as you can before you do most of your research. Ignorance simplifies things enormously, since you have fewer elements to synthesize from the outset. Wait till you’ve got the story up and staggering about before worrying too much about incorporating all the ideas in the world. It’s easier to be selective, at that point, and much easier to organize all the ideas now that you have a basic framework. The storyline can always be revised in light of new information.
I still have problems following my own advice, mind you. It can be far easier to “research” than it is to spin fiction. Just as it’s easy to convince yourself you’re really working on the novel when in fact you aren’t.
2. Hit the ground running. Write first thing in the morning, when the stuff your subconscious has been working on all night is still fresh. (I have a hard time not thinking of this product as “night soil,” which in Chinese refers to something rather different.) A character in a Graham Greene novel describes this as a process of remembering and recording, more than of creating something out of whole cloth.
3. In light of (2), try to fix your life such that each morning the first thing that arises in your mind is the writing project. Making a living at things other than fiction interferes mightily with this, of course, where instead you awaken niggled to creative death by all the chores and commitments of a freelance feature writer or editor (or instructor or gun runner or whatever). This refers us to Tip #3 in Clarion’s lead list: “Pick a life partner with money.”
4. Every journey of 1,000 miles… The mere thought of all that remains to be done on a novel may induce paralysis and despair. You have to remind yourself how fast the days and weeks and months go by, and how fast a regular daily increment of writing amounts to a book. A whole life can slip away just as fast while you tell yourself that today (and the next day, and the next) would, for example, be better devoted to background reading; you can always get down to the actual writing mañana. An equivalent warning from the Buddhist Dhammapada:
Think not lightly of evil, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the fool, gathering it little by little, fills himself with evil. Think not lightly of good, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.
5. Conciseness is a cardinal virtue. This advice is old hat, I suppose, but I’m always amazed at how—even after I know I’ve already honed something down to the bones—it seems I can always find more fat on my prose.
Exercise in conciseness: Revise a ms. as best you can, paying, as you always should, special attention to conciseness. Then do the book design yourself. (Anyone preparing a book for Amazon’s Createspace or Apple’s iStore will need to do this.) In MS Word, e.g., activate Justify and Auto-hyphenation. Fix hyphens, widows, orphans. Then reset the line leading, and repeat the previous step.
You’ll find that much of the hypenation is inappropriate. If you’re anything like me, you’ll then do your darnedest to eliminate all the hyphens manually, mostly by finding words you can trim away. And these words will be there, despite the fact you would have bet big money no fat whatsoever remained on that draft.
Repeat all the above steps, and be amazed all over again at how perfect conciseness has once more eluded you.
Thanks to Doug Savage for permission to use the Savage Chickens cartoon.