I love talking with writers about, well, writing. Actually, I just love talking to writers in general, because you people get what it’s like when you can’t stop thinking about a story idea, or when you talk to/about your characters like they’re real.
For the most part, writing advice is subjective. What works for me may not work for you. And that’s totally great, because we all have unique stories to tell in unique ways! These are just a few of the methods I use when I write—questions I’m asked most often. They come from personal experience, trial and error, and lots of quality time spent staring at my ceiling. Now available in a convenient Q&A format:
DO YOU NEED TO MAJOR IN ENGLISH TO BE A WRITER?
Nope! You can study whatever you want in college. Or you can forego college all together. It’s different for everyone. I did major in English (with a Creative Writing concentration and a Communications minor), but that was the right decision for me. The cool thing about writing is that you can collect ideas from anywhere, so in a sense, any discipline you choose can fuel your stories. I’ve heard and believe it’s a fantastic idea to study business or marketing, but I was too much of a book nerd to go that route. I’d rather have the Brontës over Excel spreadsheets any day.
Here’s what is great about majoring in English/Writing, though: It helps you grow tough skin and writing chops. Critique - both positive and negative - is good for you. Sitting in a creative writing workshop while your professors and classmates review your stuff is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. Sometimes, I sat in my car after peer review days and cried. Sometimes I left campus with a goofy grin on my face. But, ultimately, my writing is much stronger because of those classes. Even if you don’t study writing at the university level, I highly recommend joining a writing group. Your stories (and your emotional well-being) will thank you for it.
DO YOU NEED AN EDITOR?
Um, yeah. 100%. It doesn’t matter if you studied writing in college and edited your friends papers (*raises hand*). You need another set of eyes to look at your stuff because, frankly, we’re just too close to our own writing to be able to see it clearly. We know how the story should look in our heads, so we project that onto the page. And while it’s great to pass your work around for other people to read and offer suggestions, they’re not the same as an editor.
To make sure your story shines and has maximum impact, you’ve gotta hire an editor. Someone who is trained and does this as his or her job. It costs money, but it’s so, so worth it. I read my most recent manuscript, oh, about a hundred times, but my editor still caught things that should’ve been super obvious to me. She’s a rockstar.
Hire an editor. Your characters and your readers will thank you for it.
WHAT’S YOUR BEST PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE?
Keep writing. Practice writing from different points of view (1st person, third person), tense (past, present), and genres. Read widely, even genres you don’t usually love. And study poetry. I studied just as much poetry as fiction in college, and I’m so glad I did. Poetry teaches you how to say a lot in a few words. It teaches you to listen to how words work together, to rhythm, and to cadence. It teaches you how to engage the senses in your writing.
I also recommend keeping your project a secret at first. If I tell someone the details of what I’m working on, I lose my drive to finish the project. I don’t share the details of my story while I’m writing the first draft. I don’t share plot info, character names, any of it. Then just one or two people see the second draft. Then just a few more after that. Keep your stories close, and you’ll find that there’s less pressure to perform when you’re writing for yourself. That way, you can also know that no one else ever has to see it. It’s very freeing.
HOW DO YOU GET IDEAS?
By living life. By spending time with friends, paying attention to the people around me in the coffee shop, listening to music, reading, grocery shopping, nearly passing out in an aerobics class…
It’s tempting to believe you can’t go out and experience things because you have to get some writing done. Sometimes you really do need to hunker down and focus. But if you’re not living a vibrant life, your characters won’t live vibrant lives, either. Even if you can’t board a plane to Europe at the moment, everyday life can be an adventure. It’s all in what you’re looking for. Something as simple as walking around your neighborhood gives your imagination a chance to breathe.
Weirdly enough, I get most of my ideas when I’m around water. If I’m at the beach, I can brainstorm a story like none other. One time, I outlined a novel in the shower. Even washing dishes helps me process plot points. I don’t know what it is about water, but that’s where my creativity thrives.
DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHEN YOUR WRITE?
Almost always, although the type of music I listen to depends on the type of scene I’m writing. Sometimes, when I need the deepest of deep focus, I listen to instrumental—classical, usually, because if I can recognize a song that has lyrics, I get distracted. But most often, I’m listening to a playlist I’ve curated specifically for the book I’m writing. Love songs, heartbreak songs, fun songs, etc., all find their way into a Spotify playlist. I pick songs to fit the mood of the scene, and that makes all the difference. Like, I wouldn’t listen to a song about someone’s world falling apart if I’m writing a first kiss scene. That’d be problematic. Likewise, I wouldn’t listen to a love song if my character’s world just fell apart. You get the idea.
HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH CHARACTERS?
*Shrugs* They just kind of…appear? Thank you for reading my inspirational advice.
No, but really. Sadie Franklin was inspired by a line in a song I heard on the radio. Her story looks nothing like that song, but the lyrics made me curious about who that girl might be if we got to know her. Sadie was the result of me driving around in my car, listening to that song on repeat.
For the rest of the gang, they truly do just show up on the scene. Once they’re there, I brainstorm their unique qualities. For example, when I introduced Truitt Peyton in ALL OF THIS, I didn’t know exactly who he would turn into. I just knew I needed a guy who, on the surface, was the exact opposite of Sadie. I love some tension. But then, as the story grew in my mind, I started adding layers until he ended up able to understand Sadie in a way no one else can.
On the other hand, when I wrote Fynnigan Larcy in JUST ONE THING, I knew Sadie needed a new friend. I also knew the story would be a heavy one, so I wanted this friend to provide some comic relief. From there, I built a character who is artistic, quirky, and could give an impromptu impassioned speech about something as ordinary as a lint roller.
There’s no shortage of writing resources out there. A quick Google search can make your brain spin. I’ve narrowed down a list of some of the resources that have been the most helpful to met over the years. I’m always looking to learn more, so if you have any suggestions, send them my way!
Check these out (the headings are links):
A blog run by three YA authors I greatly respect, GTW is overflowing with excellent articles on everything from plotting to character development to query letters. Their writing is clear and easy to follow. The community is fun, too. I’ve followed this blog since I actually was a teen, and it’s still my go-to. It’s also the resource I recommend the most to writers of all ages. They also have a book.
WRITE WELL: A GRAMMAR GUIDE BY RACHELLE REA COBB
Author and editor Rachelle Rea Cobb wrote this conversational, practical grammar guide. It’s a quick little read worth having in your writing library.
CONVERSATIONS WITH A WRITING COACH BY SUSAN MAY WARREN
Written as a conversation between a writing mentor and an aspiring novelist, this book walks you through the stages of story development. It’s fun to read, and I learn a lot every time I pick it up.
This book includes advice from some of the biggest names in Christian fiction. It’s a must-read if you want to learn the basics of writing a novel and tell a convincing faith story.