What's some writing advice you've received that you'd share?

Neil Gaiman has a simple point about conflict: having 2 characters who want opposing things = a story.

My high-school English teacher also advised me to take college classes outside of my comfort zone, which helped.
Margaret Atwood describes writing as a game of fantasy being played with the reader--they know the story isn't real, but you have to keep convincing them to believe that it is.
Judy Blume says that you should talk to your characters. Ask them what they want. Have them speak frankly. And if you're writing about children, remember how much they want to know things.
R.L Stine says that a good title should let you know what the book is about, without giving anything away. James Patterson notes that a good thriller needs clear stakes, but it can also thwart genre expectations--know the genre so you can defy it.
Shonda Rhimes talks about the "Wizard of Oz" method for designing characters--one needs a heart, one needs a brain, one needs courage, one needs a family, etc.--and actually this can work really well when you're first working out character motivation.
My agent once told me years ago that every scene needs a bit of tension propelling the reader, even if it's just "will the character finally sit down" or "will a moment of discomfort end?" A question the reader asks, which is answered at the end of the scene, somehow.
This works for academic writing as well: 1) who's your audience?; 2) what are the stakes of the conversation?; 3) what should the reader learn?; 4) how do we move from one idea to the next? Mapping these out can help to structure an academic piece.
Gaiman has another point about the "big idea" of your book. Not a lesson, per se, but the underlying current. Is it about betrayal? Heroism? Knowing yourself? Losing or gaining a belief? Valuing something? Defying convention? This will inform how the story moves.
One of the hardest lessons I've learned as a writer is the importance of the re-writing process. Not just editing, but physically re-writing a first or second draft so that it reflects what you *now* understand about the story--and making it seem like it was always that way.
Another good point by Patterson is to have credible villains, or what he calls "worthy opponents." Not just someone who loves murder, or someone who's chaotic evil, or someone who lives to thwart your hero. *Why* are they a villain? Give them a real personality and motivation.
Tana French is great at this. When you finally figure out the killer (or killers) in her books, they always have a reason. And often the villain is intertwined with the hero in some way (in "The Likeness" her detective even shares a home with multiple suspects!)
French is also great at constructing "victims" who are fully-developed characters. The stories always begin by objectifying them, but over time, they become real, they surprise the detectives, they accrue a life in death that makes them matter.
Ursula Leguin asks students to think about word-choice. She has a creative writing assignment that involves using minimal adjectives and adverbs. I often assign this, and students *hate* it, but later will tell me it was useful--being ruthless with your description.
In his memoir on writing, Stephen King gives a deceptively simple piece of advice: have your characters speak like real people. This means listening to real people, their conversational rhythms, their pauses, their hesitations, their curses, their occlusions, their mistakes.
A colleague once advised me not to get trapped in dialogue, which is a good point. Dialogue can be wonderful to write; it can also be circular and a bit self-indulgent, if it doesn't drive the plot. We shouldn't lose sight of who's speaking, why, and what it's moving towards.
Recently, while advising a student, Margaret Sweatman made the point that historical fiction writers cut most of their research from the finished story--the research can guide it at first, but only a small fraction finds its way in, so you have to be ruthless with what stays.
Another colleague made a brilliantly succinct observation about theses: "You learn to write a thesis by writing a thesis." By the time you get to the end of that thesis draft, you *finally* know what it's about. Then the trick is revising it to reflect that from the start.
Re: Sweatman's advice, I've thought about this while writing an Arthurian murder mystery. There are a *lot* of knights with a varying/contradictory traits in Arthurian myth. The challenge is to find the ones who resonate, and to identify their most vital, legible aspects.
I sometimes get students to create character generation sheets with attributes, alignment, desires, fears, etc. Or to write a dialogue between 2 characters where they each explain (in their own voice) what the story is about--something you can refer to later.
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