Jeff Abbott’s Top Ten Writing Tips
I think we’ve entered a time when we’re a lot more suspicious of writing advice than we used to be. A lot of writing chestnuts feel prescriptive to too many people—not everyone can write every day; sometimes, yes, you want to tell rather than show; passive voice isn’t inherently evil and can be useful for effect. So please bear in mind that the tips below are practices that have worked for me over a 23-year career of being published. If they work for you, great. If they sort of work for you, make them your own. If they don’t work, ignore them and use what does. The point of all this is to get words on the page that you are happy with, that tell your story, and that pull readers into your fictional world. Good luck and good writing!
- Finish what you start. The very first book I wrote was unpublishable; in fact, if a publisher tried to publish it now I would probably sue them. It was bad. It was ill-conceived. It was a mess. But…it had one mighty virtue: it was finished. I had proven to myself that I could write an 85,000-word novel, complete it in a timely fashion, and recognize both its (limited) strengths and its (many) weaknesses. It gave me confidence that I could do this again, but better. My next manuscript got offers from two major publishers within six weeks of submission. I firmly believe that would not have happened had I not finished the first manuscript to completion.
- Read—widely. I’m always a little flabbergasted when people tell me they want to write a book but they don’t like reading. Would anyone take seriously an aspiring film director who is indifferent to watching movies? Make time to read. Read widely in your field. If you want to write for one subgenre of mystery, say, read mysteries beyond that subgenre as well. If you don’t know which ones, find a list of classics, ask your librarian or bookseller, or use the bestseller list as a guide. And read beyond mystery: historical fiction, nonfiction, romance, science fiction. You can learn valuable lessons on tone, characterization, pacing, and more from books outside your field.
- Write—regularly. I’m not going to tell you to write every day. But the hard truth is writing every day, when I started, set a discipline that has served me well for many years. So if you can’t do it every day, look hard at your calendar, your obligations, and figure out what blocks of time are available to you. Maybe you give up a show you watch on Thursday nights at eight. Or do as I did and get up a couple of hours earlier than normal until your first draft is done. Or sacrifice your two hours of Netflix on the weekends. Make appointments for yourself to write. The more pages you add to your project, the more likely you’ll feel a sense of momentum.
- Don’t edit too much as you write. This one I say with some trepidation, but I hate the idea of a writer caught in a continuous loop of perfectionism, never building a big head of steam to move forward because you have to go back through your previous eighty pages and change James to Jane. I cheat. I just make a mark or comment in the manuscript such as “changing James to Jane from this point forward” and then keep writing. The edits can wait for the rewrite, when my brain is fully in revision mode.
- Research just enough to get started. Again, this is a dicey one as some writers feel they must complete all research before telling their story. But I also feel I don’t know yet what I need to know until I start writing. There is a danger in going so deep down a research hole that you waste your precious writing time on topics that will never ever play a role in the story you are writing now. Research is powerful but it can also be procrastination. So, think of your first few scenes and do enough research to start. Research and writing can fuel each other. Keep a list by your computer of open questions you must answer, and write them down—you can come back to them.
- Outline only if that works for you. Some very accomplished authors write detailed outlines and spend weeks on arranging scenes and writing character bios; others start with a single opening sentence as a torch and leap into the darkness, certain that they will light their own way. I’ve seen authors sweat because they are trying to go against their instinct and write the way an author they admire writes. I have written both detailed outlines and I’ve gone rogue. Use what approach gets you writing. If the approach you are trying makes you resistant to work, then switch. But don’t think of outlining as an absolute must do or mustn’t do for the whole book: sometimes even those who don’t outline find it useful to chart out, say, the next five chapters and use that as a mini-outline to get over a rough patch.
- Walk or exercise or just sit quietly with your thoughts. Time away from books and screens and keyboards is like letting the sun shine on the garden of your imagination. Some of my very best thoughts or realizations or elements I’ve used in novels have come while walking my dogs, swimming, or just sitting on the back patio, letting my mind wander and not trying to force an answer to a plot problem or a character conundrum. Give yourself this quiet; the quiet will give back to you.
- Be patient. I have seen writers finish one book, have it fail to sell, and give up entirely on writing. If you have decided writing is not for you, that’s fine; go do something else with your time. But if you really want to write, you have to steel yourself for rejection, setback, and disappointment. (This is true even after you have achieved what most consider success.) Keep writing. Persistence is key.
- Writing is rewriting. My first drafts are very rough, filled with questions to myself, questions for characters, abandoned subplots, side plots that need to be developed or combined with others or dropped. I put the rough in rough draft. But it’s there, and I can edit it, polish it, refine it. I may cut thousands of words, but the words I write next are stronger and better for the story. The book truly emerges in the rewriting you do.
- Be kind to yourself. I have seen authors write, rewrite, and rewrite some more, and still are convinced that what they are producing is junk that no one will ever want to see. (I do this, still, until I take a deep breath.) Writers often don’t have the confidence that anything they write could remotely be good. And to this, I just want to tell them that this is supposed to be fun. Writing should not be endless misery. When the writing is going well, it’s the most satisfying work imaginable (to me). Take happiness and pride that you wrote today, and that you will write tomorrow. That you are making art, and bringing joy to yourself…and eventually, readers.