One Piece of Writing Advice

I was recently asked a question in a writer's group:

"If you could only give one piece of writing advice to another writer what would it be?"

Now I'm not normally one who gives out writing advice. There's a simple reason for this; I don't feel like I'm in any position to give out advice. I'm still learning this game and there's plenty of advice out there from better players than me. I've got exciting news on the horizon sure (which I'm looking forward to talking about when I'm allowed), but I'm yet to secure my first novel sale, and more importantly you're yet to read it, which means I don't feel like I have much credibility to be dispensing writerly wisdom.

However, I thought I'd share my answer to that one-piece-of-advice question because I think it's an interesting one. I think it's interesting because it forces you to trim writing down to a single aspect you consider most important, a single statement you think has moved your writing forward more than any other, and that's a huge challenge.

In the years I've been writing I've heard some great advice and I've had some brilliantly bright moments of epiphany, however, my answer was this:

'Having a plan doesn't block creativity, it gives it a framework in which to thrive.' 

I think an understanding of planning is a consideration that is oft-overlooked and is something new writers seem to be afraid of, like writing a plan somehow constricts your creativity. I've often heard other writers say they can't or don't plan because "the characters just go wherever they want to go." Writing is a personal journey, of that there's no doubt, every writer is different, but when I get my house built I don't want to hear the builder say, "I just let the wooden support beams go wherever they want to go." That's what we're talking about here, building a support for your story.

Planning, plotting, outlining, whatever you want to call it, figuring out your story before you write allows you to find the holes and problems (at least some of them) before you put the first draft down on paper (or screen). It allows you to experiment, and change things easily, resulting in what you think is the best story before you begin. It allows you to get to know your characters, and if you don't write any dialogue during your outline (which I recommend) your characters will be bursting to speak by the time you start writing your first draft and their voice will burst out with them. Most importantly perhaps, you'll know what to write next and you shouldn't ever get blocked.

This point of knowing what to write next is why some people think planning is constricting. They think that if you have a plot outline you are just going through the motions of writing what comes next like you're on autopilot, but that just isn't true. Human creativity needs a framework. That's why people get writer's block. When there are infinite possibilities for your story, you need to choose one of these infinite paths for your characters to go as well as making the necessary decisions about the details of a scene. All these options are often too much, you don't know where to go (and I hate to break it to you but neither do your characters).

Knowing the scene you're writing next and knowing where your characters are going means your creativity is free to focus on how the scene unfolds, what are the details that will bring the scene to life, what do you bring forward from the background, the red drapes of the palour, the wear on the thousand-year-old stone steps, the tone of voice, the smell of smoke. When you're free to focus on the scene with a sense of purpose already established your creativity will shine.

Don't get me wrong, after I've said all this your first draft will still need a lot of work, but at least it will resemble a story and your creativity will have been flexed in the right place, your character's moments. Even the world's best builder needs a blueprint.