It’s a new year, and what better way to start off the New Year for the aspiring writer in your life than with some helpful tips from those who know best. So we polled our finest fiction and non-fiction authors and sorted through the best tips to provide for you. That’s right; we’ve passed on the literary savings to you! In this edition of Fresh Page, hear how to overcome writers’ block from Paul Carlucci, how to research from Jan Wong, Andrew Battershill’s views on how to know if a character is working out, and the advice Amy Spurway would give someone working on their first novel.
How do you overcome or avoid writer's block?
I think writer's block is just not knowing what you're doing or having some anxiety about doing it. In the former case, you can make some notes: what am I trying to accomplish with this scene, chapter, paragraph, whatever? Maybe you need to do some research. Maybe you just need to start typing, and a little statement of intent can help get your fingers moving. In the latter case, I take a break from the keyboard and do other things. Repetitive tasks can free up my thinking, stuff like washing dishes or cleaning a floor. If you have a boring, menial job like I do, you might find you get a lot of ideas at work, which is sad, because they vanish there, too (but so does everything, it seems). If you hate cleaning, you could try jogging or some other kind of mechanical exercise. Basically, you want to distract your body, get it chugging, and leave your mind to wander and do its thing. You might not think about your story, but you probably will. I also find sleep can help and reading, too.
Paul Carlucci, author of The High-Rise in Fort Fierce
How much time do you spend researching your topic before writing?
As a journalist, the research always includes on-the-ground reporting. For Apron Strings, I spent a few months embedded with families in France, Italy, and China. Then, as I was writing the first draft, which took about nine months, I researched specific questions. For example, was there any culinary exchange between France and Italy? Part of the answer turned out to be Catherine de' Medici, a 14-year-old Florentine who married the future Henri II of France and brought with her an entourage of chefs and pastry makers. She is credited with introducing the fork to the French.
Jan Wong, author of Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China
How do you know if a character is working out?
I think that character development is probably the most personal part of your writing. Everyone has their own unique ideas about characters/how to present them, and the most important thing in writing is to cultivate your own voice and perspective. So, frankly put, I think it's a mistake to take advice on how you should write your characters. That's a field you're just going to have to hoe yourself. What I do feel qualified to give advice about is what to do when you realize a character isn't working out. I'd say a lot of people overreact to recognizing a character isn't working as currently written. Usually if you went through all the work to write in a character, there's something there you want to say with them. Most of the time, what's not working isn’t necessarily the character itself so much as the character's role/the amount of space they're taking up.
For instance, a character might be horribly suited to being a main character but work well as more of a sketch or one-off character. Most really great supporting characters would make awful protagonists and vice versa. I've even had the experience of realizing that a character I wanted to write worked better in the abstract, so rather than having him appear, I had one of the other characters describe him and tell a story about him to someone else. He went from being a one-dimensional supporting character to a (hopefully) interesting anecdote.
So, before you doom your characters to the infinite vacuum of the never was, make sure that you've really taken a step back and tried to think about them in different roles in the overall structure of your work. Most of all, remember characters are just tools you're using to build a good story. They're not people, and it's definitely OK to kill them.
Andrew Battershill, author of MARRY, BANG, KILL
What advice do you give someone writing their first novel?
Embrace two things: fear and fun. There’s no point in pretending that writing a novel isn’t permeated by fear on many levels. First, you’re afraid you can’t do it. Then, you do, and Gaaah! Now what? The prospect of not getting published? That’s scary. Your book is getting published? Congratulations. Welcome to Terror Town! There’s so much vulnerability and uncertainty involved in writing and publishing, so fear is a natural by-product. Might as well make friends with it and see what you can learn. One of the best ways to practice that is by letting yourself write garbage. I literally have drafts that include things like “Blah blah blah something clever that advances plot” or “describe stuff, but make it good” or, my favourite, “insert funny here.” I don’t advise sending anything like that to your editor, but the point is not being afraid to lay down some extraordinarily sub-par words. You can go back and jazz it up, flesh it out, or hack it to bits later. A certain willingness to edit, rewrite, and revise with merciless glee comes in handy too, which brings me to the other embraceable – fun. Writing a novel is a real slog at times, and I rarely have the luxury of waiting for the Muse to pay me a visit, so I try not to take myself too seriously. I’ve learned to have some fun with even the most mundane and frustrating stints at the keyboard. I yell at my characters. I read things out loud in weird voices. I cackle manically while cutting passages I’d once cherished. Needless to say, I don’t do much writing in coffee shops or libraries, but it helps me to inject that kind of energy into a process that can become dull and difficult or overly precious and idealized. Being genuinely present with both fear and fun in your writing process can help you find your voice.
Amy Spurway, author of Crow