I see these questions quite frequently from fledgling writers, usually on Reddit's Writing subreddit. They are asked every day, and someone answers them every day, and it seemed to be that it would be in everybody's best interests to compile all the answers in one place once and for all.
- How do I learn to write [well]?
Write and read. As much as you can. They say "every day" but that can burn you out and frustrate you. Shoot for at least four or five days a week. Even Stephen King leaves the house once in a while. This is the important part: give yourself time to think. Thinking, contemplating, daydreaming is a vital part of the writing process. Get away from the screen for a while and let your writing marinate in your head. Take a long walk, take a long shit, lie in the bed not sleeping. We writers work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, even when we're not actively typing. You'll be surprised by the good ideas that will pop into your head when you least expect them. This is why keeping a notepad by the bed is essential.
Read the good books to develop an idea for what works. Read the bad books to develop an idea for what doesn't work. Write bad material to get it out of your system. No butterfly ever came out of its cocoon fully-formed and beautiful, it takes time to work out the wrinkles and chrysalis slime out of your wings.
- What if my idea has already (or is currently) been used?
I can guarantee you it has. Do it anyway. Your job is to make it new, and where the substance of your work comes from is providing a new perspective on this old idea. Fashion several different ideas into one big new thing. We're all gravediggers here, we're all crafting our own Frankenstein from the flesh and bones of the dead. Your job is to make the best damn Frankenstein you can.
Your idea has been used. But not by you.
- How do I maintain motivation?
There's no easy answer to this. Either you want to write or you don't. If you want to write but you can't get your head out of the internet's ass for long enough to get anything done, turn off your wifi. If you can't turn off your wifi, get an app like Freedom--there are big-name writers that swear by it. For those of you in the comments trolling about having self-control, here's a great big "fuck you" from Timbuktu. It's possible to get addicted to a lot of things, and the internet is one of them. If it were possible to just shore ourselves up with a big ol' helping of self-control, there wouldn't be things like AA, interventions, and rehab clinics.
If you've lost the will to write, identify what made you want to start writing in the first place. Narrow it down, sharpen it like a shiv, and stab your apathy in the kidneys with it.
For me, it's the exploration of hidden spaces. When I was a kid, I had a original Nintendo and a Game Genie, a device that plugged into the game cartridge and allowed you to alter the code as the console read it. I would enter all kinds of gibberish as codes and painstakingly record each attempt until I found certain codes that had far-reaching effects on the game world. These random gibberish codes would create glitched-out secret worlds that only I knew about, and it was deeply satisfying to explore these hidden, unknown worlds. This is what drives me to write--exploring secret worlds and bringing my readers along for the ride. I am the Christopher Columbus of the multiverse, the Vasco de Gama of the inscape.
Locate your creative drive, the thing that made you start writing in the very beginning, and focus on that.
- Is there a good software for writing?
Ultimately it's down to you to try everything and find what works best for you. Scrivener works very well for a lot of people, including me, so I'm suggesting it here. If you're a masochist, you can go ahead and stick with MS Word, because the comments below will be full of exhortations to write in MS Word, or longhand on notebook paper, or on a scroll of vellum with a goose quill because hipster. If that works for them, cool, great. You keep doing you, guys.
Try everything. Stick with what works for you.
- How do I convey [emotion]?
Emotes. Actions. Have the characters do things that expose their mental state. Are they sad? Have them cry or bury their face in their hands. Are they angry? Have them pace back and forth, throwing their hands up and gritting their teeth. Are they confused or scared? Have them flatten against the nearest wall and look around the room while wringing their hands. Think of stage directions--you're the director AND the actors here. As the director, ask the actors for "scared" and then, as the character, give it to the director. If you have to get up and act it out to catch those nuanced details, do so. Maybe you'll find a part of the performance you didn't expect.
- How do I introduce backstory without huge blocks of exposition?
How do you eat anything? Bite off a piece, chew it up, swallow it. Little bites. Distribute them throughout the story in little shreds, like a mouse leaves poops, where people can find them. Work these shreds in organically--through dialogue, books the characters find, inner narrative, even descriptive passages.
In my current series I make short "bookend excerpts" that I slip in between the chapters to serve as flashbacks of a sort, to illuminate events that occurred prior to the present day. Video games do something similar by displaying short passages of expository text during loading screens.
- What is "Write what you know"?
"Write what you know" isn't about inserting your own technical knowledge into your story. If you're a plumber, "write what you know" doesn't mean "write books about plumbers". WWYK means bringing your memories, your experiences, your understanding of the human condition into your work. It means shattering yourself, shattering your soul, and using the pieces to create your story.
Okay, maybe you're a plumber. Have you ever snaked a particularly nasty drain full of hair and mildew and human sludge that smells like feces and cheese? All right then. Say you're writing a horror story and you want a convincingly nasty monster. Draw on your drain memory and have the monster come pulsing out of a drain as a tangle of black snot that snakes across the tub with reaching tendrils, an amoeba of hair that fills the bathroom with the odor of a dead hobo.
Now you want the fully-exposed monster to be scary. Think about what's really scared you and infuse the monster with that. Maybe when you were little, one of your neighbors had skin cancer in his face and they had to surgically remove his nose. But he never wears his surgical mask, so he walked around with a huge hole in the middle of his face all the time and you could see up into the back of his red, raw, dry sinuses. I did this with my Wilder monsters--when you pull off their masks, you drag a bundle of slimy hoses out of their throat, leaving a meaty orifice full of gore.
Maybe your character needs to adequately convey the sensation of loss. Have you ever lost a loved one? You know what that feels like, right? That bleak, empty feeling where you feel like nothing's ever going to be right again, and you just want to be left alone. All music has lost its rhythm and all food tastes like cardboard. That kind of crying where you're just squeezing the steering wheel and wailing because there's so much sorrow inside you that there's no room for it. And you believe that if you just cry loudly enough, you'll be able to get it all out of your system. That if you grieve hard enough, that agonizing splinter will squeeze right out of your heart and you'll be able to breathe again. You punch the car ceiling trying to hurt something, to hurt yourself because maybe if you break your hand it will hurt worse than the invisible wound inside you and you can manage physical pain. They don't make Tylenol for heartbreak.
That's "write what you know". Use your losses, use your victories, use all of your senses in your writing. Give the world your soul.
- Does this prose look purple to you?
If you have to ask, probably. Read it aloud to yourself. Print out a page of it and get someone else to read it aloud to you, preferably a stranger. Take it with you and hand it to someone the next time you have to wait in line somewhere.
Write the way you speak. Look at your work. Is this the way you speak? Do you use a lot of lyrical language when you speak? Do you use a lot of three- and four-syllable words when you speak? It's okay to get lyrical every now and then, but as the saying goes, "everything in moderation". Try to constrain the more flowery writing to descriptive passages.
- What is "show, don't tell".
The best quote I've heard illuminating this is:
"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Imagine your book is a filmstrip, and your reader's head is the projector. Picture the scene in your mind's eye, and look for details that you can use to bring that to life for your reader. Here is an example:
I completely missed the first catch. My Christmas present thumped me on the chest and rolled toward the landing, bouncing down the stairs. The word "WILSON" printed on its rough hide seemed to wink at me just before it fell, slow and sluggish at first, with a hollow blap blap blap.
At the bottom it gave two great leaps and banged hard off the wall, knocking down a portrait of Mother with a crash of glass. Michael caught my lost prize as he came through the door and bounced it off the foyer floor several times, then tossed it over the railing to me. "He shoots, he scores!" he cheered, taking off his jacket.
How long did it take you to decide that I was talking about a basketball? What about the fact that it's currently winter? You can tell the stairs are in a high-traffic front area because there are pictures on the wall and it leads down to the foyer. Of course, I could have just said "The basketball rolled down the front stairs," but that wouldn't have been nearly as compelling or artful.
- I hate what I'm writing.
Then people will probably hate reading it. Try writing something else with a different idea, or incorporate another idea into what you're writing. Either tinker with it until you yourself get curious as to what's going to happen next, or abandon it and try something different. Maybe tomorrow night while you're sitting on the toilet staring at the wall, you'll have a genius idea later that will rejuvenate your interest for this particular work.
- My manuscript is good, but I'm afraid to write / finish / publish it because I think people will hate it (or because I'm ashamed of its content, reading level, or potential).
Somebody will hate everything. Everybody will hate something. That's just a fact. Even the best, brightest, most lauded books in the world have one-star reviews on Amazon. You will get them too. Everybody does. Your responsibility is to not give a shit and do it anyway. If something is too offensive, an intermediary player--your beta readers or your editor--will straighten you out.
- I'm looking for a certain word / I need a certain word to describe [blah].
No, you don't. Just describe it and move on. If you have to break out a thesaurus, you're overthinking it. Write the way you speak. Have you ever broken out a thesaurus in the middle of a conversation? Vocabulary is fun, but "three-dollar words" make the narrative grind and readers of a less intellectual persuasion will be dissuaded. Momentum is of vast importance--without it, the reader will find the prose too thick, lose interest, and put down your book. Spur your reader on with lean, punchy prose--kiai, kiai, giddyup!
- I don't need an editor.
Yes, you do. Even if you just do it yourself with beta-readers. You can barter for someone else to edit it, or you can save up the money and hire someone. No one is waiting with bated breath for your book, so you have all the time in the world. Delay the publishing of the book for a few months and save up the money for an editor.
I hope this helps answer a few questions. I don't do this often, but today I just got really frustrated at seeing the same ones over and over again. Caveat: these are not golden rules. They are not the word of God and they're not written in stone. They're just what I hold myself to, bolstered by and mixed with similar advice I've seen from other, more widely-known authors.
So please keep your trolling to yourself.
If you have any good advice of your own for any new writers that may happen to be reading this, feel free to chime in with a comment. The more the merrier.