When I see links to advice-to-writers, I usually click on them and at least skim the articles, figuring you can never be too old, too jaded or too full of yourself to learn something new. But most of what I see in such articles is old hat, or it’s advice I’m either too lazy or too obstinate to follow.
Like set a time a day for writing and do it at the same time and for the same length of time every day—maybe followed by a short nap or a cold beer. Good advice. But who in the hell can do it? It doesn’t work for people who have to work for a living or for parents who work at home and have children. I do have one friend who was married with teenagers at home and a full time job and still managed to write novels. He got up at something like 4 a.m. every morning to write. Good for him. But I’m no Superman. That’s Ned Hayes, author of The Eagle Tree. He’s Superman.
In my day job, I’m a freelance writer. In between paying gigs I work on novels and short stories and stuff like this essay. None of that every day from six to noon plugging away on my next novel. My schedule is more like five minutes now, half an hour later, and if I’m lucky, an hour after lunch. When I was a full-time staff writer at the Ft. Lewis Ranger, a lot of my job involved waiting for emails or phone calls, so I did my personal writing on the company computer while waiting for calls. Also, I worked pretty fast, so I had a lot of free time. Other people in the office assumed I was working on the paper when I was actually writing Imprudent Zeal. They thought I was writing a story about some program at the Family Support Center when I was actually emailing a writer friend in Florida with a chapter for her to edit for me. Thanks, Margaret Ward.
Now I do my writing at home, but I still do it between other things, plus I’m addicted to social media, so I work on novels and short stories between checking into Facebook. Actually, I write everything in my head before plodding it out on the keyboard, and I do most of that while driving, while taking a bath, while trying to go to sleep at night or (sorry, friend, but I must confess) while pretending to listen to you.
Like write what you know. Good advice for beginners. Good pre-Google advice. Nowadays, anything you need to know is right at your fingertips. My first seven novels were set in towns where I had lived or in nearby settings and at the time I was there, which makes it easier to know what music my characters might be listening to or what kind of car they drive—exceptions being Reunion at the Wetside and the three books of the Freedom Trilogy.
Reunion at the Wetside was set in a make-believe town in Western Washington, which was a combination of Tacoma and Olympia, Washington, where I now live, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I went to high school and college. I had to locate where the many characters lived and worked and played, so a copied a map of Hattiesburg and changed it to fit the needs of the story. There were a bunch of teenagers in the book who lived within about three blocks of each other. I drew all the houses in the neighborhood and labeled them with character names. The inspiration for that book came about when an old high school buddy said, “That was such a great neighborhood.” I realized there was great story potential in a dozen or so kids growing up in close proximity in a small town.
The books of the Freedom Trilogy were set in a fictitious town near Biloxi, Mississippi and at a fishing camp on the Mary Walker Bayou where my family had a cabin when I was in high school. Parts of my books are not so much creating scenes as it is remembering them.
You can’t rely too much on memory, but these days you can use the Internet to fact check. Not like the pre-Google days when I wrote my first novel. In one scene in Until the Dawn, Marybelle was listening to Marilyn Monroe sing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” from the film Let’s Make Love on the way home from Chuck Warner’s wedding. After the book was published, a friend pointed out to me that Marilyn’s version of that song had not yet been released at the time of Chuck’s wedding. In a second edition of the book I changed it to Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” which didn’t resonate with the scene nearly as well as “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”
Like read, read, read read. Now there’s some advice I can go along with. I’ve been a voracious reader all my life. My parents and grandparents read to us when we were too young to read. I can remember at maybe seven or eight years old walking to the town library in Tupelo and checking out biographies of famous men, and I can remember being enamored of detective stories in high school. And I remember being in love with Payton Place in 1956. We were all readers, my parents and all five of my brothers and sisters. My mother was afraid my sister Kay would step off the curb in front of a speeding car because she walked around town holding a book in front of her face.
I still read some every day and read myself to sleep every night. But these days I tend to fall asleep after a few pages, and the next night I have to back up a page or two to refresh my memory—who’s this book about and what are they doing?
So those are the major pieces of advice for writers that I sometime follow. I’d like to hear from other writers what advice they hold dear.