Useful advice from some of the world’s most successful — and talented — authors.
MasterClass has been on my radar for a while. Seeing the impressive list of accomplished authors, from Margaret Atwood to R. L. Stein, I was hooked pretty immediately on what these experts had to say about their chosen craft: writing.
This year brought some real challenges, but also lots of free time. So, without any more delay, I signed up for an account and listened to the dozens of hours from these literary masters. Here are some of the biggest lessons they taught me.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Writing takes time and practice. There are absolutely no shortcuts. Just hard work, pen, and paper. Don’t get upset when you struggle or if the process takes longer than you originally thought. Developing a skill takes time, and becoming successful is even harder. Don’t let that discourage you from putting in the work.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. One piece of advice that Neil Gaiman gave was to “get the bad words out.” The concept is that, as a writer, you have a million story ideas inside your head, and the sooner you get them out the better. Over time, you’ll become a stronger writer, having built upon those years of trial, error, and determination.
- Don’t be afraid to let your characters fail. The only way humans learn is through mistakes. Don’t let the journey of your characters be too easy — choose to be realistic instead. Let your readers learn the rules of your written world through the mistakes your characters make.
- Be honest and write about something real. Before you start on a new book, figure out your purpose for writing it. What are you trying to convey to your readers? There needs to be some element of realness on the page for people to be able to connect. After all, if you don’t care about the book’s subject, why would anyone else?
- There is no one correct way to write. Every author has their own way of telling a story. However you choose to learn your characters, develop your plot, and create conflict is all correct. Others may have a different style, but that does not mean yours is the wrong option.
- Yes, sometimes you can tell, not show. Writers are always warned to avoid telling readers details they should know, to the point that “showing, not telling” became a major point of anxiety in my own writing. But guess what? Sometimes telling can be effective and interesting, while simultaneously leading the story along.
- Your voice exists in everything you write — even if you don’t know it yet. Your writing voice distinguishes your work from other writers, but how do you find it? It already exists in everything you create, without even your own knowledge. Everything from the style and word choice, to mood and dialogue, will reflect your writing voice. Once you’ve let “all the bad words out,” your voice will be what remains.
- Conflict is necessary, so don’t shy away from it. As writers, we care about our characters. In some ways, they are part of us. Because of that, we want our characters to lead happy, forgiving lives, so we may subconsciously shy away from creating real, cringe-worthy conflict. But resist the urge — conflict is the main ingredient to an interesting story, so throw some crazy sh*t their way and watch how they overcome it.
- Let your characters lead the way. You should know your characters well enough to understand what they want. As mentioned above, you should also understand your story’s main conflicts. When you have both, try letting your character take control of the story. If your protagonist is hotheaded, maybe they’d challenge your antagonist directly. But if they’re more of a recluse, don’t force them to make the same decisions. Their personality matters and helps to create a three-dimensional character, so trust their (aka your) instincts on how they react to conflict.
- Sometimes you’re not good enough — yet. Often, writers don’t have problems with coming up with story ideas. The challenge lies in developing an idea enough that it shifts into something potentially great. When you get there, sometimes the story is so good that you aren’t sure if your writing skill can do it justice. And, you know what? That’s okay. Tuck the idea away until you’re ready and write something else. That doesn’t mean you’re giving up, it means you’re going to put more time into practicing your craft until you can make something spectacular.
Beyond everything, what I learned most was that writing is open to everyone.
Skill comes with practice. Practice comes from determination. Determination comes from honesty and self-reflection. And everything else? They don’t matter.
Authors have different writing styles. They use different structures, develop their characters differently, and all relate to unique challenges or experiences they’ve faced in their own lives.
Because it’s personal to them, and it cannot be replicated.
Just like your story, whatever it is that you need to write, is personal to you. Which means that there is no right way or wrong way to developing that narrative.
Simply make it personal and make it authentic. Add that to years of practice, and it’s enough to develop a great story and a skilled writer.