Lynn H. Blackburn
For a long time, I embraced my role as a novice writer. When someone would ask me for advice, I would preface my response with, “Well, I haven’t been doing this long” or “I’m not an expert.”
I kind of miss those days.
Now when someone asks me what it takes to be a good writer or when they look to me for advice on how to write for publication, they expect me to have an answer. I’ve published six books with more under contract so I can understand why they would think I have some wisdom to impart.
But I’m always hesitant to share. Not because I don’t have plenty of opinions, but because what works for me may or may not work for someone else, and I never want to shackle someone to an idea or a method that will never benefit them.
Early in my career I would read advice like “write every day” or “get up two hours early to write” or “attend a writing conference every year” or “hire an editor” and I would despair. There’s nothing wrong with any of that advice, but it made me feel like I was less of a writer when I couldn’t pull it off. I was writing while parenting infants, one of whom didn’t sleep through the night for thirteen months. There was no way I could leave my kids to attend a conference some years, there was no money for an editor, and I was already operating on 4-6 hours of broken sleep.
So, I find it best to preface all writing advice with the following caveat: Your mileage may vary.
Every writer brings their own unique experience and personality to the process so read what I’m about to share with the understanding that I’m not a full-time writer, I’m a raging introvert, I have three children at home, I homeschool, I have a child with disabilities, my youngest child is ten, I have children who play sports (I’m writing this while my boys are at baseball practice), my husband supports my writing dreams, and I have family and friends nearby who help anytime I need them.
If you’re a single parent, taking care of an aging parent, working three jobs, living far away from family, writing without any support, or writing while managing your own health issues, you have to be honest with yourself about your circumstances. You’ll have to decide what advice you can apply, what advice you can put to use with modifications, and what advice you simply can’t use during this season of your life.
With that said, here are my top three pieces of advice for writers who want to improve their skill and become a good writer.
1. Write as much as you can. Please note that I did not say write every day. I think writing every day is great if you can manage it. But if you can’t, that doesn’t mean you aren’t a real writer or can’t become a good writer.
The key is repetition and continual practice. The best way to write a novel is to write a novel. The best way to get better at writing a novel is to write more novels. The best way to do that is to write whenever you can. This might look like getting up at 4 a.m. Or this might look like writing every night after the kids go to bed, or brown bagging it and writing while on your lunchbreak at work. It might mean that you don’t write at all during the week, but you pound out the words on the weekend.
Or you might take what I call the Michael Connelly approach. I was at a conference and heard Michael Connelly answer the “do you write every day” question. His response has stuck with me, and I try follow his example. He said he doesn’t write everyday year-round, and he doesn’t write to a specific word count unless he’s approaching a deadline, but once he begins writing a new story his goal is to “move the story forward every day.” That might be a chapter, a scene, a paragraph, or a section of witty dialogue.
Regardless of how you approach your writing, the bottom line is that writers write. And they write a lot. And the fastest way to become a good writer is to write as much as you can.
2. Be a life-long learner. The best writers I know are always gathering new information. They read news articles, blog posts, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts, even take part-time jobs, all in the name of research. “Write what you know” isn’t bad advice, but we all need to expand our knowledge base in order write new and exciting stories.
The internet makes this easier than it used to be. The answers to many topics are just a click away. As a suspense writer, I really do wonder if my search history has landed me on a government watchlist. Surely someone has noticed my proclivity for researching poisons, weapons of mass destruction, and the best way to blow things up. But while the internet is handy, I’ve found that my writing is stronger when I either study books on the subject, personally experience the activity, or interview someone who is an expert.
All three of these options require a greater time investment than an internet search, but they’re worth it. You may need to purchase a few books once you’ve nailed down what you’re looking for, but to start with, the library holds a wealth of free information for the curious writer.
Travel is tricky these days, but whenever possible there’s no substitute for physically being in a location or participating in an activity.
And while it requires some bravery and vulnerability, reaching out to experts will flavor your writing with nuances that can’t be achieved any other way. I’ve never had someone turn me down when I’ve asked for help. Most people, from homicide investigators to Secret Service agents to paramedics to emergency department nurses, love to talk about what they do. If you’re respectful of their time and profession, they’ll usually be happy to answer your questions.
3. Don’t go it alone. The writing life is solitary. No one can write your book for you. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to find a group of writers with whom you can share the process. Your non-writing friends may give you the side-eye when you start talking about your characters talking to you, or when you get excited about a plot twist that came to you in the shower. But your writing friends will get it. No matter how supportive your spouse is, there’s an excellent chance that he or she will not understand the despair of carrying an untold story and the struggle to release it to the page, but your writing friends will commiserate.
Regardless of where you are on the journey, you need writer friends to help you process the experience—whether you’re considering a new writing opportunity or lamenting a negative review. I appreciated my writer friends before I was published, but I was wholly unprepared for how much I needed them after I was published. I was right back to beginner status as a newly published author, and I leaned hard on my mentor and fellow writers to give me advice, listen when I was overwhelmed, and cheer for me as I stumbled my way through the unexpected firsts that come with signing a contract.
Not only do you need your fellow writers for your own mental and emotional well-being, but because knowing them and interacting with them will improve your writing. They’re the ones who will tell you about the craft book that changed the way they approach dialogue. They’ll rave about the site where they found a treasure trove of expertise on how to write a realistic fight scene. They’re the ones who will help you hone your craft and your writing style, not by telling you how to do it, but by showing you all the different ways it can be done so you can discover the way that works best for you.
The definition of a good writer will always be a subjective one. I know I’ll never be everyone’s cup of tea. Not everyone will appreciate my style, my genre, or my approach to crafting a story. But if I focus on writing consistently, learning constantly, and coming out of my introvert bubble to cultivate friendships in the writing community, I can be confident that my skills are improving, and that I’m doing all I can to be the best writer I can be.
Lynn H. Blackburn is the author of Beneath the Surface, In Too Deep, One Final Breath, Hidden Legacy, and Covert Justice. Winner of the 2016 Selah Award for Mystery
and Suspense and the 2016 Carol Award for Short Novel, Blackburn believes in the power of stories, especially those that remind us that true love exists, a gift from the
Truest Love. She’s passionate about CrossFit, coffee, and chocolate (don’t make her choose) and experimenting with recipes that feed both body and soul. She lives in
Simpsonville, South Carolina, with her true love, Brian, and their three children.