Not so's you'd know it, but as of August I will have been writing fiction full time for twenty years. I usually limit my favorite writing advice (and always limit my marketing advice) to emails to the Chosen Few. Still, in a burst of generosity...
...further limited to those who bother to clicky the LJ-cut, here are the eight best pieces of writing advice I know. In no particular order:
1. From a fine old book for those beginning to hone their craft, which I believe was written by Dorothea Brand (or however she spelt it), two simple and brief exercises to build discipline and confidence; try the first one for a week or two, then the second for the following week or two. They seem pointless at first, but may prove helpful (sure did to me). (a) Even if it's only fifteen minutes, force yourself to sit down and write something fictional off the top of your head for a set amount of time, at the same time every day. That mastered, (b) Even if it's only a single page, force yourself to sit down and write something fictional off the top of your head at a set length per day. The key in both of these exercises: don't just stare at the keyboard, stop self-editing and just WRITE SOMETHING DOWN, however awful it may be (at first!). This teaches you both basic discipline, and that you actually can be creative on demand, despite your likely belief that such a skill is impossible and/or yucky; also, that you're already a better writer than you realized. Your unconscious is trainable: demand writing, and it will produce. Do this long enough and it will stop reproducing what you've read elsewhere, and start producing your own work.
2. Mine: Even if you will never actually use this skill -- and despite the screams of your unconscious that it's against the Law of God -- learn to plot. Those who know how to plot can always decide to do stream of consciousness instead, but those who only know stream of consciousness writing usually can't plot when they absolutely need to...as, e.g., almost always when writing for film. Plotting needn't be mechanical or micromanaged: usually it just means setting up a workable structure into which your story in all its weirdness may be plugged. There are tricks for learning to plot (including making notes of how others have plotted/structured their books or films); several follow.
3. Derived from Sid Field's books on screenwriting: stories interest us when they keep changing at intervals, so every (say) quarter or fifth of the way through your expected page count in a given story, shake things up. This keeps the reader from that deadly moment when your direction seems obvious, hence your story less compelling. No matter how fascinating your texture (locale, characters, interpersonal dynamics, etc.), sudden shifts in direction are good for your stuff.
4. From an interview with Alan Moore:The human mind likes unexpected structure. I remember he used the specific example of ending where you began (so the reader can see how things have changed, and admire your control of your story), but there are many such structural tricks (e.g. characters that mirror one another); look for them in others' fiction, and do thou likewise. ;)
5. From the excellent how-tos by the late John Gardner (better teacher than writer, IMO) what the reader wants is "a vivid, continuous dream." From Henry James (ditto), what we ask of the writer is principally that he (or she) keep our interest. You are a spellbinder, inducing a mild hypnotic state in the reader: aim to fascinate. Raymond Chandler wrote on half-pages of paper, making sure there was something interesting every half-page (good dialogue or description, funny joke, exciting moment, etc.), though one needn't be so mechanical about that, either.
6. From Stephen King: Never give the reader a good place to stop reading, particularly not at the end of a section or chapter; whether writing literary fiction or workmanly crappola, make them keep turning pages. Use cliffhangers without mercy, even if they're subtle emotional ones (How's she gonna handle that thing with her dad?! works as well as How are they gonna get out of that burning building?!). A reader's "Oh, okay, that's all right then" can be fatal to your story, particularly when writing at length.
7. From Damon Knight, as modified by yours truly: Your readers are investing time in your story; don't violate their trust by breaking the "unwritten rules" of allowable event. Yes, in real life horrible things happen for no good reason, and some few pieces of really brilliant literary fiction (virtually all of which fingerpost their intentions to do so well in advance) can get away with emphasizing this fact...but for the most part, a story has to have a sort of inherent fairness with the reader to it. If someone is to die of cancer or mischance, let the reader see it coming well before it happens, even see a certain "rightness" to it. Fiction writers often hate this rule, but readers usually hate to see them violate it (cf. the ending to Cujo). And finally...
8. From Scott Meredith: You are better than you think you are, and will get better still over time if you Just Keep Working, particularly when you don't feel up to it. In time you'll see that the stuff you wrote when you hated every minute and thought it sucked becomes almost as good as (sometimes better than!) the stuff you wrote when you knew you were On The Beam. Yes, there are rare times when you're not ready to tackle the next thing (usually because it's under unconscious development) and have to take a break...but if that becomes a habit, you stop writing. And screw that, you know?
Hope these help! Keep at it! :D
93 93/93 -- AJ