1. A great writing teacher of mine, Raymond Obstfeld, used to always say: Everything can be fixed. I thought that was really a wonderfully comforting thing, especially for young writers who are scared to let their work be bad. In fact, your work must be bad. All first drafts are bad. Don't worry about. It can all be fixed later. All you have to do is have faith in this, get it all out on the page, and then, er, learn to fix it! See point number two.
2. Find a hack writer and place yourself at their feet. In high literary circles, talk of craft is often considered “low” and so you probably won't learn anything about suspense, character arc, structure or pacing from an MFA program. Yet, these tools are invaluable. There is no reason that great literature need not use them. Entertainment and art are not mutually exclusive. Read craft books, read screen writing books, force your brain to begin to see stories architecturally. Read your favourite authors with an eye for craft. How are they doing what they are doing? It is especially helpful to read widely, exploring authors you may think are “not for you,” and reading genres you don't write in. I've taken a lot of craft points from reading Charlaine Harris and Walter Mosely, though most people would probably never say our three names in the same breath. You can learn how to use a large cast of characters from George R.R. Martin, and how to use the free indirect style from Virginia Woolf. Read it ALL.
3. I learned two very important things from the excellent writer Ann Beattie, and I hope she will not mind if I tell them to you here. The first is that reading a story must be more interesting than sitting in a chair staring at a wall. This sounds obvious, but it is actually fairly difficult to do. You must give the reader an experience that is BETTER than real life, richer, fuller, more beautiful, more controlled, more exciting. Especially if you are going to ask your reader to follow difficult characters, a couple going through a painful divorce, say, or a drug addict struggling to hit bottom, you have to consider what you are giving the reader in exchange. What do you have to offer them? Why should they go with you on this journey, when they could just sit in a chair and think about whatever they want?
4. The second piece of wisdom I learned from Ann Beattie is that details are free of charge. In particular, Beattie was upset that I was having my characters eat tuna sandwiches. “My God,” she said, “they could be eating anything! Anything! You are the writer: you say napkin, and boom, a napkin appears. You don't have to go to the store and buy them. You get to just say napkin, and a napkin appears. For free. So don't just give us boring tuna sandwiches when you could be giving us anything in the world.” This piece of advice has been perhaps the most formative of any a writing instructor ever gave me. As a reader and as a writer, I am obsessed with detail, and as a consequence, I always measure a writer by the strength of their details.
5. Any given scene should be accomplishing five or six things at once. You should be establishing character, giving backstory, advancing the plot, furthering the themes, and all of this needs to happen simultaneously. Often you will begin a scene only thinking about furthering the plot. This is the scene where X tells Y the big secret, say. Look for the ways you can do more. Can you do more with the setting? Would the scene be more compelling or more dynamic if it were taking place at an aquarium, say, where images of the natural world falsely presented through glass could be furthering your themes? Or should the scene be happening in a situation where the two characters are trapped together, possibly in an elevator, where they cannot get away, making the tension higher? Use setting and detail to push your scenes to do more so that each one is accomplishing as much as it possibly can.
The Girls From Corona Del Mar is out now.