Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | August 30, 2013

Writing Advice That Keeps Me Sane

With the sad passing of crime writer Elmore Leonard, many writers are posting his famous “Ten Rules of Writing” and debating just how closely a writer should follow another’s rules.  I thought this might be a good time to share some of the advice I’ve collected over the years that keeps me going when I stumble.

 1.      Treat your writing as if it’s a job.

Lots of writers have expressed this thought.  Since I am not lucky enough to be able to write full-time, I treat my writing as a part–time job.  All of the discipline that I invest in my full-time job -– turning up on time every day, doing my best, meeting deadlines -– I apply to my writing.  This helps to take both it and myself as a writer seriously and to keep at it.

2.      Touch your writing every day.

I’ve learnt from experience that the longer I’m away from my writing, the harder it is to get back to it.  It doesn’t matter if I only rewrite a sentence, change a description, or review my outline.  Keeping in touch with my writing keeps me connected.  It also encourages me to pick up my pen or tap at my keyboard.  I usually carry at least one chapter with me to edit on the bus or in a waiting room.  Remember that if you write a page a day, by the end of a year you’ll have a book.

3.      Whatever you give attention to, gives it power.

ImageI think this was said by Natalie Goldberg, and if it wasn’t, it should have been.  If a puppy suddenly bounds through a scene, jumping and barking and being generally cute, rubbing himself against people’s legs, dropping his ball at their feet, and generally hijacking several paragraphs worth of attention, then that pup had better play an important role in the plot.  The dog has been made powerful and the audience is expecting great things from him.

This is applies to human characters as well.  Keeping the minor or walk-on characters to a bare minimum not only keeps reader from getting confused, but focuses the reader’s attention on the characters that are important to the plot.

4.      Don’t be afraid to cut.

Like all writers, I’m in love with my own writing, well, a lot of it anyway, especially the bits that I struggled over to get just right.  But there comes the time when I have to face the awful truth that something just doesn’t work or isn’t true to the character and it must reluctantly be deleted.  “But it’s so ________ (witty, insightful, perfect),” I lament.  “I won’t be able to come up with anything as good to replace it.”   That’s when I remind myself that if I was creative enough to write what I did the first time, I’ll write something else just as good.

5.      “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” — Andre Gide.

IMG_3825This has encouraged me to take chances rather than playing it safe.  Some of the best moments in my books have come from me giving my characters their heads to take me to places I didn’t expect.

I usually write the first half of a book without having plotted the book out.  Oh I know the basic premise – the setup, who dies, and who did it — but the rest I play by ear for a while.  I lose sight of the shore.  It’s only halfway through the book that I go back and tweak what didn’t work and then plot the rest.

6.      “The first draft of a story is to tell you what the story is.  The next drafts are a search for the best way to tell this story.” -– Darcy Pattison, START YOUR NOVEL: Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter

As a perfectionist — and what writer isn’t or doesn’t aspire to be one — I always get hung up on getting the first draft as perfect as I can.  However, this can often stop me in my tracks as go back and edit an re-edit what I have already written, afraid to continue in case I get it wrong.  Darcy’s quote reminds me that since the first draft is a voyage of discovery (we’re back to # 5) and later drafts are where I shape and rework, I can give myself permission to let go of those expectations of immediate perfection.  I am not a bad writer if I don’t get it right the first time.



  1. I totally agree with all of these!

    • Thanks. Please feel free to add any of your own personal favourites.

  2. Hi Alice, I very much like what you have written about these rules. I’m sure they will be helpful to others as well. Warm wishes, Caroline

  3. Excellent advice, Alice. Thanks so much.

  4. “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” — Andre Gide. Wonderful advice, for writing and for life!

    • So true, Shari. You do not reach great heights by playing it safe.

  5. Good and interesting advice, Alice. I would add include reading. I don’t think anyone can be a good writer without being a well-rounded reader, too.

    • So true, Gloria. So much of what we learn as writers comes from reading the work of people we admire.

  6. My rule for writing is to have no rules…it is a creative process and if I force myself to sit down and write when I have other issues pending, all I think about is getting through the (now) dreaded writing so I can get on with my day. Since I am fortunate enough to not work outside the house but still have a life, appointments, projects, etc., then there are days when the writing is not a priority ‘just because I should write X amount every single day’. I find that I do look at it every day and quite often if I don’t begin a new chapter, I do make necessary revisions with a fresh eye and can be inspired to create new plot twists, drop new breadcrumbs, etc. Quite often I don’t know exactly what my characters are going to do until it appears on the page. Literally. I will not try to label what I do, I just let it happen. If I was sitting around a campfire, like a cowboy entertaining peers (a tough crowd) I would be hard put to say, “Gee, I don’t know what happens next, let me check my notes”. Stories are to be TOLD, My adult children are supportive but also a tough crowd so I begin my outlining verbally with them. Either the story line comes together to hold their attention or it doesn’t. I also use this verbal feedback for dialoguie (giving each family member a part to read) because hearing the plot flow eliminates tough spots, dialogue that doesn’t work, etc. Reading it to myself I can’t pick up on problems because my brain fills in the gaps. It takes a fresh eye to see/hear what I miss. “That dialogue doesn’t work, That doesn’t sound like something X would do…” This dorsn’t mean that I don’t read advice columns,. like this one, or that I can’t learn anything because God knows, I can always learn something but I trust my instincts to tell a story that is worth someone else’s time.

    • Thanks for sharing, J.S. I think part of the journey we all have as writers is to find out what works for us. A few years back I watched a documentary on Minette Walters as she spent a year writing a book. At the mid-way point, the narrator asked her if she knew who the murderer was and she said no. Now that would drive me absolutely crazy. How can I plant clues, establish motive, provide alibis, etc. if every character could be a potential murderer? But that’s me. We each have our own way of working and I’m glad you’ve found yours.

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