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Q & A ~ Sage Writing Advice

By C.V. Lee
September 18, 2020

Whew! With an endless supply of writing advice available, its easy to get lost in the shear volume of information. After wading through mountains of material, I decided to ask our Paper Lantern Writers to pinpoint that one piece of imparted wisdom that helped them most with their writing. Even though sometimes it’s hard to pick just one.

Kathryn Pritchett starts us off:

The writing book I learned the most from was Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” I often quote her advice—to myself and to writing students—to “Get it down so you can fix it up.” I’ve learned not to let perfectionism become “the voice of the oppressor” by giving myself small assignments, writing crappy first drafts, and not fretting too much about what lies beyond my immediate vision. Revision will happen later, but first I just need to put words on a page.

And Katie Stine concurs:

The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was “No one is going to see your first draft.”

Or, in Anne Lamott’s words, “Write a shitty first draft.”

For me, it gives me power to just go. So I don’t know what that dude’s name is, and I don’t want to lose my head of steam to go look up what period appropriate names are for his social class. Welp, everyone is a William, John, Henry, or Edward. So, some variant on those will do nicely. I know that in the editing phase I can just go to Find and Replace, and he becomes Thaddeus. Later on, readers come up to me and say, “OMG, THADDEUS. WHAT A DOUCHE.” And I have completely blank stare, because I spent a year of him being William, and six weeks of him being Thaddeus. But that’s fine–because if a reader can remember the character, that’s the important part. 

The terrible first draft is also the most fun I have. Nobody cares if the sex scene is laughable, or if the characters meet at the corner of WHATEVER and IHAVENOIDEA. The fun part is unrolling those characters, seeing what they’ll say and do. I have plot points I know in advance that they need to hit, but they often surprise me, and that’s the magic of a first draft. 

Linda Ulleseit shares some advice that helped inspire her creative spirit:

The advice that released me from a major writing block actually came from a Personal Narrative class I took while getting my MFA. I write fiction about real family history, and a handful of people are still alive who inspired characters in each book. Since I’m writing about people and times they remember, it’s sort of like writing someone else’s Personal Narrative. I stalled in my writing many times, worrying about details that might anger the family if I got them wrong. During that class, we read a book called Tell it Slant, by Brenda Miller. We learned that everyone who experiences an event remembers it differently. That’s why policemen interview so many witnesses, because everyone has their own truth. Everyone has their own perspective that colors what happened. If you write what you remember, what you’ve been told, or what you’ve interpreted from someone’s story, then you are writing your truth. That’s where I learned that rather than saying The Aloha Spirit is about my husband’s grandmother, I should say it was inspired by her. As soon as I said it for the first time, that the book was inspired by Carmen Rodrigues, I felt free. I no longer had to agonize over what street she actually lived on or what her living room actually looked like. I was writing fiction. I did my best to research the established truth based on whatever viewpoints I could find, then I filled in unknown details with fiction. It made a more compelling story but still honored my family member.

C.V. Lee confesses:

The first time I sat down to write my novel, I typed one paragraph and quickly realized I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I had never taken a class in creative writing so I was hungry for information. Many books have been recommended, and read. I’ve watched countless YouTube videos, and read numerous blog posts. After all that, I can report that I have finished the second draft of my work-in-progress, Roses & Rebels, and am in the re-write stage. My skill at writing has improved probably a thousand percent.

I recently came across an interesting little book called Put the Cat in the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen. I’ve written several chapters that began by describing the location, or something equally mundane like backstory. Sorry, but long descriptions of anything can get hard to follow when not specific to the context of the story. Starting with something intriguing or odd happening colors everything around the event, giving it new meaning. During the re-write process, I’m aiming to begin each chapter with a tidbit that peaks the readers interest and encourages them to keep reading.

Ana Brazil rounds out the panel with this sage advice:

This advice is so commonly given that it almost qualifies as conventional wisdom: Once you finish writing a novel, walk away from it for a week, two weeks, three weeks and don’t work on it at all. You can think of it, but if you do, just make notes, don’t touch it.

Then, come back to it, reread it, and look at the story with fresh eyes, both your eyes as the author & your audience’s eyes as the reader.

Stepping away from a recently finished manuscript can be a very painful process, but every author who produces books that I admire does this. Which makes me think it must be among the best writing advice.

C.V. Lee
Written by C.V. Lee

C.V. Lee writes historical biographical fiction featuring forgotten heroes and heroines of the past. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Alli, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can find her on Facebook @cvlee.histficwriter and on Instagram @cvleewriter.

View CV’s PLW Profile

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