Advice I learned from a fiction author’s Masterclass
What are the lessons that’ll make you a better writer? Finish the things you don’t want to finish, focus on setting the stage for your readers, overcome writer’s block, and find your voice.
As a writer who mainly operates in the non-fiction space, I occasionally dip into fiction for sources of inspiration.
This year I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Middlesex and I like to think those works influenced me and my writing in some small subconscious way.
I love fiction, and fiction writers, because it’s a way of expressing truth that’s not as straightforward as This is how I see the world and this is how I think you should see it too.
One fiction writer I admire is Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is the author of Coraline and American Gods as well as the graphic novel series Sandman. I recently took his Masterclass on the art of storytelling and was amazed at how much I found applicable to my own non-fiction writing.
Although the Masterclass was entirely focused on fiction writing, I found four simple lessons specifically helpful and wanted to share my takeaways with anyone struggling to improve their writing.
“People don’t normally list sending a story out into the world as one of those acts of bravery up there with standing up to armed robbers or wild dog attacks. But really, they really are.”
The most important thing you can do as a writer is to finish things. This advice is two-fold.
There are those of us who abandon projects and never finish them and there are those of us perfectionists who never let go of projects.
Finish the things you’ve abandoned. Not everything you create is going to be good. But every pearl begins as a piece of grit. Put yourself through the process of turning an unfinished idea into a finished idea.
The same goes for the perfectionists. We have to let our work go at some point. Once the pearl is formed there’s not much more you can do to make it more beautiful. Let it go.
Gaiman offers a list of rules called Heinlein’s Business Rules:
- You have to write.
- You have to finish what you write.
- You have to send it out to someone who could publish it.
- Refrain from rewriting — except to editorial request.
- When it comes back, send it out again.
- Gaiman’s additional rule: Then start the next thing.
Then start the next thing. Finishing isn’t enough.
“The worlds that we build in fiction, they’re soap bubbles. They can pop really easily….But that one little moment of reality, that one thing that seems to be absolutely true, gives credence, and gives credibility to all of the things that you don’t say.”
Even non-fiction writers have to set the stage. Although we aren’t creating Narnia or Middle Earth, all of us occupy slightly different realities. For example, a successful businesswoman and a starving artist inhabit completely different worlds.
As a non-fiction writer, it’s our responsibility to build the right worlds for our readers.
I used to work in corporate America and at one of my jobs, we had to read a motivational fable called: Who Moved My Cheese. It’s written by businessmen for businessmen. As you can imagine, the book is quite cheesy (pardon the pun).
Who Moved My Cheese is a book about change and how to deal with it. Yes, it’s a fable intended to speak to an important life lesson, but in my opinion, the author didn’t need to resort to an imaginary world.
Another book that deals with change and is universally relevant is When Breath Becomes Air. Written by Paul Kalanithi — a neurosurgeon who was dying of metastatic lung cancer and wrote about his experience— Kalanithi captured something much deeper.
One dealt with losing cheese, the other dealt with death. One book left me crying at the end, I’ll let you guess which one.
As a non-fiction writer, we build up the worlds of our readers. We have to find the commonalities among us, the rules we operate by, the challenges we all face, and share our truths in a way that’ll make an impact on our readers.
Set the stage.
Dealing with Writer’s block
“Every now and again, the mists will clear, and you’ll get a wonderful view of the valley on the other side or the town that you’re heading towards.”
Every writer, fiction and non-fiction, deals with writer’s block.
I don’t personally define writer’s block as sitting down and having absolutely nothing to write about. There’s always something to write about.
The writer’s block I’m referring to is the kind when you set forth on a piece and three-fourths of the way through you realize it doesn’t make any sense.
Not knowing how to fix the piece, you freeze and either abandon it (see the “Finish Things” section) or sit for a long time stumped.
This has happened to me on many occasions. Gaiman has some useful advice: take a break from the work. Go for a walk, take a shower, write something else. Then come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. Start from the beginning and see where you “went off the rails.”
Whenever this happens to me, it’s usually because my original intent for an article doesn’t match what came out on paper.
Take this article for example, I originally intended to focus only on finishing things but realized there wasn’t enough material to go on. So I kept writing.
When you face writer’s block in your non-fiction writing, and you will, don’t let self-doubt hijack your piece. Pause and come back later.
Finding your voice
“After you’ve written 10,000 words, 30,000 words, 60,000 words, 150,000 words, a million words, you will have your voice because your voice is the stuff you can’t help doing.”
Nothing beats practice. Consistent, dedicated, prolonged practice.
Finding your voice is the only piece of advice that can’t be implemented right away. It’s going to take time.
When I read some of my older pieces of work from a few years ago, I can see myself trying to emulate other writers I admired at the time. There is nothing wrong with that. Eventually, I became more comfortable with myself to just start sharing the conversations in my head verbatim.
One piece I’m extremely proud of isn’t even about creativity or productivity or escaping the rat race, it’s a chocolate chip cookie recipe.
In this piece I feel you’re getting the authentic me, I’m sarcastic, I share my love of the Great British Bake Off, and I had fun writing it.
I would have never written something like this 5 years ago because I wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough expressing myself in this way.
Again, finding your voice takes practice. It’s understanding your unique personality and translating it for the page.
If I can sprinkle in my own bit of advice, show up every day and keep writing. Don’t overthink things. And don’t become too self-conscious.
You’ll have good writing days and bad writing days. But when you look back on your work, you won’t be able to tell them apart. You’ll see the words you’ve written and you’ll feel proud you stuck with it.
If you want to turn your love of writing into something more than a hobby, I think I can help.