Mark Bowden is the author of 13 books, including Black Hawk Down. In a recent Publishers Weekly story, he passed on five writing tips. While he’s a nonfiction pro, there’s a lot we fiction writers can learn from as well:
Know something. “Try coming up with 800 words when you have nothing to say; then try when you have just had a new experience. When you’ve learned something—anything—you’ll struggle to stay under the word count. Pushing yourself past the familiar isn’t always easy, but it is always worth it. Reporting is also a great cure for writer’s block.”
Understand what you are trying to do. “This goes both for your overall objective all the way down to choosing the right words. If you don’t know what you are trying to say there’s no chance your reader will. Telling a story, writing a narrative… calls for characters and setting, action, dialogue, a sense of motivation, and a beginning, middle, and end. Stories need room to breathe…be clear about your intention before you start… make an outline, even if it’s only very rough, and revise it continually.
Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more. “Imagine closing your fist around a wet sponge. [One editor] would array my story in a narrow column on the computer screen— five or six words per line—and then remove a word or two, effortlessly, from nearly every one. It was appalling how many unnecessary words spilled out. The end result was clearer and more concise. Almost any sentence improves on second or third thought…. Try any exercise that encourages a more original cadence.”
Be Yourself. “The most common mistake new writers make is to adopt a voice that is not their own. The best way to develop an original voice is to use your own. Write the way you speak. Use your own vocabulary, and simple, clear sentences, unless there’s some strong reason not to. And never write a sentence that you would not quite naturally say.”
Scenes are Gold. “No matter what you are writing, try to employ scenes… Think about your experience as a reader. Pages turn swiftly when we’re reading action or dialogue, while exposition and description can slow things to a crawl.”
One bonus tip: “Many years ago I asked the novelist John Barth for some writing advice. He told me always to end a writing session in mid-sentence:” ‘That way you’ll know exactly where to pick up the next day.’” And finally, “Ignore any advice that gets in your way.”
Great advice as we all write on!
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