Writing Tips from Kent Messum

Top 10 lists are all a matter of the opinion. What speaks to one person might not to another. I find them helpful, however, to see where my experiences align with others and to gain new perspective. In this list, for instance, #s 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10 resonate the most for me and are similar to my thought process and practice of writing. What speaks to you?

1. Don’t write linearly: Don’t set out to write something from beginning to end. A story is meant to be read from front to back, but not necessarily created that way. If you have an idea for writing the sixth chapter first, then start there. The epilogue can even be the first thing you put down on paper, then work your way back. Scattered chapters will eventually be filled in, and it will force you to look at the story from different angles, which may present different ideas or new approaches. You’d be surprised how well this works when a whole book starts coming together. It’s also great for getting around writer’s block.

2. Have two or more projects on the go: Speaking of writer’s block, having more than one project on the go is never a bad idea. Although focus and dedication are paramount to completing a work, sometimes you inevitably get stuck. It’s good to be able to move on to something else instead of feeling frustrated and stagnant. You don’t have to have a few big projects happening either … maybe you’re penning a novel, but also some short stories and an article or two.

3. Be your own editor: There are days where I have difficulty writing altogether, so I’ll switch to editing my stories rather than trying to create them. Never assume it is someone else’s job to fix your mistakes. Find all the errors first, and deal with them yourself. The more polished and refined your work is, the more favorably it will be received when you’re finally ready to present it.

4. Ask for (and take lots of) punishment: It is well worth finding yourself a professional writer or editor and asking/paying them to look at your work. Tell them to give you highly critical feedback with no sugarcoating. Let them go so far as to be cruel too, just so you really get the point. There is a lot of rejection and criticism involved in the publishing industry. Getting accustomed to it sooner than later is advantageous. If you want to be serious about your writing, then you’ll need to know everything wrong with your writing. Accepting and understanding the harsh realities of your shortcomings is a most important step to getting better.

5. Disconnect: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pintrest, the Internet in general … we know how invasive social media and technology is in our lives these days. We also know that it can be good for promotion, building a brand, and having an online presence. But you know what else social media and technology is really good for? Procrastination, distraction, and countless wasted hours. Being able to unplug for long periods of time is more important than you may think. All those tweets you’ve posted might have added up the word-count of half a novel by now…

6. Learn what good writing is: Honestly, there’s so much terrific writing out there, but there is also considerably more garbage as well. I’m constantly surprised by how many people don’t know the difference between the good and the bad. Art is subjective, true, but it isn’t that subjective when you remove ignorance and replace it with education. Duke Ellington said it best: “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind”. The same applies to writing.

7. Have your own workspace: It’s trendy nowadays to take your laptop to coffee shop or bar and write in public. I even advocate a change of environment/atmosphere when writing feels stifled. But I believe it’s more important to have and maintain your own private workspace, a spot you can call your own with a desk and preferably a door you can close when you need to shut out the world in order to create your own.

8. Dedicate to the craft: Serious writing is not something you merely do if or when you can find the time. It’s not just for Sunday afternoons, or the occasional evening, or a few hours a week when you can give it some attention. Make the time, and make lots of it. Tackle the craft daily and dedicate a generous portion of your existence to honing your skills. You’re only going to get out of it what you put into it, and serious writing requires a lot of investment.

9. Time management: When it comes to the hours or days you’ve reserved for writing, make sure you stick to your guns. Consider it sacred. To most other people, your ‘writing time’ is merely ‘flexible time’. They will invariably think that you can cancel, minimize or postpone working when it suits you (or them). Tell these people that your personal work time is not negotiable; much like theirs isn’t at their day jobs. You don’t need a regimented schedule, but you do need to clock in the hours.

10. Remember the Three “P’s”: I’ll admit there’s still a hell of a lot more to say on the topic of writing tips, but what it all comes down to in the end are three things I believe writers need to remember above all else: Patience, Perseverance, and maintaining your sense of Purpose.

Here’s the link to the Messum’s column in Writer’s Digest.

Column by J. Kent Messum, author of 2015 novel HUSK (July 2015, Penguin UK). HUSK was optioned for an international TV show by Warp Films in the UK. Messum is an author who always bets on the underdog. He lives in Toronto with his wife, dog, and trio of cats. His first novel BAIT won the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for ‘Best First Novel.’ 

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