Best Writing Advice and Best Laid Plans

The best advice on mechanics of writing I’ve received to date came from Mary Robinette, award-winning author, puppeteer and narrator. It was: Get in and out of scenes quickly.

Meaning enter late, and leave early. Robinette was actually discussing movie screenplays, but it struck me as a brilliant technique to apply to novels. Although I confess at the time I didn’t completely grasp what she conveyed.

Plus, it stirred pings of agitation, because being late is something I compulsively avoid. I may have been born after my due date, but I arrived early in the morning. As for leaving early? I’d always aimed to be a bit more life-of-the-party.

When I began redrafting chapters, it dawned on me. If you’re writing a restaurant scene, for instance, you don’t have to plod through sitting down, ordering, or anything else that might not be of import. You can begin the chapter midway through the meal, the conversation, or the argument.

Cut the small talk. Skim the fat. The standard phrases one might speak in real life don’t really play well in prose. End the chapter before the characters pay the check, or walk out the door.

In other words, write like it’s a script for a movie scene.

At the 2019 Las Vegas Writer’s Conference, Robinette also challenged us to condense three pages to two sentences. I’m working on it, even if not entirely there yet.

But I do think her recommendation is why I write relatively short chapters, despite having the same total number of chapters in each novel of my Other Worldly series: 83. Hint: It’s not for the year I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin; it’s a Rowan Layne thing.

I’d like to think I’ve gotten more skilled at applying this sage advice with each book I’ve written. I sometimes take liberties with fun and perhaps frivolous chapters like the New Year’s Eve party on the moon in Aliens Abound, but we all need a little frippery every now and then. After all, Robinette also said characters should live more in their fantasy land than in real lives because that’s what we all do.

Additional excellent advice received, especially regarding plans to expand my first novel, Alienable Rights, into a series, came from author, screenwriter and fiction consultant Brad Schreiber. He told me to reveal some things earlier and some later, allowing for revelations throughout the story.

However, Schreiber also suggested saving a huge topic (involving little green men) for the second book, Feeling Alienated. Given how I planned to present a whole new take on classic aliens, it’s good I waited. I needed time to get to know these prickly creatures better before I revealed them to readers.

And, as it turns out, I had nothing but time on my hands when it came time to draft Feeling Alienated during the upswing of the COVID crisis in the spring of 2020.

I still fret over that first novel, though. Did I take too long getting to the juicy stuff in my attempts to build the story and motivations of protagonist Rowan Layne? Arriving too early and leaving too late? Perhaps for some readers. But I believe I’ve honed my timing skills in books two and three. Driving the story along at a brisk pace while still enjoying the journey.

Something else Mary Robinette shared truly resonated with me. She said, “Depression lies to you and will tell you that you are not a writer.”

Hence, if my best-laid plans were to go forth and write frenetically as I often do, she said it’s okay to be kind to yourself and take time out from writing.

And I don’t always have to arrive early, be the life of the party, or the most perfect writer since time immortal.