"Art, at those moments when it feels most like art -- when we feel
most alive, most alert, most triumphant -- is less like a cocktail
party than a tank full of sharks."
New! Hard Fantasy Manifesto. You can download it by clicking here.
New! Read my Lady Blade Column on the craft of fantasy fiction. My latest article is about writing good dialog.
Enter the scene as late as possible and leave as early as you can. This helps to keep things moving and cut extraneous information. If you find yourself beginning with a character waking up, it's frequently a bad sign, unless something truly spectacular has awakened him. Readers will usually get right in there with you—they don't need or want to know what the character had for breakfast unless it is significant. Likewise, keep traveling scenes to a minimum unless something important happens on the way. It's perfectly acceptable to say "Two weeks later, they arrived," rather than to waste pages describing an ordinary journey. As Mark Twain put it, "Eschew excess verbiage."
Watch out for emotion language. If you need to identify the emotion for the reader, it probably means that you haven shown us—you haven put us inside the characters viewpoint enough to understand how she feels, or you haven given us the telling details—the physical cues and revealing dialogue that will telegraph emotions.
Try to get as much as you can out of the words inside the quotes, as opposed to using dialog tags to tell us. Here's an example:
"Pass the salt!" he shouted angrily.
"Tell your mother to pass the Goddamn salt."
The second version makes it obvious he's angry, and also goes further in providing some information about the family dynamics at that dinner table.
Read as much as you can outside the genre. Take Kurt Vonnegut's Bokononism to heart: whenever someone asks you to go someplace, go—you might discover something, even in places you never considered. Figure out what fills your well and get as much as you can. Subscribe to magazines that feed your mind. I take Smithsonian, Archaeology, and am a member of the Mongolia Society. Don't be afraid to ask questions, even of big-name intimidating people. Asking for what you want gives the universe the opportunity to provide it. Go to the conventions and listen to the pros. Above all else, do not let yourself be limited—especially by your own beliefs. Richard Bach, in Illusions, says "Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they e yours." You may think you can only write long-hand, in the middle of the night, after drinking too much—try it a different way. If you like it, try that again, or try something totally new. I write as much as I do because having children forced me to change my schedule. I could no longer get unbroken days to hole up in my office. Instead, I had to write whenever I had time—even if it was only fifteen minutes at a whack. The pages add up. The best way to be a writer is to write a lot. Jettison everything that gets in your way. Okay, almost everything.
I was once told that my plot resembled "a mosh pit" as if I had "scribbled a bunch of names and events on scraps of paper and threw them up in the air". It could have hurt—a lot. But two days before, an editor had requested the complete manuscript. Rejection is just a part of the process. Remember that if someone gets angry about what you wrote, then you have succeeded in moving them. Put the manuscript in the mail, go home, and write something else. One way to keep progressing with your work is to aim to double your rate of rejection every month. That means you've got more in circulation, and that many more chances to achieve your dreams.