Keep It Simple, Stupid

No, the reference above is not directed at you personally. It is actually attributed to the United States Navy around 1960 and is a design principle. But for our purposes, the story goes like this:

Every once in a while, I have a student who either has been writing for quite a while–or just starting. They have the beginnings of a novel in their hands.

“It’s the first book in a 12-part series,” she says. Or worse, “It’s the fourth book in a 12-part series.”

I ask them if they have ever been published before. They say no, but then ask me how one goes about getting an agent, or a publisher. And I think about what advice I would give myself if I were once again in college and starting out as a hopeful writer. And it comes down to those four words:

Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Don’t start with a Formula 1 race car. Instead, drive your mom’s clunker out of the driveway a few times before graduating up to a new car. Learn how to accelerate onto the freeway, how to parallel park. Those who jump into the deep end too soon end up drowning (not to mix metaphors or anything…)

So here’s what I would recommend:

1. Start by writing short stories. They teach you all about characterization, dialogue, plotting. I used to think that the only difference between short stories and novels was length, but it is complexity as well. Start simple.

2. When you are ready to graduation to novels, start with a simple story. Write about something you know. Limit it to one storyline, one plot. Go directly from point a to point z. No flashbacks, no starting with the ending. Be linear.

3. Learn the rules before you break them. Learn dialogue, plotting, characterization. When you know what you are doing, then add the subplots and other devices you think are necessary to make your story interesting. But know this: an uninteresting story will never be made interesting by adding plot devices. Just saying.

We tend to make the learning of an already complicated art into something that doesn’t have to be overwhelming. So give yourself a break. Accept that your first book–or your first short story–is not going to be your best one, that you likely won’t get it published (and you will be grateful later!) and chalk it up to your education as a writer. And acknowledge that you still have some learning to do when it comes to writing. I’ve been doing it a very long time, and I still have much to learn.

When you keep it simple, it can actually be fun.

One thought on “Keep It Simple, Stupid

  1. Great advice! Sometimes we tend to love our characters so much that we think we are going create a series of books without thinking that we need to grind it out by finding and an agent or publisher.

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