Be mentally-ill. Believe me, if you want to be a writer, having a reasonable, manageable amount of mental illness is a God send. (Note: being neurotic can and often does reek havoc on your personal and professional life, but the fleas come with the dog). Here’s why being afflicted with a mild to moderate mental illness is beneficial to a writer: because you suffer, you better understand the suffering of others. Your suffering allows you to better understand human frailty, and that, in turn, fosters empathy for others, which will help improve the depth of the characters you write. Plus, do I really need to list all of the great writers, male and female, who struggled with depression, anxiety, OCD, and other neurotic ailments?
Have a toddler. Or, if parenting isn’t your thing, then babysit a friend’s toddler for an hour or two. Playing with a toddler is an excellent crash course in the art of improvisation, and there’s only one rule when it comes to improv: ALWAYS say yes. This is important to remember, especially when writing a first draft. Don’t try to control everything; don’t dictate every little thing your characters say and do and think. Allow your characters to surprise you, allow them to hurt themselves, make mistakes, say boneheaded things. In other words: improvise. You’ll be amazed what those figments of your imagination will get up to once you stop helicoptering over them all the time.
Listen to Rap music. My old man forced John Prine and Jimmy Buffet and the Allman Brothers Band down my throat when I was a kid, and, eventually, I grew to love that music, too, but really my first love was rap. I love the rhythm and attitude in hip-hop, the bravado, and all of those things have helped improve my writing. I’ve been told my books have a pretty strong voice, that the words create a rhythm when read, and I credit my love of rap for that. Plus, whenever I write a hardcore villain, I try and channel the devil-may-care-attitude of classic rappers like Public Enemy and NWA.
Handwrite letters. It’s a tragedy that people don’t write letters anymore. A real shame. I still write them though, and I love receiving them as well. Writing anything by hand helps you develop patience, the ability to slow yourself down and reflect before simply, for example, pecking away at a laptop or tablet. Letters are more personal, too, and the best writing, whether it’s a mystery novel or an email, has an element of the personal to it.
Read outside your genre. Yeah, I know: this is a mystery blog, and I like mysteries. I’ve written several. I’m writing another one as we speak (well, it’s sort of a mystery, sort of a meta-spy, break-all-the-rules novel of complications). But anyway. Reading outside your genre: this will only improve your writing, expose you to new ideas, new styles, and new modes of storytelling, and that is always a good idea. Too, I get bored reading the same types of stories over and over and over again. Am I the only one?
Watch TV. Before I get lambasted for suggesting something as crass as staring at the Idiot Box, let me clarify. Watch good TV. And actively, not passively, watch it. Guess what, there’s plenty of great TV shows out there these days (movies, not so much). Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, and Silicon Valley are just a few of my current favorites. Watching good TV is a quick and easy way to improve your dialogue writing skills. Ditto storytelling. Good TV also teaches you to always, no matter what, focus on the story. No fat. No filler. Everything in a good TV show serves the story in some form or fashion, and the same should hold true for your novels.
Tell lies. Yes, I know: lying is bad. I’m not saying you should lie about anything important, but when you meet a stranger at a party, go ahead and tell a few whoopers. Why? Again: improvisation is a tool every storyteller should have in his or her toolbox. If you can tell a credible lie (or a series of lies) to a stranger, and they actually respond to them, that tells you you have created a believable fib, and, possibly, a fascinating character. That’s what we writers do, isn’t it?
Be an introvert. My opinion, you want to be good at writing, you need to spend a lot of time alone honing your craft. Sure, workshops are. . .no, I can’t even tell that lie with a straight face. I don’t like workshops, never have, not even when I was required to attend them in order to obtain my so-called Master’s degree in English. But full disclosure, I do not and never will work and play well with others. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Period. Hell, that’s at least half of its appeal to me; I get to be alone for a few hours every day. You can talk to writers and readers and hang out at conferences, and all that’s fine by me. But if you want to get good at this tricky thing called writing, go inside, shut the door, and write. And you need to be alone when you do it.
Which reminds me, I need to be alone for a while, so the next sound you hear will be my door shutting.