The best piece of writing advice I ever gave anyone happened in a community writing group I visited fifteen or so years ago. People went around the table and read their pieces, and critique happened on the spot. I was fresh out of an MFA writing workshop, my bag of tricks was newly acquired, and I was experienced at using them, in a beginner’s sort of way. Some of the writers in the group had some chops, but it welcomed all comers down to the utterly inexperienced. A woman read a poem that seemed to wander, but really strengthened partway through, and I politely suggested that she cut the first X lines. The group had various reactions to this, including some bristling on her behalf. She seemed at first a little taken aback, but later expressed real gratitude, as she felt it tremendously strengthened the poem. I said “shucks, ma’am, twarn’t nothing” and rode off into the sunset.
Fifteen years later, I always keep an eye out for weak openings in my work (it’s on the checklist), but rarely do I encounter an easily hacked-off lame duck. Last week I started into what I hope will be a meditative, genuinely creepy ghost story, in a somewhat John Langan-y mode. It was wandering, I couldn’t figure out the problem, nothing was quite right… and then I remembered the best piece of writing advice I ever gave anyone. I cut off the first three pages, and now the aimless chit-chat has been replaced with what I hope is an unnerving character sketch that seems like a good hook that’s not overly hook-y. I guess we’ll see.
Along these lines, currently I’m reading Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s]. It’s a short book about writing, both craft and business. Much (all?) of it is reprinted from his blog or miscellaneous small publications. His style is distinctive and his tone is bracing, so it stands out among writing technique books. There are various good bits that I won’t spill because I think you might find it useful, and it’s also a good read. I got it on my Kindle, and it would be cheap at twice the price for his advice about dialogue alone, which I’ve applied to the above-mentioned story and seems to have been helpful.