While I'm away in Europe, I'm posting some old articles from the archives and some link round-ups. Today's selection is on writing tips of various stripes. Here you go:
Tips on Writing
I was at a gathering of writers last night (Portlanders, we meet every last Monday of the month for Literary Libations, join us) and Angela Sanders, an accomplished mystery writer who is doing very well with her books (can you say number one on all Kindle sales?) was talking about her career.
Angela talked about how she does very little social media, sends one newsletter out a month (subscribe here, its definitely worth it), and beyond that, "I write every day."
Because–that's the most important thing.
As often as humanly possible.
And yes, while writing in a journal, or writing a blog post, or ad copy for your next class, or whatever, is all terribly important, when we talk about writing every day, we're talking about writing on that project of yours. You know the one–the novel that keeps you awake at night. The one where the characters keep doing things that delight you. The one you have in your head. Or hopefully in a collection of notes carefully stored somewhere.
So, how important is it to write every day?
Well, I think its every thing. Every damn thing. I do. I believe that writing every day is what we should all strive for.
But people scowl at me when I say this. They throw things, like rotten apples, at me. They yell and scream. Okay, maybe they don't really, but I can see by the look in their eyes that they are wishing they could. Because they really don't want to write every freaking day.
And that is what it really boils down to. Whether or not you actually want to write.
I'm sorry, but that's the plain, hard truth of the matter. (And for the record, I'm lecturing myself here as much as anybody.) Once, years ago, I read something that bears on this. I believe it was in a Julia Cameron book. She said something to the effect that if a man is in love with you, no matter if he's the busiest executive in the world, he'll find time to call you.
So, ahem. If you're in love with your writing (and you should be) you will freaking find time to do it, even a little, even if you're just thinking about it, every day.
And here's a little tip to help you do it every day:
At the above-mentioned Happy Hour wherein we discussed every aspect of writing, one of my most favorite writers (and human beings) in the whole world piped up and said she'd been writing every day.
Gasp. This required a huge gulp of wine to process. Because Jenni, (who is likely reading this and rolling her eyes) has not written for months. This has been the cause of much consternation and hand-wringing between my biz partner Debbie and I, because Jenni is a damn good writer, writing a really fun mystery.
So to hear her announce that she was now writing regularly again was amazing. And we found out her secret, which is…..
Write for ten minutes a day.
C'mon, everyone can find ten minutes. And the bigger trick to this is that once you start writing, you often look up and realize that an hour, not ten minutes has gone by and you've really not felt like stopping.
So, the moral of the story is that, yes, I do think every one should write every day if at all possible and that really, everything will fall into place for us all if we just write as often as possible.
Please share what you think in the comments!
Image by Jem.
But as I've been concentrating fiercely on my rewrite the last couple of weeks, I've realized some things that are working well for me–and things that I'm learning. I'm hopeful these miscellaneous tips will be of value to you, too, so here they are.
1. Getting up every 30 minutes (or so) makes a HUGE DIFFERENCE. I've been at my desk a lot lately, for longer stretches than usual, and I've been consciously getting up regularly and walking around and stretching. One day last week I didn't do this–and I felt completely difference at the end of the day. The romantic image we have of writers requires us to be so wrapped up in our work that we sit for hours. But actually you will feel better and do better work if you get your butt up off the chair.
2. Your main character needs an origin story. Just as superheroes have stories about how they got their superpowers, your protagonist (and probably others in the story, too) needs an origin story. How did she get her obsession for fashion? Why did he become a detective? Did he watch his best friend get killed and vow to avenge him? Figure this out and you've unlocked your character. This deserves a whole post and will get one when I'm done with my rewrite.
3. Use more description than you think you need. I mentioned about how I've been learning this as I rewrite to my agent's notes. And I am finding that more description makes for a fuller, richer read. (Bear in mind that I'm writing women's fiction, and lush description is a huge part of it. In another genre, this might not be so.) Also, as my buddy J.D. Frost brilliantly pointed out to me in an email, you can use description to pace your plot. A lot of it signals a restful spot. A lack of it shows action.
4. Having long stretches of time to write is a wonderful thing. I'm the original proponent of using little bits of time here and there to write when you can, but for this rewrite, I've gotten in the habit of clearing away whole days to work. (See #5.) Let me tell you, it is fantastic, especially when you are working on a rewrite and need to hold the whole book in your head. Having more than one or two hours at a time to devote to the book gives me the mental space to dig deep into character arcs and figure out a more cohesive plot.
5. You have more time to write than you think. I have a lot of clients at the moment. They are all wonderful and diligent and doing good work, and I adore every single one. (I really, truly do–I am constantly amazed and honored to be chosen to shepherd a writer's creation.) And, they all need my care and tending: reading their work and then time on the phone to discuss. I'm also planning three in-person workshops (France here, Nashville here, Portland is already full). And I have a clamoring family that I love to let distract me. Yet I've carved out four full days to devote to my rewrite in the last week. I never would have thought I could do that I've you'd told me so in January. But I did it, by working really, really hard on the other days and carefully managing appointments. It is working so well, I'm going to continue to do this even after I'm done with this rewrite.
6. Notes are your pals. I had pretty much totally gone over to Evernote, which I do love, because I tend to accumulate scraps of paper with notes on them all over my desk. But that's gone out the window with this rewrite and I've got lists and notebooks everywhere. The thing is, this is working for me (it wasn't before, which is why I sought out a different system). When I'm working on chapter six, and I get an idea for chapter ten, it is easier to grab a piece of paper and scrawl my idea on it, then to open the Evernote app and create a new note. The thing to remember is to go through your notes regularly! And the point of it all is to do what works for you to get the writing done.
7. Reading is your BFF now more than ever. I'm reading a ton at the moment. What am I reading? Women's fiction, exactly what I'm writing, with a stray girly mystery thrown in. As I read, I learn. In the novel I just finished, I noticed how the author handled description of characters and emulated it. In another novel I just started, I liked how the author wrote about the setting. All these ideas go directly into my work. (And yes, I will write a post like this one about the books I'm reading soon.)
So that's what I've learned while writing lately. How about you? What are you working on? How is it going?
This weekend, I started a new series called the Saturday Writing Tip and wrote about scenes. One of my loyal, longtime readers, J.D., who I adore, wrote a couple of comments. In one of them he noted how the author Lee Child had said, "Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow."
Which got me thinking I needed to write a blog post.
Because I've heard the same thing, from an author whose name I've long since forgotten. And it is very good advice. Yet, sometimes, in trying to explain it, I falter. J.D. himself said it took him awhile to figure out what Child meant.
Let's see if we can parse it out.
When writing the slow parts fast you'll be writing narrative (which compresses time).
When writing the fast parts slow you'll be writing in scene (which is much more real time than narrative).
So, as an example, your character enjoys a long, languid summer afternoon, sipping chilled sweet tea, reading a book, and occassionally chatting with her husband, who is doing the same. This is not an activity you need to write a scene about. It can be dispatched in one sentence. It is happening slowly. It can be written about fast.
But then the same character decides to ignore the dictates of society when she falls in love with another man. The first time that they are together, time flies because every moment is charged with emotion. Later, looking back on it, time is a blur. Yet this is a time when you will want to write in scene, because you will want to explore every nuance of emotion of your main character. This is an important moment in her life. It needs to be written slowly. In scene.
Make sense? I asked in the Saturday post if readers struggle to write in scene. Do you? Do you feel like you need more help with this? I ask because it is one of the things I most often write on student manuscripts–make into scene. So I presume it's a difficulty. Please comment and if there's a common theme I'll write more about it.
Create a successful, inspired writing life: Examine your WIP and see if any scenes need to be put into narrative and vice-versa.
Photo of fast-moving truck on a highway by funkblast.
On Monday, I began this series on prepping to write a novel. In the first post, I talked about the tools you'll need to get going, and if you head on over to that post you can get caught up. In today's post, I'm going to talk about the idea and the process–what to expect and how to schedule it.
It is important, when writing a novel, to consider that you're going to be with this baby for quite a long while. Not quite as long as it takes to read a human child from birth to maturity, though it may seem like that. But still, you're going to be working with this material for a long time So make sure you like it. I wrote a whole long post on this very topic last week, and its probably a good idea if you take a minute and go read it.
So now that you've committed to an idea that you love (or even just like), what next? Well, that's the topic of this series, what you do to get ready to write a novel (or a book). But before we get to character, setting, plot and writing the rough draft, I want to talk briefly about process and scheduling.
The Writing Process
It's really very simple. Your first draft is for you to figure out the story, okay? It is not for you to make things perfect. It is for you to get a rough semblance of the plot and characters down on paper. Don't worry yet about how best to present it to the reader, or how to dramatize it How can you do that when you're still figuring out the story?
Whether or not you want to write up an outline is your choice. I recommend it because it keeps you on track. Doesn't have to be a fancy outline, even a rough list will do. This way you save room for serendipity and the stray walk-on character. You may also want to write a synopsis, which is like a fleshed-out, grown-up outline. I don't. But some people do. Once you've got your outline written and done all the prep work it takes to get going on a novel, that's exactly what you do. Get going on it.
I've written about the writing process here before, and even recently. Here's some of those posts:
That ought to keep you going for awhile. And so now we turn to scheduling. Or, what to expect when you're trying to write a novel and life gets it the way.
Scheduling/What to Expect
My best advice for scheduling a long writing project is to be as regular as you can, and stay flexible. In a perfect world, which none of us live in, it is best to write every day. If you can't, at least glance at your work, read it, or take some notes on it. If you can't do that, think about it. Direct your mind to it while you're walking or cleaning the house. (Or in a boring meeting, but don't blame it on me if you get caught.) You will be interuppted just when you're getting to the apex of a scene. This will happen more times than you can count. You will have to skip a writing session when your child or spouse gets sick. This will also happen more times than you can count.
Here's what else you can expect:
And probably a few more I've not thought of. Notice, however, I did not mention the word boredom. Because when you're writing a novel, you'll never be bored. I think that's true of being a writer, period, as well.
You can also expect to be damn proud of yourself when you're finished with this project. And to have a healthy respect for even the crappiest of books you might see in the bookstore or library. Because now you know what it takes to write a book.
But that moment is still far in the future. We've still got some prepping to do. And I shall move onto that in the next post.
Please comment on all this. What do you do to prepare? What have you learned from writing a novel or book-length process?
Create a successful, inspired writing life: Make certain you've got an idea that intrigues and delights you and write a loose outline. Okay, okay you can do a synopsis, too.
I'm putting together either a one-on-one coaching package or a group program around this novel prep, so stay tuned!
Photos by Mai05 and Creactions, both from Everystockphoto.
PS. Sorry for the weird type font changes. No matter what I do, I can't get them back to normal. Typepad is a bit wonky these days.
So, I've written three novels now. The first was a crappy mystery that never went anywhere (though
recently when I found a copy of it, I realized it was better than I remembered.) The second was my MFA novel and its not half bad, it's just got a plot that doesn't quite work. I promised my daughter and daughter-in-law that I'd publish copies for them, so stay tuned, it may just appear here soon. And the third novel is the first one I've finished that not only hangs together, I think its pretty damn good. It is currently making the rounds in New York.
In all that novel writing, I've learned a thing or two. And that is this: a bit of prepping goes a long way. So that's what this post is about. But first, a thing or two about the novel I'm currently writing. I've been in a bit of a dry spell when it comes to fiction. I kept coming up with ideas and working on them for a few chapters and then realizing they weren't going to pan out, for whatever reason. Finally, this new novel, which I'm temporarily calling Jemima B, popped into my head (actually, when I was doing some free writing, proof that it works).
But, here's the deal–with all my wandering through novels that didn't work, I had lost my ability to discern. And I wasn't sure if this new novel was "good" enough to keep going with. So I just wrote, didn't do any prepping or anything. Finally, last week I mustered up my courage and took the three chapters into my writing group. And, while I got specific comments about things that need to change, I also got that people liked it a lot. So now, finally, I feel well and truly started on a project. And I can go back and do the prep work for it.
This is a statement of sorts. It is saying, yes I commit to this novel. Yes, I'm going to do what it takes to carry through to the end. Yes, I'm ready to do it.
Are you? This post is the first in a series. I'm also thinking about putting this together as either a program or a one-on-one coaching product. (If you're interested, email me and I'll put you on a list for the announcement.) But you can easily follow along with the action ideas listed at the end of each post and get yourself ready to write a novel. So, today, let's start with tools.
Here's what I consider essential, beyond a computer and pens:
1. A small spiral notebook, in which to collect all your notes. Even if you originally note them on a scrap of paper, try to transfer them to this journal so they will all stay together.
2. A bigger spiral notebook, like 8 1/2 by 11 size, in which to do free writes, which are a great way to learn more about your characters and story.
3. A binder in which to keep research and images related to the story. This may also hold a completed draft if you so desire.
4. A vision board. You can make this so that it hangs on the wall near your desk, or you can put it into your binder. But either way, do work with images for your book, it is amazing how helpful it is. (You can download my free Ebook on how to create a vision board for your book by signing up to the right.)
5. A stack of 3 by 5 cards. These come in handy for all kinds of things, like to note scenes or character traits on, to name two.
Okay, that's it for now. We're starting slow and easy.
Create a successful, inspired writing life: Gather your tools. Make it fun. Go to the office supply store and prowl the alley. Buy spirals and binders that you love, or take them home and decorate them.
And, please comment: what do you consider the essential tools for writing a novel (or a book)?
Photograph by Hey Paul.
I know. It's very shocking. When I suggest to clients and students that they may want to try writing by hand, there is sometimes outright rebellion. To most writers these days, writing means writing at the computer, whether that computer is a desk version or a laptop (my own preferred option). Okay. I hear you. Let's get the cons out of the way:
The Cons to Writing by Hand
Writing by hand seems antiquated, the purview of spinsters writing delicate thoughts in their journals. (And what is wrong with that? I ask.)
Writing by hand is slow and takes more time.
When writing by hand it is difficult to make changes.
Writing by hand makes your hand tired.
Writing by hand can be hard to read.
A brief aside, and a confession, before we get the to pros of writing by hand. The confession is that I've been writing by hand a lot lately. And loving it. I've always had an affinity for writing by hand. I love to write in my journal, for instance. And I always go first to the paper with pen in hand when I'm developing ideas for a novel, whether I'm working on the big picture, or smaller scenes.
However, all that writing by hand was mostly in the form of notes. There was always a certain point at which I felt it was time to hit the computer and do the "real" writing.
Not recently, though. Recently I've been writing whole scenes, even whole chapters by hand. It is somewhat amazing. And very freeing. Because I like to get up first thing in the morning and write by hand. Usually that has taken the form of journaling. But because I now seem to be able to write first drafts by hand, I can do that first thing. And this has increased the amount of time I spend on my novel.
(I also like it because if I go to my computer first thing in the morning, the email inboxes and social media are sooooo tempting. And I am weak, so weak. So writing by hand sidesteps all that and I don't have to exercise discipline first thing.)
So, shall we look at pros?
The Pros to Writing by Hand
Writing by hand feels like a more direct line to heart and soul. (At least it does to me. You?)
Writing by hand is even more portable than writing on a laptop.
Writing by hand feels good.
Okay, the truth of the matter is that I'm stretching to find more pros to writing by hand. Given the technology we have at our fingertips (hahaha), writing by hand is just not practical. But it is wonderful. And if writing by hand helps me (and you get) words on the page, I'm all for it.
What about you? Do you like writing by hand? Hate it? Why or why not? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Create a successful, inspired writing life: Try it. C'mon, just do. Try writing a scene or first draft of an article. See if writing by hand doesn't feel good and inspire you. If no, there's no harm done now, is there?
Photo by twenty_questions.
Odds are good that since you are reading this blog, you might want to write book.
But how, exactly, do you write a book?
How do you take an idea and make it into a book?
One word at a time.
And once you've got the word, you turn it into a sentence. You take the sentence and turn it into a paragraph. Paragraph into a chapters. And so on and so forth.
Back in the day when I was an MFA student, the novelist Sena Jeter Naslund told a group of students how she motivated herself to write. She wrote one word, and then a sentence. And then she'd tell herself, that's great, sweetie, now all you have to do is write another sentence. And word by word, sentence by sentence, she would produce a book. (And she is known for writing loooong books. Also, that "sweetie" in the above sentence was mine. I'm pretty sure Sena, being the gracious southern woman that she is, has never called a person "sweetie" in her life.)
Word by word, sentence by sentence, is how we get books written.
But each word and sentence will come a bit easier if you have some kind of guideline. It can be an outline if that word doesn't freak you out. (Some people love it, others hate it.) I sometimes work off a scrawled list of where I think I'm going.
Once you have a list or outline or guideline, whatever you want to call it, here's what you do:
1. Take an item from your list.
2. Chunk that one item down into sub-topics.
3. Take that small, tiny little sub-topic and write every damn thing you know about it. Do this as a free write if you like (set the timer for 15-20 minutes and write without stopping).
4. If you have more to say, use a sentence from your free write as a new prompt and have at it.
5. Now take another small, tiny little item from your list and write like the wind.
6. Rinse and repeat until you've gone through your entire list.
7. Rewrite your free writes.
8. String your free writes together into a scene or chapter.
9. String your scenes together into a book.
10. Voila! You have written a book. (And no doubt you'll need to rewrite it again. And again. And again. But now you have a rough draft.)
See how easy it is. (That hysterical laughter you hear in the background is my alter ego, my inner critic, Patrick.) And by the way, this technique words for any kind of writing project.
What do you think? Have you used this technique or a similar one to write a book? Please leave a comment. And if you like this post, feel free to tell your writing friends. You might also want to subscribe to my newsletter in the form to the right to stay in touch.
Create a successful, inspired writing life: Consider your current writing project. Make a list and try following the above routine to make your writing easier.
Photo by CathyK.
I often tell people that writing every day is an excellent way to build momentum.
And then they look at me blankly and wonder why in the hell they need momentum, since they are writers, not rocket engineers.
I tell them (and I'm telling you now) that momentum is what gets the novel (or memoir, or article, or any writing project) done.
So, what exactly is momentum?
1. the product of a body's mass and its velocity
2. the impetus of a body resulting from its motion
3. giving power or strength
Since we don't happen to be rocket scientists, its #2 and #3 we're after. Power and strength derived from the impetus of a body's motion. Or, sustained energy to complete a writing project.
Momentum is what carries us forward with excitement to the end. Without it, nothing happens.
But what, exactly, am I talking about when I talk about momentum? Here are some examples:
- Yesterday, I was working on other writing projects, but my novel called to me and I took time away from what I was supposed to be working on to complete a scene in my story. Momentum is a sense of excitement that beckons you to work on your piece no matter what, even if it means you'll have to stay up late to finish everything else.
- A friend reports she is so excited about her memoir that she wakes in the middle of the night with ideas for it. Momentum is your subconscious so engaged with your story that it feeds you material at all hours of the day and night.
- A student says that working on her novel is no longer a struggle, and that she writes some every day. Momemtum makes writing a pleasure because you're so engaged with the work.
So, how, you may ask, does one achieve this wondrous state called momentum? Here are some suggestions:
- Write every day. Nothing builds momentum like writing every day.
- If you can't write every day, at least look at your work. Glance over it, read the last scene that you wrote. This gets it in your brain and gets your subconscious chewing on it.
- Make notes and lists. The subconscious mind loves this kind of tinkering with ideas and will feed you more.
- Read. Often when I read a book on the writing craft, I get so inspired I can't get through the book because I keep putting it down to write. But don't just read books (or blogs) on writing, read everything.
- Think about your novel. My new favorite thing to do is think about the plot and characters of my novel while I'm rocking my newborn grandson, Henry. Something about the motion of it jars loose new ideas. Which leads me to:
- Move. Walk. Many people have reported on these very pages that walking makes their brains into a veritable idea factory. And, just in case you didn't get it the first time:
- Write every day. Truly try your hardest to connect with your work in writing every day, even if its one word (and make no mistake about it, writing one word counts).
How do you maintain momentum on a project? Any tips or tricks you'd like to share?
PS. I'm trying to make my posts easier to navigate, so do you think the bolded words are helpful or a distraction?
PPS. (Or is it PSS?) Don't forget to sign up for my bi-weekly free newsletter, and get yourself a copy of my Ebook, How to Jumpstart Your Book With a Vision Board. It'll help you with momentum to get the book going.
Photos by Woodleywonderworks.
In order to be a good writer, you must avoid passive voice whenever possible.
This topic has all the excitement of a rainy day in January.
But, the thing is, it's true. Passive voice can sink a sentence faster than the Titanic. Okay, okay, I'll quit with the metaphors that are as dumb as a rock. Sorry, I'll stop now. Really. Back to passive voice.
Because, if your writing is laden with passive sentences and phrases it will be boring. Dull. Flat. Lifeless. And you don't want that, now, do you?
Many, many, many, many, many years ago I wanted to apply to journalism school at the University of Oregon and in order to do that one had to take an infamous class called J250. It was infamous because it was hard, purposely so, in order to weed out those who might not be completely, totally, one hundred per cent devoted to the journalistic ideal. One of the best things I got from that class was a book called The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne. Lucile absolutely rails on passive voice, and ever since reading her chapter on it, I've been a demon about it, too. (For the record, Lucile has her own, slightly perplexing Facebook page.)
Here's Lucile on passive voice:
The English language has two voices–active voice and passive voice. These terms refer to the use of verbs. Most verbs can be active or passive, depending upon how you use them. Active voice is direct, vigorous, strong; passive voice is indirect, limp, weak–and sneaky. It can creep unnoticed into your writing unless you are on guard against it constantly and consciously.
As Lucile goes on to point out, the difference between passive and active is essentially the difference between your subject acting, and the subject having something done to it. So,
Active: Peter mowed the lawn.
Passive: The lawn was mowed by Peter.
Passive voice tends to creep into business and technical and other official type language, but it can easily appear in your writing, too. So here is my handy-dandy quick guide to ditching it:
1. Make the subject perform, rather than have something performed upon him. That sounds vaguely kinky, but its an important point. If you fear you've constructed a passive sentence, ask yourself if the subject of said sentence is doing something, or having something done to him.
2. Choose strong and interesting verbs. As you can see in the above example, passive voice often arises when you use variants of the verb to be. As in, Mary was at the store. Or, Tom was reading a book. When you force yourself to work a bit harder and push for stronger verbs you just about always sidestep passive voice. So, Mary trudged to the store. Or, Tom devoured a book. It is impossible to eradicate all forms of the to be verb, but do your best to minimize how much you use it.
3. Avoid the gerund verb form. This is, of course, the "ing" usage of a verb. I could not find any good explanation of the "ing" form which wasn't hopelessly complicated. The way I think of it is that it tends to denote action occurring over time, such as, I was eating the cake. This is less direct and snappy than I ate the cake.
(Note to purists: yes, I know that sometimes gerunds are not gerunds but past participles or some damn thing, but trying to figure out the nuances of all that is about to make my head explode and the point here is to provide quick, let me repeat, quick fixes for passive voice.)
If you keep those three tips in mind as you write, you'll conquer passive voice. But, I hear you ask, is there ever a time when passive voice is appropriate? Why, yes. Once in a great while you may want to use it for an artful reason, such as to denote that the character about whom you are writing is a passive type. Or, as our friend Lucile says, "Sometimes only passive voice can provide a neccessary tone or connotation. It is possible for a verb to be too brisk, too energetic, to express accurately an exact shade of meaning."
So there you have it, writing tips for the scourge of passive voice. Now, tell me. Do you struggle with passive writing? Or is it something you've learned to master?
**For tips on writing, creativity, motivation and inspiration, subscribe to my free bi-weekly newsletter. You'll also receive a free copy of my Ebook, Jumpstart Your Book With a Vision Board. The sign-up form is to the right!
Photo by yaaaay, from Everystockphoto.