how to write

When You Don’t Know How to Write

Painter_sidewalk_easel_596182_hYears ago, as a freelance writer, I wrote a lot of articles about art.  One of them was about the Makk family of artists, who lived in Hawaii.  The big thing I remember from this article happened while I interviewed the Eva, the matriarch of the family. She told me how when she was a young artist she had images in her head that she wanted to paint–but it took her a long time to figure out how to get those images onto canvas.

I could relate.  As a fledgling fiction writer, I often had trouble translating the stories in my head onto the page.  And even now, after writing fiction a gazillion years, sometimes I just can't quite get what I'm writing to work right.   I have the idea in my head.  I can see it.  But when I put it on the page, it is dead and lifeless.  Something about it doesn't work, and I moan and groan and wring my hands and decide I'm going to sell yarn for a living.  Or get a job in a restaurant.  Or something, anything, other than writing. At times like these, I need to remind myself how to write all over again.  

But the great thing about writing for so many years is that I've figured out a few things about how to get myself out of these situations.  And so I offer them to you.

1. Write a scene.  Often, deadly boring prose is written in narrative summary, which is, as the name implies, words written in summary.  She spent the afternoon reading on the couch, is an example.  Or, six months later, the baby was born.  You glide over a short or long amount of time or compactly explain some information.  Narrative summary most definitely has its place–it is a useful technique for all manner of things–but when it is used too often it results in big yawns.  Writing a scene, which incorporates dialogue, description, action, and interiority, will be much livelier and it may be just what the writing doctor ordered.

2. Try a line of dialogue.   Have one of your characters say something.  This can often lead you into a full-blown scene, or a half-scene, which is a bit of narrative summary with a line of dialogue as its anchor.  This link has great definitions of half-scene, scene, and narrative summary.

3. Copy exactly.   Take out your favorite novel or memoir, prop it next to your computer, and copy a scene word for word.  You know, of course, that I offer this as an exercise only and you aren't going to use this plagiarizing for anything but your own learning purposes.  This is kind of an amazing way to get the cadence of writing into your brain and heart and is a great learning tool.  Try it.  You'll be amazed at how much you glean from it.

4. Copy and rewrite.  A variation of the above.  First complete #3, then take the scene or paragraph and rewrite it in your own words, maintaining the same idea and actions as the original.  Another surprisingly fabulous learning tool.

5. Read.  Take a break from your struggles and go read a book.  Nine times out of ten, this sends me running back to the computer.  Its as if I just need to refill myself with words.  Note: reading blog posts, gossip sites, news articles, or anything on the internet DOES NOT COUNT.

6. Take a class.  If you are a true rank beginner, a class is going to be your best starting point.  If you are an introvert or don't have time for an in-person class, there's a ton of great offerings online, and many of them are self-paced.

7. Hire a coach.  Like me.  This would sound incredibly self-serving but for the fact that I'm not taking on new clients for the time being–unless you call and beg me on bending knee, in which case I'll consider it.  But whether it is me or someone else you work with, a coach can point out your strengths and weaknesses and help you learn to implement more of the latter.

So there you have it.  Oh, by the way, you might also be interested in my post on What to Do When You Don't Know What to Write, which inspired this one.

What do you do when you don't know what to write?

Photo by moriza.

The Black and White of Writing

When I was working on my MFA, I attended a lecture extolling the virtues of not writing.  (I actually think I wrote a post on this topic–ah yes, here it is.) The talk was presented by one of the MFA faculty, a prolific writer herself.  Yet most of the time I exhort people to write every day, or at least as often as possible.

So what gives?

You've also probably heard over and over that you should show, not tell in your work.  Yet pick up any literary novel and you'll read long stretches of narrative, with nary a bit of showing in sight.

What gives?

Some writing experts say that all fiction begins with character, and others will tell you to focus on plot.  Some tell you to read everything you can get your hands on while working on a novel, and others tell you not to because it might influence your own work.  Some tell you to work with a thesaurus and dictionary at hand, and others tell you to think up your own words.

It's exhausting, isn't it? 

You say to-mah-to, I say to-ma-to.  You say po-tah-to, I say po-ta-to (But that's because my ancestors homesteaded in Idaho, and we know the real way to say it).  In nearly every interview with a writer there is always the question,
can you tell us something about your schedule?  Writers get asked this
question wherever they go, number one because non-writers think that
writing magically appears on the page, and number two, because writers want to know their secrets.

But, there are as many ways to write as there are writers.  Those of us who make our living at it have just figured out what works best for us, and enables us to write on a consistent basis.  We've figured out how to make time for it, how to stay motivated, how to connect our work with the public.  For some that might mean staying up late to write and submitting stories to literary magazines.  For others, it is getting up early and confining their publishing to the internet. 

The great, fabulous, wonderful news is that we live in a time when all these options are open to us.  For a hundred years the only way to get a story published was to write it, type it, put it in an envelope with a SASE (I'm willing to bet there are now people reading this who don't know what that stands for) and sit back and wait and wait and wait to hear from the editor.  Some people still do that.  But most of us use email to connect with editors and agents and oh lord is it every easier. 

So here's my best bit of advice on taking advice about writing: experiment with it, and use what works.  Discard the rest.  You'll find many an author who will tell you that writing an outline for a book is death to creativity–but I'm not one of them.  I've learned the hard way that writing without an outline leads me all over the place but never to the end of the book.  The point is, I learned that by trying it out for myself.  And as soon as I figured out it wasn't working, I went looking for advice on how to use an outline when writing a book.  (Loosely, is my answer.)

The thing is, writing is the most nebulous of crafts.  We pull an idea from the air and from it, create a book.  Pretty amazing, and nearly magical.  And because there is that whiff of magic to it, people want to deconstruct it.  They want black and white answers, a definitive guide to writing.

I'm here to tell you there isn't one.  Just a whole lot of good ideas about how you can accomplish it.

Tell me your stories about taking advice on writing.  What are the best pieces of advice you've gotten? The worst?

And thank you to Ledger D'Main for the email query that prompted this post, and to Jessica for discussing it further with me from her new outpost in China.