We published a four-part series on “Becoming a Writer” in 2014-2015 issues of the Quarterly. We revisited writing tips, briefly, in our last Quarterly. We also shared some tips from memoir writer D.G. Kaye in an interview with her in 2015.
Time for another visit—with some new tips from the publisher and author, John Maberry. Also a potpourri of tips from his eclectic blog—Views from Eagle Peak. Plus some tips from that four-part series.
So, no need for a nutshell—that’s the whole enchilada in the introduction above.
New and “Best of” Tips
The publisher has his eclectic blog, Views from Eagle Peak. He also John Maberry’s Writing–featuring stand-alone material and snippets from works in progress. Here’s new tips and some condensed suggestions from those blogs.
See the forest, write the trees. You know the old saying, “can’t see the forest for the trees.”
So, when you don’t know what comes next, step back. Look at the forest—or in this case, the big picture.
If you’re a full-in planner with an outline, character sketches, scenes, etc., maybe you don’t have this problem. I’m not one of them. Not a stream of consciousness guy either.
More like a Goldilocks approach in everything, in writing and other things.
If you’re anything like me, visualizing the forest will help you write about the trees. You’re the writer—fly up and view the story from above. When you see the path, drop back down.
Beware whose music you are using
You create a great slide show, a video or a some other media for your blog. You put some background music in the upload. But you don’t own it. OOPS! Suddenly, a big message covers your upload, saying it can’t be viewed because it violates copyright.
Don’t use music that you don’t own or don’t have permission to use. Owners are constantly searching the web for someone making use of their tunes—even just as background music. They discover your item and send a DMCA takedown request to YouTube.
Sounds YOU are hearing, on the other hand, can be a plus
Listening to music can do two things:
- Drown out distractions, especially with headphones or earbuds
- Serve as inspiration for a story, scene, character, etc.– either from lyrics or the melody
Inspiration is fine, but be very careful—even a single line of lyrics used without express permission from the rights holder can be an expensive mistake. So use your own words—how a song moved you or the scene/topic/character trait it brought you.
Identify with your characters
If you don’t, how do you expect your readers to? Some people say you should talk to your characters. Lately I’ve found myself talking like my characters, more than to them.
If you can do that, you can build better dialogue. You can better identify with your characters. Caution–be careful trying on the verbal tics of others, they might find it a tad offensive. For more on this topic, check out this post on Views.
They’re not just for an exercise, as a writing practice tool. They can be the start of a story—a title, a sketch, etc. Don’t believe it? I love them. Here’s a short sample. Click here for more.
Consider this short passage from Rabindranath Tagore,
“Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into dreary desert sand of dead habit”
You could go somewhere with “reason,” “dreary desert,” “dead habit,” or more–especially if you examine the entire poem. Here’s a link to one of many layouts for it (I have no idea how Tagore originally presented it).
I went with “the clear stream of reason” to create a scifi backstory, which likely has no relation to Tagore’s point of “Let My Country Awake.”
The clear stream of reason flowed from the mind spring of Thallos. All who partook of its waters found enlightenment–the wisdom of the ancients. The colonists knew nothing of this. They came to raise crops, assuming the stream to be a great resource promising productive land. They weren’t entirely mistaken, but were surprised when what they planted evolved into something quite different than expected. Nutritious and flavorful produce, but not the same as they had grown on their former planet. After consuming the harvest for a time, they began seeing each other and Thallos differently. With a new awareness, they realized the plants had been enlightened by the waters as much as they had.
In fact, I have this passage saved in a folder to use in a future story. So, sorry, you can’t use this one. 😉
Write from Life
You’ve heard this advice before. But how do you apply it? One way (there are more) is to combine what you see around you with a little imagination. Here’s an example.
From a Denny’s window, I saw a group of people coming down a hill across the street. All were carting bedrolls, backpacks, pillows and luggage. The amorphous, unorganized mass waited while one held a phone to his ear. Eventually, they came into the Denny’s, leaving their stuff in the foyer.
All were teenage males, except for the apparent leader–a bit older. At his request, the restaurant staff arranged tables so that the dozen or so youth were across from one another. They had no food, only water or drinks.
A little more background: There were no camping facilities within walking distance, especially on a 95 degree day. How did they get there? Did a small bus or a couple extended vans break down? Were they biding time until repairs could be made or substitute transportation be provided? Neither a pillow nor a piece of rolling luggage were typical camping gear.
So, what could a writer make of this observation? I could find the makings of a short story or a scene from a longer piece with a little imagination. How about you?
Tips from Becoming a Writer Part 2
If all of this looks familiar, you may have read this article from the May 2015 Quarterly. For those of you who haven’t, it’s new; for those who have, it’s a refresher. There may be a few edits or revisions here and there from the 2015 article. Including some formatting changes to make it all more readable.
If your grammar, syntax, sentence structure and the like are not optimal, you can get help through classes or from books. Like the ones listed below:
The venerable Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss with its somewhat more humorous way of explaining the importance of grammar and punctuation.
Less didactic but very helpful books like–the previously mentioned Stephen King book, and:
- William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (for writing non-fiction)
- Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
- Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life
- Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way
- Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing
- Philip Gerard’s Writing a Book That Makes a Difference (for both fiction and non-fiction)
- Writing Creative Nonfiction
- Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir—to name just a few.
- See my reviews of the last three books on Views from Eagle Peak
You can find most of these books in your local library. Get them at used bookstores, new from brick and mortar stores or online. Many are also available as eBooks in multiple formats.
For many more books on the inspirational side, you can also see Stephen King’s list of books that have influenced him, at this site.
The section on general writing tips means what it says–suggestions that apply to both fiction and non-fiction. Further along, there are concepts and tips that apply specifically to one or the other.
Some of the tips may seem simple or obvious but many people still overlook them. The most important advice is this: there are no hard and fast rules to technique; there are strong advocates for one prescription or another but ultimately you have to find what works for you and not feel you are “doing it wrong” if you don’t follow some “expert’s” advice on how to write.
It is important, nonetheless, to know what those “rules” are so that you can break them not out of ignorance or impunity but because you know when it’s OK and again, what works for you and your writing.
General writing tips
Find a quiet, distraction free writing space if possible—make it so with headphones, a door or other means. Writing is a mental exercise; don’t try to multitask.
Devote a solid block of time, whenever possible—build up to a few hours, if your circumstances permit, from 30 minutes. Otherwise, you will find it difficult to focus and get into a flow.
Make use of the writing tools that work best for you—try pens, laptops, desktops even typewriters if you have access one, until you find a level of comfort.
Set meaningful goals or determinations for progress—words or pages, time, etc. Here is an example of varying opinions or advice: some will suggest you must set a goal of X number of words no matter what; others will say you must spend at least a certain number of minutes/hours. It is up to you, in analyzing your own level of self-discipline versus laziness or procrastination (among other things) to make your own commitment in a way that makes sense to you. Artificial rules won’t help and will only frustrate you.
Have everything you need to be comfortable—clothes, food, beverages and the right chair; you can’t write if you are uncomfortable. Poor posture is not good for the body or the mind. Use a keyboard properly to avoid wrist problems. Blink and look away from a monitor from time to time to protect your eyes.
If you are using a computer, consider what software you will use–Word-processing software will work for a start. Eventually you might want to consider specialized software such as Scrivener (usable on both Mac and Windows). If you want to blog or put stuff up on the web, you don’t necessarily have to start with a word-processor but it’s not a bad idea to get your work together in the final form you want before you load it up on the web.
Is there such a thing as “writer’s block?”—You have heard the phrase often enough. It means you are staring at a blank page and can’t figure out what to put there. Some say it’s a myth or it really is something else. Don’t get hung up on the concept. Consider these options to deal with that empty page:
- Get up and walk around for a few minutes. Step outside for a change of perspective, fresh air, etc.
- Open or pick up another writing project and work on it for a while, then come back to the one that isn’t moving for you
- Re-examine notes, an outline or whatever planning document you may have
- Just work through it, if you can, putting something/anything on the page; you can always change it later
- Switch media—put down the pen and boot up the computer or vice versa
- Get some coffee, tea or another beverage; have a snack or a meal
- Only as a last resort, shut it down for the time being and come back to it later—but be sure you do
Nonfiction Writing Tips
There are only two major categories of prose—fiction and non-fiction. The distinguishing feature of non-fiction is that it should be true. That doesn’t mean it can’t be creative—especially for those writing memoirs and personal essays.
Which simply means that these and similar types of writing can make use of a narrative style which includes imagery, potentially a story arc and, where necessary to proceed, can sometimes use dialogue embellished with what the writer honestly believes is reflective of what individuals might have said during conversations 40-50 years ago or supplement details of events that follow logically.
Could anyone truly believe that Frank McCourt accurately recalled every conversation and every incident in his bestselling and critically acclaimed Angela’s Ashes? I don’t, yet I’m sure it’s close to reality. But when you’re writing most other non-fiction, truth is critical. More on that and other tips below:
Be truthful; facts and not fiction are what you must write or risk justified criticism—exceptions:
- Memoirs and personal essays, as noted above, may necessarily require some invention
- Opinion pieces, which represent your beliefs and conclusions about possibly controversial issues where the facts are in dispute (climate change, for example)
- Satirical essays, which often might include hyperbole an inventions but aren’t really fiction if their point is to criticize or suggest change
Do the research necessary to be truthful—Google and Wikipedia may be a starting point today, but unless you are writing an item discussing the value of them versus other sources, they are not sufficient.
Primary research trumps relying on secondary sources (see Google and Wikipedia, above); that means going to the original studies, reports, etc., on which the secondary sources rely.
Reference librarians are helpful–yes, they still exist! That’s what they chose to do with their lives and they can direct you to sources you might not think of or find on your own. Just don’t expect them to do your research for you.
If you are a scientist or researcher yourself in any field and you are writing, you already know much of this—especially the need for data, statistics, analyses, etc. to back up conclusions but these tips are not for meant for your publication of studies in peer journals but for articles or features intended for general audiences so,
- Avoid jargon and write at a grade level of readability that a general audience can understand the meaning and import of what you are writing.
- Cite sources and attribute facts and conclusions of others properly.
History is often written by victors or survivors, whose versions of past events are not necessarily consistent. You do well to present the differing viewpoints, especially on the significance attached to their interpretation. If you are taking a position on which is correct, defending your position is also wise.
No matter whether it’s a short piece or a full-length book, you should consider how and why your work is different or better than any others out there on the same topic;
- If not, why should anyone bother reading it—the web is full of regurgitated tips or news about making use of this technological advancement or that
- Make yours fresh by putting a new spin on it or distinguishing it from what others have written
Establish your authority through work and educational credentials, as well as commenting on the books or writings of others via the web, magazines, etc., to the point that by the time that you publish your item or book your expertise will be recognized.
Fiction Writing Tips
Fiction, no matter the length or the genre, has a number of elements that you probably already are well aware of:
Plot—the narrative or storyline of events that make up the story; depending on the length and complexity of the work, there may be a number of subplots.
Protagonist—the main character, often at odds with an agonist also known as the bad guy.
Secondary characters with whom the protagonist interacts.
Setting—where the story takes place; there could be multiple settings for different scenes but there is still likely a main focal place for the story.
Theme—the overarching issue or concern of the story; it could be love, war, man’s inhumanity to man, etc.
Conflict—an internal or external challenge to the protagonist; how the protagonist deals with the events that precipitate the conflict are an essential part of the plot.
Climax—when the plot elements of the conflict come to a head, a time when the tensions reach the maximum.
Resolution—how the protagonist and any other essential characters resolve the climax, the payoff of the story, if you will.
So how do you make these disparate elements into a story—anywhere from flash fiction to a novel?
You need a beginning and an end. A good story, no matter its length, connects readers to the protagonist so that they empathize with him/her—feeling what they feel.
A story arc introduces the protagonist and through a series of event escalates the conflict to the climax and resolution. Along the way, the story shows the possible character flaws, shortcomings or other reasons that make the challenges the protagonist faces difficult.
The speed at which the story progresses from beginning to end depends in part on the genre (action/thrillers are typically fast-paced and sacrifice character development to the plot; romances, mainstream drama and other stories may take a more deliberate pace) and in part on whether it is a short story or novel.
Point of View—the perspective from which the story is told; from whose head is the story being told to the reader; for an excellent explanation check out this site. There are many more out there–just search the web.
First person (“I walked along the shady trail”) common in memoirs and autobiographies.
Third person (“Fred walked along the shady trail”)—which can be limited or omniscient; most books today use limited third person (inside the head of one person only).
Second person (rarely used, talking directly to readers).
POV can and often does switch from scene to scene but not within a scene; imagine if two people are talking and then the story first offers one person’s thoughts about the other and then the story switches to the other character’s view—very confusing, and frustrating to readers.
Flashback—A character’s thoughts go back to events of the past; used judiciously for a setup or for character definition and development it works well but done too often in one story it can be confusing.
The beginning—ideally, the opening of any story will cause a reader to want to continue reader; hence, the advice to begin with a “hook.”
- Set up an action sequence—something is happening with or to the main character
- Do a flashback of some event from the past that sets up a plotline
- Introduces the main character or another key character
Show don’t tell—Tears fell from Lisa’s eyes at the viewing. Her knuckles whitening as she gripped the seat back before her, “What will I do without him?” she voiced her thoughts aloud. [an example of showing] Lisa cried at the viewing, overcome by the loss of her beloved husband Bill. [the same scene told instead of shown].
Avoid unnecessary adverbs—“Stop it,” Sal yelled loudly (loudly is redundant); “Stop it,” Sal yelled; “Stop it,” Sal said loudly—yelled does the work of expressing Sal’s emotion without need of loudly and much better than by modifying said with loudly.
Speaking of said—many writers and editors insist that said works fine to attribute dialogue to a character:
He said, she said is fine—as opposed to “Jack laughed,” or “Jill yelled.” Or hissed, laughed, growled, etc. The emotion can be better expressed in a “beat,” as in “Jill said, her face reddening as her voice rose.”
Often, if not most of the time, dialogue attribution can be omitted altogether if only two characters are having a conversation. It should be obvious who is speaking if they are alternating.
Be sparing in the use of cliche’s—consider “It rained cats and dogs, soaking his pants and shoes” versus “The rain fell hard, bouncing drops soaking his pants and shoes the moment he stepped outside.”
Dribble out character details—dialogue works well for this, as well as responses to events during scenes. It’s more interesting and keeps reader’s attention learning about the characters as they go along, it’s another aspect of showing versus telling. Don’t try to do a biography of the protagonist and other major characters all at once–although having one in your story notes are great to draw from as you need them.
Reveal a character’s faults or flaws—it’s OK for the main character to be imperfect, in fact it may be essential in presenting the scope of the conflict and getting through the climax to the resolution as the character succeeds despite his or her shortcomings—which most humans have, even heroes.
If you can plan, do; if you can’t, don’t—there are two (or more) camps of writers: those who swear by complete planning with outlines, character sketches, setting descriptions, plot lines, etc. and then there are those who completely wing it, letting the characters take the story where it should go; you will have to decide what works for you—try them both on for size and see which you prefer.
Get it all down, then revise—this is a mantra sworn to by many, for the sake of not getting bogged down by constantly editing while you are trying to complete a story. It may be hard to resist but if you can, you might find it worthwhile. The first draft—is only that (and should be) and if are constantly revising as you go, you’ll never get to the end!
Polish and revise until you can do more—except that will probably never happen; you just have to stop and say enough but then you need to have beta readers and/or an editor look it over, preferably both, if you want you have written to be something others will really want to read and pay for to do so.
Use spellcheck and grammar/usage checking if using a word processor—it’s far from perfect but it will give you a start on editing; it won’t catch everything, it will annoy you with its recommendations that are incorrect or unhelpful but it still is useful.