But isn’t this a blog about how to write? So what’s the deal with just advising that I must write if you aren’t going to tell me how to do so?
We all dream. I dream of winning the Olympics, in figure skating. I take the ice and complete the first five-turn salchow double-lutz back flip camel. Then I stand at the podium and beam through my victory tears as The Star Spangled Banner is played and I am jeweled with the gold medallion. My friends who read this tumble off their chairs laughing and hold their bellies as they imagine this fat old body out there on the ice, wearing not much more than a sheath of glitter, (painful sight, that), twirling around on skates until my tushie meets the ice – for the tenth time in ten seconds. Yes, I dream of skating, though I can’t, but I write, and so must you.
Everything you write is an opportunity to practice your writing skills. Emails to your faves list, reminder notes to your spouse, business reports for the boss, you write all the time. If your computer is not open to the rough draft of your latest tome, but is open nonetheless, then you might be writing. Write the most dramatic, funniest, pithiest, compelling sentences you can. Even if you are only telling your no-longer-BFF to pith off. Write and always write well.
Better yet: turn that blank page of your very own Greatest American Novel into words, paragraphs, images, characters, plot, the story that keeps you up at night, turning that blinding white page active with black letters. Millions of them. Because if you can’t sleep you might as well write. And if your story doesn’t keep you up at night, how do you expect your reader to be too excited to sleep?
A writer writes.
- Put on your briefs.
It’s cold out there. Writing is not about finding the longest way to say something but about finding the most memorable. You’ve done well if your fans walk around quoting you. They savor your story as they repeat it; they also promote it to your next reader.
Remember when you were in sixth grade and your teacher told you to write a story with as many adjectives and adverbs as you could possibly get onto the page? That was terrible advice from an old lady who was a frustrated writer and wanted to make sure you never bested her. How many of those convoluted sentences do you walk around repeating because of their sustaining emotional impact? You might just as well open a big dictionary, list all the impressive words, and call that your book.
Length does not equate quality. Get briefer. This is actually a tip for the story that is well advanced, the one that is written and awaiting (more) editing. Edit by excising. Eliminate all the extra words that contribute nothing to your story. Very, good, nice, big, little, pretty, ugly, that, (all the extra “thats” that simply stuff a sentence,) bad, lots, many are among the blah words that say pretty much nothing at all. They lack pungency.
Saying the same thing over and over and over and over is, well, unnecessary. Repetitive sentences and paragraphs bore readers. Trust that your readers are bright, introspective, and have decent memories. They draw conclusions and recall most of what is important in your story. Remove the chaff and let it blow away. It was garbage no one could swallow anyway. What remains will be powerful and gripping.
Get rid of the words that say nothing of merit and get rid of the sections you’ve written previously.
- Write from the stage, not the balcony.
Put your characters in the thick of the story, not at the beginning of the history of mankind. (Though that could be a great book also.) Get up there on that stage, into the active part of the plot. Do not sit back in your chair and type sentences that are distant from the scene. Too far distant from the interesting moments, too far away from the characters to see their warts, and everyone is wiping their glasses, wondering when they will ever read anything worthwhile. If you haven’t been to Medieval England in the court of the king, then close your eyes and imagine it. (Also crucial: research it.) Now pull your cloak close, pick up the sword, and seek the knave who has stolen your beloved. Walk with your characters, speak through their souls, leap their mountains, weep their tears. Don’t tell us the black knight got his due. Hang the knave.
You must be in the middle of your own plot in order to report it believably. If you can’t convince your reader that you are right there, how can you convince them that they are? If you cannot draw your reader into an exciting, intriguing, mysterious section they want to know about, why should they bother being stuck with your book? And if they are not in the thick of your story, they might as well be shopping at the mall. That’s something they can believe in.
Get into the center of your story where it is already interesting. This is where your story must begin even if the motivation began generations past. Trash the boring stuff. If a few background details are truly important, find a way to sneak them into the narrative, conversation, or internal dialogue of your characters.
Start where the action made you shout, where the characters made you cheer.
- Gather verbs.
This one is so simple but it cannot be overlooked. Verbs are action words and action is story. Figure out exactly how your characters do everything they do and use the word, the single most perfect word, that describes just what that is. Render each action succinctly and accurately.
There is always more than one way to write a sentence. Get a book of clichés so you know what has already been used and scrape all of them out of your story. He’s chomping at the bit was a great sentence with an action verb at its core when it was first written a million years ago. Lucy’s fans loved it.
Use your thesaurus carefully. Every word that is listed as a potential synonym is also a potential drop into the language sinkhole. The wrong word can turn a gripping mystery into a joke. If you don’t really know what that alternate word means or precisely how to use it, then don’t. Open the page of any thesaurus and choose a word. How many of its attributed synonyms do you really know? If the word pokes awkwardly in your mouth, spit it out. Find another.
Write the one sentence that provides the most sensory, physical but unique experience possible. The thrill your reader gets will make her turn the page, page after page. Write the next sentence just as well. The craft of writing is in the construction of words into sentences and those into story. Verbs are the most important kinds of words at your disposal. Scuttle, cringe, bustle, gawk, flounder, prickle, notch, chasten, scorch – we react at the sounds of these words. Understand every verb intimately and get lots of outstanding ones into your book.
You know what the director said: Lights, camera, action! (Yes, another cliché. Lucy’s fans loved this one too.)
- Try out your acting chops.
Nothing helps an author sense the drama and intrigue of her story better than reading it aloud. You shout, whisper, cry, jump, and cringe at the words on your page. You wipe away tears, laugh out loud, and snort in derision. You wish the protagonist had more common sense and the protagonist had some decency. You try accents, speed, volume, and you hear the poetry, the power, the flow. Words that are repeated repeatedly are exposed so you can delete them. You catch the words are that out place of and the rung words that you meant two right – the stupid things we all do that Spell-Check didn’t catch.
Most importantly, you will hear how consistently your characters sound, whether or not they speak in their own vernacular or have borrowed another voice. You’ll sense awkward scene shifts, unintended changes in points of view. You’ll spot what’s missing in action, and what’s excess verbiage. Reading out loud especially while gesturing points up problems and skill like nothing else. And I have to admit: it’s pretty funny to see my husband’s reactions when I’m so engaged.
Read your story out loud and you will know the drama, humor, and success of your own creation.
- Give it time.
Ever try making beer? You have to let it ferment for a while. Bathtub beer, as my son and daughter-in-law sometimes make, boutique beer as specialty breweries make, commercial beer like the name brand companies make – it all has to ferment or it isn’t beer, it’s dirty dish water. Coffee percolates. Stew simmers. Bread dough rises. Everything takes time while it gathers essence and establishes desirable qualities.
Writing is much the same. Write your story, edit, revise, rewrite, and then let it sit. For a month or so, shift your completed book to an unopened folder while you work on something else. Maybe you’ll try making beer.
Over the month you’ll forget a bit of the details. You will forget on exactly what page the two lovers first made whoopee, what was the speed of the train wreck, and who stashed the knife in the parlor. Then, read your story again, beginning to end. It will have a fresh smell and you’ll detect aspects that you didn’t observe before, when the sentence you just read was typed ten minutes ago. Did you write the story you meant to write? Does the plot progress and excite? Did you end it as intended? Are the loose ends wrapped? Did the hero react according to character and in consideration of all she has learned? Is the story arc consistent and complete? In this less familiar state, you’ll figure out what needs to be addressed further. Like adding more hops to beer, salt to stew, sesame seeds to bread dough.
No point tasting the beer till it’s fully brewed. No point presenting your story till it’s truly done.
Ahhh, now that’s good.
Comments on: "The Right Write – Not Politics, but 6 Points about Story Craft" (24)
All such sensible stuff! I am currently stuck on the first point – dithering and faffing instead of actually writing. Now I’m going to take your excellent advice and attempt to address that!
You taught me a new word – faffing! I even looked it up and I’m still laffing over faffing! Thank you so much.
Now on to the serious stuff. It’s hard to get started with writing. For me, I must be very careful when I get my tush in the chair, because if it’s, say, 10 PM, I’m likely to barely move away from my writing to get to sleep as I tend to work in 4 hour blocks. But I have to rise at 5 AM for work, so you can see where this leads.
When I do negotiate a reasonable time slot to work, I often begin by reading – aloud – what I wrote the day before. That gets me back into the story and lets me do a bit of editing as well. During the time I wasn’t working on my writing, I may have written notes about it, and now will apply my new inspiration to WIP.
Maybe that strategy will work for you as well. I wish you the best because by the look around your blog that I’ve taken, you have the chops and should definitely get to work. All the best, and keep me informed of your progress.
I too tend to start a writing session by reading what I wrote last time, though I haven’t until now read it aloud and think I should. By coincidence, I read the first chapter and a bit of the second at a meeting of my writing group last night, and was really surprised how much you pick up when hearing the words out loud. (Fortunately, I rehearsed before the meeting, so could deal with the word repetition howlers in private!)
Having heard about your 5a.m. starts, I am also now going to stop whinging about having to return to work on Monday (well, for a day or so, anyway!). And never fear, any progress on the road to publication will be shouted from the rooftops – you wouldn’t be able to avoid hearing about if even if you want to! Likewise, I really enjoy your writing, and I’m looking forward to hearing how you get on.
To the laptop!
At my writing critique group, I often suggest reading one’s own work out loud. You’ll hear all the awkward and repeated words, but you’ll also hear when the story flows or is exciting. Your ear picks up a different kind of sensibility than your eye does. I’m glad you found a strategy there worth doing.
Keep me in touch with your progress.
You’ve been playing Wii again, haven’t you–getting good at the ice skating module?
No, no – I poured ice cubes into the bathtub and have been double salchowing in there. My landing is a little choppy.
Oh that’s quite an image. Brrr
Oh that’s quite a fib! Grrr
Ah, faffing. I’m really good at that. SD
I love the word so much I’ve decided to practice the activity more often. 😀
Where’s the D*** Like button. I’m going to start Faffing!
Um, Jacqui, we didn’t put a LIKE button on the site – remember? And you know how techie brilliant I am. I guess I could contact WordPress and ask how to do that, right?
Just don’t faff so much that you find yourself craffing in your pants. (Am I getting outside my G rating?)
great adivce here! thank you! bookmarking to refer back to!
Thank you, I am honored by your compliment and hope it proves helpful to you.
My protagonist in Ignoring Gravity, Rose, is a journalist and she is allergic to adjectives! SD
That’s certainly original and very funny! I can hardly imagine reading an article without any adjectives (though many of us could cut out a few and have better writing.) It must result in some quirky writing. And the allergic reaction could produce some funny antics as well.
You know how to cast a character!
I’ve been thinking about what you wrote about Rose in Ignoring Gravity, and realized that your protagonist’s foible might color her perspective in unique ways. I’m imagining a person who writes but is allergic to adjectives. Her world must be very black and white, without subtlety or sensitivity. Her descriptions are limited to the simplest forms of identification. A journalist is supposed to bring an objective, articulate viewpoint to a subject, but how to do that when she is limited before she begins to view or research the event? She is already compromised and in the exact situation she should not ever allow herself to be. What an interesting, conflicted character you’ve created!
Yes she is complicated, though doesn’t see herself like that of course. I think her dislike of adjectives is based on not wanting to ‘colour’ or ’embroider’ the facts, as she sees them. But she is not reporting on war or murder! SD
That makes sense. Just the facts, ma’am.
Fabulous post – very instructive. A keeper for this reader.
Thank you, Kate. Your comment means much to me as I am so impressed by the wisdom in your blog.
That’s very kind of you to say! Thank you.
You are most welcome.