Writing Tips

So, you have this ‘Bucket List’, right? And on this list of amazing and marvelous feats you have set yourself the goal of writing a book. How long ago was that? Has it been overshadowed by ‘Eat More Chocolate’? Does ‘Follow a River From Its Birth At A Glacier To Its Exultant Exit Into The Sea’ seem far more likely? Fear not! All you need is a way to get that wonderful book idea out of your head and down on paper. Whether you are writing a fiction novel, retelling your life story, or making a collection of anecdotes for friends and family, here are a few techniques to help you get started.

1. Get a stack of index cards. Every time you think of some part of your book, give it a title. Add a few details to jog your memory if you need to. It might say ‘Wet Feet: falling in the Mississippi’ to remind you of that trip you once took. When you have a few cards accumulated, you can then shift them around into whatever order suits your book writing fancy.

2. If you already have some ideas, or prefer to jump in a little farther, get a notepad, blank journal or a page in your word processor and jot down some bones. Tell about that one funny thing that happened with Aunt Rosie. Write that one scene that keeps circling in your head. Don’t worry about all the details and getting it ‘right’, just write. Think bones here. If a particular jotting really takes your fancy and flies away with your imagination– great! If not, no worries. Just stick down the basics, turn to a new page and start on the next interesting bit. Order of operations is not a big concern at this point, so write what comes to you.

3. Put on the kettle, percolator or hot beverage of your choice and invite a friend over. Just talk to them. Use a tape recorder– ooh, dated myself there– and just enjoy a lovely afternoon retelling family stories, talking about life as a vet/artist/teacher/mechanic/fireman and all the wonderfully odd and touching experiences you’ve had. Afraid you’ll bore your poor dear friend? Bake some cookies. Nobody will complain overmuch when their mouth is full of warm, homemade cookies. (Besides, they probably have ‘write a book’ on their list too, so the tables will soon be turned anyway 🙂 )

4. Don’t worry about being ‘good enough’. Good enough for whom? If your story is for you and your family, they already love you. If it’s for yourself, you already love your idea. If it’s for the world at large, they’ll never meet you. Anyway you look at it, just write because you have a story that’s fun to tell or important to pass on to others.

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Ahh, the great I.O.U. What a motivator. I acquired a fan recently– yes, I have one. I was so excited!– and he decided, in a moment of humor that must have had him rolling in his sneakers, to pay for my next book in advance. Now, truthfully, I am flattered and said so. Here’s the rub, and where the joke really kicks in. I framed that bill, wrote I.O.U. under it, and hung it on my wall where I see it several times a day. I love having a fan, but I just might give him a smack on the arm the next time I see him. I am a diligent writer, obsessed with my topic and pleased to write. But ever since I hung up that danged I.O.U. I feel the weight of an unfulfilled contract nudging me to write a little longer, to finish that scene, to go ahead and layout that next chapter, to not let a day go by without making some concerted effort to finish the book. So, if you need a little outside inspiration, find someone who will ask you, constantly, ‘Where’s my book?’ If you prefer sanity, keep your project to yourself 🙂

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Fall in love with your thesaurus. Whether your relationship with this marvelous manual of morphemes is a surreptitious one nurtured on the sly or you embrace those synonyms boldly in broad daylight– the thesaurus is your go-to friend. Most writers I have encountered, myself included, become comfortable with certain words. Quite inadvertently we find ourselves writing: he said calmly, he replied calmly, he took it calmly, in his normal calm way, and (with unfortunate accuracy) nothing could break his calm. Time to break the calm! Shake the boat! Go, on– reach for that thesaurus. Instead of calm, how about: halcyon, placid, tranquil, unperturbed, still, self-possessed, unflappable, phlegmatic, stolid, as undisturbed as solid granite, or equable. Pick one of your overworked words, give it an ‘atta boy’ and give it a vacation. Write down some alternatives and stick them on the wall right by where you write. Yep, right there in front where you will see them patiently waiting to be picked from the rank and file and given the golden opportunity to fulfill their literary duty.

  • And don’t worry, the thesaurus, that best of friends you now turn to in moments of word finding anxiety, will never tell a soul you cannot spell its name properly. It’s too good a friend to snitch on you.

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Write what you have in you to write. The market is fickle and public tastes are wide and varied. You cannot please everyone out there, but if you write about what makes you giggle at least you will be entertaining yourself. Honestly though, there is some truth in this. You want to be aware of what others may wish to read, but your story had better start where you want to write. Otherwise, you will be bored and thereby bore your poor unsuspecting readers.

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I was asked today if it is best to write your whole project and then edit or edit as you go. My feeling is, when you have the drive to write new material, seize the inspiration and write. ‘Go, dog, go’ as Seuss says. When you really want to work on your project, but just don’t have anything new to add at the moment, then edit. That way you are still making progress no matter what. Either way, never let the internal editor strong-arm the imp of inspiration out of the literary picture. At first, just free write. You can always come back and edit more as needed.

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This tip is borrowed from Miguel Ruiz, a noted philosopher and respected elder in his community. ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is once you make it a habit. That said, the adults I tutor seem to have more trouble with this notion on the flip side than on the surface. The obvious meaning is, well, obvious. Whatever you do, give it everything you have. The flip side is that, on any given day, what you ‘have’ will naturally be different. When you are sick, your ‘best’ is not the same ‘best’ as on your top day. When the demands of life step in and start their whinging demands, your best is once again altered. Accept this. Yep. Just accept it. You cannot be on your very best performance 24/7– no matter what the rest of the world thinks, wants, or needs. Do your best and then stop. Do not feel guilty. Do not blame yourself for not writing 6 chapters in that book today. Ask yourself: “Did I do my best?” If the answer is yes, eureka! If no, take stock of your choices and decide where you can reasonably make a shift and do better tomorrow. That’s what tomorrow is for.

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Keep an ear out for interesting and unique words. Some of the best words are ones we all know, but somehow neglect to use. Is there a parlor in your house? How about a quidnunc? Perhaps that new job is not ‘cool’ but ‘serendipitous’. How about: obstreperous, intractable, culpable, susurration, tisane, minatory, confabulation or disapprobation? No need to scrounge the far corners of the dusty linguistic attic, the English language is full of flavorful words to add perk to your writing. Happy hunting!

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Edit. After that, edit again. When you think you finally have it, go get a pop, look out at the world beyond the black and white text and enjoy the view. When you hear that distinctive slurging that indicates you have reached the end of your cool, refreshing beverage, reopen your notebook/manuscript/collection of napkins– and do some more editing. ‘But what,’ you say, ‘do I edit?’ Ah, an inspired question. You look for things like commas to add or delete, missing periods, caps that have run off to play where they do not belong. You also, and some writers find this much harder, look for words (or entire passages) that can be tightened up or thrown out. Make sure the timeline of your plot actually works or the sequence of steps in that manual really do go from A-Z without leaping right over D & V. Check your tense– do you switch willy-nilly from past to present? You get the idea: check all the bits, pieces and ‘big picture’ that come together to bring your story to life. The smoother you make your writing, the more your readers will enjoy their reading experience.

P.S. Even after all that editing, there will probably still be some mistakes. No one is perfect. Just take a tooly through your favorite Madame Whomever’s Top 20 list, I guarantee you will find a few mistakes in those books too. Do your best, get some help when you need it, and don’t get too fixated on those commas.

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A story is a two part relationship between the teller and the listener. When we write, we construct a world in which we (and our characters) determine the rules. We want our readers to experience our story in the way we intended, with the same tones and flavors that we labored to produce. Where this is entirely understandable, it is also completely impossible. Each reader brings their own perspective, their own history, to our story and this causes them to interpret our writing in their own, unique way. So, when you feel compelled to add italics, bold, or underlines to drive home a certain tone or intention– ask yourself if this emphasis is truly needed or if the reader could be left to their own devices. The same goes for overly descriptive passages. We want to be clear, but there is a line between ‘clear’ and writing in the fashion of a sandbox bully who insists on everything being played their way. If you decide emphasize your text in some way, do so with a clear and purposeful intention that enhances the reader’s experience rather than dictates it.

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Write because because it is just that much fun– exciting– exhilarating– or delightfully challenging.  Pick up a pencil because, if you do not, your brain will implode with the story stomping around among your unsuspecting neurons.

After you pick up the pencil, then let the story write you. Really. Just get out of the way and go with the creative literary flow. You may feel like you’re fit to drown now and again, but letting the story have the better part of the vote will keep the energy flowing and make for a story your readers will enjoy.

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The panoply of human experience is broad indeed. Draw from this when you write. Be an observer of life– yours and out there in the greater world. Everything you see, hear, or feel is fodder ready and willing to offer itself up to the creativity of your pen. If you are writing about a clan of rowdy brothers, and you only grew up with sisters, go to the park and watch how the boys play. Listen to their speech patterns, they ways they tease each other by way of encouragement. Notice how they habitually smack the top of a doorway or nod hello with their chin. Remember that some things are universal. You may not have been a footloose cowboy back in 18-ot, but maybe you have moved time and time again or driven across the country a few times. Maybe you’ve been unemployed and anxious of the uncertainty of an income. With a few adjustments, these experiences can be transferred to your fictitious cowboy character, your setting or even the plot line.  The authenticity generated by gleaning emotions, body language, or interactions from your own experiences will help make your writing feel ‘real’ to your readers.

Example:  I once saw a man in a dumpster, all of him, from scruffy head to the bare toes peeking out of his worn out sneakers. Clearly he was either searching for a lost wedding ring or his next supper. I flipped a coin and bought the gentleman a hot dog and a pop. With a hesitance I have no doubt stemmed from a desire to be polite, this prospective dumpster diner looked right at me and said, “No thank you, I’m a vegetarian.” Burying an urge to offer him the paint scraper in my trunk so he could pry last week’s crusted up, cast-out sprig of secondhand lettuce off the walls of the miasmic rusted-over urban garbage receptacle, I wished him well and drove away. I have no idea yet how this will work its way into my western genre story line, but it’s real and it’s goldang funny. So in it will go, to the hopeful amusement of readers. (Who may, in fact, never believe such a scene could be drawn from real experience.)

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