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Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category

There’s a lot of advice for writers out there, and though most of it boils down to write – revise – revise again, somehow this instruction never gets old.  Most writers I know own at least a half dozen books on writing, and I think it’s because we all wish there were rules we could follow, secrets we could unlock, that would make it easier.

And actually, there are.  Or rather: ideas can resonate and inspire.  It can be useful to hear how successful writers balance discipline and inspiration, self-doubt and confidence, craft and creativity.  And it’s endlessly fascinating to hear how others work.

Several months ago The Guardian asked 29 well-known contemporary writers for ten rules on writing.  Some are practical (Richard Ford: “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting”), some are no-nonsense (Neil Gaiman: “Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down”), and some are – as to be expected from writers – cranky (Jeanette Winterson: “Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect”) and sardonic (Colm Toibin: “If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane”).

Here’s my own highly subjective top ten list of the Guardian’s top tens:

1.  Margaret Atwood: “Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own.  Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

2.  Helen Simpson: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’”

3.  A.L. Kennedy: “Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.”

4.  P.D. James: “Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.”

5.  Andrew Motion: “Think with your senses as well as your brain.”

6.  Esther Freud: “Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.”

7.  Anne Enright: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

8.  Joyce Carol Oates: “Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.”

9.  Geoff Dyer: “Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.”

10.  Hilary Mantel: Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.”

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In anticipation of the paperback release of my latest novel, Bird in Hand, my friend Gretchen Rubin invited me to answer some questions about happiness for her wonderful blog, The Happiness Project.  One of her questions is, “Is there a happiness mantra or motto you’ve found very helpful?” I do have one — which I’ll write about for Gretchen (and link to here!) in a few days — but I love the answer to this question given by Larry Smith, creator of the brilliant Six-Word Memoir Project (“Fall down. Get up. Repeat process.”):

“My motto for writing (which is a big part of my daily existence and own happiness), one that I think applies to life as well: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Not that you should actually be drunk (the inebriated writer is a silly, antiquated idea, among other things), but that you should just get the words down whether you’re writing a letter, a report for work, or the story of your life, in six words or 60,000. Put the words down, don’t obsess over them, just effusively spill them down onto the page. Then step away—for an hour, a day, a week, whatever you need. And then edit. Edit like crazy. Be hard on words and yourself and make it better. And when you think you’re finished, edit it one more time.”

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Recently I shared some exercises I use with my students at Fordham for revising fiction and narrative nonfiction.  But a lot of us need inspiration at the other end of the process, too — right at the beginning.  So below are some of the best writing prompts I’ve used over the years.  Some I made up, some I gathered from other writers, and some I found in books.

You can approach these any way you wish: write about yourself, another person, or a character you’ve created.  Don’t think too much — just start.  Here’s an idea from Monica Wood, in The Pocket Muse:  “Set a timer for forty-five minutes, and don’t get out of the chair until the timer dings.  Even if you sit staring at the page the entire time, you’re ingraining the habit.”  And another piece of advice from Monica: “Tempted to quit early?  Make yourself this promise: One more sentence.  Say this every time you want to quit early:  One more sentence.”

So — to write!  Here you go:

  • Write about your hidden talent.
  • Write about the first time you felt dispensable.
  • Write about a disagreeable person who, for whatever reason, you have an attachment to.
  • Write about a photograph that means something to you, and why.
  • Give me your morning.  Breakfast, waking up, walking to the bus stop.  Be as specific as possible.  Use the five senses.  Take it slow.
  • Write about “leaving.” Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, a friend dying, packing for a trip.
  • Everyone has a secret — some dark only because hidden.  Give a character a secret and a reason for hiding it.
  • Write about a family story.  The one you don’t like.  The one your mother always tells on a third glass of wine.
  • Write a story about two overlapping triangles in opposition, the most obvious being two lovers and their four parents.
  • Finally, a great one from The Pocket Muse: Almost any situation includes insiders and outsiders.  Most human beings, no matter what their stations, consider themselves outsiders.  Write about being an insider.

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Sometimes when you’re revising it helps to have a specific assignment.   Last week in this space I listed some exercises that my fiction-writing students find useful.  Here are some revision ideas that my memoir and journalism students particularly like:

1) Write down three adjectives (beautiful, aggressive, haughty) that describe a character in your narrative/memoir. (Be sure the adjectives describe different qualities, not the same ones.  For instance, handsome, well-groomed, muscular are too similar, as opposed to handsome, talkative, and mechanically inclined, which reveal different aspects of the character.)

Without using any of the adjectives (or synonyms), write a half-page scene or passage that shows the character engaged in action and perhaps speaking some dialogue that will suggest the selected qualities.

2) List 10 objects in your main character’s bedroom, car, living room, or other place. Make these objects as specific as possible, giving titles of books, contents of photographs, kind of junk food, etc.  Three of these objects should be connected to the story.  Using this list, write a half-page description of the character’s space, mentioning the objects or other elements of the décor (such as paint color) that will give readers clues to character.

3) Cut your story into scenes, summary, and flashbacks. Number each piece in the order in which it appears.  Then lay these pieces out on a table or floor and see what you’ve got.  How many scenes are there?  Is every scene necessary?  Can some be combined, deleted, or summarized?  Are important scenes buried in sections of summary?  Are there missing scenes?  Is the material from the past in the right places?  Try rearranging the sequence of events.  Experiment.  Move beyond fiddling with sentences to this kind of re-envisioning and rearranging.

4)  Choose a moment from your story-in-progress that could benefit from intensifying a character’s emotional or physical experience.

Focus on the place: the sights, smells, and weather.  For three minutes, free-write sensory details as rapidly as possible in present tense.  Look back and select the most striking or significant sensory details.  Look for places they might fit into the original passage.  Rewrite the opening paragraph, moving slowly, incorporating some of these details.

5) Write three different endings. Think about what is resolved and what is left unresolved with each ending.

6)  And finally — this is so obvious I hesitate to put it on the list, and yet I’m always amazed at how many of my students consider it a novel idea.  Retype at least one full draft, “making both planned and spontaneous changes as you go,” as Janet Burroway advises.  “The computer’s abilities can tempt us to a “fix-it” approach to revision, but jumping in and out of the text to correct problems can result in a revision that reads like patchwork.”

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A page from James Michener's rough draft of his novel The Covenant

This week I’m working on revising fiction with my undergraduate and grad students at Fordham. Below are some of the tips and ideas I’ve collected over the years that my students find most useful. (Next week I’ll talk in this space about the best exercises I’ve found for revising nonfiction.)

1) First, answer these questions:
What is my story about? Another way of saying this is: What is the pattern of change? Once this pattern is clear, you can check your draft to make sure you’ve included all the crucial moments of discovery and decision. Is there a crisis action?

2) Write three new openings. Each one should be at least a paragraph long. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end.

3) For a dialogue scene in your story/novel: go back and ground it in the physical world by adding:
a. two actions or gestures that will help us see another important character
b. two physical descriptions of another character that will help us visualize him or her
c. two setting or atmosphere details that will help put readers in the scene

4) The dramatic elements of a story/novel – crisis, power shifts, emotional connections, and withdrawals – are often mirrored on a smaller scale within a scene.

Try analyzing one of your own scenes, asking yourself:
a. What kind of power does each of the main characters have?
b. Where is there at least one shift in power – or even a failed attempt to take power?
c. Where is there at least one moment of making or breaking the emotional connection between the characters? Does it raise the emotional temperature?
d. Is there a mini-crisis or turning point? Something that is said or done, however minor, after which things cannot go back to quite the way they were before?

5) Are your most important lines in direct dialogue, or summarized? Generally, these should be direct. Is information or idle chatter direct or summarized? Generally, these should be summarized. Revise to make sure that the most important moments are in direct dialogue.

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A-list Hollywood screenwriter Kristen Buckley (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, 102 Dalmations) tells you all you need to know about writing a successful screenplay:

When people talk about fiction they usually mean novels and short stories, but a screenplay is also fiction.  It’s fiction with labyrinth-like structural constraints. Within these parameters, however, there is infinite room for creative maneuvering. The key is to understand five essential truths:

#1:  Size matters.  Screenplays need to be about 110 pages long.  Why?  Because screenplays become movies, and movies need to be between 90 and 120 minutes so that the theaters can get in enough daily showings to make money.  It doesn’t matter that most screenplays never become movies, or that most screenplays aren’t ever sold.  The rule applies to all of them.  You must think economically in every sense of the word.

#2:  The story has to be compelling. It also has to be original, and you must love it because you’re going to be living with it for a while.  I know this isn’t much to go on, but it actually leaves you a great deal of room creatively.  Make sure to have a beginning, middle, and end.  You also need obstacles.  Without obstacles, there’s no tension.  No tension equals boring.  Boring equals death.  Make sure it moves.  Get in the scenes late, get out early. Take leaps.  You don’t have time to fill in all the blanks (kind of like this paragraph –- get it?).

#3:  You will write many drafts. You will not have a true sense of your characters until you have completed your first draft.  It is only then that they will begin to appear to you in any real light, and probably only in the last few scenes.  Now you can really start writing.  In each consecutive draft (realistically speaking, you are looking at a minimum of five drafts), you must connect feeling to behavior. Also, in terms of motion, remember that the reason for walking is always destination. No one ever paces or walks (anywhere) for no reason.  Think about it in terms of your own life — you’ll see that it’s true.  Apply this to your characters; always know their destination within a scene, and always know the feelings behind their behavior.

#4:  Contrary to popular belief, description matters. Show, don’t tell’ is a writing cliche.  It’s true for screenwriting, sort of:  Yes, screenwriting is a visual medium, after it’s been turned into a movie.  But before that it’s something that is read, and it’s read by impatient people (producers/studio execs/agents) who HATE to read scripts, because that’s all they do and frankly, it gets tiring – especially when the bulk of them are crappy.

Therefore, you need to make sure that it’s a ‘good read,’ which means that in addition to fantastic characters and a story that captivates, your descriptions must be compelling.  To accomplish this, you must devote an entire draft to tweaking descriptions.  So how do you write great descriptions?  You spend hours honing sentences.  There is no shortcut. But before you struggle trying to make your opening paragraph brilliant, consider this: most people never read screenplays.  They see the movie, but they don’t read the scripts.  You need to familiarize yourself with great screenwriters, just as you would great novelists.  Find your favorite screenwriters and imitate them. Transcribe their work. Nora Ephron learned to write screenplays by transcribing William Goldman.  I did the same with Ron Bass.  Re-writing the work of others gets your brain moving in the right direction. It teaches you how to convey tone and how to hone construct.  You will, of course, need to find your own voice, but at least you’ll have a solid foundation to build from.

#5 Like a fine wine, your screenplay needs to breathe. Toss your index cards, and don’t overly outline.  Let the story breathe.  Hash out a short two-page synopsis, then start writing.  Write quickly, maybe five pages a day – but try not to do more than that.  You can’t rush it.  No one writes a screenplay in three days.  They’re lying if they say they did.  It’s a slow process.  Let your brain have time to play with things.

A good script can take anywhere from three months to a full year (10 days? Hah!), and at some point you will get stuck. The story will fail you, or rather, you will fail the story.  This is when you may sit for days unable to figure anything out.  This is to be expected. Stick with it; let the characters talk to you.  Let them tell you what they think.  If a strange idea occurs to you that involves slashing twenty pages – try it.  It’s probably the right instinct.  If it isn’t, it will take you down another road that may provide an answer.  Just keep searching.  The answer is there.

Kristen Buckley’s upcoming movies include Shoe Addicts Anonymous and We’ll Be Out By Christmas. She has written a novel, The Parker Grey Show, and a memoir, Tramps Like Us. Her essay, “What I Am Is What I Am” appeared in Christina’s co-edited collection About Face and her horribly embarrassing personal tale, “Escape from Downtown” was included in Larry Doyle’s novel I Love You Beth Cooper. (Larry now owes her.)  She is also a frequent contributor to The Nervous Breakdown.

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Write what you know?  On second thought …

“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words ‘Write what you know’ is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?”  — P. J. O’Rourke

“It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know; I write in order to find out what I know.”  — Patricia Hampl

“Writing what you know ignores the whole purpose of creative writing. Writing is an act of the imagination. Good writing is generally bigger than the writer — if we only write about ‘what you know,’ our work will never be more compelling than we are.”  — Willie Davis

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