Mar 31, 2012

Five Ways to Improve Your Writing

 by Cindy R. Williams

Writing is a lifelong pursuit, a work in progress. Writers should always be growing and learning. Here are five simple ways to improve your writing.

1.  Attend Writers conferences. Writers conferences are set up with a goal of having a little something for everyone. You will not only gain information on how to be a better writer, but you will also rub shoulder with other writers from beginners to published to famous. You will learn what to do with your baby once it done. Agents and editors love conferences. They hope to meet the next big sellers there. It could be you. ANWA hosts one of the best writers conferences available. Make plans now to save up for ANWA conference 2013 on February 21 - 23. The cost is usually between $155 - 185 which is a huge bargain compared to other conferences. It is well worth every penny. Just ask anyone who attended this year. In fact at least three conference attendees scored a new agent or a publishing deal. The ANWA Writers conference was just a month ago, so I expect more success stories yet to come. 

2.  Join and participate in a writing group. Again, ANWA comes to mind. What a great place to try out your writing wings, to let your newest chapter, essay, poem, or family history story take a spin in the real world, surrounded by other women writers that get it. I was part of another writing group not too long ago, although I learned a great deal and respect the people in that group, I did not enjoy listening to the foul language nor the graphic scenes empty of anything remotely close to morality.  You never have to worry about that with ANWA.

3.  Study. Study writing books, magazines, blogs, and websites. Take writing classes. Read books with an eye to apply the things other successful writers do. Learn skills you have yet to master.

4.  Believe in yourself. Don't let fear have it's day. When that little voice whispers or maybe even shouts, "This is garbage. No one will want to read this. You are wasting your time." Silence it! Drop kick it out to cosmos! Shake it off like an eight-legged creature crawling down you back!  Tell that little voice to go jump into the Grand Canyon, it has no business with you! 

5. Last, which should be first, . . . ponder and pray. Seek direction and guidance.

You know you have the writing gene in you, you have the gift. Use your gift now. No excuses, no fear!  Make your writing dreams and goals begin today!

Mar 30, 2012

Unintentional Pain

by Debra Erfert

It's amazing how a single, destructive phone call from a stranger can jerk you from your happy life and put a stranglehold on your thoughts. But that is what happened last week when out of the blue a woman I didn’t remember called me on a Sunday evening and told me I had hurt her feelings—three years ago.

Three years ago? What? 

As I listened, I was amazed at the anger I heard seething in her soft voice as she struggled to remind me of a meeting we had attended together. I only recalled parts of that meeting, and then only vaguely. It was a Relief Society presidency training meeting, and we were in the “break-the-ice-get-to-know-each-other” part. I was very uncomfortable being there to begin with because I’m debilitatingly shy, and, as usual when I am anxious, I joke around to cover up my feelings.

Forty-nine-year-old Sister Grudge (I gave her a secret name in case you happen to know her, and boy, would that really come back to bite me if she found out about his post,) took the flippant remark I made very personally. What I thought was a silly joke wasn’t to Sister Grudge, yet she didn’t say anything to me about it then, nor the next day when she saw me in the cultural hall of the church setting up for someone’s wedding reception “with a Dr. Pepper in my hand,” as she pointed out.

I quickly knew two things: one, she judged me about drinking a soda with caffeine, and she was very, very mad at me for making a remark about how “little” she was. Yes, I said something to the effect that she was small, or little, I can’t be certain because it was three years ago, and I can’t rely on Sister Grudge’s memory because over time a person’s anger can morph memory also. Let’s get back to being small or little. I am danged near 6 foot tall. Everyone is smaller than me! Or at least 95% of the female population is shorter than I am, so I was making more of a self-deprecating joke on my height than anything else, and if she had said anything right then, I would’ve been able to explain it from than angle. Or, she must’ve seen the smile on my face when I said the stupid remark. I wouldn’t have said something so silly without smiling, but then I don’t remember that either—the whole time-lapse factor thing again.

I apologized to her over the phone. I pretty much begged her forgiveness and tried to explain that I didn’t say it intending to insult her, but it was a stupid mistake on my part if it came across to her like that. I apologized six times. But I could tell she was still angry with me, even after three years when she suddenly spewed out, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”

I know I should’ve stopped her right there and scolded her like an impudent child, instead—  

I apologized to her again, with tears in my eyes that time.

By the time the phone call was over, my insides were so twisted, the pain I felt was very physical. I cried as I explained to my husband what the call was about. He came in on the last part, and had heard very little. I rarely see him incensed, like he was then. But we talked things through, and he rationalized her poor behavior on low self-esteem. I knew as much. Sister Grudge had told me she had issues with that growing up. I had apologized to her again.

So when does my obligation end?

I never intended to hurt Sister Grudge’s feelings in the first place, yet I accidentally did with a careless remark. Did I sin? She made me feel as if I had. This woman didn’t drop out of the church, blaming me for her inactivity. No, she is a leader in one of the auxiliaries. Before bed that night I prayed to Heavenly Father for his forgiveness, too. And for His help in Sister Grudge’s healing. But that didn’t help me sleep that night, or the next night, or the next night, or for the rest of the week. I couldn’t turn my brain off. Her words kept running through my head, and the words I should’ve said to her kept running after them. 

I said something that hurt Sister Grudge’s feeling, no doubt, but it wasn’t on purpose. If Sister Grudge’s intention was to inflict the same pain she’s been harboring for the past three years, then she did a mighty fine job. It’s been almost two full weeks since that unexpected phone call, and I will still lay awake and “rewrite” what I should’ve said to her after she told me she hates me.

In D & C:61 verse 2, it says, Behold, verily this saith the Lord unto you, O ye elders of my church, who are assembled upon this spot, whose sins are now forgiven you, for I, the Lord, forgive sins, and am merciful unto those who confess their sins with humble hearts;

I know I am forgiven, if not by Sister Grudge, then by Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ’s atonement.

Now Sister Grudge needs to be forgiven of the pain she intentionally inflicted upon me with her bitter words when she deliberately picked up a phone and called me.

Does she even know it?

Mar 29, 2012

Spring, Hope, and Writing

By Susan G. Haws

This is a picture I took last year just before Easter. Spring is the season of birth and rebirth; hope after winter; Easter and spiritual hope in Christ. 

Whether spring makes you think of cleaning; fluffy chicks and bunnies; or rain,gardens, and vases of lilacs and irises. I hope it brings you renewed faith and hope in your own writing goals.

If you are like me and get discouraged because you find obstacles blocking your writing goals and the promises you made to yourself to keep writing a high priority of your time and wonder if you will ever get past the these blocks and progress from the potholder crocheter to the afghan and sweater crocheter of the writing world. I wanted to share a few things besides chocolate that give me the feelings of a spring bouquet blooming in my heart. 

First, reading a new book that captures my imagination. Second, rereading a well loved book that captures my heart. Seeing a favorite book made in to an exciting movie. (Example: Saw Hunger Games)

Third,I wanted to share two of my many well loved quotes. 

"Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar." -- E. B. White

This next quote I found on Facebook this week and instantly loved.

May you work magic in your writing.

Mar 28, 2012

Reading, Writing, and Running

by Kami Cornwall

My high school had a class called Reading, Writing, and Running in which the English teacher would take the students out for a 15 minute jog before coming back to class and working on the reading and writing portions. He believed that exercise helps stimulate your brain and helps the students focus and learn. That was 20 years ago.

Two years ago there was an article in ABC News in which they "discovered" that research being conducted in schools like that of Naperville, Illinois, show exercise actually improves students' overall grades. Reading comprehension went way up and even math scores were up 21%.

Now I'm not going to tell you all to get out there and start running ten miles a day with a grin on your face the whole way. I never liked running. I was in track but only for the throwing events. I only lettered in discus because my coach made me angry and I aimed for his head out there in the distance when I chucked that disc. Luckily they don't fly as far or as fast as a frisbee and he knew it was coming. But we'll talk about my temper another day.

I began teaching myself how to run about fifteen years ago while living in Florida. I started off walking, then after about ten minutes I would jog for a minute or two. I had to keep telling myself, "This is not a race. The point is to keep a steady pace. We'll work on speeding it up later." Gradually I was able to jog for fifteen minutes without stopping, and then thirty. Two years ago I finished a half marathon.

I feel like writing my book right now is just like pushing through the last few miles of that half marathon. I tell myself, "Only a little farther left to go! If I slow down I might not be able to push to the end. Keep moving. I can do this." Sometimes it takes that 'self talk' to get us to finish a project. Maybe we all could use a little exercise before we sit down and start writing to stimulate those brain cells. Whatever you decide, let me root for you here on the sidelines. Keep going! You can do this! You may have just begun or you may be on the final stretch. Whatever the case, it's going to feel so good when you're done.

Mar 27, 2012

John Carter

by Terri Wagner

In keeping with a movie theme. I'm going to discuss John Carter. Can't imagine why this is NOT the best movie to come along in ages. It's a wonderful, uplifting, funny story written long before Star Wars came on the scene. I say that because some of the creatures and ships will remind you of Star Wars. However, Edgar Rice Burroughs predates George Lucas by a century or so.

Best part of the movie hands down is that John Carter finds his mojo again by realizing you can't really escape your finer nature. I love the fact that he was a Virginian, since I consider that my adopted state.

It's another one of those movies where I don't get the panning by critics (and others). It's clean, good fun with a great moral story. And you just don't get better than ERB. In fact, I want to go back and read the books.

Saddest part, because of the panning and Hunger Games, the movie is not doing well, so there probably won't be anymore. Sigh.

Mar 26, 2012

The Hunger Games Hype

by Kristin Baker Przybyla

It seems like The Hunger Games is all over the internet lately, with the movie just coming out. The media's favorite topic is whether the movie is appropriate to allow young children to see. Headlines like "Parents Wrestling Over Whether Hunger Games is For Children" are common.

I've been rolling my eyes in frustration over such articles, which just seem like bids to hook readers to me. I read a couple of them and skimmed over the comments. The majority of the commenters were in favor of the movie, and more or less as frustrated with the articles as I am.

You pretty much see these kinds of articles over any popular movie or book with controversial content with a PG-13 rating. The books are Young Adult dystopians that are admittedly pretty violent. I've read the books and didn't find too much in them that most kids wouldn't read or see in your average book or movie anyway.

I guess the key phrase here is young children. No, The Hunger Games is not appropriate for little kids. I'd treat that the same as with most other PG-13 movies: I'm not planning on taking any of my three youngest kids to see it.

I think it's a non-issue, really, that was summed up in the articles by many commenters: As parents, know the content in question, and know what your kids can handle. As a big fan of the books, knowing the content isn't a problem for me. And I know my 11-year-old can handle the stuff that happens in the movie, so I'll allow her to see it as well.

The theme to The Hunger Games isn't just about violence for violence's sake. It's about what can happen to society when the governing body has no respect at all for human life; and it's about courage and the spirit to fight for what's right despite overwhelming odds. I'm looking forward to an interesting discussion on these themes with my family after we see the movie.

All that said, I'm pretty excited to see it for myself next weekend! I've been looking forward to it for a long time.

What do you think of the hype surrounding the movie, and the age group in question?

Mar 25, 2012

Big OOPS on My Part and A Look at Numbers and Writing

By Jennifer Debenham

Now you all are here to witness the moment when I learn that 11 (date of my first post) + 14 (two weeks) equals 25!

The five Sundays of March mixed me up. All yesterday I was thinking it was the 3rd Sunday of the month and therefore not my post day. So when Monday morning rolled along, and I started to think about my responsibilities again--counting on fingers, etc.--I realized my error. I promise (though words are my true love) I'm really much better at math than that. My apologies, and I promise to be more "with it" in the future.

So here's the post you should have seen yesterday.
[Ed note: This now appears on Sunday. Magic!]

As long as we're talking about numbers, let's look at a few as they relate to writing. Last time I told you about my wonderful week of writing under the tutelage of David Farland (Wolverton). Among other things, Farland shared his expertise on marketing and ensuring that your writing reaches a wider audience.

Consider these statistics on draws in stories.

In children up to age eight:
99% respond to wonder.
94% respond to humor.
92% respond to light horror. Keep in mind that for a five-year-old light horror could be a teacher with a growly voice and a scary face.

These statistics lighten as children grow, but most of us never lose our appetite for wonder, humor, and light horror. J.K. Rowling did a beautiful job of capturing a wide audience using all of these draws, as well as characters for every age group.

In addition to those three main draws, as boys get older, their longing for adventure increases. As girls get older, they look for stories with romance. In fact, this trend of preferring romance lasts until women are in their mid-thirties. Twilight anyone? And if you're asking me, I think it lasts even beyond that! The Hunger Games proves that girls and women are making a movement toward adventure with strong female leads that know how to hold their own.

Finally, the strongest draw for men as adults are thrillers, a la Dan Brown and John Grisham.

On your current WIP consider going through your scenes and finding ways to amp up the romance or humor or adventure, etc. Your audience will love you for it!

Mar 24, 2012

Ways to Improve Your Writing

By Bonnie Harris

It's amazing what happens when you end up with a sick family. In the back of my head, I had the thought that I needed to get this done, but obviously that happened. So, I'm sorry.

Here's another great article from the Writer's Digest. I've been learning how to tighten up my writing from several ANWA sisters lately and would love to share their wisdowm. The only problem is I haven't quite figured out how to put it into words. I figured this article covers things better than I could say anyway. So, Thank You to those who are helping me refine my writing skills and enjoy this article!


Categories: Haven't Written Anything Yet, Writing for BeginnersHow to Improve Writing SkillsHow to Start Writing a Book, 1st ChapterWhat's NewWriting Your First Draft Tags: .
The best writers never stop striving for ways to write better. Here, five masters of the craft share their secrets for honing the essentials, one technique at a time.
SAGE COHEN(; is the author of The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create SuccessWriting the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (both WD Books); and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World.
DAVID CORBETT( is the author of four critically acclaimed novels, most recently Do They Know I’m Running? His work has been compared to that of Graham Greene, Robert Stone and Dashiell Hammett, among others, and his story “Pretty Little Parasite” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2009.
JACK HEFFRONis author of The Writer’s Idea Book and The Writer’s Idea Workshop, and has served as editorial director for Writer’s Digest Books, Emmis Books and Clerisy Press. He is also a freelance writer and writing instructor.
DAVID MORRELL( is the critically acclaimed author of First Blood,The Brotherhood of the Roseand many other bestselling novels, with 18 million copies of his work in print. A popular writing instructor and speaker, he is also author of The Successful Novelist and co-founder of International Thriller Writers.
ART SPIKOLis an editorial consultant, writer and designer, and a National Magazine Award recipient, as well as a longtime contributing editor with WD.
1. Flow
A piece of writing is a living thing. Our goal should be to serve it and do what it wants, to be its instrument. The flow of words from our mind to the page is impeded in two main ways—if we try to make the story do something that it doesn’t want to do, or if something in us isn’t ready to face the full implications of the work’s theme and emotions.
Avoiding those blocks requires developing a relationship with the piece we’re working on, as if it were a person. At the start of each writing session, especially if you’re having trouble moving forward, literally ask your work-in-progress, “What do you want to do? Where do you want me to go with you? Why are you stalling?” This is a psychological trick that almost always creates an imagined response, along the lines of, “This scene is boring. Why are you making me do it?” Or, “This section is full of gimmicks. Why aren’t you being true to the subject?” The device takes only one minute, not 30, and over the years, it’s saved me from writing a lot of passages that would have been either unnecessary or else dishonest. 
—David Morrell
2. Precision
In the study of traditional Chinese painting, the term hua long dian jingspeaks to the need for precision. It translates roughly to mean, “Dot the dragon’s eye, and it comes to life.” In other words, your subject remains inert until you add the precise detail that brings it, in the reader’s mind, to life. Often when we finish a draft, we feel the piece somehow isn’t working. Our writing group says they found it dull in places, or just “didn’t get it.” The culprit is often a lack of precision—the key, specific details that bring the world of the piece alive.
Develop the habit of dedicating time to reviewing your work with precision in mind. How would that scene change if you add a sweet tang of honeysuckle to the breeze? How might this character change if you fasten the top button of his shirt? Henry James told us that writers are people “on whom nothing is lost.” The key to successfully creating or conveying worlds for our readers is painstakingly observing those worlds, and then scribbling down the precise details that tell the story. 
—Jack Heffron
3. Voice
Your voice is how you write, the way you handle language, your style—if you have one. Do I? I write like I think. I like spontaneity. I push and pull, change speed and rhythm, balance short and long sentences. I compare it to jazz riffs and drumrolls. I’m economical with words, but I won’t interrupt a nice solo.
I never have to think about this. It’s me.
But does it rise to the level of “voice”—and does it even matter? I’ve known excellent writers who don’t have a recognizable voice, but have earned awards and attracted readers through their work. Your voice, ultimately, will be what comes out of you. And you’re entitled to it. But how you use it will also depend upon the audience at which it’s aimed and/or the market to which it’s sold.
The desire to develop a voice of your own may make you wish you could write like some others you’ve read. Feel no guilt; all artists stand on the shoulders of those they admire. Thus, for 30 minutes: Rewrite a page of your writing in the style of someone you admire. Don’t worry about losing yourself in the process—you’ll be doing just the opposite.
—Art Spikol
4. Originality
It is perhaps ironic that the exercise I consider most useful to spur originality is one I borrowed from another writer (William S. Burroughs). Then again, the best advice I ever received on writing in general was Oakley Hall’s two-word bromide: Steal Wisely.
In truth, originality is like voice, an elusive quality that cannot be created; it exists or it doesn’t, all you can do is hone it. But we can also strive to look at our own world and work in a fresh way. If you’re in a rut, change something in your routine. Write in a different place; write longhand; dictate into a recorder; switch point of view; remove every modifier in your text and start over—something.
Or, try this: Print out a page of your writing, cut it into quarters and rearrange them. Retype the text in this quasi-jumbled state. Where before your logical brain laid things out in an orderly fashion, you’ll now see them in jump cuts and inexplicable juxtapositions. Return to your work and revise with the best of these angularities intact, to the point they serve the piece, without reordering them back into comfortable reasonableness. Honor the deeper, inherent logic of your work by allowing its quirks and hard edges to show.
—David Corbett
5. Imagery
A successful image can plug right into your reader’s nervous system at times when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.” Which one makes you want to know what happens next?
To see how images give your writing a boost, rewrite each of the following statements in a way that shows instead of explains:
  • Her hair was a mess.
  • The garden was ready for picking.
  • I hate broccoli.
  • You always change your mind.
  • The moon is full.
Now, revisit a draft of your writing. Try making vague moments more vivid by replacing explanation with imagery. This won’t always be an appropriate solution—sometimes a simple, unembellished statement will be the most powerful choice. But you won’t know until you try.
—Sage Cohen
6. Pace
Much of screenwriter William Goldman’s wonderful Adventures in the Screen Trade can be applied to other types of writing. Goldman advises getting into each scene as late as possible, and out of it as early as possible. Faulty pacing in almost any work can be corrected with this advice.
There’s no need to begin scenes by laboriously explaining how characters arrived there, or to open an article or essay with excessive setup or introduction. If you find you’ve done this, chances are a more interesting way to begin follows just after what you’ve written. Similarly, many writers put an empty paragraph at the end of a scene or section. When revising my novels, I experiment by cutting the first and last paragraph of each scene. Suddenly, a sequence that dragged can become   speedy. Arrive late in a scene and leave early. The reader will fill the gaps.
7. Unity
One method for creating a sense of unity in a piece of writing is the use of selective repetition. A detail or remark or even just a unique word mentioned early in your piece can be echoed later, creating a sense of wholeness through the reader’s recognition of the previous mention. That recognition also imbues the repeated element with a resonance, not unlike a coda in a musical composition. The reader enjoys a satisfying sense of progression, of having moved from one literary moment to another.
Reread a piece you’re working on with an eye toward finding that element you could repeat in a subtle way, and then look for a place later in the piece where you could drop it in. If you’re unsure which one would be most affective, experiment by trying several. Ask yourself: If you had to cut all the details or images and retain only one, which one would you keep? That’s the one you want.
8. Sentence Structure
Well. I don’t know that any writer in the 21st century worries about subjects and predicates. Or believes that one shouldn’t begin a sentence with and or but or or. Or thinks contractions are slang. So I don’t have much to say on this matter.
But this is important.
Generally, I don’t like rules for writers. The First Amendment doesn’t, either. But the English language is democracy in action. It responds to its users. If it didn’t, we’d still be saying “prithee” and calling taxis “hacks.” Hence, my 30-minute recommendation is to sit down and write whatever moves you, following only one rule:
Don’t bore anybody.
9. Word Choice
The poet Frank O’Hara is rumored to have given this advice: “If you think in pictures, write. If you think in words, paint.”
This turns out to provide some guidance on word choice. If you’re stuck on a word, sketch what it is you’re trying to describe. It doesn’t matter how good you are at drawing. What matters is the employment of a different skill set, a portion of the brain distinct from the one that has been searching for the mot juste.
Or consider a soundtrack for the scene. Let the scene play out in time along with the music, or read it aloud with the music as background. When you employ a different depictive medium than mere words, different associative threads (or synaptic connections) can be brought to bear on the task.
10. Rhythm is the subliminal soundtrack in writing. To explore options for moving a reader along, choose a dramatic passage from a published piece you admire. How do you feel when you read it? (Notice your breathing, heart rate, posture and emotions.) How did the writer provoke this response? How do word pairings and sentence and paragraph structures contribute to its momentum? How do these rhythmic choices serve the piece’s meaning?
Now, write a passage that echoes the patterns you’ve discovered. If the first sentence is three short words, yours should be, too. Where a descriptive image blossoms for a paragraph, let yours do the same. Communicate emotion through your rhythm. You might let rage stutter through the syncopation of words and halting punctuation, or stream through run-on sentences. Notice how these choices support or squelch the surrounding narrative. Just as a musician practices scales until they become second nature, your attention to the mechanics of rhythm will help you improvise over time.
11. Inspiration
In my writing classes, I devote a session to daydreams, which are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. After one of my presentations, a puzzled member of the audience raised his hand and asked what a daydream was. Others were surprised, but I wasn’t. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.
As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams, but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the cores of most of my novels have come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate. Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.
12. Balance
Creating a sense of balance in your piece is similar to creating unity (see the opposite page), but the repeated element is even more obviously connected to its earlier use. A classic example: In The Great Gatsby, as F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer, he emphasizes the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters seated in the same place are shown in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid. The connection between these descriptions creates balance and gives the reader a keen (if not necessarily conscious) sense of progression. It also implies that the characters are no longer free and airy, but encumbered by the circumstances that have arisen.
Set aside 30 minutes to reread your work, looking for a description, scene or metaphor that you can repeat later with some aspect changed to serve as a counterweight to the first usage.
13. Clarity
You have to lead your audience through a tapestry of facts, ideas and events. No matter what you’re trying to get across, you have to get it across, so keep it simple—unless complexity improves it.
In 30 minutes, examine your work for the following:
  • A Stake in the Action: Readers need one. Drop the first shoe early to get them listening for the second, and give them something to care about.
  • Logic: It’s the most important element of clarity. If you’ve written something that doesn’t quite connect, try saying, out loud, “What I’m really trying to say is …” and then finish the thought. Sounds crazy, but it usually works.
  • Bumps in the Road: Check your work for brilliant phrases that you’d love to use somewhere, anywhere—but that interrupt the momentum. I used to cut and paste my elegant gems into a “futures” file; it rightfully became a cemetery.
  • Verbosity: Avoid longish, meandering quotations by paraphrasing. Save the quotation marks for particularly revealing or quotable statements.
  • Jargon: Save it for cocktail parties—unless it’s the everyday language of your audience.
14. Effective Details
The key to effective description is to realize the importance of contradictions. The telling detail is almost always one that at first glance doesn’t seem to fit, but by its being there creates the unique whole that the object or action or person represents.
Go to a good people-watching spot or a place you want to describe. What’s the thing that doesn’t quite belong? Pair one or two more typical attributes of the thing/person/scene with this anomaly, and judge the impression. If it differs from what you meant to describe, figure out what’s missing. Add as few details as possible.
A related point: Often, we read a description and think, If this is therethen that has to be there as well. Many writers then think that both details must be included, but usually the opposite is true. Provide the stronger, more typical of the two, and the other is implied; the reader’s mind supplies it automatically.
15. Creativity
Creativity is the secret sauce of the writing life. Its ingredients are different for everyone, and may change over time, which can make it difficult to keep the cupboards stocked. When you get stuck, take 30 minutes and try one of these:
  • Switch genres. Write a poem before diving into a narrative piece.
  • Review incomplete writing for a scrap of idea or language; let it lead you in.
  • Burn kindling. Keep a file of art, poems, quotes, pressed flowers—whatever ignites your imagination. Sift through it when you need a spark.
  • Grow your own list of triggers. Repeat what works until it doesn’t; then try something new.
16. Simplicity
The great film director Billy Wilder was once asked if he liked subtlety in a story. He answered along the lines of, “Yes. Subtlety is good—as long as it’s obvious.” The same can be said about complexity and simplicity. Some stories are so complex that it’s frustratingly impossible to understand them. But others (like Wuthering Heightsor Bleak House) are complex in a way that we don’t find difficult to understand, and actually find enjoyable because of the complexity. Conversely, Hemingway’s famous simple style is in fact very complex.
What really matters is whether or not something is clear. Each day, as you revise the pages from your prior writing session, take a few minutes to ask yourself, “Is this clear? Will the reader understand it?” If you’re not sure, revise until the answer is yes. Don’t be afraid to deal with a complex topic in a complex way, but always keep in mind that clarity will make you the reader’s friend.
17. Avoiding Clichés
Everyone “gets” clichés. That’s why they show up virtually everywhere. Clichés may be thought of as overused and predictable, but few people complain about movie car chases. For every person who doesn’t want “same old,” hundreds continue to enjoy stereotypical hard-boiled dicks helping dames in distress. Depending on your audience, a well-placed cliché can be more effective than an explanation.
Nevertheless, we need folks like you to buck the trend. So here are some ways to spend a half-hour:
  1. Create a cliché-free protagonist: you. Choose a career you once contemplated. Change your age, gender, race. Investigate something that intrigues you. Invent a situation that boosts your heart rate. Send your character to a place you’d like to visit. Now write.
  2. Remove from a work unnecessary parts of speech—such as replacements for the perfectly acceptable said, and words like angrily to reveal how someone slams a door. Say no more than readers need to know; let their imaginations work.
  3. I’ve intentionally loaded my five contributions to this article with more than my usual share of clichés. Circle them. Do it now. The early bird gets the worm.
18. Communication
Good writing connects with readers. For each piece you write, ask yourself:
  1. Who is my audience? Imagine the people you’d most like to reach.
  2. What do I want the experience and result of this piece to be? What do I want readers to know or believe? How do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do when they’re finished reading?
  3. How will I measure my ability to deliver on these goals? Workshop it in a writing group? Post it on my blog? Submit it to a publication?
Pay attention to feedback. You’ll start to see the types of people and publications that are attracted to what you write, how you’re meeting their needs (or not), and opportunities for becoming more effective.
19. Tension
Tension results from two factors: resistance and ambiguity. In nearly every piece of narrative writing, fiction or otherwise, someone is trying to achieve something. Tension results from external or internal opposition to achievement of the goal (resistance), or uncertainty as to the narrator or character’s understanding of the situation in which she finds herself (ambiguity), specifically its perils (psychological, emotional, physical).
Tension is essential because it keeps readers reading. Thus, in every scene you write, strive to heighten tension by doing one of two things: Enhancing the forces impeding achievement of the goal, or confusing/complicating the narrator or character’s understanding of the situation.
At the end of every writing session, take time to find and stress those elements within the narrative that serve these purposes. Trim away elements that do not, unless they add necessary color.
20. Evoking Emotion
Hemingway spoke of a story’s “sequence of motion and fact.” James M. Cain discussed “the algebra of storytelling: a + b + c + d = x.” What they meant was a sequence of incidents in a story that, if arranged correctly and dramatized vividly, will create a stimulus that compels the reader to feel the emotion the author is trying to create. Talking about emotions won’t compel a reader to feel them. “He felt sad” won’t make a reader feel sad. Instead, the reader must be made to feel the situations in the story, to experience what the characters experience; as a result, just as a sequence creates emotion in the characters, it will do the same in the reader. This is a case of stimulus-response.
Writers can achieve this effect if they take the sense of sight for granted and emphasize the other senses, thus crafting multidimensional descriptions and scenes. Details of sight alone almost always create a flat effect, so when revising, take a few minutes to make sure that each scene has at least one other sense detail. In this way, the reader becomes immersed in the story, feeling it rather than being told about it.
21. Figurative Language
Figurative language can enrich our writing, adding nuance and depth, like the addition of a harmony line to a melody. The right metaphor can enlarge our subject and offer our readers new ways of perceiving it. The risk involved, like adding a heavy sauce to your delicately flavored meal, is that the language can distract the reader and obscure your meaning rather than developing it. Figurative language calls attention to itself, can easily descend to cliché, and asks for the reader’s complicity, all of which could break your reader’s focus.
My advice, therefore, is to use figurative language sparingly, strive to make it fresh, and understand the implications of the comparisons you’re making (directly or indirectly). Make sure it’s serving the piece. In creating an effective metaphor, trust your subconscious, which makes connections our conscious minds cannot readily make. Don’t reach for the quick, easy one. Instead, take the time to plumb the depths of your imagination. Risk a reach toward an unlikely comparison rather than a safe one. You might be surprised at one you find, and your reader will be delighted.
22. Objectivity
The perils of subjectivity arise largely from overidentifying with a subject, narrator or character in a narrative, and making it (or him or her) the vehicle for a thematic point in which the author himself is overly invested. The antidote is at least as old as the New Testament, specifically Matthew 5:43–48, where Christ instructs his followers to love their enemies. If what I have to say seems old hat, therefore, I’ll be neither disappointed nor surprised.
If you find yourself overidentifying with a topic or character, try to identify within the sympathetic subject, narrator or even oneself a trait or belief or habit that is repellent or inexcusable or just plain odd. In doing so, you’ll enhance the psychological or moral distance between yourself and the object of familiarity
or allegiance.
Another possible strategy is to rewrite the scene or section from the point of view of someone other than the object of sympathy. This forced disconnect can achieve a similar effect.
23. Revision
There are two good reasons for revising what you’ve written: Either you want to change something, or your editor, agent or client does. If the revision is your idea, that’s good. It means you know what you want, or what you suspect won’t fly. If the revision is by request, remember: The customer may not always be right, but she has the money and the medium—as well as the experience of buying for it. (You can fight for what you believe, of course, but choose your battles carefully. Races are won or lost in the final minutes.)
I knew a writer who would write a first draft and submit it without even reading it over. Others, myself included, substitute and trim and pinch and juggle until the work pours like melted butter.
With that in mind, here’s your 30-minute assignment:
Reduce by a third the word count of one of your recent efforts without losing its essence. (I did this myself, in fact, with my contributions to this article.) Note: Don’t constantly reread what you’ve written; if you memorize it, self-editing will be tougher. Put it away for a few days. Then read it fresh.
24. Language
Think of your writing as a windshield. Ill-suited words can streak and cloud your reader’s view, and just-right language can be as clarifying as a high-powered carwash. Once you have a solid draft, it’s time to consider:
  • Could a different word bring even more energy or resonance to a poignant moment through sound, subtleties of meaning, or syllabic rhythm?
  • Could the setting be conveyed more vividly? Is the natural world palpable?
  • Is the emotional tone consistently resonant? Are there neutral words or passages that could be more charged?
  • Does the language powerfully enact the action?
As you polish and prune, each piece of writing will teach you something new about what is possible. Let yourself be surprised.
25. Style
Writers sometimes speak of style as if it were an ingredient to be added to their story or poem or memoir. Instead, style is the thing itself. E.B. White said it best, writing, “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, ‘Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.’” The key, then, to developing one’s style is to write, as White states, “in a way that comes naturally.”
Sound easy? It’s not. In fact, finding the “way that comes naturally” can take a lifetime, and the way can change with each piece you begin. One key to beginning that journey is to think about style not so much as a matter of addition, but subtraction—casting off feelings of awkwardness and self-consciousness, affectation and pretension. Focus on presenting your piece clearly, in a way that connects with readers. For practice, imagine a single reader sitting across a table from you. Spend a half-hour relating your piece to that reader, as clearly and honestly as possible. Spend another half-hour striving to make the piece more clear, more honest, more affecting. Then spend another half-hour making the piece more clear, more …