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Archive for Writing Tips

Search and replace barrier words for POV power

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove barrier words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. (Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story.) Fiction has several key elements, and few of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even in first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it close at hand:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the barrier word cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using these barrier words.

The 12 Disciples of Creativity

Creativity requires faith, and sticking to your creative faith is easier with exemplary practices to follow. I’m a Catholic boy if you go back far enough. We learned our faith in part by studying the lives of the disciples. The root of the word disciple means to show a devotion, so these 12 practices are the devotional work to do as we create stories.

Simplicity: Focusing on the immediate action at hand. Breaking the mission into the smallest parts, and doing them one at a time. Making each creative act look obvious and inevitable. Because writing a sentence is not complex, when done one at a time. Because creating an outline card is not hard if you only do it one at a time.

Regularity: To make the act of creating as essential as waking from sleep each morning. To consider creating part of the day that can no more be skipped than the sunrise. To know you can’t leave the house without clothes, and to know that you can’t leave a morning without creating something, not in full. But a draft.

Solemnity: To light a candle, to close the door, to silence the phone, to feel as it you’re entering a church of a faith that propels you. To know and believe, in your soul, that what you’re about to do in creation is important, because it delivers meaning. To feel like a priest in prayer at a mass, or a minister in a sermon, or a pastor giving a benediction before an important event.

Honesty: To do, as Hemingway said, just write one true sentence. By true he doesn’t mean built of fact, but a sentence that delivers the essence of its intention. To be aware, always, that you’re an imperfect creation yourself and that only change and time will deliver your desires for your work. And to carry that awareness to your creations, imperfect always, full of the wabi sabi that makes them your signature. To be honest about your energy and your desire, know when it has flagged after good creative work.

Self-Direction: To understand and believe that you can master the course that you set out to complete the creations. Gifts of the sea come your way when you swim in a direction, and it’s always a direction you choose. Take actions. Know that it may not be the eventual course, but any movement you make toward the sometimes-distant light of your complete creation is an act of the self.

Intensity: To sit and write just a little longer. Go beyond where you are afraid. To allow nothing to break your dream state of conjuring. The practice characterization in performance, aloud, to see yourself as that person in the story, or as your genuine self standing before an audience, with your inner eyes locked on an immutable and immovable image, like Rushmore.

Presence: To be utterly in only one place, unreeling that spool of line into the water of creation, then to study the line while you wait for that fish of an idea to bite. To be in the very moment your fingers and your arms and your legs are dedicated to anything which is not the effort of the past, or the work in the future.

Ceremony: To embrace the act of creating with little talismans and icons and regular friends of habits. For example, “I always light this candle. I always play this music. I never allow my phone to ring. I always stand up to stretch after 25 minutes. I always bring a glass of water in with me. I always write one good sentence first, even though it has nothing to do with my creation. I always read the last thing I wrote, aloud, before I make my next passage. I always do toning with my voice, vocal exercises. I always stretch with a deep bend, then add my two favorite tai chi movements.

Joy: To love a life with less certainty than others because mine always holds unexpected pleasures. To revel in the persona that I create for myself as an artist, a creator, seeking meaning. To give thanks for an existence that can feed me and feed others’ hearts with one dedicated effort. To smile when I think of getting away with doing this as my life’s mission, because I play as my work.

Discipline: To love what I do, because discipline is getting what you want. To believe I am a disciple of my affection and devotion to my craft. To work with focus to make my mastery hours meaningful, not just ticks of the clock of life. To return to my creativity on a schedule and respect deadlines.

Self-trust: To make the doubtful moments a regular part of the life of creativity, and believe in their ability to make the work a thing I will craft to my intention. To know that I am making productive choices when I say no to an effort that I’m delivered, and to believe in the parts of my creations I adore because they’re essential to making meaning of life, especially mine. To trust in the future because no one knows what it will become, and so the confidence will carry me through times that look bleak or blurry.

Primacy: To make my life about creating, the thing that keeps me alive, the most vital and essential element of the human who is me. To make all other things serve my creation, even while I’m walking the dog or washing dishes or paying bills or changing a diaper. Everything is in my life like a handhold along a staircase or tread on tires — to deliver me to the moments and hours and days of creativity.

I do my creation early in the mornings, and I can pull from each of these 12 things, these essentials. I love the feeling of having created, because I’ve eliminated the dread of failing to create, erased it before I do anything else. Being a working creative person makes everything else, all the dreams of finding and sharing meaning, possible. Being fresh as a morning blossom encourages the bees of ideas, of scenes, of chapters, to pollinate me.

In the morning my strength of resolve and devotion is greatest. I ride my bike in the mornings with fresh legs. As a boy I served Mass in the mornings. My favorite meal is breakfast, breaking my fast. And morning is the place closest to the theatre of my dreams, the majestic stage of my unconscious.

Transportation as a story pace control

Over at Kristen Lamb’s website, a column by Cait Reynolds examines some aspects of distance to be travelled as a control of story pace. She mentions means of transit as well as physical distance. People go places in most stories, and if yours includes a trip longer than a jaunt to the bathroom, there’s a time element attached to transit. You can use it for story choices that lead to characterization, too.

For example, in my upcoming historical fiction novel, there’s a trip from Raisinville to Grand Rapids and back in the same day. Distances being what they are between a mythical place (Raisinville) and the well-known Grand Rapids, I had to calculate the average speed of passenger railroads in Michigan of 1899. How fast could a locomotive like the late 19th Century one above travel? How early in the day did their train have to leave to let them make it a day trip? Did Anna have to hurry Frank’s breakfast so she could make that trip with Joe?

Public transportation gives a wild card to plot and character introduction. Driving in a private vehicle, be it car or a carriage, limits the characters to those we know. Putting characters into a conveyance where anyone could show up adds opportunity.

Themes, power, and how they make queries easier

Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing crafts from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It bubbles up from the writing. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot. Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.

 

Give your characters agency to drive a story

Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach writers on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. Agency is not a term that is common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. Building scenes is hard work, when it’s done well. Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heros and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to produce a particular result. Give them severe stakes if they make the wrong choice.

Writing to get into someone else’s head

brain-emotionsMalcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on its ability to engage you, to think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” This is true whether you write non-fiction, novels, or the blend of these two: the memoir. Getting a reader into another head? That’s the work of good character-building.

Building characters comes from a knowledge of behaviors. The Meyers-Briggs personality tests rank people in four areas, using questions that measure whether you are more of a:

• Introvert vs. Extrovert
• Thinking vs. Feeling
• Sensing vs. Intuitive
• Judging vs. Perceiving

Giving yourself a test lets you ally yourself closer with one of the ITSJ-EFIP combinations. It’s a great starting point for understanding aspects of a character. The book Plot vs. Character outlines the 16 types of personality combinations you can arrive at. Best of all, it derives a personality summary from each combination. For example, here’s ESTP, the extrovert who needs sensory motivation, thinks more than feels, and perceives more than judges:

Tolerant and flexible; actions, not words; the doer, not the thinker; spontaneous; implusive; competitive.

It’s much easier to dream up a character, for some writers, if you can peg that person on one of those 16 summaries. Best of all, since the basic types have been summarized, it helps get the plot-first writers motivated about characterization. The summaries and the types are an easier step up into someone’s head. You have to take this step to make a strong character, or at least one who makes sense when they act.

That’s an important step to get your writing into someone else’s head: the reader’s. “Oh yeah, I know somebody well who’s like that” is the kind of connection you want readers to make with your story’s actors. A plot can be brilliant and lure a reader to the story. They stay more often, and bring away more from their story time, when the actors are memorable.

Using Truth For Your Writing Voice

Voice is an important part of growing as a writer, because it’s a gateway to writing more effortlessly. Creating anything will always require effort. But struggling in a first draft can be a sign of over-thinking your writing. Ron Shelton, the screenwriter of Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, says he’s got a sign that sits next to his laptop where he drafts. “Don’t think — just write,” it says. (The time for thinking is during revision, but that’s a pleasant task for another article.)

This time out, we can look at how to make an effective voice on the page. One exercise we use in the Workshop is what I call the Mimic Technique. Students choose a topic and write it on the top of a blank page. For example, it might be “On Breakfast Habits of Mine” or “The Tears at the End of Prom Night.” They also bring in a passage from a favorite author whose voice they’d like to adapt. They read that passage aloud, just a paragraph, to let that voice seep into their writing spirit. Then they write, just a simple draft, on their chosen topic, working to infuse the voice they’ve just read aloud. It’s an experimental, playing process that helps tune up the writing ear for an author’s voice.

Voice also represents a way to carry stories of your life forward. Our most natural voice is the one we heard telling us stories while we grew up. I call it the Birth Voice, and it often sounds like that voice in our head that talks to us 24×7. A writer might use this voice in telling stories, but they’d like to be heard on the page the same way they’re heard in person. Making that transfer from speaking to writing involves a few tricks that can be useful.

Voice is essential to writing truly and deeply. Ernest Hemingway was a novelist whose stories and views are not for everybody, but no one disputes he was a great writer. One key reason for his success was the tone of truth he could use in his writing.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he said. “Write the truest sentence you know.” Writing can sound simple, as he intended. That direct simplicity brings our voices to the reader with the right amount of effort.