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Writing Tip of the Week: Learning to write While Reading

If you’re like me, if you like to write, you like to read.  Reading can be a passive, fun activity.  It can also be used as a learning tool for writers to develop their craft and improve their writing.  Like students learn from textbooks, writers can use novels as study aids and guides to help them learn by example and see what others have done before.

Why do we like the books we do?  How do they hook us?  What tools and techniques does an author use to drive the story forward and keep us interested?  How does an author introduce new plot points and develop compelling story arcs?

Let’s talk about it!

Pick a Familiar Book

Most of us have a book that we really enjoyed.  One that we read through at breakneck speed, mesmerized by the story, the characters, and the twists and turns.  

Choose a book that you’ve read before that really hooked you.  Grab a red pencil, pen, and paper and reread the book.  This time, however, you’re not reading to be entertained; you’re reading to learn.

Analyze This, Analyze That

What point of view does the author use?  Do they use different ones for different characters (the main character is in first-person, and other characters are in third-person)?

As you read, mark in the book with the red pencil how the author effectively uses description to introduce a character or location.  Are they verbose in how they describe, or is it simple?  

How does the author draw the reader into the story from the start?  What techniques do you think they utilize?  

When does the story change direction?  How does the main character receive new information that causes them to switch tactics?  Do they receive this information passively or actively?  

How does the author introduce conflict?  Is there an overarching conflict throughout the novel, or do things get resolved and new conflicts arise?  How does that affect your enjoyment of the story?  

How does the author show us the main character’s evolution from start to finish?  Are they open with other characters, or is the reader privy to things other characters in the book aren’t?

What are the main themes of the story?  How are they presented by the author?  Are they spelled out to the reader or more subtle?

Break It Down

Now that you’ve taken the time to deconstruct the story and its elements write down a bare-bones version. Break it down into the main plot points, the main character’s arc, and how these elements keep the narrative compelling and moving forward.

Write these points out as statements, but also quote the lines of dialogue or description that showcase these moments.  

How can you use this information to make your story and writing stronger?

Repeat the Process

Reread the book, keep an open mind and see if your initial views change.  Did you get something deeper from the second analysis than the first one?

Final Thoughts

Analyzing a favorite author’s work is a great way to dig deeper into another person’s creative mind.  You can see how a story works by breaking it down and see how the author uses character and plot elements to drive the narrative forward.  Multiple readings may deliver new and deeper information that can help you as a writer in the long run.

Writing Tip of the Week: Scratch Pad Drafting

Rewriting can seem like a daunting task, one often more of a challenge than the initial first draft of your manuscript.  Now that your ideas are on the page, you can begin crafting and fine-tuning them into a stronger narrative.  Making these changes in a work this is tens- or hundreds of thousands of words can also be overwhelming.

That’s why I recommend what I call Scratch Pad Drafting.

This Old Date

I highly recommend that you keep multiple dated drafts of all your manuscripts.  From the first to the last, having a historical record of your story’s evolution is crucial.  This is also important if something happens and you must go back in time to retrieve something you omitted from subsequent drafts.

Free Your Mind

Cutting and adding paragraphs or chapters in a seemingly completed manuscript can be tricky, especially if you’re writing on the fly.  There will be times – many of them – when you’ll be reading through and find that a section doesn’t work.  

What to do?

Have another document open that you can use to workshop fresh ideas.  This blank canvas allows you to try new things, work out ideas, and punch up dialogue without fear of reformatting or other issues that can crop up when working on the manuscript.  Now you have free reign to play around and work things out until you are satisfied with the new version.  

Then, copy and paste the new material and add it to the manuscript.

Punching Things Up

The Scratch Pad can also be helpful when working out a character or location description.  You can work to create the most descriptive sentence using the least number of words.  Or, you can embellish and weave an intricate tapestry of sights, smells, sounds, and more to describe a person, place, or thing.

This is the best place to try those things out.  You’re not affecting the manuscript while you work, and once you have the best version available, you can add it to the draft you’re working on.

This is also good as a place to punch up dialogue.  You can work out important exchanges, jokes, and other moments to make them more realistic and truer to your characters.  Again, the Scratch Pad is the place to play around and find the best version to serve your story and enhance the reader’s experience.

Final Thoughts

There’s always room to fine-tune and refine your work as you craft your next draft.  Using a separate document to work on new sequences, descriptions, and dialogue gives you an open space to play and create without the burden of affecting the manuscript before the time comes to do so.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Readers: When and Where Do You Like to Read?

The new year has begun, and reading challenges have been declared.  Most of us have a stack of books ready for 2023, so we know what we’re reading and who’s reading (us), but when do you prefer to read, and where is your desired place to immerse yourself in a book?

I prefer reading when there are limited to no distractions – like when I write – so I usually read late at night.  There’s something about the peaceful solitude of nighttime that allows me to read and focus on the book 100%.  While there may be some noise, it’s much easier for me to read at night due to limited interruptions.

What about you?  When do you prefer to read?

I like reading at home, but I have changed where I read.  I used to read in bed, but over the past few years, I moved all reading to the couch.  It’s still a comfortable location with good lighting and few distractions, and I find I don’t get as sleepy reading there as when I used to read in bed.  And while I have no problem reading while sitting up, I find that reading on the couch while lying down with my head on the armrest is my preferred reading position.

Where do you prefer to read?  What is your favorite spot in your home to read and enjoy the experience?

Some people are fine with reading in a busy location with lots of noise and chaos around them.  Some prefer reading earlier in the day.  No matter when or where you read, the important thing is that you are reading and adding to your reading goals in 2023 and beyond.

Happy Reading, and I’ll see you next time!  

Writing Tip of the Week: Have You Ever Had a “Writer’s High”?

I’m an avid runner, and one of the phenomena that can kick in during a solid workout is “runner’s high.” Johns Hopkins explains: “As you hit your stride, your body releases hormones called endorphins.  Popular culture identifies these as the chemicals behind “runner’s high,” a short-lasting, deeply euphoric state following intense exercise.” But is this feeling only available to those who exercise with intensity?  

I believe writers can experience something similar, what could be known as a Writer’s High.  If you’ve ever found yourself writing, losing track of time, and realizing you’ve written thousands of words without thinking about it, that is a Writer’s High.

It’s that moment when everything comes together.  You’ve achieved a Writer’s High when your story, characters, dialogue, and imagination merge into one entity that creates magic on the page.  You’re in a creative zone, flexing your storytelling muscles, so it’s not a chore and doesn’t feel like work.

When the creativity flows, you’re definitely in the Writer’s High zone.  But is it something you can fake until you achieve it naturally?

I believe you can.  Like running, it can take time to reach a Writer’s High, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work and train yourself to focus on a goal and stay tuned into that specific goal until it’s achieved.  And once you lock in and start moving, the runner’s high kicks in after a while, and before you know it, the run is over.

Your writing goals can be like this.  You can train and focus on what you want to achieve; before you know it, the words are effortlessly flowing from your mind to the page.  And you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and a euphoric feeling that you’ll want to have again and again.

And you don’t have to buy a special pair of shoes to help achieve it.

Are you ready to work toward your Writer’s High?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Quote Source: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-truth-behind-runners-high-and-other-mental-benefits-of-running

Writing Tip of the Week: Taking Notes While Drafting Your Manuscript

Writing a manuscript for a novel can be a challenging but rewarding process.  Crafting a compelling narrative with dimensional characters and clever dialogue allows creativity to soar out of your imagination and onto that page.  

Even with a strong outline, you may find yourself second-guessing a choice you made, rethinking a chapter, or needing more information about a location or other details.  All of these can be important to creating the world of your story.

After completing my writing session for the day (or late at night, which is my preferred writing time), my brain will run through what I wrote and find new ways or ideas to strengthen my writing.  The trick is NOT to go back and start rewriting what you already wrote.

No.  Your initial goal with your first/rough draft is the get the story on the page, from Chapter One to THE END.  Only then should you scroll back up to the top of your Word document and begin the rewriting process.

What I do is take notes post-writing sessions about what I worked on.  That way, I have the information and ideas available for use later if I decide to incorporate them.  You can use your Notes app on your phone or tablet, a journal, or just a piece of paper to jot things down. 

Here are some notes topics to consider (you can also jot down notes as you’re writing, but don’t go back and fix things yet):

Ask Yourself Questions?

After taking some time to reflect, write down some questions about the section of your manuscript, you worked on today.  What worked?  What didn’t work?  Were there chapters that lost momentum or lacked important information?  What chapters dragged on for too long and why?  Were there character moments that elevated the main characters?  Did story elements get lost at any point?

This is a constructive way to think about possible issues and changes that might pop up during the rewrite phase and allows you to have a reference point once you begin.  It can also help make the rewrite process less overwhelming since you’ve already started thinking about what’s been working and what needs improvement.

Things to Add

Maybe you wrote a great scene with two characters talking in a park.  You realize during your reflection that it was all dialogue and no action or description of the park or what the two characters might be doing.

This is a good place to comment that you must add these elements into the chapter to give the reader more information.

I often find myself introducing characters, then realizing that they are non-descript voids with names and dialogue but no physical traits or clothing descriptions.  This is another thing that can be placed in this category as a friendly reminder to make sure ALL named characters are described in some way.

Things to Cut

Even in a solid outline, things can sometimes not work as well once they’re fleshed out on the page.  Before you highlight and delete these items, note that there may be something that should be cut.

This can also be used if a subplot isn’t working, doesn’t add to the story or character development, or if you feel a chapter drags on for too long and should be cut down.

Things to Develop

If you find that a character takes on a life of their own in your manuscript and you want to give them more page time, make a note to develop the character further.  

You can also include developing the setting and character descriptions here.  When you’re in the zone and writing fast, things can get left out or mentioned and not given more detail.  Anything you want or need the reader to know must be fully realized on the page, so include that aspect here.

Things to Research

Your main character is going to Columbia University!  Great!  What do you know about it?  Nothing!  Time to get on the Google machine or the Columbia University website and start researching.

This can be for anything that needs more information or detail to make things real for your reader.  “Steph got into her car.”  What’s the make and model?  Color?  “He put on boots.” Ugg boots?  Ski boots?  Cowboy boots?  

Doing a little research and fine-tuning can further bring your reader into the story.  Find pictures of the clothing items you’d like your characters to wear and use them for your descriptions.  Same with houses, restaurants, furniture, etc.  Paint a picture with words and bring the reader into that home or campus.

Final Thoughts

This tactic can help you not get sidetracked while you’re doing the work of writing your manuscript.  You will be ahead of the game by taking some time – since you’ll be thinking about it anyway – to reflect and jot down what things to improve, add, cut, or research.  Now, you can dive into your next draft with the necessary knowledge to succeed.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Know Your Audience

Who are you writing for? It sounds like a funny question, but whatever novel, screenplay, play, or poetry you’re working on has an intended target audience.

Whether you realize it yet, or not.

So, how do you figure out who this invisible audience is? How do you stay true to yourself and your creative process while ensuring these individuals buy what you’re selling?

Let’s talk about it.

Something to Think About

The suggestions below should be considered before you’ve started writing your manuscript. That way, you can craft the narrative toward a specific audience easier, and not have to make drastic changes after the fact.

What’s Your Genre?

Walk into any bookstore and look at the headings above each section. Where would your story fit in as you look at the categories and peruse the book covers and titles? Do the blurbs on the back of the books match the vibe of your story?

You know your story better than anyone, so you should know what category or categories your story falls into. Is it a mystery? Horror? Romance? Young Adult? Even if you are mixing genres, one dominates over the other. Which one can you see your story being described as?

Who Reads That?

If you know your genre or genres, you can figure out your story’s demographic. Are you writing mainstream fiction that will be accessible to all readers? Are you in a niche audience with a unique and specific following? Is your story for a particular age group, like children, middle schoolers, or young adults?  

Knowing these things can help you shift your story more toward your target demographic, especially if it’s geared toward a specific age group or readership.  

What Can and Can’t I Get Away With?

Once you know your genre and target audience, I strongly recommend reading books that cover those categories and discovering what they can and can’t include in their stories. All genres have rules and tropes that readers expect, so it’s essential to keep the reader on your side and give them what they want in a slightly different package. 

If you are writing for kids or young adults, be aware of what’s acceptable and unacceptable in these stories. While I know there has been a cultural shift lately in what content some schools allow and others don’t. As a writer, you need to understand these rules and know what you can and can’t include for this particular demographic.

If you know someone who loves your genre, give them your manuscript and get their feedback. This can help you gauge if you nailed the genre and target demographic and if they have any suggestions about what to add or cut.

Final Thoughts

No matter what you’re writing, it’s crucial to understand the genre and audience you hope will someday read or produce your work. Researching, reading other books or scripts in your genre, and knowing what content is acceptable and not in your chosen genre can help you find readers and, hopefully, a dedicated following.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: Silencing Your Inner Critic

Everyone has an inner monologue that lives inside their head 24/7. Sometimes it can be a strong motivator that helps you accomplish great things and summon up the courage to make things happen.  

But, like all things in the world, there’s a dark side to this voice. The critical side. The side that talks you out of doing things. The side that tells you that you can’t do it. You aren’t good enough, smart enough, or creative enough.

I hate that side of my inner voice, and I’m sure you do, too.

The exterior world can seem like a constant assault of negativity, pessimism, hate, and evil. We are inundated by it in the news, on social media, on TV shows, and by people we encounter daily. So it’s no surprise that this inner voice turns against us when the world seems determined to take us down and make us give up.

It’s time to turn that around.

I’m not a psychologist, but I do believe we can take steps to silence this inner critic and accomplish our creative goals.

Dear Diary…

Your inner critic has one goal: to create doubts in your head that prevent you from being creative. It’s an insidious creature with zero regards for you or your well-being.

Fight against it by writing about it. Fight fire with fire.

Have a journal, pen and paper, a Notes page on your phone ready to use when that evil inner voice comes a-callin’.

Write down what it’s telling you, then write something positive that contradicts what it’s saying. Keep writing, and writing, doing the opposite of what it’s trying to prevent you from doing.  

Then close the journal, turn over the paper, close the Notes app, and return to work.

By writing about your inner critic, you take away some of its power. As you continue this practice, the intention is for the inner critic to pop up less. In turn, the journaling should diminish over time so that when you begin to create, your mind is open and free to do so.

Make the inner voice afraid of you and your power over it.

Fight Back

If you don’t want to journal but still want that voice to shut itself up, don’t let it get to you. Ignore it by continuing to write, perform, or create, giving it no power or control over your mind.  

Its goal is to get you to stop your creative endeavor, so whatever you can do to fight through that temptation, do so. It may be a challenge at first, but your creativity will strengthen daily, and your inner critic will weaken as you ignore its taunts. Keep moving forward on whatever creative project you’re working on, and don’t stop.

Talk Over It

If you’re a writer, you have the power of words at your fingertips. Your words. Your story or poetry. Start talking when that critical demon rears its ugly head, luring you toward the rocks of pessimism and negativity.

Read your work out loud. Talk and talk and talk until you’ve exorcised that inner critic and sent it back to the depths of darkness where it rightfully belongs.  

As you read, if you get to the end of your writing, start writing more and reading it aloud. Keep that momentum until that inner critic has disappeared, and you can return to writing with a clear, unobstructed imagination.

Final Thoughts

You have something to say. Your inner critic doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have the power to stop you. By taking active steps to silence it, you will see your creativity and productivity increase, and you’ll get more accomplished in the long run.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Take the Brakes Off When Writing Your First Draft

When you sit down to write, do you find yourself self-censoring, second-guessing, or worrying about how a fictional group of people might view your work? Do these thoughts cause you anxiety, which creates a sense of creative paralysis that prevents you from writing, and instead, you run to your favorite streaming service to binge something safe and comforting?

It’s time to end this madness in 2023.

Let’s talk about it.

A Rough Draft is Your Playground

The initial draft of your work is for you and you alone. It’s your playground to develop and hone ideas for your story, which means this is a no-fear zone. It also means that you shouldn’t censor yourself, edit things you feel might offend a future reader, or fear what your third-grade teacher might think of you if they read something objectionable in your book.

This draft is your time to let it all out. Every crazy idea, line of dialogue, and over-the-top moment should be allowed to live in this space. You’re the only person who will see these things and the only person who knows what will work and not work once you begin editing and working on the next draft.  

Have fun with it without the fear of scrutiny, criticism, or being committed.

Don’t Write to Appease Others

I’ve noticed this trend in Hollywood, where studios attempt to pander or target a specific demographic based on what people on social media demand they include in a film or TV show. The result is a product that isn’t great because they have sacrificed creativity to appease a group of anonymous people.

You can’t rely on social media to guide how you write, what you write, or how you might be perceived by faceless Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts. If you are working on a story that may have content that could offend others, then that’s the way it will be.

Attempting to make 8 billion people happy with your work is delusional. It will only result in your writing becoming neutered and mediocre. Don’t allow that to happen. You have a story you want to tell; tell it your way.

Don’t Just Silence Your Inner Critic, Bury It!

Your rough/first draft is your time to play, and really enjoy the creative process.  This is not the place to worry, overthink, or cast doubt about your material.  That irritating voice inside our heads that wants to destroy our creative mojo must be stopped at all costs.

Fight it.  Run from it.  Push through and keep writing when it creeps into your thoughts.  You can beat the inner critic by not letting it defeat you are you pound away at the keys or write your story down on paper.  Your inner critic is your toughest foe when it comes to your creativity.  Greater than any tweet, review, or feedback.

If you can fight against it and win, you can write more confidently.  Those projects your inner critic has been preventing you from starting or completing will finally get out on the page.  In turn, this will allow you to increase your productivity and output. 

Don’t be your own worst enemy in the battle for creative autonomy.  Fight back and make that inner critic wish they had never reared their ugly head!

Final Thoughts

Writing should be fun, and creating should be fun.  We should feel zero restraint when delving into a rough story draft and feel free to go as outrageous as we feel.  This also means being free to experiment with new ideas that may not make it past this stage but are worth exploring. 

We shouldn’t allow ourselves to fall prey to what social media dictates: good and bad content.  We should always follow our instincts about what works best for us and our story.  You can’t please everyone.

Finally, do everything you can to fight and destroy your inner critic.  It’s time for it to lose its control over you as a creative person. 

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Your Story’s Opening Sentence

I would recommend NOT starting your story with this sentence.

You’re finally ready. You’ve crafted a detailed outline for your story with compelling plot points, dimensional characters, and a twist-filled finale. Readers will be talking about it for weeks after finishing the book. You sit down in a comfortable chair, your computer at the ready. You’ve opened a new word processing file and saved it with a file name of your story’s title and the date you’re beginning this draft. Chapter One…

“How the heck do I start this thing!?” you yell to the sky.

Writing that first sentence for any story can be a daunting task. You want to entice the reader, bring them into the story’s world, and make them curious about what type of adventure they are about to embark on. How can you craft this perfect sentence that will keep the reader reading?

Let’s talk about it!

Experiment

You know your story, what the first chapter is about, what’s happening in those initial moments when the story begins, and what characters are present. Using the information, write 5 to 15 sentences that could be used as your story’s opening sentence.

Once you have a list, pick three you like and fine-tune them so they are compelling and can grab a reader’s attention.

Then, you can…

Test It Out

Ask friends, family, or coworkers which sentence grabs their attention and makes them want to read more. Don’t tell them about the story or characters; just have them read the three sentences you crafted and see which one grabs the most attention.  

Use this information to decide what the opening sentence should be. If it’s a unanimous vote, that’s a good sign. If it’s mixed, ask people why they chose a particular sentence. Feedback is always helpful.

The Placeholder

Still stuck? Leave it for later and move on. Write the rest of chapter one, which will ignite a creative spark leading to the opening sentence. You can add something in brackets, like [Great opening sentence to go here!].  

Remember, just because you can’t develop something solid now doesn’t mean you should stop writing. Keep going, and the sentence will eventually materialize.

Start Somewhere Else

If that opening sentence is too distracting, move to a section of the story you can focus on in the meantime. Working on the story and inhabiting its world can help you find that elusive opening.

Examples

For fun, I grabbed five random fiction books from my bookshelf to read their opening sentences. I present them below. Which ones caught your attention and made you want to read more?

[I will be using the first sentence of Chapter One and not from any Prologue.]

“Half an hour after Tim Jamieson’s Delta flight was scheduled to leave Tampa for the bright lights and tall buildings of New York, it was still parked at the gate.”  

– The Institute by Stephen King

“The prophet was drowning men from Great Wyk when they came to tell him that the king was dead.” 

– A Feast for Crows (Game of Thrones, Book #4) by George R.R. Martin

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” 

– The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein

“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” 

– Circe by Madeline Miller

“I spent the last afternoon of Before constructing a 1/10,000-scale replica of the Empire State Building from boxes of adult diapers.” 

– Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Final Thoughts

Your story’s first sentence should grab the reader, but its initial absence shouldn’t keep you from writing.  By brainstorming ideas, getting feedback from others, moving on without it, or looking at examples from other authors, you can craft an opening sentence that will bring readers in and keep them engaged.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: The Nagging Idea

You think about it all the time.  It replays in your head over and over and over again.  It seeps into your thoughts in traffic, in a meeting, or in line at the store.  And it won’t go away.

It’s a nagging idea.  A story idea or a little snippet of a story that lives in your brain 24/7.  You add to it, subtract from it, and fine-tune it, but it remains locked inside your head.  

Time to let that nagging idea escape.

Let’s talk about it.

When in Doubt, Write it Out

The time has come to let your nagging idea find a new home.  It’s time for you to write it down.  Just sit down with a pad and paper or at a computer and write it out.  It can be a seemingly incoherent mess at this stage, but you have to get it down on paper.

By doing this, other ideas may be linked to the initial thought.  Suddenly you have a basic story idea, a character or two.  The main thing is to give the idea space to breathe and roam free.  Seeing it visually in front of you can go a long way to making the idea more than just a nagging thought in your head.

Talk About It

“So, I have this story idea…” 

You can tell yourself about it when you’re alone or pitch the idea to a trusted friend or relative.  Verbally expressing the idea can help gauge if it’s a solid concept or if it is just something your brain has become fixated on for no reason.

Talk it out, and if you like what you’re hearing, write it down.  

Ideas Are Like Legos

Ideas are the building blocks of a complete story.  Even if the nagging idea is a small piece of what could be a larger work, it should be given a chance to connect with other ideas.  Think about the millions of ideas we encounter in films, tv, books, and podcasts.  All of these started with someone having a small idea they added to, built upon, and eventually used to create a project now out in the world.

Final Thoughts

Ideas can come and go, but a nagging idea is worth paying attention to.  By writing it out, talking it through, and building on it, you may be able to take a small idea that’s been living in your head and create something larger and more significant.  Only when you decide to act upon that small idea can bigger things emerge.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!