From Writing Tips

How to Recognize Your Flaws and Change Your Writing Habits


I’ve written before how important it is to step out of your lifestyle habits once in a while to stay creative. I’ve found it’s tremendously important for me to change my physical location, for example. I might have all the time and freedom in the world, but if I’m sitting at my desk at home, the world of distractions opens itself to me like a beautiful, attention-hogging flower. Whenever I go to a cafe with just my notebook, even though I might not have the perfect snack or the perfect quiet or the perfect tools, I’m much better at getting work done.

But there are mental habits we fall into as well, and we similarly need to step out of them and find a different place in our minds to operate from. Have you ever found yourself writing down a word or phrase that feels familiar to you — because you’ve already used it ten times before? Have you written about someone walking with “easy grace” or “knitting their eyebrows” and you realize that the previous character in your previous story did the exact same thing? We all have these verbal tics or favorite lines, these “contemporary clichés” as one teacher of mine called them. They’re over-familiar phrases, writing that has become inert because of its lack of originality. We want to read for delight and surprise, for pleasure bursts of language, but these phrases don’t give us that. So let’s discuss how to get out of those verbal ruts.

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Without This One Crucial Skill, You’ll Never Write Well.

It’s just that important: without this ability sunk deep into your daily habits and perceptions, without this skill coming as second nature in every aspect of your life, you’ll never be a writer. You’ll never write truthfully or specifically or well. You’re dying to know what it is, aren’t you?

It’s the power of observation.

Sounds simple, right? But without this power, you’re sunk. Every writer I’ve ever known began as an observer. It starts with looking at the world around you, and simply noticing things. The way the light shines through the leaves. The taste of mashed potatoes with too much garlic. The way your mother’s eyebrows knit together when she’s worried and relax apart when she’s happy. The way that this happens and that happens. The detail, the detail, the detail, of being alive.

It sounds easy. But most people who think they are doing a pretty good job of observing are really just noticing the surface of things, the clichés. It’s not our fault; it’s a natural feature of our human brains to try to absorb as much as we can by making assumptions, and filling in data from our past experiences. So if we’ve seen a clown in the circus before, then we assume every clown looks the same. Red lips, red nose, flower in hat? That’s how they all look. The cliché is a function of our brains; it’s a kind of cognitive shorthand. But if we want our writing to feel vivid and unique, to feel fresh and new, we can’t take any shortcuts. We need to go deeper with our observations.

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How to Unzip Your Character and Walk Around in His Skin

To write the best characters in our fiction, we need to get inside those characters’ heads. We need to understand their thoughts, dreams, fears, and desires. We need to hear their voice in our minds. We need to know what drugs are in the medicine cabinet and what cereals are on the kitchen shelf. We need to know whether his socks match or the color of her underwear. But more than that, we need to unzip our characters’ skins and step inside and walk around for a while.

Such intensive knowledge of another person is difficult to acquire. It takes romantic couples a lifetime to learn about just one other person, but writers need to do it over and over again. So how do we do it, and fast? How do we unzip that skin and walk around for a while? The best way might be to do exactly that — to try on that person and send him or her out into the wild. It might involve actually becoming your character for a short while.

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I Thought My Story Was Finished. But I’d Forgotten the Most Important Step.

When I get to the end of a story, I feel flushed with triumph, proud of myself, and ready to show off the story to whomever will read it. I’ll send it off hardly before I’ve checked for spelling errors sometimes; but this is one of the biggest mistakes we can make as writers. It’s also one of the most common. When we get to the end of a story, we think that’s it — the story is done, and so are we. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be more wrong.

The truth of the matter is that unless you’re the type of writer who edits as she goes (and yes, some folks do this), then reaching the end of the story is only the beginning of the struggle. In fact, our stories must go through a narrative of their own — a narrative of revision. I think it’s still essential to print out a hard copy of the story; there’s nothing like seeing the words on the page and being able to attack them with a red pen. It gives us a better sense of what the story needs overall.

In the first pass, you might find yourself making small, incremental changes. It’s perfect, you think. I’ll just fix the spelling, change a few word choices here and there…wait a minute, didn’t he say he was in Poughkeepsie? What’s he doing in this scene?

On that first pass, you might discover some pretty surprising plot holes and large problems. As you try to fix these, it will feel a bit like digging in sand for a little while; fixing problems will only alert you to more problems. The more you fix, the more things seem to be wrong. It’s easy to get overwhelmed at this stage and wonder if you need to start over entirely. But don’t lose hope! This is normal; this is necessary. This is just what the narrative of revision is like.

At this point, try to step away. Take a breather. Don’t panic. Just get a little distance on the story. Try to put it in a drawer for a day or a week or a month. Go outside and get some fresh air, for goodness’ sakes, or start an entirely new story so you can still have some joy in creation. Then, when you’re calm and ready, look back at the story needing revision. There will still be some problems, but at this stage you’ll be surprised by how much is actually good. That page doesn’t need to go after all; it’s not all bad. There’s stuff to work with here. And now it’s time to make that good stuff shine.

Work hard. Improve the language on every line. Clarify and simplify. Make the characters’ motivations clear and believable; make the stakes evident. Build us toward a climax. Avoid vague pronouncements. Show much more than you tell. Of course, visit Writerly Life’s many guides to revision. And then, read it over again. You’ll be amazed at how your story has blossomed and grown, and become the excellent piece you first hoped for when you laid that first tentative sentence down on the page. But it won’t reach that wonderful point unless you give it the time and the work it needs.

How to Win at NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year again, writers: National Novel Writing Month has presented its challenge to us! I’ve written before about Why I Said No to NaNoWriMo. But don’t let me stop you; who has taken up the gauntlet? Who will try to write an astonishing 50,000 words in just thirty days? Can it even be done? Of course it can — if you’re smart about it. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to win at NaNoWriMo — and have the pride, honor, and accomplishment that comes with having written a novel.

1. Bank extra words when you can.
The daily word average you must maintain is about 1600 words in order to reach 50,000. But there’s a problem with just telling yourself, “Hey, I’ll just write 1,600 words every day!” The problem is that day when you come home from school exhausted, or when you have a night flute lesson to go to, or a party out on a weekend night. Suddenly the 1,600 word goal doubles and triples. That’s when it becomes impossible to keep up. So you’ve got to work smart by banking more than the average on the days when you’re on a roll. Write 2,000 words whenever you can, and then you’ll have a little cushion of words to fall back on.

2. Make a plan and outline, outline, outline.
When writing novels, many published writers make an outline of where the story will go. They don’t plan absolutely everything, allowing room for spontaneity and imagination, but they have a general direction in mind, a final destination that must be reached. As you’re writing, you must keep that destination in mind, and make at least a few sketched-out notes of how to get there. Figure out where the characters should be on the final day, and bear towards that like a ship in the night heading for the lighthouse.

3. Don’t edit! Go, go, go!
NaNoWriMo is not a time for editing. In fact, if you stop to take a breath and examine your work, you’ll never make it! It’s essential to push on through the doubts and the self-loathing and just get words on the page. Follow your own momentum and let the sentence flow from your fingertips. Let characters clash how they will. And whatever you do, don’t stop!

How is your NaNoWriMo project going? Tell us about it on the Teen Ink newsletter forum!

3 New Skills Writers Need to Make It

Let’s face it: the world of writing, and writing careers, have changed drastically in the past decade. The internet and social media have changed what it means to be a writer, who can call themselves writers, and how we can succeed in this difficult world. If you’re a writer, you have to be a shark, constantly moving forward with the tide of how the culture reads. Here are three skills every budding writer should work on (on top of all that writing, of course).

1. Creating an online platform and persona.
Do you know how John Green won the hearts of millions? It all started with a Youtube channel he created with his brother, talking about his thoughts, telling jokes, and crafting funny videos. From there he created a platform of fans ready to read and enjoy his books. Today, many writers are expected to have a firm online presence. That might mean posting on Twitter or Facebook, or gaining fans and followers on sites like Teen Ink. If you want your writing career to take off, start creating relationships with followers online. Tell them your thoughts and solicit theirs.

2. Networking with other writers.
Never has it been more clear that connecting with other writers is a crucial skill. It’s a myth that writers must work in isolation; while the actual work needs peace and quiet, the other part of writing has always been about community. You can go back to Hemingway in Paris and note that he spent most of his time chatting with fellow writers in cafes, sharing his talent and helping with others’ writing. Being part of that community is still important today; after all, if you spread the word about a friend’s book, he’ll spread the word about yours! Think about making friends of other writers. Start a creative writing club at your school or a workshop circle. Share each others’ words, and you’ll be glad for those friendships in the years to come.

3. Be your own editor.
In the past, famous writers could dump a patchwork, sloppily-written manuscript at the desk of their editors and expect it to be polished to perfection. Now that competition is fiercer, what you put on the editor’s desk has to be near-perfect already. Whenever you send out stories to magazines, remember to POLISH it first! Make sure you’re happy with it in every way before it flies out of your hands; editors, agents, and publishers are hardly likely to be impressed with a story you’ve dashed off without a second thought.

What skills do you think you need to become a writer? And what’s your plan for working on them?

Tuesday Tip: Storyboard It!

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip:

Storyboard a Scene

It’s been a while since I sent out a tip for writing at your best, so it’s about time I gave my readers one. Today I’m thinking about techniques used in cinema, and how those techniques can really improve our fiction writing. One thing that cinema has on fiction is its tight, efficient use of plot. Movies usually move more swiftly than novels and just feel “plottier” than the average book. It’s only the most tightly-plotted books, for example, that end up getting translated into movies, and even then they have to be compressed and streamlined, with whole characters and plotlines eliminated, to work on screen.

There’s no reason that we can’t learn from movies and help make our stories tighter and “plottier.” Try using a technique that filmmakers use when planning their scenes. They work in the medium of images, so draw a few boxes on a few sheets of paper — typically two or three to a page, totalling six to eight boxes. Those are the keystone images or moments that will make up just one scene. Start filling in the boxes — what needs to happen in this scene? What are the essential character moments, choices, or confrontations that must happen? If you’re no artist, then stick figures will do fine. Try to picture the scene in your mind’s eye, and picture what the most important transformations will be.

The advantage of this strategy is that it will draw the crucial elements of the scene sharply into the focus, instead of letting you wander all over the world you’ve made before figuring out what you want. The other lesson a good movie teaches us is that every scene is essential: every scene features a furthering of the plot, or a crucial decision being made. It’s immediately obvious when watching a movie when a scene feels like fluff, or is irrelevant. We need that same laser focus in our fiction writing too.

Try storyboarding the scene that you’re struggling with, and report back here to tell us how it goes!

Writing Romance

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! My return to a regular writing schedule is coinciding with this somewhat fraught holiday, so I couldn’t get away without commenting briefly on it. For lovers, Valentine’s Day is a good marker on the calendar, at least as a way to do something special for our significant others. For the single, Valentine’s Day can be a cause for frustration, bitterness, or resentment, or a reminder of loneliness — but of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re single and happy to be that way, just let the holiday pass you by. Treat it as one of those many calendar holidays that we don’t really pay attention to, such as Arbor Day or Groundhog’s Day (no offense to the arbor or groundhog enthusiasts out there).

In any case, Valentine’s Day is a chance to think about writing about love and romance. Check out past posts I’ve written about How to Write Romance, How to Write about Flowers, and How to Write Gender in Fiction. And below, check out a new Writerly Life exclusive: the post I wrote only for my ebook, How to Write Sex Scenes. Enjoy, and have a fun holiday, whether you’re alone, with a special someone, or among a crowd tonight.

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Tuesday Tip: Have Your Character Transform

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip:

Transform Your Character

It wa sonly recently that I discovered a common theme in many of my favorite books. What endlessly surprised and delighted me was when a character found him or herself capable of transformation. In one way or another, my favorite characters transformed themselves, underwent metamorphoses, changed a mindset or a station in life or even a body. This marvelous capability of the human mind and spirit is what I find inspiring.

I’m not the only one there who wants and demands transformation from characters. Many readers want the power and possibility of change to enter the story, particularly in a character based way. So why not incorporate some sort of radical transformation into your own story? We sometimes are afraid to change our characters because we have gotten attached to the clay sculptures we’ve been crafting so laboriously. But they are clay, you know — they are ripe to be pushed and teased and molded. To be interesting, truly compelling, the clay of them must be changed.

So this week, try giving your character some sort of radical transformation. It might be a bodily change, like Gregor Samsa’s move to a cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis; or it might be a mental transformation. Perhaps your character will become a radical political conservative, or become cold and cruel to someone we thought he loved. Force your character to change, and then start exploring why. That’s the marrow of a good story.

Tuesday Tip: Go Somewhere, and Don’t Do Anything on the Way

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip:

Go Somewhere and Don’t Do Anything

The wonderful aspect of all this mobile technology these days is that it has made waiting for stuff so much more bearable. Whether it’s standing in line at the post office or sitting on a bench at the DMV, phones and tablets and other gadgets have made it possible to be entertained at all times, in all places. Nowhere is this more clear than on the commute or on a trip. As long as you’re not the driver (and there are still books on tape), you now have the freedom to be constantly soothed and entertained and stimulated for your entire journey. You can listen to podcasts or music, watch tv or movies. That bus trip up and down the East Coast that I do so frequently has become as full of media and activity as if I were sitting at home.

The problem with this is that traveling time used to be my most fruitful thinking time. I would plan out whole stories on that bus ride from Boston to New York, or get new ideas for other stories. I’d watch the road whip by or the trees changing with the seasons, and it would get me in that special mood, that mood that allows for creative thinking.

On my last trip, I consciously unplugged the device, turned off the music, and looked out the window the way I used to do. I recommend you do it too the next time you have to take a trip. Whether it’s your morning commute or your family road trip to Florida, try just being with yourself, being in the car or on the train. Let your thoughts walk where they want to, instead of being stifled by constant noise. You don’t need that latest comedy podcast; you’ll live if you don’t listen to that song you like the four hundredth time. Instead, think about your work. Your writing. The voice in your head that wants to get out.

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