5 Ways to Improve Your Writing This Year

We can sometimes be so focused on improving how we write in our respective genre, buying craft after craft book on how to concoct the perfect mystery, that we forget great writing transcends mere labels.

So here are five ways you can improve your writing skills in a low stakes environment. (You know, when you’re sick of working on that novel that’s been banging around for ten years and not getting any closer to done.)

1. Go Strunk & White on your ass

No, seriously. Pick up the latest edition of your preferred style guide, study it, quiz yourself, then proofread your work. The art of great writing is not limited to theme and character and voice. It’s about your command of the English language and how you use it to articulate your thoughts. It’s sentence level stuff–grammar, punctuation, usage, composition. Using the Oxford Comma. (Hint, hint.)

Let’s face it, do you really know when to use a dash and when to use an em dash? Or when to use the past perfect tense if the rest of your story is just in past tense? Or how to make the plural of letters, numbers, and names ending in -s?

Classic guides, including, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr and E. B. White, can show you how, and there’s even a workbook to practice. Or check out sites such as Grammar Girl.

Eighth grade was forever ago for most of us, but you won’t have to diagram sentences very long before you master the elements of style and the art of great writing. You may even find yourself silently judging poorly punctuated texts from your significant other.

2. Read and imitate your favorite author

There’s nothing wrong with trying to write like your favorite author. After all, there’s a reason why he or she is your favorite. What is it? What makes you pull her next book off the library shelf as soon as you put one down? What makes you stand in line at the bookstore or pre-order his latest novel?

Make a list of your favorite authors, then list the reasons that drew you to them. The best part is you get to reread any to remind yourself.

If you can identify what it is you like about how these authors write and dissect how they do it, you can practice incorporating these skills into your own writing. And by practice, I mean trying them out in a low stakes environment first. Think, something you don’t mind burning at the stake when you’re done. A warmup, if you will. Something to pass the time while on the subway, during boring business meetings, at family holiday gatherings.

You never know, you may find someone admitting to imitating your style some day.

3. Write one scene three different ways

Here’s another warmup exercise that shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Write one scene then rewrite it two more times using one of the following methods:

  • Write a scene from three different points of view: first, second, limited third, omniscient third. (How do each of these affect your word choice, sentence structure, tone, voice?)
  • Write a scene in three different tenses: past, present, future, or if you’re really hardcore past perfect. (What do you notice when someone views the scene from the past–are they nostalgic, depressed, insightful? From the future–are they filled with anxiety or hope? In the present–does everything flow peacefully or move too fast?)
  • Write a scene to convey three different moods: excited, scared, desperate, ecstatic, pessimistic, etc. (Again, how does this affect word choice and sentence structure? What details do you focus on? Does setting play an important role or is it the character’s feelings and reactions?)
  • Write a scene using three different genre voices: noir, flowery Victorian, Hobbit. (See #2 above and use inspiration from your favorite authors.)
  • Write a scene with three different narrators: This is different from using three different points of view because now you will be writing the scene from three different characters’ perspectives. (For instance, how would a victim, a killer, and a detective describe the same scene of a crime. Use the same point of view for each iteration, e. g. first person, to make it easier.)

You can use a random scene generator like this or this to get you started.

4. Join a writing group

A writing group is different from a critique group. I belong to two writing groups. We meet informally and we usually always write on the same prompt that is given at that meeting. One person from each group volunteers to bring in a prompt–it can be anything from a first line, an exercise on descriptive writing, or a template for an entire short story–then we write for about 30-40 minutes, depending on how long people need to finish up last thoughts or sentences. (I’m usually the last one done.) At the end, we volunteer to read what we’ve written. Some members never read, some always do, and some read depending on the night.

We generally add comments of praise and sometimes suggestions if the writer requests it, but we never point out flaws or what could have been done better. We also don’t bring in larger pieces or WIPs to be critiqued by the whole group unless it is agreed upon ahead of time.

And don’t worry about finding a writing group whose members write in the same genre or have the same level of writing experience as you. In my groups, there are children’s writers, women’s fiction writers, academic writers, poets, technical writers, and genre writers. Some women have been published, some self-published, and some never published. Some members don’t even want to be “writers;” they just want to get out of their house. Some women have never taken a formal writing class. Others have devoted their entire education to it.

You’d be surprised at what you can learn from a diverse group of writers. You can obtain a similar effect by checking out online short story blogs. (You can find a list here, though I can’t vouch for any of them.)

Writing groups are perfect for low-stakes practice and the prompts offered should aim to improve creative writing skills in general. If you’re looking for specific feedback or how to whip your manuscript into publishable shape, you may want to join a formal critique group in which participants have an extended period of time prior to the meeting to read your work and formulate thoughtful comments on how to get you where you want to be.

5. Practice on your own

If you don’t like the idea of joining a writing group, reading your work in front of others, or leaving your cat home alone, you can get the same benefit by practicing on your own.

The best way to practice is to compile a list of writing prompts. Writers Digest has free ones (they also have a link for writing groups) or you can buy Storymatic cards.

If you’d rather come up with your own ideas, here is an example of a prompt we did in one of our groups that you can tailor. (I don’t know the exact origin of it, so you may have seen it elsewhere.)

On seven slips of paper, make one entry for each item below:

  • a male character
  • a female character
  • what he said (line of dialogue)
  • what she said (line of dialogue)
  • where they met
  • where the story takes place
  • what happened in the end

Repeat this process at least five times. The more choices the better.

Now, place all the entries for each item into separate bags (or boxes or bowls or baseball hats or whatever) and shake them up. You should have six male characters to randomly choose from and so on.

Pick one entry from each bag/box/bowl, set your timer, and incorporate all of these items into one story.

Don’t worry if you suck at first. Or for a long time. That’s not the point.

When I first joined my writing groups, I couldn’t write a short story to save my life. Especially not in 30 minutes. I’d only ever written novel-length (or at least novella-length) pieces. So I worked on the prompts for the allotted time and focused mainly on character and voice, which are my weak areas. Over the past year, I’ve gotten to the point where I can finish most of the short story prompts (to an ambiguous conclusion) within 30-45 minutes. They are not perfect. They are not as well-developed as my friend, Trudy’s, as richly detailed as Sara’s, as humorous as Jenn’s, or as poignant as Kathy’s . They are not supposed to be. We are different writers.

But over time, like me, and hopefully with the help of these tips, you too can improve your writing. Practice as often or as little as you like. Revise everything or nothing. When you write for yourself in a low stakes enviroment, anything is possible, and you’ll find your main projects become that much better.

Do you have any tried and true writing prompts you turn to in times of need?

What are your thoughts on or experiences with writing groups? Would you recommend them?

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Just Another Dead Body

I know it’s tempting, but don’t let the victim in your murder mystery fall prey to Just Another Dead Body syndrome. This is when your victim becomes a means to the plot’s end. Meaning, you only killed him to create a mystery for your detective to solve.

crime-scene-30112_640

Victims are not props. They are characters.

And the more you can breathe life into them before they’re dead, the more compelling they’ll be after they’re dead.

So how do you begin? Just as you would with any other character.

Start by asking the hard questions:

  • What are his hope and fears?
  • What does he live for? Who would he die for?
  • What great and terrible things has he done? Will he never be able to do now that you killed him off?
  • Who loves him? Who hates him?
  • Who can’t live without him and who would kill to save him?

You may even want to get super creative and have your victim speak in his own words. It can be in the form of a monologue, a stream of consciousness, a letter, or a dialogue with someone important. It could even be a beyond-the-grave tirade to the murderer after being killed. (Seriously, dude? Wtf?)

Take this a step further and start interviewing important people in the victim’s life (even if they turn out to be suspects themselves) about what they thought of him. Avoid cliches like “everybody loved Jamie.” Instead, offer a scene, a vignette, or a personal anecdote involving the victim to show what he was like and how others reacted to him instead of just telling us. Chances are you’ll find some good stuff to use when it comes time for your sleuth to start conducting her own interviews.

Next, give your victim a sanctuary, a space in which he felt most comfortable. It could be his workplace, his favorite bar, his bedroom, his mancave, his mother’s basement, the diner down the street.

Fill the space with meaningful objects that symbolize what your victim was all about not just with clues your sleuth will use to piece together who shot him.

If you’re looking for ideas, look no further than your own sanctuary. Imagine a stranger walking into your space. What could she infer about you from what’s lying about (or hidden in drawers).

  • Do you own a preponderance of CDs, DVDs, books? What genres? What titles?
  • Is your mail scattered all over the dining table or organized in a command center?
  • Is your bed made with hospital corners or are the covers just thrown over it? Did you even make your bed this morning?
  • What kind of clothes are in your closet?
  • What kind of art, if any, hangs on the walls?
  • What food is in the cabinets and the refrigerator?
  • How clean is your toilet? The kitchen counters?
  • What do you hide that you don’t want anyone else to see even if you live alone?

All these little things make a person, a person.

This may also be a good time to start jotting down the must-have scenes that involve your victim.

  • For instance, do we meet the victim before he’s killed? When? Where? In what context?
  • What was he doing on the day leading up to his murder?
  • What does the crime scene look like? Where did it happen, how is his body positioned, what is he wearing, what objects did he have on him or are conspicuously missing (like a cellphone, wallet, etc.)?
  • What does his sanctuary look like to the detective investigating?
  • Who is going to be interviewed about him and what do they say?

I want to remind you again not to get into the habit of only killing off innocent little kitten victims. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people too. So make your victim as bad as he wants to be.

Once you’ve got a pretty detailed character sketch of your victim, go ahead and start to dive into his relationship with the villain.

  • Where did they meet? How long have they known each other?
  • How well did they get on? Were they best friends, adversaries, co-workers, family members, business partners? (Remember, not all murders are motivated by hate, and you can still be jealous of your best friend.)
  • Did your victim stand in the way of your villain’s goal or did they want the same thing that only one of them could have?
  • Was your villain’s perception of the victim’s ability to get in the way overrated?
  • How long did your villain and victim get into it before murder was the only option? (Unlike real life, fictional characters don’t resort to murder just because someone bought the last big screen TV at Walmart on Black Friday.)
  • Did your victim fight back on previous attempts with his own brand of vindictiveness like blackmail, bullying, insults, maybe a murder of his own?

In other words, what commodity, perceived or otherwise, did your victim hold that led to his murder? Was he the last person standing in the way of a corporate takeover?  Would her paternity ensure she would inherit the estate before your villain did? Does the murderer think your victim knows too much or is he just being used as a pawn for something bigger?

Many of these questions you’ll be able to answer or will have already pondered as you explored your villain, but by giving your victim a life before he gets killed, you’ll be able to create a more complex character rather than a stark chalk outline.

Remember, victims are people too.

Which technique did you find most helpful?

What did you learn about your victim that you wouldn’t have known otherwise?

NaNo Warm-Up Part 3

Welcome to Week 3 in the NaNo warm-up writing prompts.

In last week’s post, we explored ways of coming up with story ideas based on book titles. Some of you may have come up with your own titles or some may have worked with titles of already-published books that you knew nothing about. Either way, writing a short book synopsis is a great way to start thinking about a story in terms of plot.

But what if writing plot isn’t your strength or you prefer to write a story based on character instead?

Mary Hilton in Potent Fictions: Children’s Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture criticised the Point Horror series’ main characters, who were often teenage girls, as basically being used as a plot device. These femalce characters spend much of their time being upset, stalked, dumped, terrorized, paranoid, or killed. It’s true. The main characters of any of these books could be swapped from one to the other without changing storylines much.

But for literary writers, stories begin with character, and plot grows organically from there.

This week’s exercise focuses on creating characters who have a specific story to tell and comes in two parts.

Remember the Bestselling thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the movie The Man in the Iron Mask? How about Girl With a Pearl Earring? Each of these titles is basically an innocuous character description, and if you had never read any of these books, you would be hard pressed to guess what genre or plot they suggest.

The first part of this exercise is to come up with a list of various character descriptions. These could describe some physical attribute, a personality quirk, or an emotional state. Heck, you might even want to take a cue from Edgar Allan Poe and be as generic as possible: The Black CatThe RavenThe Sleeper.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • The man in the green speedo
  • The girl who cried at midnight
  • The boy who ate glass
  • The cat whisperer
  • The woman in the rain

The second part to this prompt is to randomly select one from your list and create a character from it. This could be done any way you want: personality profile, character questionnaire, backstory narrative. You can work on one character per day or spend several days on the same character. There is no wrong way to do this.

The most challenging option for this exercise is, once you have selected your character, to write his or her story. This is done by asking simple questions: WHO? WHAT? WHY? HOW?

For instance, why is that man wearing a green speedo? Is it socially acceptable because he’s on a beach in Italy or Spain? Is he on a swim team? In the Olympics? Is his choice of swim attire out of place on the rocky Maine coast?

Why is the girl crying at midnight? Who is the woman standing in the rain? How does one know they can communicate with cats on some otherworldly level? What makes a young boy eat glass? The answers are endless, and no matter which ones you decide on, your character will dictate your story and not the other way around.

Happy writing!

NaNo Warm-Up Part 2

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, young adult horror novels were all the rage. Authors such as Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine were suddenly catapulted to success with their contributions to the Point Horror imprint from Scholastic Publishing.

These novels, with titles such as Blind Date, Mirror, Mirror, and The Vampire’s Kiss, were not works of literary genius nor were they probably meant to be, but they were immensely popular and fun, quick reads.

While I never read most of the Point Horror books, my favorite YA author growing up, Richie Tankersley Cusick, had written four titles for the imprint, including The LifeguardTrick or TreatTeacher’s Pet, and April Fools, which I must have read at least a dozen times over the years (as well as all her other books). Trick or Treat was my favorite because I love Halloween, and in fact, Ms. Cusick’s books are what inspired me to write my own YA horror/mystery/suspense novels.

059044235x

I recently read a Q&A with Cusick regarding the Point Horror series, and she stated that the authors were all given specific titles to work with and had to write stories around them. While some might consider this “factory” writing, I thought the idea would make an interesting writing prompt, especially for those of us who are plot junkies or those who may need a little help coming up with a plot or title.

Again, this is a two-part exercise.

  • First, you will have to come up with at least a dozen (or however many you feel like) titles for would-be novels. I suggest you don’t use titles for books you already know you want to write. That’s cheating! (And don’t worry if you find out there is already a book published with one of the titles you came up with. There is no copyright law for titles.)
  • Secondly, each day, you will randomly select one of the titles and write a short plot summary that you might find on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hardcover.
  • Set your timer (if you wish) for 10 minutes and get writing. Stop when the timer dings or keep writing. It’s up to you!

This is the synopsis for Cusick’s novel The Mall, which I happen to have at my fingertips, and as you’ll see, it’s not particularly long or involved but is a general skeleton of the plot, the two main characters, and the overall tone of the story:

“Trish smiles into the dressing-room mirror, admiring herself in the gorgeous white dress. Unknown to her, someone else is watching. He knows she is smiling just for him. His soft, strange voice whispers her name from the crowd. His hooded eyes follow her every move … At first she thinks he’s just a creepy customer, hanging round Muffin Mania where she works at the mall. But suddenly he’s everywhere, the man with a thousand faces tormenting her day and night. He knows her secrets. There’s no safe place to hide. There’s no one she can tell, no one she can trust. How can she escape a madman wiling to kill to make her his–forevermore.”

And here are a few titles I came up (again, keeping with the horror theme) to get you started:

  • Blood Sisters
  • Murder Island
  • Hall of Mirrors
  • Cursed
  • Cellar Stairs

If you have trouble coming up with titles, I found this infographic on Passwordincorrect.com that gives you 15 examples of how books are titled.

15-ways-to-create-a-book-title-full-infographic

Alternatively:

  • Make a list of already-published book titles you have never read before nor know anything about. You might want to stick to a genre you wish to write in or may want to go outside your comfort zone and look for titles in an unfamiliar genre.
  • Continue as above.

I found these examples by Googling mystery titles:

  • Ghostwalk
  • City of Liars and Thieves
  • MacDeath
  • Belzhar
  • Crime Rib

This exercise is not meant to hone your synopsis-writing skills, so don’t worry about making the summary perfect or enticing. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, paragraph breaks, or even coming up with catchy phrases. It’s more about just brainstorming a general story idea with a few important characters. You may even find one of these ideas is perfect for your NaNo novel next month.

Good luck and let me know how you like this exercise. Even better, I’d love to read some of your synopses!

 

Setting the Scene

By now you’ve probably done extensive work on most, if not all, of your story’s characters. And even if you haven’t filled in every section of whatever character sketch template you decided to use, that’s okay. You can, and should, continue to work on character as ideas come. This may mean adding new information you hadn’t thought of before as other elements of your story, such as plot and setting, come together, or it may mean deleting certain ideas that no longer seem valid. Just last night I finished a character sketch for a pivotal character, the red herring, that I hadn’t been able to work on before without some research on setting.

Here’s what I mean: I decided my red herring, tentatively named Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy, would work in the meat-packing district in the East End of London. I didn’t know if there was a meat-packing district there, so I had to do some research on setting. Come to find out, the closest thing to one is the Smithfield Market where a variety of butchers sell their goods.

This couldn’t be more perfect because, in the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, there had been a suspect named “Leather Apron” and a theory that the killer could have been a butcher because of the way the victims’ organs had been removed.

So now that Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy works for one of the butcheries, his job might take him to the English countryside where the farms are and could place him in the village during the time of the murders. Without knowing this information on setting, I would never have been able to link my character to both the story I am creating and the original historical event I am using for inspiration.

In fact, every element of storytelling will inform others and generate new ideas you hadn’t been able to conceive before. Let this process happen naturally. Nothing creative can be set in stone.

Coincidentally, the second phase of Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days process is setting.

Setting is not just time and place. It encompasses landscape, climate, political/religious/social milieu, clothing style, language, food choices, employment opportunities, architecture, cultural values, behavioural norms, laws and the justice system, education, and most of all–secrets. You get the picture!

Unless you’re concocting a fantasy world where you are in complete control of all these categories, or you’re basing your story on a setting where you have spent significant time, like your childhood hometown, you’ll probably have to do some research. Obviously, taking a trip to desired setting will give you firsthand information, including atmosphere (mood), textures, smells, sounds, etc., but if that’s not possible you may have to resort to books, magazines, maps, travel guides, and Internet searches. Even better if you know someone who has been to your desired setting. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions and ask for any photos they may have. This will help create at least some authenticity. No one wants to read a story that takes place where s/he lives and find blatant errors like setting a ghetto housing project on St. Germaine Street when in reality it’s the swankiest neighborhood in the city.

My favorite way to research setting is through images. I am a visual learner and have files of images on settings for all my story ideas. From those images, I can make general assumptions about what things feel like, sound like, smell like based on similar places I’ve been. Here are some of the images I’ve collected for this project.

East End Pub

East End Pub

North Yorkshire moors 

Dorm room windows

Dorm room windows

Architecture

Architecture

Quaint village street

Quaint village street

 

 

 

 

School Dining Room

School Dining Room

Village alley

Village alley

Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park

Whitechapel 1888

Whitechapel 1888

Drive to campus

Drive to campus

 

 

 

 

 

It also helps to read other books that take place in your desired setting as long as the author is credible. Think James Joyce writing about Dublin. And then there is National Geographic, Rick Steves’ travelogues, B&N discount book section in which I’ve found no less than 10 huge coffee table books on the history of ancient Egypt, newspaper articles, etc. Reading as much non-fiction about your desired setting can give you valuable information that just may play a role in your story. And even if it doesn’t, whoever said knowledge was a waste of time?

Some categories to include in your general setting sketch are Time (Day, Year, Season, etc.), Location (City, State, Country, Region, etc.), and Language (Dialect, Vernacular). Other categories to consider depending on the genre of story you’re writing are Dominant Religion and Attitude, Cultural Customs, Political Climate/Government, and Dominant Social Class and Attitudes.

Now that you’ve got a feel and description for your general setting, it’s time to work on specific settings your characters will inhabit, such as their homes, places of business, schools, restaurants/bars, cars, etc. This should require little effort if you’ve done some research on your general setting. For example, you wouldn’t describe your protagonist’s home as being American Colonial style if he lives in southern California; however, you might describe it as being in Mediterranean or Spanish style. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t see too many convertibles in Alaska in winter but might see a lot of 4WD vehicles with plows on them.

Depending on what point of view you’re writing from (whether first-person, third-person omniscient, or multiple third-person limited), you’ll want to create a list of each specific settings your character(s) will inhabit during the course of your story. For instance, I am writing from a first-person POV, so my list will only include settings my protagonist will inhabit: private school grounds/quad, dorm room, common room, dining room, school newspaper office, classroom, village streets, village pub, moorland path, police station, and killer’s lair. I’m using some of the images above as inspiration only.

My protagonist’s roommate’s style is Bohemian gypsy/eclectic packrat, and I used the image below as inspiration for her dorm room decor.

Bettina's style

Bettina’s style

Then wrote this description:

It was like walking into a bohemian palace. Every wall covered in textured fabrics, woven throw rugs scattered on the hardwood floor, and Bettina’s bed enshrouded in what looked like a canopy of colored mosquito netting. In the fireplace, a lighted candelabra blazed and dripped wax on the hearth inches away from a pile of overstuffed pillows.

So this week, channel your inner fashion designer/set decorator, gather as many images as you can, and write sketches of what each specific setting might look like. You can write either brief notes to yourself and worry about the exact wording later, or you can write actual narrative as I did above and then copy/paste into your draft. If you choose to do the latter, remember that your description may well indeed change from this brainstorming phase to the actual drafting phase, so it’s best not to marry yourself to anything yet. Just remember to go for descriptions of all five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

Setting is one of my absolute favorite things to research and write about because a few well-placed descriptions can conjure up any desired atmosphere and make your reader feel whatever you want. For instance, the setting above not only reflects the character who resides there, it becomes a magical, fantastical place where the characters can escape from the harsh reality of young murdered homeless, drug-addled women and where legends of jackals are learned. Here, it’s okay to think outside the box. In a sterile police station, it would be a different story.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next blog on plot!