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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Reinventing the Writer’s Notebook

At some point we’ve all been told we need to keep a writer’s notebook and been given vague instructions to record ideas and bits of overheard conversations in it. We may have even been forced to keep one for a creative writing class and been graded on it. (So guilty.) pen-994464_640

Let’s face it, whether or not we choose to keep a moleskin journal handy or a note app open on our phone, the best ideas usually happen when we’re running, taking a shower, or pooping in a public restroom–all times you don’t want to be lugging around a notebook.

Now, how many ideas come to you in a day, how many snarky comments does your barista really make, that need to be written down or recorded immediately? And how many of those ideas do you really go back and use? No one working at Starbucks is that interesting.635873577289442989-257407846_starbucks-barista

If you look at your writer’s notebook right now, I bet you’ll see a lot of empty, wasted pages just screaming to be filled.

There are better uses for it that will benefit your writing than just some random scrawlings.

1. Reflect on the Day’s Writing

As a teacher, one of the things I teach students is that writing can be used to figure out what you think. If you’ve ever written a first draft only to go back and make a major change, you know what I’m talking about.

Journaling works much the same way. How many times have you journaled about something, starting off with a specific viewpoint, then find out it’s changed by the time you’re done writing? It was through that process of uncensored writing you were able to try on different viewpoints, view ideas through different lenses, and come to different conclusions.female-865110_640

You can use this technique with your works-in-progress much the same way. At the end of your writing session, reflect on it in your notebook. What reservations do you have about what you wrote? What feels off? Where do you feel resistance and why do you think so? Conversely, what victories did you achieve? What went well in today’s session? Did you finally figure out who your killer is? How will this change the rest of your story? Elizabeth Peters once wrote in her notebook that someone needed to be murdered because the story was getting boring.

Reflecting on the day’s writing will allow you the space and freedom to explore new ideas without starting all over again or going down another dead end.

2. Write About What You’re Reading

When I was in grad school, I kept a catalogue of every YA novel I’d read. I included not only the title, author, and general plot summary, but also lessons I learned from either the author or the story. These lessons could be on things I thought had been done well, like how characters were described, how the story was structured, or how mood was achieved. They could also be about things I hated and never wanted to do in my own story. I explored these lessons through writing about them to better understand how they could be applied specifically to what I was working on at the time.  narrative-794978_640

By writing about how you can utilize other authors’ techniques in your own work, you come to understand what it is you actually want to achieve.

3. Keep Track of Your Revisions

First drafts are meant to be shitty. They are a place for your mind to figure out what it thinks, where it wants to go, which ideas it wants to keep. First drafts are also meant to be written quickly without regard to grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc. Those are all things that can be fixed in revisions. You may also find you need to make more substantial revisions because you story has progressed to a place you hadn’t seen coming. For instance, you may need to go back and introduce a new element, change a character, or foreshadow an event. To keep the first draft flowing, fight the urge to revise every time you sit down to write.

Instead, keep a running list of revisions in your notebook. I make notes by chapter that I will revise later. Things like, “Better transition into the figure on the moor and make more dramatic.” Or sometimes, I’ll ask questions: “Chapter 5–Should this be the first encounter with K? What was the function of seeing him earlier?”

Keeping track of things you want to revise while you are writing alleviates the need to constantly tinker and stall any forward momentum.

4. Decide Where You’re Going Next

Speaking of first drafts, Hemingway gave this advice, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.”  No doubt you’ve found yourself ending a writing session because you’ve run out of ideas, only to kick yourself the next day as you stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor.ernest-1097984_640

To avoid this, take time at the end of each session to write in your notebook where you want to go, what you think the next scene should be, and how you think you can get there. This is the time to scribble down ideas without censorship and see where they lead without committing them to your actual document.

Deciding where to go next in your story follows naturally the process of reflecting on the day’s work. At last, you’ve come full circle and without that pesky procrastination rearing its head.

Of course there are a dozen more ways to fill your notebook: making notes about a setting you’ve visited, documenting area-specific sayings and their origins, creating more backstory, scheduling writing times and goals, etc. But above all, it will only help if you find how it works best for you and your current project.

How successful have you been in keeping a writer’s notebook? Do you use a physical or digital version? What other ways do you use it?

 

 

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.

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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 4

We’re heading into the home stretch. Just a mere 10 days before National Novel Writing Month officially kicks off.

Hopefully, you’ve taken advantage of some of the writing exercises I’ve shared in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and it sparked a new juicy novel idea to work on next month.

For some, you might not have been as consistent with your writing as you would have liked and now you’re asking yourself how will you ever be able to write 1,667 words for 30 days in a row? That’s like going to take way longer than 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Your heart picked up a little just now, didn’t it? And your breathing got a little shallower. Your inner critic is probably laughing at you and telling you it’s not possible.

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Of course, it’s possible. Thousands of people do it every year. And you can too. Consistency is the key. Every day you have to sit down and try. Try is the operative word. Even if you only manage to write, say, 100 words a day, that’s still 100 more words than you had yesterday. And that is cause for celebration. (Hey, if James Joyce considered two perfectly written sentences a full day’s work, so can you.)

So instead of giving you another writing exercise this week, something that may only take a few minutes to complete, I thought I’d share some tips on how to write consistently and not feel like crap about it.

  • Be specific about when and where you are going to write. Choose the time and place that fits your schedule. It may vary depending on what day of the week it is or even what your kids’ schedule is like, but knowing ahead of time when and where you will be writing every day will alleviate the first hurdle.
  • Set boundaries on your time. If you don’t have the luxury of living alone, don’t let other people bother you when you’re trying to write. Lock yourself in the bathroom, get up earlier or go to bed later than everyone else in the house, slip out to the library for an hour. The best place to write is a cemetery. No one bothers you there.
  • Decide on what or how much you want to accomplish each day. Start off by setting the bar low, like really low to start, so that when you’ve met your goal, you feel like a badass. Start with 100 words a day, then 250, then 500, then the dreaded 1,667.
  • Or if the thought of a word count already raises your blood pressure, start off by completing one scene per day, or one page per day. You’ll be in the company of John Steinbeck who advised the same thing when he wrote, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” 

badass

 

  • Never stop writing when you can’t think of anything to say. You’ll be frustrated before you even start the next day and you’ll waste valuable, precious time pulling your hair out, slamming your fists on the desk, and swearing into your computer screen. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he offered this piece of fatherly advice, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
  • Create the habit of writing by attaching it to a habit you already have (preferably one that’s good for you, but I guess it doesn’t have to be). My favorite thing to do on weekend mornings is drink a pot of tea. When that tray comes out and the first cup is poured, I know it’s time to write.
  • Likewise, you can create a writing ritual. Perform the same meaningful (or meaningless) routine to get you in the mood. Charles Dickens would rearrange knickknacks on his desk, Steinbeck would sharpen 12 pencils, Mark Twain wrote lying down, and Victor Hugo stripped naked to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (For more weird writing rituals of famous authors, check out this book.)

If the thing that gets you down is not so much the time spent at writing but what you end up with on the page, remember you are not the only writer to ever think that what you’ve written is crap. Maya Angelou said, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay, I’ll come.'”

Remember the operative word is “try.” No one is going to think that what they wrote at such a furious pace like the one set by NaNo is great. And if they do, then it really is crap. The point behind the challenge is to just get the words out, the story finished, not to labor over linguistics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk puts it like this, “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and rewriting the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

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So this week, make writing a priority, or at least set plans to in motion, and have the courage to try.

Hey, if it helps, you can always tell yourself you were trying to write the worst novel ever written.

Good luck!