Tag: tips

Why We Write

On WritingReading

Lately I’ve been reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’ve been drawing it out, since I always seem to read the saddest parts in public, and I hate crying in front of people. But just this week I picked it up again, and, before I got to another incredibly sad part, I read a passage that resonated more with me than anything ever has.

It seems like everyone but me has read this book, so I won’t preface this quote with much extra information. On page 116, the main character runs into his love interest, and he describes what he’s feeling as

not knowing what the next words out of my mouth would be, but wanting them to be mine, wanting, more than I’d ever wanted anything, to express the center of me and be understood.

Not only is this one of the most apt descriptions of human nature I’ve ever read, it also describes what I view as the true purpose of writing. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most writers would agree that the heart of writing, and the reason most of us do it, is because there’s some core part of us that we hope to share with others.

It adds a weight to our words that I don’t think we’re always aware of, and that’s significant. Our words are powerful, and they allow us to share the most interior parts of ourselves with others. There’s nothing wrong with letting that drive us, letting the understanding of why we write fuel our passion for it.

Embracing the Wiki Loop

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“Wiki loop” is one of those phrases that has popped up to describe a phenomenon we’ve all experienced: getting stuck reading endless Wikipedia articles. If you’re like me, you may wonder why this could ever be considered a bad thing. But I guess some people have better things to do on Friday nights than click through lists about the world’s oldest people.

Part of the fun of getting stuck in these loops is finding out new things, and I think that as writers we should embrace that. I’ve talked about how important research is before, and this is no different. While Wikipedia may not be the first thing you think about when doing research for stories, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable resource.

At the beginning of each semester, my creative writing professor hands out a list of weird things he’s come across on Wikipedia. Some things are just interesting natural phenomena (like ball lightning), and others are notable people (like this list of inventors killed by their own inventions). I’m currently working on a story that evolved from the page on embryo space colonization, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch the narrative evolve from just one Wikipedia page.

So the next time you end up clicking through Wikipedia articles, bookmark the more interesting pages you come across! Embrace the wiki loop and know that your time is not being wasted. Feel free to share any weird pages you think others should know about!

Getting to Know Your Main Character

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This is my favorite part of writing. Your main character will make or break your story, and unfortunately they will not just appear from your head fully-formed, Athena-style. That is why this getting-to-know-you stage is arguably the most important part of writing.

If you’re not sure what I mean by “getting to know” your main character, I don’t just mean listing everything they’ve ever done, or filling out a bio sheet. These things may be helpful, but I think the truest way to get to know your character is through writing about them. When you write and rewrite a description or a scene, you’re not just figuring out the words you want to use. You’re figuring out who that person is. You’re discovering them, which is why there is that moment when your words finally feel right.

Just like with real-life friends, you can’t rush the process. It requires time, interaction, and conversation. Sometimes you don’t like what you find out, but you accept it, because you love this person. The more you put your character into situations and figure out how they will react, the easier it will get to make things right the first time. Now, I’m not saying that getting to know a character will ever be easy. I just spent thirty minutes rewriting a paragraph about a character who has changed the way he styles his hair. For a while it felt wrong, and then I realized it was. Al hadn’t just changed his hair, he had cut it.

One of the best things is that you don’t have to do this outside of your story. I think getting to know a character within their story is the most important thing. You can write and rewrite as much as you’d like, and even if a scene doesn’t end up in the final draft, know that you’ve learned something about your character. The more you begin to question what you’ve written, the better (and truer) your story will be.

Writing What You Don’t Know

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“You must stay firmly based in reality when writing,” my creative writing professor says. This means no fantasy, science fiction, or even dystopian stories.

I don’t agree with her, but I nod along as she speaks, because she’ll be the one grading my stories. Still, her words bring up an interesting point, and the old adage agrees with her: write what you know.

But I’ve always taken it at a more figurative level. (I mean, obviously I’m not taking it literally because I’ve never been to Mars, and as much research as I do, I will sadly never know what it’s actually like to be on another planet.) In my eyes, writing what you know can be very limiting, so I try to think of it as keeping something familiar and universal in your writing. Usually I achieve this by trying to create believable characters and put them in familiar situations that people can relate to.

To me, research is part of the adventure of writing. Just because I haven’t been scuba diving doesn’t mean I can’t write about it–that’s not to say I should make things up, but I can do enough research to be able to write about situations in a believable and enjoyable way. Learning about the world your characters are based in and figuring out how things should function in that world is part of the fun of writing.

So why limit yourself to the things you know? There’s a whole world out there, waiting to be written about and shared. Plus, I think there’s a lot more to be gained from reading something different–something edgy or out there. Something that gives you a new perspective on life, that makes you think about things you never have before. Maybe you can create that effect by writing what you know–but I think it’s a little more fun to think outside the box.

The Problem of Overcompensation

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I promise this is about writing, but first I’m going to tell you a story. I was driving home yesterday, so I went to McDonald’s to get a Sprite and french fries. There was no ketchup in the bag, so I asked for some. I specifically remember saying “Can I get some ketchup? Just one is fine.” But instead of getting what I asked for, which would have been nice, I got 15 packets of ketchup. I am not joking. I’m sure that she knew she only gave me a medium order of fries, but for some reason she felt the need to hand me two handfuls of ketchup packets so large they were falling to the ground as the held them out the window. So this is what I like to call overcompensation.It happens in restaurants, like I mentioned above, but it also happens in writing.

Overcompensation comes up when you realize a deficit of some kind. You discover you have no characterization, for instance, or no ketchup. For some reason, the automatic reaction to this deficit is to insert more of whatever was missing to make up for the initial lack of it. In most cases, this is bad.

My problem is that I like to focus on characters rather than description or plot. I can usually fix the plotting problem with a little bit of outlining and planning, but description is difficult for me.

I’ve noticed recently that when I go back and edit that often when I find a section with no description and then end up writing paragraphs to fill the void. the problem with overcompensation is that it’s hard to know when you’re exactly on the money and when you should adjust. The only way to get past this is to know your writing. Something I’ve started doing is consciously putting in a little bit of description, just a sentence or two, during my initial writing so that when I do edits I don’t feel like I need to add so much. That makes it a little easier for me to know what else the scene needs and how much I should add. It also prevents me from having to do so many more edits to fix the descriptions that I’ve added.

So that’s how I’ve been dealing with this problem. Now that I’ve moved into the editing phase I’ve become more conscious of the problem and the best ways for me to deal with it. Has anyone else had any issues with overcompensation in their writing? How do you fix it? I’d love to hear about everyone’s experiences with this!

Finishing Your Novel

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I’m nearing the end of my current project, and I can feel myself slowing down; as the end draws nearer, my daily word count decreases, and I spend more time reading, researching, and plotting. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering the fact that I was unsure of exactly how the story would end until about three days ago. Now that I’m 45,000 words in, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m finishing this, though I’m exactly sure how.

First tip: don’t be afraid to pause and think. I don’t mean set aside your work completely, but take a break. One day without writing will not kill you. (If you think it might, consider working on something else.) Just recently I spent most of the day thinking about where my story was going. I wrote lots of dead-end scenarios, did lots of research, and read some of the endings of my favorite books. By the end of the day, I had an idea of what would work and what wouldn’t.

The second and possibly most important tip is to stop thinking you have to write everything in order. You don’t. In fact, you will probably be better off (and so will your manuscript) if you stop forcing yourself to write the hard parts and skip to something you’re excited to work on. If you’re like me, these skips can be a little hard to keep track of, so I have a running list of chapters I need to go back and finish. Right now it’s a list of about fifteen chapters, and he notes vary from “needs something” to “not written, but outlined.” When I get tired of whatever I’m working on, I know I have a list of places I can go back and work on. When I finish a chapter, I cross it off the list.

My last advice is a bit of motivation: You can do it! Try to recreate the enthusiasm you had when you first started your novel. You should be even more excited than you were then because you’ve done the hard part! You’re almost finished! (except then you have to edit, but that’s a topic for later)

The Weight of Words

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The position I’m in right now, which is a great one by the way, is all because of a few words one of my professors told me. Here’s his final critique for the portfolio (first ten pages of a novel) that I submitted for my creative writing class: “An excellent start to a gripping story. You’d better finish this!”

That made me feel like a writer. Nevermind the fact that I’ve always been  a writer, someone else thought I was too. I really took his words to heart. That’s when I started writing 1000 words a day. It’s amazing how my story has taken shape–I’m 37,000 words in and I’ve only had a few brief setbacks. Part of the class assignments was to write a synopsis and brief outline, so those have helped a lot. I’m not usually a big fan out outlines, but I can’t deny that I wouldn’t be this far without them.

I think it’s important to note here that negative words can have just as much of an effect as positive words. For example, a girl in my creative writing class once asked what I wanted to do after college. When I told her I wanted to write, she said, “Well, I hope you marry rich!” It didn’t exactly make me feel good, but I wasn’t too hurt by it. I’ve spent too long trying to accept my identity to let someone’s callous comment get to me. For the record, she’s a business major and we’re still very good friends.

Your words can shape someone’s life, and whether it’s in a positive or negative way is up to you.

1000 Words a Day and other advice

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I know that everyone has heard that “real writers” write every day. The most cited number is 1000 words a day, but it varies. You’ve probably also heard that writing 1000 words a day isn’t a necessity, and you shouldn’t force yourself to do it if that’s not how you write best.

Personally, I’ve always been a part of the latter group, but I decided to try something a little different this summer and it’s kind of changed my life. Today marks one month of writing 1000 words a day. in case you’re wondering, that’s over 30,000 words.

Now you might say that it’s easy because I’m a college student and it’s summer. It’s true that for the first week or so of this experiment, I had no responsibilities. I was at home for the week. I woke up late, went to Starbucks or the library, and wrote for a few hours. It was beautiful. But unfortunately, the rest of the month wasn’t like that. I work 9-12 Monday through Friday, and go to my internship from 1-5. It’s basically a full-time job.

Somehow, I found time to write. I tried to figure out the best way to make it work, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. For a while, I tried to write at home. My roommate is too distracting, so I never got anything done. I wrote a lot at 11:30 on those nights, which made getting up the next morning very difficult. Then I started going to my favorite coffee shop as soon as I left my internship. That was great, but their coffee is too expensive, and I felt bad not buying anything. Plus, I have a hard time writing without caffeine.

In the end, I found that a mixture of these works best. The point is that I went out of my way to write. I ignored the fact that I was tired, or that I had nothing to write about, and I just wrote. I’ve been more productive than ever before, and that’s because I’m not afraid of writing crap. It happens sometimes. But it’s also very likely that somewhere in that 30,000 words, there’s a lot of good stuff.

So the next time you think about writing, do it. If you keep waiting for inspiration, you could be waiting a long time.

Tips on Editing

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I’m not an expert on editing, despite what I like to think. However, I have done quite a bit of editing in the past few months, so I hope that I have something worthwhile to share with you guys.

First things first: start out small. I’m going to tell you a story that has nothing to do with writing. Once, when I went to Six Flags, my friend insisted we ride the Titan first. I hated it (actually, I still hate it). But, after that the rest of the rides were a breeze. Problem was, I didn’t enjoy the Titan (at all), and I didn’t enjoy the other roller coasters as much as I could have. Moral of the story: I did things backwards. Like I did with the Titan, I started off my first real editing experience with a novel. I would have benefited so much more from editing a few short stories first, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time. That said, I took my own advice after that extremely difficult speed-editing attempt. I wrote a flash fiction story and then edited it. Then I wrote another one, and then a longer one, and now I’m working on a five thousand word story. It’s getting easier.

Every list of editing tips will give you this next piece of advice, and mine is no different: print out your story. After I’ve typed up my story and read through it a few times, I always print it out and then go to town with a bunch of colored pens. It would be nice if I could say that I have a color coded system that I use to edit my stories, but I don’t. I just like the pretty colors. Anyway, it’s so much easier to see the mistakes you’ve made when you’re reading on paper instead of on the computer. This is not the time to worry about the environment (but seriously, if you’re that worried, you can print your story double sided or even save it in PDF form on your iPad or tablet or something).

The last little tidbit of knowledge I have for you is  take your time. I know that personally, I have a problem with speed. I like to write quickly and edit quickly and be done with it, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it has its downsides. I will admit that all of my best work has been written in about three months or less, and while that’s alright, I have learned to slow down the editing process. This allows me to really understand what I’ve written, rather than just going crazy with the red pen. The second full novel I wrote was written in a little less than two months, and edited immediately afterwards. The crazy thing is that I didn’t really flesh out the true essence of the story until I edited it. Taking a break from your story for a while can help with this, and so can dragging the editing process out a little. Whatever you do, don’t rush.

To me, editing is more of a learning process than writing. Writing is easy. Editing requires you to truly know your story, where you want it to go and how it’s going to get there. If you’re stuck trying to edit your novel (or anything), just remember the feeling of accomplishment you got after you finished writing it and multiply that by three. You will feel so much better when your masterpiece is fit to be read by others, including agents and publishers (!).

Ahoy, mateys! (AKA How to Research When Writing a Novel)

AdviceOn Writing

For some reason, I decided to write about pirates.

Let me first say that I know absolutely nothing about pirates, so there hasn’t actually been much writing going on. I’ve mostly been trying to research actual pirates so that I don’t sound like an idiot. And since I’ve been doing so much research lately, I figured I should share some of my experiences and give you guys some tips.

First, the library is your best friend. The internet is that girl you’ve been frenemies with since eighth grade (For those of you who aren’t current on your middle school lingo, a frenemy is a friend that is sometimes an enemy and vice versa). If you thought you could get away with using only the internet for research, you should probably go find another blog to read. I love the library, so I’m definitely going to talk about how awesome it is.

Here’s the reason why the internet is your frenemy: you can find sites like this and this, but you can also find sites like this, which will do nothing but distract you. Do not underestimate the mesmerizing power of Wikipedia. You will be drawn in. In addition, it took me many hours of research and some very specific search terms to stumble upon those good websites, while at a library it’s as simple as searching ‘pirate’ and narrowing the results to Adult Nonfiction. I now have a bunch of good books at home just waiting for me to read them.

Something else that I’ve found increasingly important in my writing is Google Maps. Learn to use it. Not only is it fun, it’s also very helpful when you are trying to avoid making stupid mistakes and guessing (wrongly) how long it takes to get from one place to another. While there are some times when it’s okay to estimate, it is not okay for your character to drive across Texas in one hour. You can also use the street view to learn a bit about some places you’ve never been. Travel sites are also great for this, especially if your characters are going to be spending a lot of time in this place (this includes where they live, unless you live there or it’s completely made up).

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a bit of a weakness for books about writing. I own a ridiculous number of books claiming to be “the only thing I need to get published!” While this couldbe seen as a Half Price Books obsession or an oddly specific hoarding problem, it’s pretty useful when I start writing about something that’s completely out of my comfort zone (like pirates). At the moment I’m reading Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and The Writer’s Little Helper: Everything you need to know to write better and get published. I really like The Writer’s Little Helper because it presents an interesting take on writing. There are some formulas and an outlining  tool that I used for my pirate story, which now has a bit of an ending. If you enjoy reading, you should definitely check out some writing books. If you don’t enjoy reading, what are you doing trying to write? No offense to anyone….

Trivia: My unnamed pirate story was originally about space pirates. I think there are still parts where I mention a laser gun and the airlock of a ship. They will probably stay there until I get around to typing the story.

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