Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tempting Top Ten: Writing Tips

I couldn't resist the temptation to post my top ten writing tips for the W post in the A-Z blogging challenge.

This list may seem hopelessly academic for anyone except fiction writers. My alternative top ten list was Wonderful Places to Visit in Wyoming. It seems I couldn't come up with a very universal topic - I'm sure y'all are just itching to visit Wyoming. (Actually, you should be, you just may not know it yet. Yellowstone Park and Old Faithful  are on the list, not even at the #1 spot).

Okay, back to writing.

Note: these writing tips are specific to my own writing journey (even in the very narrow topic of writing I still managed to pick the least-universal approach).   I'm not published, nor anywhere near it yet. I'm no expert (though a few of these do come from expert sources).  Hey, I still can't  even make eye contact when I call myself a writer in public. But here you go, for better or worse:

10. Use archetypes.
I learned this in 11th grade English - the only thing I still remember from 11th grade English, I believe. My teacher claimed the popularity of Star Wars was due in part to the use of archetypes - the ordinary guy turned hero archetype (Luke), the wise mentor (Obi-Wan), the good guy turned evil (Darth Vader). The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell is a definitive source on archetypes.

9. Flip a famous character
We all want more of a good thing, but different. Take a character that many people love (or love to hate). Say... oh.... Captain Hook! Then flip him somehow for your own character. Make him a her! Or instead of a fairy tale pirate, make him a corporate pirate.

8. Use the Save the Cat beat-sheet.
A great screen play will almost always have these 15 beats, or story elements, from Blake Snyder's excellent screen writing book. They work well for novels, too.  Why is it called Save the Cat? That's another important story element (you can substitute just about anything for the cat).

7. Follow the Rule of Three
Plant three subtle clues that the reader will remember at the climax of the story.  Show your hero's weakness at least three times. Use three sensory details in each scene. Have your hero state his goal three different ways. There's something magic about threes.

6. Force yourself to make lists of ten
Think you've come up with a brilliant plot twist? Think again. Actually, think of nine other possibilities. Your first idea is never the best idea. But if you force yourself to think of at least 10 ideas (most of them will be laughable), one or two of them might be truly brilliant.

5. Delete distancing words
Which sounds better? "She felt like having a chocolate bar" Or "She craved a chocolate bar". Strong verbs are your friends; weak verbs like "felt" or "considered" just distance your reader by pulling them out of the immediacy of your character's actions.  This is basically an application of another great writing rule, "show, don't tell."  Stina Lindenblatt just posted more excellent examples here.

4. Use a picture frame
This is a wonderful focusing trick I learned from my most favorite writing book, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. If you are feeling overwhelmed with writing an entire novel, or even with what to write next, imagine a small, empty picture frame surrounding just one thing you want to capture. Focus on writing the one-inch portion of the story that needs to be written. Those smaller portions will weave together to form the larger goal. 

3. Micro-tension
Donald Maas believes micro-tension "is the most important technique for fiction writers to grasp." He should know: he's the head of a world famous literary agency. In a nutshell, make sure you have some sort of tension going on in every. single. page. of. your. story. Period. Here's an example

2. Tempt your muse.
Nothing is more fickle than your creative muse. She rarely shows up on time for work or she shows up at odd, inopportune times, like when you are in an important meeting or just about to fall asleep.  The best way to keep her working (for me) is to keep tempting her with new tidbits. Read a lot. Visit museums. Eavesdrop. Dabble in other arts.

1.5  Write with a pendragon.
A pendragon isn't just a medieval surname but a tiny dragon that sparks flames when you write with it. It sets your writing on fire. Unfortunately, these are very hard to come by (the following image is, alas, only a cute imitation). If you can't find one, any old pen or pencil will do. The bottom line, the point I'm trying to make here: writers write.  Good writers write a lot. Some suggest your writing won't reach a professional level until you've written at least one million words.

1. Read and analyze books.
No list of writing tips, no number of writing books by  famous authors or agents, not suggestions from a roomful of wise critiquers, not even a million words - nothing advanced me in the art of writing as thoroughly as this method. Because everything else was just information bouncing off my head. To get it to truly sink in, I had to study it in action myself. Here's an example of a book I analyzed.

"Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn" - Benjamin Franklin

Which of these tips resonates with you? Or, share your own tip....

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