Hone, Hone, Hone Your Writing Craft, Gently on the Page…


Hate to be the one to break it to you, but solid writing skills don’t suddenly blossom overnight. Like any skill, it has to be learned before it can be mastered. Your writing ability is a weapon unique to you, no one else has your voice, but raw talent isn’t enough to help you wield this weapon effectively. First it needs to be honed by patience, determination, experience, and the 10 practical tips listed below:

  1. WRITE EVERY DAYWriting is a muscle that needs to be exercised to get stronger. The blank page is that jogger’s path in the park you walk past everyday, the treadmill tucked in the corner of the garage, the exercise DVD that never quite found its way into the player, the dusty and unused gym membership you purchased at the beginning of the New Year. It’s the thing you need to show up for everyday in order to get it to work for you.
  2. DON’T PROCRASTINATE – Sometimes you can be too smart for your own good. Knowing how difficult and painfully agonizing writing can be, you begin hearing the siren call of all the things that attempt to lure you away from planting your hinder in a chair and committing words to the page. Sometimes you justify it with useful endeavors (housework, laundry, errands, and the like), other times you hide behind the white lie of doing research on the internet, or you flat out vegetate and do absolutely nothing at all. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of these activities… you simply don’t do them when it’s time to write.
  3. FIGHT THROUGH WRITER’S BLOCK – I’ve already addressed this in a previous post and since I’m not in the mood to repeat myself, you can read my thoughts on writer’s block, as well as some possible solutions to get you back into the flow here.
  4. LEARN FROM THE MASTERSYou may have noticed (head to the back of the class if you haven’t) that I continuously post lists featuring the thoughts, rules and writing habits of famous authors. The reason should be obvious. They’ve been where you are now, handled what you’re currently struggling with… and they made it through. Who better to get advice from?  It’s like that old story:

    A man walks down the street, not paying attention where he’s going and falls into a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you. Can you help me out?”  The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

    Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

    Then a friend walks by, “Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?”  And the friend jumps in the hole. The man is dumbfounded, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.”

    The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

  5. FIND YOUR MUSEIf you haven’t found your muse yet, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. And woe betide the scribe who only seeks inspiration online. There’s a time to interweb—truth of the matter, you can overload your brain to the point of creative blockage or total shutdown—and a time to get back to basics by venturing out into the world to experience things that catch your attention and identify the things that motivate you to be creative.
  6. KILL YOUR DARLINGS – You love your stories to the point of looking at them through the eyes of a proud parent. Nothing wrong with that, you should be proud of them, they’re your creation, after all. But are they healthy? Are they at the right weight or are they unnecessarily bloated? Editing is the balance in your writing, the order in chaos, and it’s every bit as grueling as struggling through writer’s block. But once you master this, you’ll be amazed to discover how your writing style changes.
  7. ASK FOR FEEDBACK – Don’t even fix your mouth to ask me why. You know the reasons (you’ll become a better writer, writing will become a less painful process, blah-blah-blah). When you might need feedback is probably a better question to ask. Maybe you’ve just plotted out a story and want to run the idea past a family member or friend? Or perhaps you’re halfway through a draft and you’re unsure about the direction you’ve decided to take. Essentially, asking for feedback helps you break out of the isolation of writing and you’re no longer working in a vacuum, wondering whether or not you’re making yourself understood. Seeking feedback from others is taking positive, constructive steps to improve your own writing and develop as a writer. And develop a tough skin because not all of the feedback you get will be positive.
  8. READ, READ, READ – Stephen King once wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” and if you don’t believe that and don’t like to read, you shouldn’t pursue writing as a profession. Reading good writing can teach you about structure, dialogue, pacing, plot, using symbols and imagery to convey a point. Reading expert writing gives you something to strive for, as well as keeping you humble; there will always be writers out there who are better than you, just accept it. You can even learn lessons from reading bad writing (Why doesn’t the dialogue flow? Why are scenes dragging? Why don’t i care about the characters?).
  9. STUDY THE RULES, THEN BREAK THEMLearning to be a more efficient writer can be a chore—it’s always daunting trying to adopt a new way of working. Stepping outside your comfort zone is never fun and rules generally tend to seem restrictive. But before you ask, “Why can’t I just pick and choose stuff that suits me?” consider that in order to be able to choose the bits to use and the parts to leave behind, it’s necessary to first learn all the rules before you can go cherry-picking through them.
  10. KEEP THE DEMONS AT BAY – That brainbox of yours is a Pandora’s Box jam-packed with surprises and miracles and as-yet-untapped genius… and the counterbalance to that are the demons that nurture that tortured writer’s spirit you possess. They feed on rejection and whisper fear and doubt in your ear, but since they’re a necessary evil, it’s important that you develop the ability to silence them while you’re writing. Nothing gets between you and your writing, especially not some crabs in a barrel mind demons.

Sally forth and be writeful… and enjoy your weekend.

Writer’s Rut Is A Pain In The Butt

Calvin and Hobbes PanicWell, it is if you actually believe in it. I’ve run into more than my fair share of scribes who emphatically state that writer’s block is about as real as Santa, the Easter Bunny, or Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs. I’m of the opinion that if it’s real to you, then it exists. But whichever side of the fence you personally stand on, there’s no denying the fact that writers, somewhere during the process of penning their magnum opus, can get stuck.

The first telltale sign of blockage is Oculos Computator, better known as The Stare. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know exactly what I mean. Hinder parked in your favorite writing chair, knuckles cracked, fingers nimble and hovering above your keyboard… when you become mesmerized by the siren song—I always hear Bali Hai from South Pacific—of the vast white void of your computer screen.

But you’re a determined writer, so you shake it off, gird your loins, and make resolute your desire to put words to paper. The problem is you can’t. That scene that’s so clear in your mind has suddenly become uncomfortable and difficult to write. Your synopsis refuses to mold itself into story form. An unbridgeable chasm has open up between you and the end of the story. The next scene (or chapter) is an empty pit of nothingness that stares back at you like the abyss and mocks your talent and very existence. Somehow—not through any fault of your own, surely—your characters have all been written into inescapable corners. But you have to write, that ache is in your bones, so what do you wind up doing? You rewrite, edit, rewrite, and edit what’s already been written instead of moving on.

That, my friend, is the kiss of death for creativity.

So, what are the workarounds? Hate to break it to ya, kiddo, but there ain’t no one surefire method. It’s like that line from the Diff’rent Strokes theme, “What might be right for you, may not be right for some.”

What’s that? You think that’s a cop out answer? You want what? Actual advice, even though everybody and their mother uses a different approach? Fine. Here are some of the more popular methods, in a nutshell:

Plot the story out beforehand. It’s akin to knowing the destination before you begin the journey. Stop whinging, you artsy bastard. Sure, preplanned structure can be viewed as limiting the creative spontaneity of your currently unwritten baby, but it’s only a suggested story path that you can alter along the way. Nothing’s written in stone—rewrites’ll drive that point home soon enough, trust me—until your work has been published.

Gender swap. As silly as it might sound, tinkering with the XX and XY chromosomes of your protagonist or antagonist actually helps change the character’s viewpoints and perspective. Or if you’re not up to playing God—who are you kidding? You’re a writer. You think you’re God, go on and admit it—try switching up your writing style. If you normally write in first person, why not give third person a go?

Dora, of Explorer fame, is keen to shout, “Swiper, no swiping!” But you ain’t her and no one’s watching, so why not rip a page from the Star Trek TV series plot device book (from Next Generation to Enterprise) and give your characters a mini goal they must accomplish and pair them up with other characters they absolutely cannot stand. Conflict is story. Just ask Moses. It was written on the back of one of the stone tablets. Trust me on this.

Don’t allow yourself to get hung up on formatting, grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and all that crap, and save editing for the very end. Right now, your goal is to transport that nagging story from the ether of your mind and plunk it firmly down on the page. You’ll have plenty of time to go back and gussy it up later.

And the simplest bit of advice I can offer any of you lazy sods who positively hates following patterns and formulas or doing any sort of precursor to writing; the quick and dirty solution to putting the boots to writer’s block is to stop waiting for your muse—she’s really not that into you and it’s embarrassing how you chase her around like a lovesick puppy—and simply write. Let your thoughts spill out and let it be awful and unstructured and nonsensical, just as long as you’re actively engaging in the process of writing. Hell, start a blog. Works for me.

Now, what are you doing still staring at this? Stop procrastinating. Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys