Okay, so this tag might be over a year old. But our love for Hamilton never dies, amiright, gang? So, I’ve just got to do this tag.
Full disclosure: I meant to post this yesterday, Valentine’s Day. Wouldn’t that have been perfect? A romance-themed post for the most romantic day of the year? Well. I was too busy eating my weight in chocolate and heart-shaped pizza to even think of making this post. BUT, it is still February, I still have pink paper hearts hanging all over my house, so it is still as good a time as any to answer questions about my favorite couple in my WIP!
Brown hair, beard, square jaw, perpetually growling, usually caked in a layer of grime, great lover and drawer of maps, depthless fount of information, has little to no patience, gets things done.
Artist, working as an elementary school art teacher, messy black hair, glasses, cinnamon roll, sweet as candy, bitingly sarcastic, self-sacrificing, needs to learn to stand up for himself, kind as can be.
All right, my writing lovelies. It is 2017. And even though so much of the news feels like we’re being dragged, kicking and screaming, back in time, every one of us writing, publishing, creating stories, putting art out into the world, can do our part to make sure that the progress we’ve made, the things we’ve built, the norms we’ve shattered and the fights we’ve started don’t all come crumbling down.
So this is my advice. Advice for how to keep writing like it’s 2017. How to write stories that are responsible. How to write stories that push the wheel of time forward and not crank it back. This is my advice, ten easy tips, for how to write like a decent human being.
We all know the feeling. You’ve got a scene in your head you want to write, but your brain isn’t working. Your fingers won’t cooperate. Maybe it’s your keyboard that has it out for you. Whatever the case, you can’t think. You want to start, but you’re stuck.
Here are a couple of tricks I find really handy for that first half-hour when you’ve sat at your desk, opened your laptop or your notebook, and gone “… oh no.”
What’s your character seeing? Hearing? Smelling? Touching? Say I’m writing a scene where my main character is running from a monster in a rainstorm. I might make a list like this:
mud, muck, slippery, splatter, pouring, shoes squelching, shivering, sheets of rain, buckets, splashed, slipped; snarling, slobbering, growling, thundering paws; spikes of lightning, blinding, flash, silver; panting, whimpering, skidding, falling, crashing
This’ll help you visualize the scene and get into the headspace.
Writers tend to be of two minds when it comes to describing a character’s physical appearance. Either they like to a) introduce each character with a fully-fleshed description that gives the reader an instant picture in their mind, or b) sprinkle in details sparingly, when they come up organically in the story.
(Of course, there are some writers who prefer a third option, c) divulge nothing about the characters save, basically, their names. This tactic, I DO NOT recommend. The idea behind it is, I guess, noble: to let your readers form their own interpretation of a character’s physicality free from the author’s influence, and to avoid bogging down the prose with a clunky descriptive paragraph. I can see what these writers are trying to do, only most of the time … they don’t do it. They end up creating faceless blobs: featureless talking heads that leave little impression on the reader.)
So, when it comes to describing characters, how much detail is too much? Should we saturate our pages with description, or sprinkle them?
Maintaining a constant, forward momentum can be tricky when you’re writing a story. A great way to make sure your story is moving steadily ahead is to look at the action on a page-by-page basis:
Have something happen, change, or be revealed by the end of every page in your story.
When I go back over what I’ve written, I like to always make sure that, when I come to the end of every page, something has changed. Someone has asked a question, or answered one; a character has learned something new; seen something surprising; put on their jacket and gone somewhere else. A phone has rung, or a knock comes at the door; whatever happens, by the bottom of the page, we’re further along than we were at the top.
Making sure every single page has a specific point, needs to be there, has done something to move your plot towards its conclusion, is a quick and easy way to give your story forward momentum, and give the reader a reason to keep turning pages.
An earlier version of this post was originally shared on my old blog, Christina Writes.
We all know those moments in editing, or writing, when it feels like the story is struggling. The plot’s sluggish, wheezing to a halt. Your prose feels uninspired. Your characters are making decisions that don’t entirely make sense. Your protagonist’s motivations are pin-balling around so fast she’s liable to get a concussion. Something isn’t working, and you can’t figure out what.
A common piece of writing advice (attributed to a number of literary giants) is to “kill your darlings.” This is provocative advice, but what exactly does it mean?
Kill Your Darlings, to me, means identifying the parts of your story you are not looking at objectively. That chapter you keep saying has to end with a certain beat. That line of dialogue you keep rewriting the scene to make sure you include. Does the character have to ask this question right now? When did you decide this? Why can everything else in this scene be rewritten, but this bit was scribed in indelible ink?
When writing, and especially when editing, you’ve got to be willing to let your story change and grow organically. So, if you’re stuck in a scene, or if some element of your plot just isn’t working, ask yourself—is there something here, a moment, a story beat, a line of dialogue, a fact of backstory or worldbuilding, that I am fiercely protecting for no clear reason? Did I make some decision weeks, months, years ago, about this story that I have never reexamined? Is there something within this writing that I have never put through the same dispassionate red pen wringer as everything else?
That’s probably your darling. That’s the blind spot that’s been wheezing and guttering without your realizing. And maybe it’s time to take it off life support.