Writing can be a difficult and intimately personal undertaking. We all have different approaches, different voices, and different methods for the way in which we weave words. There are lots of ways to write a book, and a problem I’m seeing a lot in writing classes, blogs, and instructional books is the expectation of imparting the One True Way to write.
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.”
1. Make a list of sensory words to put you in the mindset of your scene.
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.
Are Your Characters Faceless Blobs? (Or, How Exhaustively Do You Describe Your Characters?)
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.
For many of us, this past November was a month of emotional strain. I’ll admit, all fantasies of blowing my NaNoWriMo goals out of the water fell apart after the sucker punch that was November 8th. For days, I could hardly concentrate on eating or sleeping, let alone writing. I struggled to find any motivation to work on my WIP.
Now, for some people, the darkest hours, the moments of struggle and adversity, are the times they find most creatively stimulating. “Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty,” said Sartre. It is through struggle and pain, they say, that they find the inspiration and motivation to pursue their art.
That’s great for them. Really.
Writing can be a lifeline, a rope to cling to and claw at while everything else is in free-fall, and if you can find solace and stimulation within the coarse fabric of your rough patches, all the better for you.
But, if you’re the kind of writer who can’t write when you’re upset, who needs to fundamentally feel safe and happy and comfortable and encouraged to pick up the pen; if you write from a place of confidence and joy, please, please, please don’t think less of yourself for feeling creatively dried up right now.
Try not to internalize too much shame or guilt or hatred at yourself. Humans have limits, even you.
You are allowed to have dry spells. You are allowed to be uninspired, to be blocked. Peaks and troughs, people, it’s okay.
One of the worst things you can do during writer’s block is strain and strain and strain. Don’t beat up or berate yourself. Don’t get angry that you, for whatever reason, can’t write right now. Be kind to yourself.
Your creative urge will come back to you, often at an unexpected time or in a surprising way. If you’re going through hell, by all means, keep going, but let yourself take the time that you need to fight through it.
You’re a writer regardless of whether you put down a word every day. So take time off if you need it. Let your story be a source of comfort, not one more thing to feel stressed about.
Say your characters are standing before the moss-draped opening of a dark, gloomy cave, and they’re deciding whether or not to go in.
You know they need to, because there’s a glimmering, all-powerful gem in that cave they need to find (as well as a nine-legged creature with slobbery fangs and poison barbs guarding it.) The question is, how do they get into the cave?
Character A saying, “Let’s go in” and Characters B and C nodding and saying, “Sure, that sounds good” might get them through the door, but it doesn’t lend much by way of excitement — or character development.
Agreeing, in fiction, isn’t nearly as exciting as disagreeing.
Creating a fantasy world from scratch is a daunting enough undertaking, what with having to decide what it looks like, how its culture works, if the world has magic, or dragons, or sea monsters. You need a history, a timeline, a sense of logical consistency. And, unless your fantasy world is steeped in science and Atheism (which, now that I think about it, might be awesome) you’re probably going to need a religion.
Religion has, from the times of men looking up at lightning and surmising a god must be up there throwing down electric bolts, stemmed from a need to explain the inexplicable. And, in a fantasy world, there’s probably a lot that’s inexplicable. A fantasy world might fear sea monsters as demons, might revere dragons as gods, might think magic comes from people touched by the heavens — or by those sprouted from hell.
“It doesn’t exist.”
“It’s in your head.”
“What you need to do, is just start typing.”
The internet has a lot of opinions on writer’s block, from dismissing its existence entirely to ineffectively proscribing blind clacks at a keyboard as its remedy. For someone in the thick of the brain fog and creative stall that is writer’s block, I don’t think either of these mentalities — that what we’re going through isn’t real, or that all we need to do is just write something down — is really going to help, because I don’t think writer’s block is simply a matter of mental fog or stubborn procrastination.
I think it comes from something far worse — and far easier to fix.