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Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

This is a somewhat random selection of books I like.

What do they have in common? Awesomeness, that’s what (at least to my mind:). But at their core, they each have a different, clever, well thought-out idea that powers the story engine. And this is just a selection of one person’s likes. There are so many ways to tell a story, and so many ideas from which to start. 

Great. So how do you get to a good idea?

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

— Linus Pauling

Excellent, so helpful. It’s good to have goals. But if you’re like me, you might be wondering what exactly that means, and how one goes about it?

So glad you asked! There are lots of ways, of course, from diving in with a crappy first draft (I do like this approach, so helpful for getting past blocks, but it can waste a lot of time), writing prompts, genre-bending or gender-bending existing ideas, to headline news to updated fairy tales to history. And when I’ve seen most professional writers talk about this, getting ideas isn’t really the problem.

It’s getting a good idea. How do we do that?

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Here is a ten-part approach to generating, selecting, and growing ideas from Scott Myers. He recommends generating an idea a day for a month, to get in the habit. Given his background, his suggestions are geared toward screenwriting, but the essential principles are useful across genres.

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Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a writer or creative. That’s fine, but humans are still wired to think in terms of stories. It’s how we understand the world, solve problems, and plan for the future.

Stories the world over are almost always about people with problems,” writes Jonathan Gottschall. They display “a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome.” So a possible formula for a story = character(s) + predicament(s) + attempted extrication(s). This pattern transmits social rules and norms, describing what counts as violations and approved reactions. Stories offer “feelings we don’t have to pay [full cost] for.” They are simulated experiments in people-physics, freeing us from the limits of our own direct experience.

— It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories

What do you see when you look out the window? What stories might you tell about the couple across the street, or the rundown house on the next block, or the accident you just drove past?

It’s that simple, and that hard.

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Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

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This is a pretty particular post, but it’s something that would have helped me, so here you go.

There are a lot of books and other resources out there for writers. A while back I mentioned a few of the ones I’ve found helpful, including this one:

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

At one point I read an Ilona Andrews* post mentioning they used the book when starting out, and decided to check it out. There’s a lot of useful material here. My edition looks like this:

Swain’s approach is very detailed, and while not the last word, obviously, he does have a Lot to say about the nitty gritty craft of writing. What, how, and why, all those questions everyone ahead of you seems to know but often don’t explain. And have I mentioned that this book is Very Detailed with Teeny Tiny Type? Even if you have the book, getting a handle on the discussion’s arc and the location of useful details was something I found time-consuming. So I wrote up an outline, including descriptions and page references for all the bits I wish the table of contents had included. Click the image below to view the full PDF.

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Will this outline help you? If you have the book and are interested, yes. If you don’t have the book but wonder if you might be interested, this file will at least give you a sense of what’s included.

If you want to know more about techniques like Motivation-Reaction Units, I also suggest this summary post by K.M. Weiland:

Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing

And since we’re here, I’ll also mention Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal series on writing. He discusses outlines, characters, scenes and sequels that look a lot like Swain’s approach, and more:

‎jimbutcher.livejournal.com

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Even if you don’t need this now, tuck it away in your stash of tools for writing. You never know when it might come in handy!

Photo by u015eahin Sezer Dinu00e7er on Pexels.com

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* Love their work. Check it out if you’re into fantasy starring interesting magic, well-developed characters, smart, capable, kick-ass ladies, and more!

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Today I want to spotlight a collection of writing advice. It comes via OWW, the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. OWW is a fee-based workshop but this advice is available to all.

These short essays discuss topics on writing in general, how to get your work read (if you’re into workshops like OWW, or the free Critters or Codex, for example), and the publishing business overall. I like Nicola Griffith’s piece about avoiding cliches:*

Don’t write “her heart stopped” unless you mean she died. Don’t talk about saucy serving wenches in an inn where the beef stew is thick and hearty and the ale is fresh, nutty, and strong… Why aren’t “serving wenches” ever tired, middle-aged women? Why is the beer rarely yellow, or thin, or cloudy with sediment?

So true.** There’s a reason the average human lives a much longer and healthier life than their ancestors did just a century ago:

In Japan, 72 has become the new 30, as the likelihood of a 72-year-old modern-day person dying is the same as a 30-year-old hunter-gatherer ancestor who lived 1.3 million years ago.

Modern sanitation, medicine and quality infrastructure (for those handy extras like clean drinking water) for the win!

So, keep a weather eye out for dangerous and terrifying pitfalls you have to escape in the nick of time as you navigate the winding path of language clichés:) But keep writing. Remember, all’s well that ends well! (And that’s just about enough of that;)

While we’re on the subject of advice, I’ll supplement the OWW site and my previous posts on writing advice with a link from Brain Pickings. This collection of wisdom is from a variety of writers, genre and otherwise:

#49: Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers
“You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”

Some of this advice may not apply to you; I tend not to relate to Bukowski, for example. But some of it may, and I hope it’s useful.

Since I’m throwing in everything but the kitchen sink today, let me close with this great post from Elizabeth Bear: “everybody’s scared of things that they don’t understand and all the living they don’t do.

Accept that there will be a lot of failures along the way, and that you can come back from nearly any mistake that doesn’t involve making a left turn in front of an oncoming semi.

Excellent advice.

Write, rewrite, finish. Do it again.

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* Some of the examples are also about uncomfortable -isms. Racism and sexism, for instance, are more problematic than simple clichés and should be resolved at a deeper level. Obviously.
** As a side note, if you’re curious about what and how people ate in the Western Middle Ages, SF Canada writer Krista D. Ball has a detailed and useful book on realism in fantasy food: What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank.

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The excellent Elizabeth Bear has a good post on how to get past “rave rejections.” You know the ones, where they tell you how great the story is but sorry, can’t use it.

Her advice? Focus on Voice and Narrative. While these suggestions are hardly new she does frame them in concise, useful language that cuts through the extensive “how to” checklists so often found in writing advice. Here she is on how to grow a voice:

Write a lot. Work at identifying and expunging cliches and lazy word choice from your prose. Find sharp verbs and strong, observed details. Read things out loud and if you don’t like how they sound, change them. Embrace whimsy and quirkiness, but only inasmuch as it is natural to you: otherwise you run the risk of becoming twee. Play with pastiche. If you have a natural wit, let it shine through. Be playful.

On narrative drive and creating characters readers care about:

A character who loves something, or who holds fast to an ideal, is humanized and becomes approachable. A character who takes action lures us unto caring about what she cares about.

We love people who fight.

It’s a great post, short, approachable, with a “manageable bite-sized helpful chunk” of useful information. Also, bonus points for using a funny video of David Bowie to make her case.

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In writing, brevity works not only as a function of space on a page, but the time that an audience is willing to spend with you.

A friend sent me an excellent article this morning, with some of the most useful advice I can think of for writers. It can also be one of the least welcome suggestions:
Keep It Short.

Danny Heitman’s essay uses this pithy guidance to sum up a lot of bits writers hear when trying to improve their craft: be concise, be concrete, be on point, write for your audience, etc. This does not mean blindly banging away on the Delete button, mind you:

I frequently hear champions of brevity advising writers to cut their word counts by scratching all the adjectives or adverbs… The point of brevity isn’t to chop a certain kind of word, but to make sure that each word is essential.

Short version, keep it short. (Although I can’t help myself, here’s one more quote from the article, this time citing John Kenneth Galbraith):

The gains from brevity are obvious; in most efforts to achieve it, the worst and the dullest go. And it is the worst and the dullest that spoil the rest.

Draft your short story, essay, poem, novel or recipe, then if you have a little time, put it aside. When you come back to it fresh, make friends with that Delete button.

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