Monday, April 28, 2008

Writing 101

What's funny about college is that you aren't necessarily taught to write. Honestly, most of what I know about writing I learned everywhere but school. When an editor is going through your draft, you learn fast. And there are all sorts of fantastic materials about writing written by - get this - writers. Here are some tips I've picked up, and they can be used in every form of writing...

1. Show, don't tell. Please don't tell me that Jane runs fast. Do her legs blur as she tears up track? Much more involving.

2. Use active voice. This is tough, especially for people writing in the academic field, because academic researchers love their passive verbs. Passive verbs, keep these under your hat -


Recognize them. Avoid them. Instead of "Jane was running," say "Jane ran." By using active verbs, you're painting a more vivid picture while cutting down on wordiness. Passive verbs can't always be avoided, but where there is action, there should also be active verbs.

3. Avoid the "ly" adverbs. Karen Ball beat this into my head six years ago. It's amazing how many time's you'll find lines like "she screamed loudly." Well, duh. Can anyone scream quietly? Adverbs modify verbs. Trouble is, if you've got a lot of "ly" adverbs hanging around, your verbs aren't working hard enough. Make your verbs earn their keep. Again, there are times when they're appropriate, especially if they're modifying linking verbs (see above verb list). But where there is action, there should be strong verbs that don't need the support of the "ly" underlings.

4. Be specific. This is especially important when writing comedy. When I was in a screenwriting class, it was described this way - "If you say 'gay cartoon character, that's kind of funny. If you say 'gay smurf', you've got a laugh." Specificity makes your writing that much sharper and that much more vivid. Juno is the poster-child for specificity. Successful TV shows are also really good examples - early seasons of Gilmore Girls drip with specific cultural and media references. Blue Like Jazz is another example.

5. Don't marry the fly. Got this out of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, a book every writer should keep close. The jist of this rule is not to get so enamored with small details that you lose sight of the big picture. Don't get so hung up with the fly that you forget about the two people in the room who happen to be throwing candleabras at each other. This is the flip side of specificity. Everything's a balance.

6. Find your own voice. I will never write like Francine Rivers. Ever. Mainly because I'm not Francine Rivers. Don't pressure yourself to write like someone you're not. I worked for two years on a mystery/suspence novel, written in third-person. It was hard going, and writing the action took a lot of effort. Then I began to behave badly and started working on another project, a first-person comedy. All of a sudden, the narrative became easy. My character had a voice and she didn't mince words and it was funny. After that, I stuck with first-person. When I took Divine Discontent to the conference this last summer, Karen read my proposal and nodded. She told me that I had found my voice, that it was me, that it sounded right.

So if you're really struggling, try a lot of different styles. The one that feels like your favorite pair of broken-in jeans, that one's yours. Keep it.

7. Don't pressure yourself. Another tip from Natalie Goldberg - basically, tell yourself that you are not going to write the Great American Novel, you're going to write crap. Total crap. Writers tend to pressure themselves into greatness to the point that they can't get anything out, because whatever they've got isn't great enough. If you tell yourself you're planning on writing crap anyway, you've got something to work with. And more likely than not, what you get can be good stuff.

Small notes:

- Don't say something's interesting. In general, if you have to say it's interesting, it isn't.

- Avoid "It". You can get philosophical about what "It" really is or really means, but life is short. Just use it sparingly, and think twice before using it to kick off a sentence.

- Be aware that what you read influences what you write. When I went on my Louis L'Amour kick, I kept coming up with lines like "Gun in one hand, Bible in the other." When I went through my British Chic-lit phase, my characters sounded rather proper. Keep your eyes open and know that what goes in will come out.

- Do read everything, though. Some people avoid reading while they write, and that's just stupid. STUPID. Read everything you can get your hands on. Always.

Happy writing!


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