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Monday, August 01, 2005

The Nuts and Bolts of Actually Writing

Repeat after me:

Each writer is free write their own way. I am free to write my own way.

After all these articles, the bottom line is--write how you want to. No one's holding a gun to your head to force you to write a certain way. Go with your own gut instinct.

1) Being a writer

Care about what you're writing about, because your reader will know when you don't.

Be true to your values, your personality. You don 't want any kind of cognitive dissonance about what you're writing and your own inner values.

Be self-disciplined. No one is going to make you sit down and write except yourself, and your are not going to published if you don't have a manuscript to submit.

Develop your own unique style of writing. Don't copy anyone. Develop your own writer's voice. (One book that gave great exercises for developing my writer’s voice is FINDING YOUR WRITER’S VOICE by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall. Not all the exercises resonated with me, but most of them were terrific to help me define and develop my writer’s voice.)

2) Know what you want to write.

Know the scope of your story. For your story idea, how many words would be appropriate? Does your idea have enough conflict and complexity to carry that word count? Does your idea cover a long enough or short enough passage of time for your word count?

Who is your reader? What's the demographic?

What's your market? What are the guidelines of the magazine/publishing house you're targeting? And not just the formatting guidelines. What market does that magazine/publisher reach--age and sex of readers, preferred settings/locales, preferred genres, types of stories? Be specific and match your story to the needs of your target market.

3) Preparing to write your story

Hunt for ideas. Many writers brainstorm any and all ideas that come to them. Some use freewriting. Some rely on observation or reading. Others on epiphany. Most use a combination of all methods. Whatever works for you.

Write down your best ideas. Shuffle them around. Mix and match, combine and separate. Make your own recipe.

Research the story idea you like the best. Be wary of too little or too much research. Also, some writers prefer to start writing before they do the research. Again, whatever works for you.

4) Your own best way to plan your story

Some people do exhaustive scene indexes, some just have a vague idea of where they're going. Whatever works for you. I wrote an article on Pantsing and Plotting for more information on the different writing styles.

For Pantsers, Swain suggests that before you start writing, at least know the elements of your 50-word elevator pitch: Character, Situation, Objective, Opponent, Disaster.

For Plotters, I'd suggest Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method. Not everyone can do all the steps (and again, whatever works for you--do as many or as few as you'd like), but even for Pantsers, it can be a useful tool for writing your novel or short story.

5) How to churn out prose

Swain has some very succinct, very good tips for the most important of all aspects of the writing life: PRODUCTION.

a. Work. Just do it. No one will force you to do it, so you must force yourself. Sit butt in chair and write.

b. Work regular hours. Same time each day, if possible. We all know that life isn't always on schedule, but a regular writing schedule can sometimes improve your output. It becomes a habit.

c. Set a quota. Pages per day, hours per day. Whatever works best for you. Never underestimate the power of a daily goal, which can turn into a valuable habit.

d. Have a place to work. Some people do better with different places every day or each week; some people do best with the same place for writing. Some people like a beautiful view and comfortable room; some people need no windows, no pictures, no comfort, no distractions. Whatever works for you. Sometimes it's useful to have something that consistently will "trigger" writing time/mode for you--a visual, auditory, or olfactory stimulus.

e. Eliminate distractions or learn to work around them. Some writers work well even in the midst of a noisy living room; some writers need earplugs and blinders to help them focus. Whatever works for you. One thing to keep in mind is that an uncomfortable workstation can sometimes be a distraction itself--make sure your chair and computer are ergonomically correct.

f. Don't wear yourself out. No one expects you to chug out a novel in two weeks. Pace yourself, and discover your own natural rhythm of working. Don't feel pressured to write faster or slower.

g. Stay refreshed. Take breaks. Keep in touch with the world around you. Keep hunting for new ideas.

h. Stay in good health. Exercise and eat well. As a writer, you don't want to develop repetitive motion injuries, or back problems. You don't want to develop heart or lung problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. Take care of your body so you can continue your passion for writing. (I have a column "Health and the Writer" every Monday at http://writerquotes.blogspot.com/)

Polish your prose. At this stage, a critique partner or critique group can help you with making sure your writing conveys what you want it to convey.

a. Make sure your language is clear. If people are confused or if they misunderstand you in any way, fix it.

b. Trim any and all excess words. Be ruthless. Make each word count. Cut facts rather than emotions--emotions are the key of your story, whereas facts can be cut easier while still keeping the atmosphere and flow of the plot. For minor cutting, trim words and phrases. For major cutting, drop scenes or characters.

c. Check continuity. Make sure that if your hero drives up in a pickup truck, he doesn't leave on a Harley. If your heroine has green eyes in chapter one, she shouldn't have "eyes like sapphires" in chapter four.

d. Check for sequence--action, then reaction. Motivation-Reaction Units.

e. Smooth out pacing and flow. Are there peaks and valleys? Does the action move swiftly or does something slow down the reading pace? Are reactions and motivations explained adequately?

f. Tweak language and dialogue. Make sure the word choice and cadence is true to each character.

Now that we've discussed the practical aspects of writing, what about the psychological?

Next: Get Into the Mindset of Writing

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain

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