Category Archives: Writing Tips

Writing Tips are meant to help writers with their craft.

Digging Deep: A Character-Building Exercise

Writers are of two minds when it comes to character creation. Some believe that all character details should be worked out before any writing takes place. Others suggest that interesting background stories and characteristics emerge once writing is under way. Your preference may depend on whether you’re a plotter or a pantser. Plotters outline all story events ahead of time, while pantsers “fly by the seat of the pants,” a free-wheeling approach that emphasizes spontaneity.

I consider myself to be somewhere in between—I work with a loose plot that allows for inspiration during the writing process. I also start with general ideas for characters, which are fleshed out by the time I arrive at the end of the first draft. I do find it useful somewhere along the way to go through a list like the one I’m presenting today.

I’ve divided the list into six categories, but this is just a basic profile. If you’re working on a young adult novel set in a high school, for instance, you might delve more deeply into academic achievement, social skills, status, and school activities. I’ve also provided questions to help you look at your characters in different ways. Keep in mind that writers differ when it comes to physical descriptions. Some believe in supplying all the visual details, while others offer only the essentials and allow readers to imagine the rest.

If you get stuck in a scene or with a plot point, it may be worthwhile to return to character creation. Further defining the family history or emotional makeup might just be the catalyst for getting things moving again.

Physical Appearance and Personal Habits

Age, sex, ethnicity, height, weight, eye color, hair color and style, clothing style, distinguishing marks (scars, birthmarks, prosthetic devices), grooming habits, manners and mannerisms

How does the character feel about his or her appearance?

Social Concerns

Educational background, occupation, economic status, religion, political orientation, living conditions, social organizations

How do other characters view this character? Hard-working? Social climber? Spiritual? Eccentric?

Family

Parents, siblings, children, significant other, extended family, pets, family friends, close-knit nonrelated groups

Consider relationships among family members as well as other forces that may affect the family. Any skeletons in the closet?

Childhood

Born with a silver spoon? Raised in the projects or the suburbs? Good times? Hard times?

What main event from the past influences the character’s current life?

Emotional Makeup

Attitudes, self-image, general outlook, hopes, fears, motivations, traumas, ambitions, accomplishments, obsessions, regrets. Extrovert, introvert, or something in between?

What does the character learn about him- or herself by the end of the story? How does the character change?

Unique Characteristics

Hobbies, quirks, and special skills. Mental disorders, psychic abilities, health conditions. Prized possessions. Favorite food, music, and free-time activities

Does the unique characteristic add balance and depth to the character or highlight an imbalance?

 

The next step would be developing scenes or short vignettes to show the character traits.

Strong characters are an essential element of a well-written story. Spending just a few minutes reading through a list of character traits helps develop fully rounded characters and may provide a jumping-off point for dynamic scenes and plot twists.

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Writing Tip: Ten Ways to Start Sentences

Have you ever reviewed your writing and found that something felt repetitive, but you couldn’t quite pin down the problem? Try looking at the beginning of your sentences. If you start the same way each time, with a noun or pronoun, for instance, a certain rhythm and monotony creeps in, even if your word choices are varied and your verbs active.

Breaking free from this rut is simple: just rework to create new sentence openers. Here are some ideas to get you started.

• Noun: a person, place, thing, animal, or abstraction (quality, concept, etc.).

Ashley took a steadying breath, walked up to the porch, and rang the doorbell.

Sprinklers lay unused on a yellowing lawn.

• Pronoun: a substitute for a noun.

She didn’t hear anything inside the house, not even the dog, Buster.

It felt deserted.

• Adjective: a modifier for a noun or pronoun.

Musty aromas drifted on the air, reminiscent of mushrooms, decaying pears, and the worm bin she’d built in seventh grade for extra credit.

Brown stains dotted the wooden planks underfoot.

• Article: a type of adjective (a, an, the).

A wave of revulsion washed over her.

The murder happened here.

• Verb: an action or state of being.

Calm down, Ashley told herself.

Don’t you think you’re overreacting?

• Gerund: a noun created from a verb by adding “ing.”

Jumping to conclusions seems to be your default these days, she thought with annoyance and then narrowed her eyes.

Collecting evidence wouldn’t be a bad idea, however.

• Adverb: a modifier for a verb, adjective, or adverb, answering questions such as how, when, where, and in what way.

Carefully she scraped up a few stained splinters and bundled them in a tissue.

Never had her fingers shaken so much.

Suddenly she couldn’t wait to leave.

• Conjunction: a connector between clauses and phrases.

But what about Buster?

And the cat that lived in the barn?

• Preposition: a link between nouns and pronouns and other parts of the sentence.

On the distant interstate, sirens wailed.

Along the porch planks in the fading light, a human shadow appeared, carrying a shovel.

 

• Interjection: an exclamation conveying emotion.

“Oh! You’re here!”

“Bingo, Ashley. You always were observant.”

It’s easy, once you get the hang of it. By the way, the sentences here are simply meant to illustrate. In reality, you wouldn’t want to place two of the more rare forms side by side, like the gerund phrases.

Writer, editor, and writing instructor Elizabeth Lyon inspired this blog post. Thanks, Elizabeth! See her book Manuscript Makeover for more great ideas.

Happy writing!

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Writing It Down: What’s Your Speed?

Writing is an exercise in self-motivation. Quite simply, if you don’t put words on the page, you’re not going to finish your manuscript. While setting appropriate goals is an important key to getting things done, the concept of an “appropriate” pace varies as much as individual writing styles. Learning the speed that works best for you is part of the process of discovering your identity as a writer.

Famous Authors Set the Pace

Ever wonder how your page rate compares with well-known writers? Novelist James Thayer, writing for Author magazine, offers the following insights (www.authormagazine.org/articles/thayer_james_2009_04_09.htm).

Among the speed writers is Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, who wrote approximately 13 pages each working day, or a million words a year (estimating that a double-spaced manuscript page contains 300 words and that a year contains 250 working days). Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, reportedly wrote 20 pages each day. English writer Samuel Johnson often produced an astonishing 40 printed pages in a day, or 12,000 words.

On the other end of the spectrum is Graham Greene, author of The Quiet American, who wrote just 500 words per day. Yet he was a prolific writer, churning out more than 30 books, along with several plays, screenplays, and short stories. It took J. R. R. Tolkien 11 years to write The Lord of the Rings, a 670,000-word endeavor, which amounts to 245 words each working day.

Those finding a middle ground include Jack London, who wrote between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day, and Stephen King, who writes 2,000 words a day.

Judging by the variety in the writing pace of the well known, persistence trumps speed.

Book in a Month

Recent years have seen the rise in speed writing contests, which provide a supportive community for those wishing to take the plunge. NaNoWriMo, or the National Novel Writing Month, challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30. This averages out to 1,667 words per day, or 2,273, if you take the weekends off. Quantity is valued over quality; the idea is to hit the word count and revise later. The contest offers no official prizes, and anybody who reaches 50,000 words is declared a winner. Find out more at http://www.nanowrimo.org/.

Don’t feel like waiting for November? Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, PhD, provides suggestions for creating a rough draft in a short amount of time. You can delve in whenever you have a slow month on your hands. I own this book, and even if you never plan to write a book in a month, it offers great writing tips as well as ideas for organizing your schedule. If you like to make lists and tick off boxes to help meet your writing goals, this is the book for you.

Slow Writers Club

Type “slow writer” into your search engine and you’re sure to come up with blog posts on the realities of slowness, some containing hilarious insights, others reflecting frustration or peaceful acceptance.

Christine Lee Zilka describes “negative word count” days that involve generous use of the delete key (http://czilka.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/being-a-slow-writer/). I don’t know her personally, but when I found her blog, I knew I could relate. My editor suggested that I heavily prune my first book, Freeblood, which originally weighed in at a whopping 122,000 words. That advice resulted in a few months of negative word count days—and a much more concise 105,000-word novel.

Ev Bishop, another author whose blog I found serendipitously, observes that taking on a day job to make ends meet has considerably slowed her writing output (makes sense, right?), but she also notes that the new job allows her writing “to be my whimsy and passion again” (http://evbishop.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/slow-writer/). That’s something to consider when pushing to meet arbitrary writing goals.

A Happy Medium

Where do I fit in? Well, I have my fast days and my slow days. Recently, a day of 3,500 words was followed by several of little to no words. In general, I’d say I’m on the slow end of the spectrum, but a lot of that slowness crops up in the editing process, rather than at the rough draft stage. I’ve noticed that if I write fast to meet an arbitrary word count, I don’t really like what I produce and end up scrapping it. On the other hand, if I write fast because I’m on a natural roll, that’s entirely different, and I generally keep the fruits of that inspiration.

I like to know where I’m going, so I plot events in my mind before sitting down to write. Sometimes I plot and write at the same time, but that’s not my usual habit. On the best days, I develop a scene in my mind, write a few paragraphs, and then think for a while, maybe while I’m doing housework or going for a walk. When I repeat this process throughout the day, I like what I come up with.

If you want to experiment with your writing pace, you might try setting high goals a few days a week. But be flexible! You may find yourself generating useless fluff to hit your mark, a sure indication that speed writing is not for you. Remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining, repeatedly typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Sure, he met his word count, but he went crazy doing it!

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Writing Tip: There Is an Easy Fix

“There is” and “there are” are commonly used in the English language. What some people may not know is that there is a clutter word. It’s indirect and doesn’t convey much meaning other than indicating the existence of something. This leads to another problem: a boring verb.

“Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “Sometimes using there is the only logical way to express an idea.” You’re absolutely right. For instance, the phrase let there be light would sound weird written in any other way. What would be the alternative? Let light commence? Allow the presence of light?

Most of the time, however, we can come up with a more dynamic sentence without the use of there. Here’s an example:

  • There was gunfire in the stairwell.

Although gunfire would normally evoke a strong emotion, the way this sentence is written is no more interesting than saying that a meeting took place in the conference room. Consider these alternatives:

  • Gunfire popped in the stairwell.
  • A shot rang out in the stairwell.

These sentences zing with energy. Rang and popped activate our sense of hearing and bring us into the action.

When searching for a way to fix this problem, it helps to identify the subject of the sentence. It isn’t there. In the first example, “there was gunfire in the stairwell,” gunfire is the subject. Once you’ve identified the subject, you can rework with a new verb—or even a new subject and verb if your tinkering leads to something you like better.

Here’s another example:

  • There he stood, waiting, slouched against the windowsill. There was a cigarette in his hand, smoking itself to a slow death.

Better:

  • He slouched against the windowsill, waiting, the cigarette tucked in his hand smoking itself to a slow death.

Nonfiction benefits from this kind of revamp as well. Sometimes we don’t want to state the subject because it amounts to pointing fingers, but you don’t have to name names to come up with a more interesting turn of phrase. Consider the following example:

  • There was a budget deficit in 2011. There will be an attempt to make up for it in 2012.

Ah, the dull plod of bureaucratese. You may not want to say who is responsible for the budget deficit, but you don’t have to. Decipher the gist of the information and rewrite:

  • This year’s greatest challenge lies in securing funds to make up for 2011’s budget deficit.

Go ahead and give it a try. Turn on the find feature on your word-processing software and see if you come up with a there or two in your latest writing project. Then enjoy the metamorphosis as your language becomes more active and dynamic.

Remember, if your passages are sluggish, there is an easy fix.

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Upgrade Your Verbs

“A strong verb in the past tense is almost always a better choice than the gerund (-ing) form combined with was or were,” my editor wrote in her assessment of my manuscript.

Sure, I thought. Wasn’t I already doing that? I knew I’d been pretty careful about using strong verbs.

Then I searched my document for was and were and realized how just how easily they can slip by.

Consider the following examples (not from Freeblood):

They were jostling him in the hallway after class.
They jostled him in the hallway after class.

 

As they filed through the gate, she was texting her friend.
As they filed through the gate, she texted her friend.


Better, yes? And more succinct. Here’s another:

The sun was scorching down on them.
The sun scorched down on them.


Scorching is a strong verb, but its effect is diminished with the addition of was.

You may not realize you’re even writing in this fashion until you type was or were in the Find window and start searching your document. Don’t get me wrong. Combing every page for these workhorse verbs is a time-consuming task, but it is well worth the effort, once you see how much smoother and more robust your writing becomes when you eliminate this kind of clutter.

I like to spontaneously write whatever comes to mind until I run out of steam. Revision and self-editing—those come later. More ideas come to me when I don’t get caught up in correcting myself when inspiration strikes. This issue, however, isn’t one you’re going to want to leave until your final polish.

My suggestion is to go over a scene for these words and an accompanying “ing” verb as a way to start your writing day or when you hit a slow spot. That way, when you finish writing your manuscript, you won’t have two long, tedious searches ahead of you.

If you’re already in the final stages of your book and haven’t been working on this issue throughout, I’ll offer a bright spot: Once you carry out these searches in a novel-length document, you’re much less likely to make the same error in the future.

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