Writing Tip Tuesday

photograph of Cheri Pray Earl

We asked Cheri Pray Earl: What is your best writing exercise to help someone get stronger as a writer?

Cheri’s writing tip:

My favorite exercise is Routine, Disruption, and Drama from The Portable MFA. It goes like this:

Frank O’Connor says (in his book, The Lonely Voice) that a story requires three elements: exposition, development, and drama. You know that your beginning plot portion is strong if you can summarize your story in three lines, with each line relating to one of these elements. For example:

  • Exposition: John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X. (Routine)
  • Development: One day, Mrs. Fortescue told him she was leaving him for another man. (Disruption of routine)
  • Drama: “You’ll do nothing of the kind,” he said. (What the protagonist will struggle for, in this case, his marriage.)

Another favorite is a writing exercise that sort of mimics what Hemingway (and Steinbeck, too) does with setting up a scene. This one works for me and for my students because we all need to work on creating richer settings. Here it is:

Write six descriptive sentences without a character (second three sentences elaborate on the first three). Then have the character(s) enter the setting you have created; write at least 4 lines of dialogue. No more than 500 words total.

Mistakes and Choices

Photo of Brandon Mull

“Making mistakes is part of learning to choose well. No way around it. Choices are thrust upon us, and we don’t always get things right. Even postponing or avoiding a decision can become a choice that carries heavy consequences. Mistakes can be painful-sometimes they cause irrevocable harm-but welcome to Earth. Poor choices are part of growing up, and part of life. You will make bad choices, and you will be affected by the poor choices of others. We must rise above such things.”

-Brandon Mull, Keys to the Demon Prison


Writing Tip Tuesday

photograph of Courtney Alameda

We asked Courtney Alameda: What advice do you have for aspiring writers and conference-goers? Is there anything you wish you knew earlier, or anything you would have done differently?

Courtney’s writing tip:

When attending conferences, work and write hard. Meet new people with an open heart. Do things that frighten you. Done right, you will leave the conference with a wealth of new skills, new information, and new friends.

All writers should write, read, and live voraciously—the best way to create a dynamic character is to be dynamic yourself. In terms of writing, I find that I don’t so much regret whatever I do, but those things I don’t do that I should. As I mature as a writer and a person, I get better at identifying experiences that will force me to grow and chase them down…no matter how frightening or challenging they may be.

Writing Tip Tuesday

photo of Martine Leavitt

We asked Martine Leavitt: What is the best advice you have ever received for this business we are in?

Martine’s writing tip:

One of the best bits of advice I ever got was to expect writing to be hard. I thought there was something wrong with me because it was so hard. But no. It is hard. It’s always hard. Get used to it.

Thanksgiving Day Writing Exercise

(Just for fun if you have time between the big meal and the pie.)

Brainstorm thirty things you are grateful for. Some examples are the turkey, family members, a house, freedom, books, health or technology. There are so many things to be grateful for that this shouldn’t be hard. Right?

Now choose five of those things to take away from the protagonist of whatever novel or story you are working on. How does that change their life? Their perspective?

Writing Tips Tuesday

Illustrating pen

We asked Illustrator, Steve Bjorkman, “What happens when the illustrations just aren’t coming out as you think they should?”

Here’s his tip:

I will take a drawing and ask someone who has no idea what I’m working on and ask, “what is happening in this drawing?” If they don’t get it I change it or begin again. Other times there will be an undefined “something” wrong with the final art, and it can only be fixed by starting over with a clean sheet of paper.

Thanks, Steve!

Writing Tips Tuesday

Picture of Ammie-Joan Paquette

We asked Ammie-Joan Paquette from Erin Murphy Literary Agency, “What is your best writing exercise to help someone get stronger as a writer?”

Here’s her writing tip:

This will sound insufferably trite, but I strongly believe that the best exercise to strengthen a writer’s writing is the reading. Immerse yourself in books, language, words—fill yourself up until they flow in you and rush through you and come out of you all on their own. You can analyze and dissect and take apart books that you love, figure out what makes them tick and why they make you feel the way they do. Or—you can just read. Read for love and for joy and for pleasure. The words push in and form their own channels in your mind, I firmly believe it. Fill it up and it will overflow right back out. Stronger, richer, more creative. That’s all I got!

Thanks Ammie-Joan Paquette!

NaNoWriMo Tip #3: Concrete Writing

Do you edit as you write? While NaNoWriMo is a time for “write now, edit later,” keep in mind that what you write is as important as that daily word count. This Writing Tip comes from WIFYR assistant Lisa Sledge.

The WIFYR assistants recently met to plan the 2015 conference. Can I just say how excited I am to go back to a conference that has done so much to save my writing and build my confidence? I wish it was June already.

Cheri Pray Earl gave a great presentation on how to improve our writing. One thing that really stuck with me is the importance of concrete rather than abstract writing.

William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) had a bit of an obsession with concreteness. And I love him for it. Here is my favorite of his poems:

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Beautiful, isn’t it? For me it conjures up all sorts of feelings, emotions, and even memories. A note on the kitchen table. Plums, icebox, cold, sweet, and that little bit of guilt that makes pleasure run deeper.

There is a chance, I realized, that not everyone knows or understands what “concrete writing” means.

I’m an English teacher. This is what I love. Indulge me for a moment.

Concrete writing relies on nouns, verbs, and vivid adjectives. It is a way of helping the reader look at ordinary things in a new light, makes the mundane stand out, and breathes life into what is easy to overlook.

Abstract writing is the cheap and lazy way to try and conjure up emotions in our readers. And guess what? It often doesn’t work. For example, I might write, “I ate the last plum and it tasted so good.” The phrase “so good” is empty. What does it represent? What emotions or feelings does it create? Nothing. And the “last plum”? Who cares if it was the last one. It doesn’t mean anything to me.

Inject power into your writing. Avoid abstract words such as “amazing”, “awesome”, “terrible”, “bad” or other vague constructions. Look through the world of your novel and highlight small objects and details in a way that will carry specific meaning and emotions to your readers.

Be concrete.

Writing Tips Tuesday

stick in mud
We asked A.E. Cannon, “When you are stuck in a particular place in a book that you can’t seem to get through, what do you do?”

Here’s her writing tip:

“I often wish I were more linear–a more linear thinker, a more linear writer, a more linear everything. Think how much more efficient I would be. However! Every now and then a person’s weakness can actually be her strength. When I am stuck in a particular spot I don’t stress much. I just go, “Oh well! Let me jump to another spot and work on that.” And eventually after I’ve done that a few times, I have some clarity where the problem area is concerned.

The point is this–no one is going to give you a prize for gritting your teeth and powering through something that’s not working. Feel free to let yourself jump ahead or behind and work on another scene.”

Thanks, A.E. Cannon!