Category Archives: Writing Tips

Dear Anne #8 – Words Are Your Trade

Dear Anne,

I realized this week that it has been a month since I’ve written, and for that I want to apologize. I’m sure you understand how crazy summer can be sometimes, even though it’s supposed to be “vacation” time. Ha!

Right now you’re starting back to high school and you’re getting ready for your Sweet 16 party. How did this happen? You make me feel old. Maybe I am. But I won’t admit it for another two years.

As you’re getting back into daily social interactions with your teenage friends, I wanted to write this letter to remind you of something very important. If you’re going to be a writer, you must embrace the fact that words are your trade. You are to become an expert at the manipulation and proper construction of words and sentences.

Have you been watching the Olympics? I have. I’m struck with this one simple fact: when an athlete keys in on who they are as an athlete, they train insanely in their chosen discipline. The announcers revealed that rhythmic gymnasts train ten hours a day, six days a week. Katie Ledecky gets up at 4am to begin her training day, putting in about eight and a half miles of swimming. Every. Day.

These athletes have embraced that thing that makes them an athlete, so they train at that thing excessively.

Words are what make you a writer. They are your tools, your friends, and sometimes your worst enemies. But without words you could never be a writer. You should thrive on words, exercise your words, train your words, and embrace words in all their complexity and mood swings. Because words are your trade.

You are an athlete of words.

darth grammarWhat does that mean? Listen to the way you speak, listen to the way others speak, and improve your words. Practice saying things the right way, rather than flippant teen-speech. When texting or posting on Facebook, write your words all the way instead of abbreviations. Vulgarity in speech could never compare to the power of a cleverly crafted comeback.

Also, listen to your English teacher intently. Absorb all you can about the construction of words into complex sentences. Understand how words interact with each other and how subtle meanings can change based on the nuances of grammatical structure. You don’t have to make English your favorite subject, but you should take it seriously.

Expand your vocabulary. Always look for new words to add to your arsenal. Make a thesaurus your best friend. But don’t just add more weapons, understand how they work and when to use them. Words are powerful and fun, but not all words are appropriate in every situation. Learn what words to use and when.

I’m not saying you have to be a perfect speller. I’m not. But I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m better than most people whose words are not their trade. I’m not saying become a grammar nazi. I’m not. But I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m better than most people whose words are not their trade.

Words are your trade. Learn words. Embrace words. Use words properly. Become an expert with words. Train with words as if you were training for an Olympics for word-smiths.

And if I see lol or jk or idk or anything like that in any of your stories, I may just crawl through the computer, forget the fact that you’re about to be sixteen, and make you stand in the corner until you apologize.

Respect words.

-k

RETURN TO THE “DEAR ANNE” TABLE OF CONTENTS

Dear Anne #7 – Finding Inspiration

Dear Anne,

ideaToday I want to talk to you about finding inspiration. The truth is, the firing of the synapses in your mind will only take you so far in the creative process. Your brain needs a database of inspirational input in order to come up with truly creative ideas. Think of it as putting things in a hat. If you need an idea, you simply reach into the hat for one or two. But if there are only a handful of mundane daily things in your hat, you’re not going to get a lot of great ideas to work with. So you have to fill your hat with as much random junk as you can. Pull two or three things out of the hat, and suddenly your brain has a spark of creative genius.

This is what it means when people say you have to practice being creative. Being creative is not something that just comes randomly to especially creative people, but it comes to those who have stock-piled a collection of random things that they can draw upon to be inspired in their creativity. If you don’t make it a habit to keep your collection up-to-date, your creativity will begin to stale.

So where do you get these random things that fuel your inner creative genius? Here are just a few places…

1. Other stories. Reading and watching movies are great places to find unique ideas to put into your hat. It’s okay to be inspired by other writers…chances are they were inspired by other writers too. There’s nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9). The inspiration you have from other writers will come out differently with you than it did with them. You’ll have a unique spin and a unique story, even if certain elements might have been inspired by another story or movie. Take all of these stories, especially the elements you like the most, and put them into your hat.

2. Observing life. Sure you live life. You see life. You talk to people. You do things. But are you really observing what is happening? Do you listen to the subtle nuances of a conversation? Do you look for possible hidden meanings in a word or phrase? Do you speculate on the secret thoughts behind a look on someone’s face? Do you notice the variations in shadows on the wall? Do you lay on the floor or turn your head upside down just to look at things from a new perspective? Do you wonder about sounds you don’t recognize? Do you see weird things while riding down the road and try to figure out what was going on? Do you ask the question “why?” about anything and everything, not to get the real answer, but to give your creative mind a chance to fabricate an answer true or not? Never forget to take time to observe life. Watch it with all the analyzation and wonder you might new movie…always wondering what might come next and always trying to predict the most outlandish outcomes. Everything you see, everything you hear, and everything you speculate all goes into your hat.

3. Dreams. Yeah, I know. Cliche, right? But don’t knock it. Some of my favorite scenes in my books were inspired by dreams. In fact, I have an entire book in my “To Write List” that was almost 100% inspired by a particularly vivid dream. Dreams are when your brain is at its most creative and random. You might be able to use whole dream sequences or maybe just a small impression, emotion, or snippet of conversation. The point is, put these things in your hat and pull them out whenever you need inspiration. When you first wake up, take a few moments to try to remember your dreams. Think about details. Think about over-arching plot lines in the “story” of your dream. Think about the emotional affect it might have had on you. And if necessary keep a dream journal to write them down.

4. A dictionary, encyclopedia, or text book. You’ll be surprised what learning something new will do for creativity. If you read an article about the early Aztec Empire, you might find something there that you can put into your hat. Maybe a certain word in the dictionary has a sound that rolls off your tongue in just the right way to give you inspiration. Maybe a definition gives you the insight to tweak an idea a different way. As boring as it may sound, plain academic studying can sometimes inspire you in big ways. Learn random facts about history, learn new words, and put them all into your hat.

The bigger your hat the easier it is to find the right spark of creativity at the right time. Practice creativity, stock it with plenty of fuel, and you’ll find all the inspiration you need.

-k

RETURN TO THE “DEAR ANNE” TABLE OF CONTENTS

Dear Anne #6 – Dealing With Life and Motivation

Dear Anne,

Life and motivation are big problems for writers. Life will always get in the way and much of the time motivation to write will be a difficult thing for you to find. I must admit, this is how I feel most of the time. When the creative juices are flowing I can write very quickly. But when I can’t get my head in the right place it is very difficult to stay motivated. Most anything can take my mind away…church responsibilities, spending time with my family, lack of inspiration, chores, writer depression (that sagging feeling every writer gets that they are a failure at writing), accidents, unexpected expenses, unexpected trips to town, TV, internet, loss of my “want to.” The list goes on and on. But if I’m going to be a writer, I have to deal with all of that and find ways to write anyway. You’re going to need to do the same thing.

So with that introduction out of the way, here are some ways to deal with life and motivation.

waiting to write1. Life happens. It can’t be helped. Admit it. Accept it. The most well-intentioned and prolific writers in the world have been derailed by life. And there will come times in your life when you just don’t feel like or can’t emotionally handle the writing process. You lose your “want to.”

But dealing with life is a part of the reason writers write to begin with. It’s their escape from reality if only for a few minutes. It’s their creative outlet that helps them recharge. It’s their emotional expression that helps them vent. Sure you must know how to balance life with writing, but life is also the fuel for writing.

You may not be able to actually put fingers on the keyboard, but you can write in your mind. Let life be your inspiration.

2. Write in the cracks. Do you have any idea how much time we waste everyday? Ten minute here. Fifteen there. Just one more Netflix episode. I know this is a rerun, but I really like this one. Find those cracks of time that you’re wasting and find a way to use them to write. Evernote or Onenote on your phone or tablet may be perfect for this. When you have a moment and an idea, jot it down. When you have more time you can return to that idea and write it more fully. Look for those little nuggets of time you can use to write a few more words.

3. Write what you’re passionate about. In an interview with Joss Whedon, the writer and director of The Avengers, he answered the mystery of how he stayed so prolific in his work. How did he get so much done so quickly? His answer was simple…he writes what he’s “into” at the moment. In other words, if there’s a particular scene that he can’t get out of his head, he writes it. It doesn’t matter where it is in the story…he writes what he’s into. And once he gets all of those things out his system, he begins the slower process of piecing the story together with the scenes he skipped. If you’re having trouble being motivated to write that boring scene you’re just not into, skip it and write the one you’re passionate about.

one word - neil gainman4. Butt in seat. (This is actually an official battle cry of writers everywhere.) Sometimes it’s just this simple. Sit your butt down in front of your computer and start writing. You’ll be surprised at how difficult this can be. Life and everything will tell you to ignore that seat. But that seat will start staring at you…pointing its finger. You’ll begin avoiding it. You won’t even look at it. You know it wants you and you can’t ignore it forever. Just sit your butt down and write.

Because writing is a discipline.

In an earlier letter I talked about studying what you want to write by reading the things similar to what you want to write. But you must also realize that writing, like anything worth doing, requires practice. It’s a discipline that must be exercised whether you feel like it or not.

I was in the band throughout high school and college. I was a music major and a band director for a few years when I graduated. At one point I was practicing over an hour a day on my instrument. Many of those days I didn’t feel like it, but if I wanted to be an accomplished musician I had to do the work whether I felt like it or not.

Singers practice singing. Athletes practice their sports. Artists practice their art. I’m sure you know that practice is essential to getting better at anything, but the often overlooked part of practice is that you must PURPOSE to practice. A baseball player doesn’t just accidentally show up for practice. A dancer doesn’t accidentally show up for rehearsal. And you won’t accidentally write.

There are days the baseball player doesn’t want to practice. But he goes anyway. There are days when the dancer doesn’t want to rehearse. But she does anyway. There will be days when you don’t want to write. And those may be the most important days for you TO write.
Just get your butt in the seat.

one word - stephen king5. One word at a time. This is Stephen King’s secret to writing. Just write one word at a time. Neil Gaiman says to just put one word after another until it’s done.

One word leads to one sentence. One sentence leads to a paragraph. One paragraph leads to another, and so on until you’ve written a whole page. Pages lead to chapters. Chapters become books. Don’t know what to write or where to start? Try writing just one word.

6. Find your routine. Habits are habit forming. If you write every day at 4:30, then that time becomes sacred. You’ll schedule your entire day around that sacred time. You’ll feel incomplete if you miss it. Find your habit…a daily habit. Whether it’s an hour, thirty minutes, or just fifteen minutes…it doesn’t matter. Just lock it in and say, “This is MY writing time. Do not disturb.”

But no matter how good intentioned you are about writing with a routine, life happens and you’re going to drop the ball. One of your scheduled writing times will be interrupted. And the next time you’ll find it easier to be distracted, until one day you think, “Hey, I should really start writing again.” That’s when it hits you that you STOPPED writing and you’re kinda okay with that. Never be okay with that.

Find your routine and protect it like a wild animal.

7. Kill the time wasters. You can’t write if you’re letting time wasters suck all your extra time away. You may intend to sit down and write and spend all your time on Facebook instead. Then you’ve missed your writing time. Your routine becomes a Facebook routine and not a writing routine. So you must learn to recognize the time wasters and kill them.

Close Facebook. Turn the TV off. Put your phone in another room. Get rid of any and every possible distraction around you. Open your story and use your writing time to write. That’s when you have time well-spent.

I hope this helps you when life derails you. Don’t let lack of motivation be an excuse for not writing. If you want to be a writer you’ve got to learn to write even when life gets in the way.

-k

RETURN TO THE “DEAR ANNE” TABLE OF CONTENTS

Dear Anne #5 – Basic Story Planning

Dear Anne,

I write this letter on basic story planning, because that’s what you need right now. We’ve had some conversations already on this very thing, so I want to give you some more basic tools to help you properly plan your story.

Simply put, you have to know your story before you can write your story. There are writers who construct a plot first and populate it with characters to act out that plot. There are writers who create characters first and then give them something to do. There are even writers who have something to say to the reader or society, and they create the plot and characters in order to say what they want to say.

I’ll talk about these three approaches in more detail later. But what I want you to know is no matter what the approach or which approach you naturally take, these writers all have the same thing in common…they have an idea of what they want to write before they write it.

Even “seat of the pantsers” (writers who write by the seat of their pants without detailed planning) have something in mind – a goal, certain characters, developments, or plot points – before they write. Writers like this are usually more character driven, and they KNOW their characters.

It may sound like knowing your story is a no-brainer, but it’s easier said than done.

First, let me restate what we discussed in chat. Create timelines. This works really well when getting to know your characters. The more you know about their past, the deeper the character becomes. Your readers may not always need to know this information…but YOU know it, and it’ll help shape the personality of your characters and even help to determine their actions and motivations.

Speaking of motivations…this is essential when working on your characters. What do they want? How are they going to get it? I don’t want to get too deep into character development (that’s another letter), but you can’t plan your story if you don’t know what your characters want to get out of the story.

Next, I want to say a word about outlining. I’m a big outliner. Some writers are not. Some writers think outlining is the only responsible way to write a story. To each his/her own. But I do think that some form of outline is necessary to create a balanced story without spending months or years on rewriting. Balance is absolutely necessary, and the writer who goes into a story without some kind of plan has a difficult time creating that balance from scratch. Often they write many many drafts, just to fix the story problems they could have worked out from the beginning with an outline.

That’s my opinion though. Other writers might argue with me. (And if they’re reading this, feel free to leave a comment with your planning method!)

However, my outlines are not incredibly detailed and they are fluid. In other words, I write one or two statements about what I want to happen in a chapter. But I am open and willing to let the story change if the story wants to change. Then I adjust my outline accordingly. There have been times when I had a clear outline early in the story, but I wasn’t sure about things later. I let the story tell me what to put in those places. (Kinda having that issue with Winter 4 at the moment.)

Writing a good story is like raising a child. A good parent guides their child in the right direction and teaches them the right way to live, but allows them become who the unique person they want to be. Guide your story. Teach it how to be a good story. But let it become what it wants to be.

However, the clearer and more detailed your outline, the faster you can write your story.

snowflakeFinally, I want to talk about snowflaking. This is a method of planning developed by the godfather of story planning, Randy Ingermanson. He developed what is known as the Snowflake Method, and even has software available to help you do it. You can find out all about it here – http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/.

This gist of it is that you start small and build outward, the way a snowflake grows. First, write ONE sentence that accurately describes your story. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds! He even suggests spending an entire hour just on this one sentence.

Once you have your sentence, you then expand it into a single paragraph, of about five sentences long and covering all of the major developments. Next, you take these five sentences and you expand them into paragraphs. You’ll now have a page long summary of your story, broken into five sections, each ending with a major plot point or disaster. Then take each paragraph of this page and expand it into a full page, so that you have a 4-5 page summary of your story. From there, you’ll probably be ready to hammer out your first draft.

Ingermanson says it should take you about a week to do all of this, if you’re taking your time and really thinking it through. I do want to point out that if you read his instructions on it, you’ll see he breaks it down into four sections and I have suggested five. That’s because I use a 5-stage plot system that I’ll tell you about later.

The Snowflake Method also recommends you do this same kind of snowflaking for every major character. Start with a single sentence about the character, expand it to a paragraph, and then expand that to a page. You should include that character’s specific timeline and plot development, even if the reader never reads about it. In other words, describe the story briefly from THEIR point of view, even if that’s not how the final story will be written. Include important history, background, and training. Include the character’s goals and motivation in the story. You’ll need to do this for every protagonist and villain…any character that is important to your story.

I use a little bit of snowflaking, but I don’t do the entire Snowflake Method. I do the smaller story summaries, but I don’t go beyond the one page. Once I get my one page, I launch into my 5-stage plot system. I also do not do the detailed character writing, though a probably should. Those things don’t really work for me in my current books, but they might work for you.

And that’s really the whole trick to this. You NEED some kind of planning…whether it’s plot planning or character planning or some combination. But you have to find the planning methods that work best for YOU. What works now might not work later as you grow and learn as a writer. Keep trying and experimenting until you find that magic formula that is YOUR process, bearing in mind that as you mature in your career so will your process.

-k

RETURN TO THE “DEAR ANNE” TABLE OF CONTENTS

Dear Anne #4 – The Right Tools for the Job

Dear Anne,

Have you ever tried to eat spaghetti with a spoon? Dig a hole with a rake? Hammer a nail with a screwdriver? Of course not. Maybe you could accomplish those feats with those tools, but if you want to do a job well and do it timely you have to use the right tool for the job.

This week I want to tell you about the right tools for writing. Some of these may be common sense to you and some of them may be new information, but they are all extremely valuable to writers. So I’m going to make a list for you to go through and acquire what you need for the projects you’re working on.

1. A good laptop. Maybe this goes without saying, but in today’s mobile environment some people are attempting to write on tablets and such. I don’t recommend this, mostly because you’re limited in your saving/backup capability and in your software options. If you don’t have a laptop, it’s time to get one.

2. Word processors. It’s tempting to write directly into a blog or to write only on paper, but don’t. Getting to know a good word processor is absolutely essential. Microsoft Word is by far the most popular and probably the strongest as far as features. It’s available on PC, Mac, Andriod, and iOS, so that you can continue working on you mobile devices when you need to. Corel WordPerfect is also an option, though not as popular and I don’t know much about it. (I use Word.) There’s also Libre Office and Open Office, both of which are free. Libre Office is probably the more powerful and frequently updated, though Open Office is more popular. Apple also has a word processor called Pages, which is powerful enough, but if you can get Word on Mac then you might as well use Word. You can even go through Google Drive (see below) and use their line of free word processing programs that are designed to work easily with their cloud server. Save everything in .doc or .docx files, and if you are trying to share with someone who doesn’t have MS Word, use .rtf (it’s a more universal file format.)

While we’re on the subject of word processors, if you don’t already know how to type properly or haven’t yet taken a keyboarding course in school, do it as soon as possible. Sometimes your writing speed may be limited to your typing speed, because your brain will certainly outrun your fingers. And that’s very frustrating at times.

3. A back-up system. Learn to back-up everything you do with a deep sense of urgency and paranoia, as if the whole world of computers is about to crash and eat all your work at any moment. Fortunately, there are several cloud based options that will do this automatically. Google Drive and Microsoft Onedrive can both be configured to run in the background of your computer and automatically save everything you do to the cloud. Add one of them. NOW. And put all of your writing folders in it. Both of these offer online editing of your documents and sync with their own word processors. You don’t have to use their word processors to back-up files, but if you’re going to edit them remotely or with a mobile device it helps. Dropbox is also an option, though it doesn’t offer as much space in a free account as the other two and doesn’t have any built-in editing capabilities. You may want to consider more than one back-up strategy, such as having everything auto-back-up to Onedrive, but once a week or so copy everything to Google or Dropbox. You may even want to keep a flash-drive or external hard drive nearby and periodically copy your material there, too.

20111128-gremlinParanoia. The computer gremlins want to eat everything.

4. Evernote/Onenote – Both of these programs are very similar. They are digital “notebook” systems. You can setup notebooks with sections and pages, just like you might do a three-ring binder. Evernote is free. Onenote is a Microsoft program and is built into Windows now, I think. Both work really well and have mobile versions for your tablet and phone. Onenote may have the edge organizationally and Evernote is a little simpler to use, though it’s not as touch friendly. They both sync online and you can access your notes from a computer anywhere anytime. Use these to keep track of your ideas and notes for projects, and you can update them with your phone on the go if some inspiration strikes. I use both, because I can’t decide which I like best. This is where I do all my pre-writing and brainstorming before I actually get started on a project, and it’s where I keep my ever-growing list of future book ideas. (These programs are also good for school notes or any other thing you want to keep organized digitally.)

Some writers find it easier to keep a small notebook and pen with them at all times to jot down ideas. That’s fine if you like that. But I still highly recommend that you take all those ideas and put them into one of these digital programs, because notebooks get messed up…and they’ll take your ideas with them. Notebooks have gremlins, too.

5. Scrivener (and other writing software) – This is a word processing system (I put it that way because it’s so much different than a standard word processor) designed specifically for writers,  especially those working on long projects. It breaks down each chapter or section you’re working on into different “pages” that can be tabbed through easily, so that you’re not scrolling forever like you would in Word. Each of these pages can be moved around if you decide to rearrange your document, without having to do complicated copy/pasting. Each page also has a place where you can put in a description of what’s in that chapter. There’s an outline function that lays it all out so you can see exactly what your project looks like. Scrivener also auto saves, so you don’t have to worry about it…you can just concentrate on writing. When your project is ready, you can export it as a single file in Word, where you can put the finishing touches on it.

scrivener screenshotI wrote Acolyte in Scrivener (the first book I’ve done with it) and I’m working on Winter book 4 in it. I also wrote a non-fiction book that I hope to release in July, and I’m writing this series of letters to you with it! Here’s a screenshot. You can see the list of chapters in the working outline on the left. I may not write all of those you see, btw. This program is NOT where I’m keeping my future letter ideas. That would be in Onenote. (Notice also that both Google Drive and Onedrive are working in the bottom corner.)

This is certainly not the only software designed with writers in mind, but it’s really the only one I know and it’s what I use. Here’s a link to several others compared side-by-side – http://creative-writing-software-review.toptenreviews.com/; and here’s a link to the snowflake software (I’ll talk a little about snowflake later) http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/products/.

Most of these things will work best and shine with long projects that need a deeper level of organization. If you’re just doing short stories, then a regular word processor will do just fine.

6. Standard tools – It should go without saying that you need to have a good dictionary and thesaurus handy. If you’ve got internet access while you’re writing, then dictionary.com/thesaurus.com (two sides of the same site) are extremely helpful. I LOVE thesaurus.com. Along with this, I recommend getting a good baby name book for coming up with character names. (Scrivener and some of the other writing software have name generators built in.) Also get The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I haven’t had this one for long, but I instantly regretted NOT having it as soon as I got it. They have two other books, The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus (I have all three), but I think The Emotion Thesaurus should become a standard tool for every writer.

7. Writing space. This isn’t exactly something you get, but something you need to create. You’ll need to talk to your parents about this and get them on board if possible…I know you have a full house! But you need to be able to get away, to focus, and to have a creative writing space that helps inspire you to put words on the paper without distraction.

That’s it for now! Time to make sure you have all the right tools to help this writing journey go a little more smoothly. If you have any questions about how to actually use some of these things when you get them, we’ll discuss it in chat.

Until next week, go write something!

-k

RETURN TO THE “DEAR ANNE” TABLE OF CONTENTS