Category Archives: Writing tips

The Shiver

It goes by many names. The Tingle. The Aha. The Wow.

I call it The Shiver.

It’s that moment when you know you’ve written something good; something worthy of sharing. The words themselves aren’t anything special. They’re common words, words you’ve used before.

But this time it’s different. The words…they…you have no words to describe it. They. Just. Work.

For half a second you wonder if you actually wrote them. Are there writing elves? No, it was you. Surely not the you who labors over every sentence and struggles to put a thousand words on the page. Could it be the same you who daily considers trading your laptop for a job at McDonald’s?

It has to be some other you – a better you, a more talented you.

This is what it means to be a writer, you think, to put words together in such a way that they become something more.

The Shiver is evidence of beauty, proof of God. It is writerly bliss.

For a sentence or a paragraph or a whole chapter you were brilliant. This isn’t arrogance, it’s the most humbling of  truths. You just created a “third place” with your words – a place where your story breathes on its own, the place readers will someday fall in love with a story and its author.

Do you feel it? No, not the bliss. The other thing. The nasty thing hiding behind it.

The Shiver is writerly panic.

What if you never feel it again? What if this was your only taste of the transcendent? What if you never write another sentence half as beautiful? What if that better you never shows up again? What if…what if…

Stop it. You’re ruining the moment.

Enjoy The Shiver. Bask in it. Parade your Shiver-words in front of all your writer-friends or hold them tight like a secret treasure, whichever makes you happiest. But enjoy this moment. The Shiver is all yours. It doesn’t come from some better version of you – it comes from the same you who labors over every sentence.

Then get back to writing. Get back to work. If you’re lucky, The Shiver will have a long tail. Eventually, though, it will fade and you’ll start to feel the struggle again. The blank page will mock you. You’ll litter your desk with bribes for writing elves. You’ll see McDonald’s every time you pick up your laptop. When this happens, and it will, repeat the following statement: This is what it means to be a writer, to keep putting words together even when they don’t become something more.

A writer who only believes himself a “real” writer when he feels The Shiver is bound for failure. A writer’s gift is acknowledged in The Shiver, but the writer is made by the all writing in between.

 

Note: There were no Shiver moments in the writing of this post. I’m okay with that.

 

When Real Life Gets in the Way of Good Writing

You’ve heard it said, “write what you know.” In the past, I’ve suggested a variation of that, “write who you are.” However you say it, I think we can all agree that fiction resonates best when it comes from a place of truth – a place we understand because we’ve lived it in some measure. But our real life experiences aren’t always a boon to our writing. Sometimes they get in the way. Here’s how:

“But That’s How It Really Happened” - I hear this a lot from writers. They offer it in response to my editorial notes explaining why a certain section isn’t working. The author’s reasoning seems sound enough: “If it works in real life, surely it can work in a novel.” But that’s not entirely true. Real life doesn’t have to be interesting and compelling. Fiction does. Plot lines in real life don’t need purpose and direction. Plot lines in fiction do. Real life doesn’t have to be believable. Fiction demands believability. Just because it happens in real life doesn’t mean it works in fiction.

“Hey, That’s Funny, I Wear My Hair Exactly Like Your Book’s Evil Antagonist” - All writers collect templates for their fictional characters from real life, but sometimes they forget they’re writing fiction and transfer a Real Life Person directly to the page. These direct-to-the-page characters are surprisingly inflexible, defined as they are in the writer’s mind by real-world experience of them. This means the writer must bend the plot around them – even when it doesn’t fit. Real Life People forced into fictional stories often paint themselves into a corner. The key is to draw inspiration from Real Life People (character traits, speech patterns, belief systems, facial tics, inordinate love for bacon) – not copy them note for note.

“I Have Bills to Pay” – If writing is your business, you want to get paid. Soon. Knowing that your dog is going to need expensive dental work can push you in a good way – forcing you to make writing a priority when it might otherwise be relegated to “whenever.” But it can also press you in a bad way, tempting you with shortcuts that serve only the clock, not the story. Of course, typing “the end” doesn’t mean you get paid any sooner anyway if your story isn’t up to snuff. It just means you’ll be seeing more comments in your editor’s revision letter. And if you’re self-publishing? Well, sure. You can hit “publish” on a rushed project if you want. But if it’s not your best work, you may be killing your long-term success for the sake of a quick buck.

“I’m Hungry” – Some writers write better when they deny themselves the basics of life: water, food, Tweeting, watching Mad Men. Other writers can only find a writing rhythm if they’re eating regularly and experiencing an abundance of the non-writing life. While changing your normal routine can help snap writer’s block, more often than not it will send you to that place where laptops fly. (This isn’t as pleasant a place as it sounds. The laptops only fly as far as the wall.) The key is to know yourself – your body, mind, spirit – and do the things that make you feel most like a writer. If you write best when life is happy, then eat lots of chocolate and play with puppies every day. If heartbreak makes you brilliant, well, yeah, about that…

“Ouch” – Sometimes real life just hurts too much. Maybe you recently went through a breakup or lost a loved one. You don’t even want to get out of bed, let alone write that scene where your protagonist…goes through a breakup or experiences the loss of a loved one. As a writer, you know instinctively that the intensely-felt emotions you’re experiencing now will eventually make you a better novelist. (There’s a sick sense of satisfaction in that.) But the word “eventually” matters here. A lot. Even a writer’s heart needs a break once in a while. Besides, when you’re suffering in real life, your writing can suffer too. It can become overwrought with emotion, pouring pain onto every page because that’s all you know. Or it can become bereft of emotion because it hurts too much to feel, causing your unsuspecting characters to suddenly go numb when they ought to be joyful or sad or afraid or whatever. Take a break from writing fiction and pour your heart out in a journal instead. In a journal, the plot and characters don’t matter. Then, later, when you can embrace the diversity of emotion that a novel demands – go boldly back to the page. Accept the new truths you’ve learned, and let them inform your writing only where it’s appropriate.

What are some other ways real life can get in the way of good writing? Yes, I’m actually asking a question here.  Feel free to fill the space below with words.

 

 

True Stories

They tell you to tell the truth and this sounds reasonable but you’re not quite sure how to do it.

They also tell you to do other things. Kill your adverbs. Kill your semi-colons. Kill your darlings. Kill your prologues.

Oh, you say, those I can do.

So you set the truth aside and head to the killing fields.

You reach for your metaphoric fountain pen, dip it in metaphoric red ink, and prepare to earn another metaphoric belt in the ancient art of Strike-Thru. At first you move cautiously, uncertain, fearing that you might condemn words just because of the clothes they wear. But it’s not their clothes, it’s the way they strut in them, commanding unwarranted attention like peacocks in a henhouse.

This isn’t a story about peacocks.

You find your resolve. (It was buried under a pile of metaphors.)

Quietly is the first to be silenced.

A semi-colon is decapitated; the comma slinks away and the dot falls. Period.

So much eye-rolling is plucked from the page.

And then, oh the humanity, an entire page is attacked. Words scatter, some find safety in later chapters, others are relegated to a losing game of Words With Friends.

That hurt a little – like the tingling needles that wake a sleep-fallen foot. But it wasn’t so bad.

So now, about that truth-telling thing. What does it really mean? Your invented character kills someone. Cheats on a spouse. Battles cancer.

Perhaps you haven’t done those things. Yet. How do you write about them truthfully?

Most writing advice is about what you do. Cut this. Replace that. Move the other thing.

Telling the truth is about who you are.

This is where writing gets real. Because to write about the murderer, the adulterer, the cancer battler, you’ll have to access the thoughts and emotions that most closely match the character’s. You’ll spend time in uncomfortable places. Bad memories. Secret fears. What-ifs. Temptations. Mistakes. Regrets. This is where you find the raw material to make the murderer, the adulterer, the cancer battler come alive.

Time for some potentially disheartening news: You may not have the necessary raw material. You may not have any relevant experience to draw from. [You can thank God for this now if you like. Or you can ask Him for more trials. But really? Do you want a harder life just so you can be a better writer? Who do you think you are? Me?] Can you write honestly about a woman who leaves her husband if you haven’t left yours? Can you write honestly about what it’s like to attempt suicide if you’ve never swallowed a bottle of pills. No. You can’t. (Feel free to argue with me here.) You can come close, of course – you can write about what it’s like to ponder those things if you’ve pondered them, you can draw from similar life experiences and try to extrapolate truth from those, and you can learn from others who have made those choices. But you’ll still be circling the truth, writing about it instead of revealing it.

And now some better news. Circling the truth will still satisfy most readers. That’s because most readers haven’t done those things either. They key is to circle as close as you can. Readers know when you’re faking it – when you’re trying to tell a truth you haven’t spent time with yourself. But when you get it right, or nearly right, readers will feel that truth on a primal level. Then you’ll be one of those authors readers can’t wait to tell their friends and neighbors about. “The author just gets it” they’ll say, not quite sure what “getting it” means.

But you’ll know what it means. You told the truth.

No matter how you get there – whether by looking closely at your own experience or examining the lives of others – it’s going to hurt. You will see things you don’t want to see, feel things you don’t want to feel, ponder things you’d rather not ponder. And then you will see them and feel them and ponder them again as you write the first draft, the second, the third.

One of my jobs as editor is to push a writer to dig deeper, to discover that well they can draw from to craft characters who reek of truth. I’ve worked with a few who couldn’t do this. Some just didn’t have the life experience to draw from. (This is why so many novels from young authors fall short of brilliance – the authors just haven’t lived enough.) Some had plenty of raw material but didn’t want to go there. (It hurt too much, or they didn’t think it was necessary.)

What about you? Are you willing to suffer a little (or a lot) so your writing doesn’t?

Can’t I just delete more adverbs instead?

Sure. If that’s what you really want. Is it?

Tell the truth, now.

Good Advice/Bad Advice

Most people will tell you there are two kinds of writing advice: Good Advice and Bad Advice. I’m here to tell you they’re the same thing.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with that ol’ “Kill Your Adverbs” chestnut. This is Good Advice. Adverbs, more often than not, are redundant. You don’t need to tell me the monkey screamed loudly. Screaming is, by its very nature, loud. Just let the monkey scream. We’ll cover our ears. Adverbs also tend to be evidence of lazy writing. If your context doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s anxiety, simply stating that he’s “pacing anxiously” because that’s what you want readers to imagine him doing will invariably feel like a cheat. “Kill Your Adverbs” is also Bad Advice. Some adverbs are actually quite pleasant, mannered and eager to please. Some writers (maybe you?) know how to wield adverbs in smart, clever ways. If you indiscriminately cut every word ending in “ly” out of adverbial fear, you might just kill your writing voice along with them (not to mention unintentional victims, such as the appropriately ironic, “ally”).

Surely “Show, Don’t Tell” is Good Advice. Right? Absolutely. Showing gives the reader a role to play in the story. Showing makes detectives of readers, providing them with contextual clues that lead them to discovery. There’s nothing more satisfying to a reader than discovery. When you engage readers in the space between the words, you tease them into an intimate relationship with the story. This is a Very Good Thing. Telling, on the other hand, steals the process of discovery. And stealing is a Very Bad Thing. Then again, “Show, Don’t Tell” is also Bad Advice. Simply stated – sometimes telling is exactly what’s needed on the page. It may be a matter of style, or a matter of voice. Perhaps telling is the best way to bring readers up to speed with a character or plot element. Telling isn’t inherently evil, and if you suddenly believe it is because someone on a blog somewhere said so in ALL CAPS, your writing might just suffer.

Let’s talk about prologues. Ugh. “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary.” They are. You don’t need to tell me what you’re going to say. You don’t need to tell me what happened a hundred years ago. Just get to it. Throw the reader into the middle of the action. (And you can forget the “Famous Author Uses Prologues” argument. Famous Author is already published. You’re not Famous Author.) Besides, we all know that most agents hate prologues. Why shoot yourself in the foot before you even get one in the door? “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary” is also Bad Advice. Your novel may be ten times better because of a prologue. A prologue might provide exactly the sort of tease or historical context to make the rest of the story shine. If your novel suffers without it, you need one. Cutting it simply because someone told you prologues are bad is a bad idea.

I could go on (even “Love Your Readers” can be bad advice), but I’m sure you get the point. Sometimes good advice is good, sometimes good advice is bad. So how do you know the difference? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Here’s a clue – if your primary goal is to be published, you’re in a precarious position. You’ll be tempted to follow any ALL CAPS advice that claims to increase your chances of publication, whether or not your writing benefits. However, if your primary goal is to become a better writer, you won’t feel quite so much pressure to follow that advice, because you’re still discovering your voice, you’re still sorting through who you are on the page. This takes time, by the way. There may be shortcuts to publication (hey, it happens), but there are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer. There is just writing.

I suppose I should close this post with some kind of summary. Fine. Let’s play with the original statement a bit. Feel free to put this on a t-shirt:

There are two kinds of writing advice: the kind that works for you and the kind that doesn’t. Listen to the former.

A Word, Please

Think of a word you don’t like - one that makes you squirm. Sure, it could be a common word like “moist” or “chalky,” but choose something edgier – something you almost never say in real life.

Got it? Okay, have a seat. Your word would like to have a word with you.

Word: Hey.

You: Um…hey?

Word: Do you know why you’re here?

You: Not exactly.

Word: We need to talk about me.

You: I don’t think we do.

Word: Oh, right. This is where you tell me you don’t need me; that you never need me.

You: Um…yeah. Something like that.

Word: Because there are millions of words out there and you don’t have to use any you don’t want to. Is that it?

You: Yup.

Word: What if I’m the right word?

You: I don’t believe in “right” words.

Word: Oh really. Didn’t you struggle for hours yesterday to find “the right word” to describe your protagonist’s hair?

You: That’s different.

Word: How is that different?

You: I liked the word I found.

Word: Chestnut. It’s a fine word. But why not badger or mudpie or UPS-uniform?

You: UPS-uniform isn’t a word. Chestnut was the right word.

Word: Sometimes I am, too.

You: But I don’t like you. That’s why I have a thesaurus.

Word: So, instead of “shit” you might say “crap.” Something like that?

You: Sure.

Word: Do you like writing?

You: Of course I like writing.

Word: Do you like good stories?

You: Now you’re just wasting my time. Get to the point. There are only so many hours in the day and I have a dozen blogs to read and then I need some pondering time before making a new pot of coffee so I can consider writing more of my novel if the mood hits me while I’m staring at the blinking cursor.

Word: What if I’m the right word?

You: You already said that.

Word: Fine. I’ll reword it. What if the story demands me?

You: I already told you. I’d just choose something else.

Word: You’ll compromise the story, then. You’ll talk about your hero’s badger hair because chestnut gives you the heebie-jeebies.

You: Yes. I mean no! Now you’re just trying to trick me.

Word: Look, sometimes stories ask you to do difficult things. Sometimes they demand a word you don’t like or a plot twist you find distasteful. Maybe they want you to reveal an ugly truth about a character. Sure, you have a choice. You can replace all the shit with crap. You can ignore the slutty actions of your protagonist because you don’t like slutty protagonist actions. You can coddle and mollify and adjust and fix and tweak your story until it’s free of stuff that makes you uncomfortable. Or you can just tell the truth.

You: You’re making too much of this. I can tell the truth however I want.

Word: Okay. Tell a story about a writer who hates me.

You: Nice try. You want me to use you in a sentence. Besides, that’s different.

Word: How?

You: That’s not the story I’m writing.

Word: Then look at the story you are writing. Are all the characters in it you?

You: Of course not.

Word: Do they all believe exactly what you do? Do they despise the same words you do?

You: Um…no.

Word: Then how are you going to let them tell their story if all they have are your words? Use their words. Tell their truth. The story deserves it. Your readers deserve it.

You: But…

Word: Or don’t. It’s your funeral. I mean your story. But don’t come crying to me if you end up with a shitty story.

You: A crappy story.

Word: Whatever.

Sometimes stories ask you to do difficult things. Do them.