A lot of people have written about the 10 most important rules for writing or the 5 things a writer should do and so on. Some make sense to me, some I did them before I had ever read about them and some make me raise an eyebrow when I read them. Today I’m going to give you NOT my 10 rules for writing (I’m not some kind of Guru or a know-all person) but my SUGGESTIONS (they’re probably more than 10 as well 😛 ). I will tell you the things I do and appear to work for me (so far) and you MAY find useful. As everything else with this kind of lists, you should only keep what works for you and disregard the rest. If you have something to add to this list, please leave a comment.
1. A dictionary and a thesaurus can be your best friend. If it’s an online one, it may be the one site you visit the most.
Being a bilingual storyteller (I still find it hard to call myself ‘writer’, sorry folks) I find this to be the most important thing for me. As you know, English is not my native language, so I very often, particularly when it’s revision time, spend a great deal of time searching for that one word, that one verb that is so descriptive and so accurate of what I have in mind, that will be enough to make me delete an entire paragraph of explanations. Sometimes I have a concept or an idea in mind but no clue of the word that describes the meaning of it, so I use websites like http://www.onelook.com/ It works like a reverse dictionary, where you describe a concept (for instance ‘walk carefully’ and it will give you a list of words that describe that. I then use the thesaurus to find even better words. It takes time but writing in another language is not easy.
2. Adverbs and adjectives are not out best friends (well, most of the times).
It was one of the first things I read about how to improve my writing and it’s one I have kept since I started writing. Why say ‘she closed the door violently’ when you can describe the character’s reactions up to that point? One could write ‘she sprang up, sending her chair flying back against the wall, glaring at him. In her shaking hand, the papers she had brought him were now crumpled…’ etc and you can then use ‘slammed’ instead of ‘closed’ when your character leaves the room. Yes, it involves more words and more work from your part but you showed the reader the character’s anger instead of telling.
3. The word ‘said’ as a tag, is your friend.
I think this is again because of what I mentioned above. If you say ‘he grated’ sure you give me a descriptive word but why not show the character’s irritation/anger prior to that, instead of telling me ‘he grated’? If you have shown me that the character is angry or irritated, I will make a mental picture of it and you won’t have to use the word ‘grated’. I guess it’s ok to do it sometimes but not very often. And most certainly I try to avoid as much as possible words that the reader will have to look up in a dictionary. Perhaps it has to do with me writing in a foreign language. I will however feel annoyed if I have to look up at words every second paragraph (which I often do with what I currently read). Note I used the word ‘annoyed’ instead of appalled because of the following suggestion.
4. When you come across a word that you have to look it up, learn it and use it, if you can.
Yes, I know that may contradict somewhat the previous suggestion but here’s how I see it. For some time now I have been reading ‘Wheel of Time’ by Robert Jordan. Though I don’t like his style, I have found some of the words he uses extremely helpful. Since I don’t write in my native language, I try to learn and use the words he uses. Why? Because it will improve my use of the language. I have an excel file where I save some of the words he uses and their meanings, along with examples. Come revision time, I go over those words and take note of the ones that could be a decent fit both to my story and my writing style. Perhaps I will only use 1 or 2 or only the ones that are not too extravagant and not too difficult for the reader to understand. I try to find their exact meanings and see if indeed they have a place in my stories. Once that’s done I have learned something new and I have enriched my writing. Keep in mind that some of the words Jordan uses are so extravagant (in my eyes at least) that I know I will never use them. They are there for my own personal use. Time consuming? YES! I do the same thing with some of the descriptions he uses. I will then change them to fit my own story and incorporate them into my own style, ending up with something completely different. The point is, this process helps me learn. One is never too old to learn new things, right?
5. Your joints will hurt
I’m young (36) and I see this now more than ever. Finger joints ache, elbows seem to lock in place and, the worst of all for me, my hips and pelvis hurt to the point where the outer tendon of my leg (the one that goes from the hip, through the outer side of the knee, to the outside part of the sheen) makes sitting unbearable. Standing is the same story, so I just have to put up with it. Yes, I spend a lot of time sitting to read and write. Of course I go out and walk (well, not during summer with all that heat – heatstroke is ever present here). During winter, I walk almost every day or every second day for an hour. You need to take short and frequent breaks, say 5 minutes each 1 hour. Your arms and legs will thank you for it.
6. Cherish those who give you constructive feedback and critiques.
I’m a member of the Scribophile community. The reason for that is I need people to read my work and comment on them. People who don’t know me and aren’t biased towards me. Not everyone there can give a constructive feedback and not everyone knows what they’re talking about (myself included) but it’s nice to have someone looking over your work. If you happen to have people who know how to write or are able to provide a good critique, be kind to them and respect their daily routine. I have a friend like that (my friend and mentor, who’s a poet and the BEST storyteller I have ever met) and I try to be as respectful of his routine and his comments as possible. Beta readers are hard to find. Cherish them!
7. Write your ideas down asap.
Keep a notepad or (as in my case) your phone handy. When you get an idea about something, you should be able to take a note of it immediately. Elsewhere in the web you’ll find other writers claim you should let the idea in your head for a while. If it stays with you it means it was a good idea. If not, then you lost nothing. I disagree. I want all my ideas written down, so I can later go over them and see what I can work with. But that’s just me. Most of the things I come up with are either from a photo or a sketch. I use Tumblr a lot for that. Many great artists there to have a look at visual stimuli. I also take a lot of notes on how other writers express ideas about similar things I write at that time.
8. Write every day
I have already written something about it in a previous post here.
9. ‘Sit your ass down and write’
It was a few days after or just before I decided I should give writing a chance, when I accidentally came across a site where writers had written on their hands little tips about the craft (I think it was here http://twentytwowords.com/writing-advice-from-writers-handwritten-on-writers-hands-14-pictures/). The one that stuck to me the most both as the simplest AND as the most meaningful one was Patrick Rothfuss’: sit your ass down and write. It encompassed everything in it. No one is going to write YOUR story for you (don’t even think about ghost writers, please. Some of them are awesome but why deprive yourself the joy of writing?). Not to mention that the story will never complete itself unless you sit down and do it (no puns intended for Mr Rothfuss, lol). It’s the one advice that day after day comes to my mind, especially when I’m stuck or during summer where I can’t sit and write due to heat (no A/C unit where I am).
10. Read a lot.
Stephen king said once that he reads something like 70 books per year! I wish I could too. My count this far into the year is 6 or 7 I think, though the ones I read tend to be around 1000 pages long. And they are in English. I want to increase that number, though 70 is a number I probably will never manage. I will be very happy if I get close to 25-30. The thing is I’m a slow reader and I get frequent migraines 😦
11. Have fun, please.
This is supposed to be a fun activity. It’s supposed to make you feel better. If not, maybe you should reconsider some things. Perhaps it’s the routine that bothers you or it’s the solitude that comes from seeing your inner you, when you write. Find what it is, fix it and have fun. It’s a creative process and we humans have it in us to feel good when we create something.
12. For the love of God, don’t take the above rules for granted. They are not golden rules. Chances are I know FAR LESS than you do. I’m new at this and the above suggestions only express my own attitude and way of thinking. I don’t think there’s anyone who has any set of rules that if you follow them, the industry’s doors will open wide for you. If someone does, they better have a pointy hat on their heads and a staff in their hands (Oh, and please make sure you introduce him/her to me, yes?)
Please comment below if you have something else to add or if you disagree with something. I’d love to hear more from you.
For the past two weeks, my mind has been all over the place and I have found it very difficult to focus and reach my daily word limit or use the time I have allocated to myself for writing. In my case that was because of weariness (it’s this time of the writing process where I need to take a couple of days off from writing, though saying it is one thing; doing it is a struggle against my guilt for it, haha) and because of a minor health issue. It made me think about it, however, so today I thought I should write a few things on the topic of staying focused.
Mind you, this is my take on the subject based on personal observations. It doesn’t mean the following will work for you too. It may be worth giving it a shot though, if you find it hard to stay focused.
Early on, when I had just started writing, I kept finding articles about the need to have a routine because it would help an aspiring writer. At the time I thought of that as too much, arguing that inspiration is not something that you can just summon out of thin air and expect it to work. I thought to myself that it would be better to just feel the need to write rather than force it. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I tried it. Since then I have seen remarkable change in the quality of the work I produce and, most of the time, it’s almost as if my mind switches on for writing when the time comes. True, not every day’s work is something I’d keep during revisions BUT the point is this daily ritual keeps me focused and eager to write. You may say “but you have a novel to write and to plan the next one, therefore you can stay focused.” True, but when I didn’t have a novel in mind or didn’t feel like doing it, I went on to my tumblr account, found a photo I liked and a wrote a short story of no more than 1000 words, just to keep me in shape. Did it help? Looking back to it, I think it added its own little corner stone. Had I written whenever I felt like it, chances are I would have never written anything or it would have been impossible to tame my mind now that I have work to do.
2. Time allocation
Yeah, that one’s a bitch. Our daily lives are packed full with things to do that somehow appear (and, to some extent, are) more important that just sitting down and scribble make-believe stories. However, you won’t get any writing done unless you allow yourselves to have even a 30 minute time frame to sit down and write. It sounds ridiculous, right? 30 minutes, you say? That’s all? Well, if that’s all you can spare in a 24-hour long day, then that’s all you can spare! Would you rather not spare it at all and keep your stories in your mind or in the form of notes? As long as you can find the right time for this 30-minute window, then you will be able to use it to your advantage, provided you have first followed suggestion number 1 above. I think the two work well together. You won’t produce 2000 or 3000 words per day but you will produce 500 words and that’s 500 more words than doing nothing.
3. Setting goals you can meet at the end of the day
I guess ultimately this suggestion could be part of both previous suggestions but I think it should be on its own. Writing something big, like a novel, with so many distractions around you (*cough cough* internet distracts people?! Life does that too?!) it’s nice to have set manageable goals for each day and see them come to fruition. My goals, as far as writing is concerned, are to end the day having written AND read for a few hours. See? Nothing grand or intimidating; just stay focused on my writing and reading routine basically.
4.Use some sort of an outline
Let me be crystal clear about this: not everyone can work with an outline. I’m not suggesting that everyone should use an outline. What I am saying is give it a shot, see if it works for you. Just do it right before you decide it’s not for you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an outline in the most detailed form (like the snowflake method myself and others use, which could be a book of its own if you think about the amount of words written there). You could just have a notebook by your side when you first get an idea, write your thoughts down as they come and then rearrange them accordingly to have an easy flowing plot and story. That way you can save a lot of time during editing and revising. I tried writing “on the fly” when I first started and it felt nice. It felt very creative. But I had ideas popping up every page for things that had happened many chapters before because the story shaped itself as I wrote it. That meant I had to go back and change things in previous chapters or inserting a comment on the page to correct it later. Eventually, my mind got bogged down. I had material to write, ideas to use but it was a mess in my head and I felt overwhelmed. The result was to almost give up, thinking I just wasn’t good enough for it. The feeling sucked! Why? I wasn’t focused!
5. Try not to edit before you finish the entire work
Following the previous suggestion, it may be a good idea to avoid editing last day’s work on the following day. I know a lot of professional writers do it (if I’m not mistaken, G.R.R. Martin does it?) but they are who they are and have years of experience. For me, an aspiring writer, I feel that if I were to follow that I would most probably end up editing the edited edits (!!) more than actually producing new material. Which in turn would mean that staying focused on whatever new I had to write, would be a struggle. I don’t know, it’s possible I’m weak-minded and lack discipline. Think about this, however: this may work for you if you have very little time to spend on writing. If that’s the case, the last thing you want is to spend these precious 30 minute window you have into editing instead of finishing your story up and then edit.
I keep an excel file where I copy (yes, copy) entire sentences and phrases from books that I read. These sentences usually refer to things that an author used in their story and had troubled me in the past or perhaps ways the writer used to draw my attention to something. I then go over them, study them and see how he/she handled that similar situation. I try to see the technique used, how each sentence is structured and then try to see how would I write it instead. The result I produce is usually sub-par BUT during this process not only I get to learn how others (better writers than me) worked their way around my problem but at the same time I put my mind into the whole writing process again. Which as I pointed our earlier, keeps me focused 🙂 Also, while reading a book you may get that light bulb over your head glowing with an idea. Which gets the productivity juices flowing etc etc.
7. Avoid wasting time on the internet
Since most of us have things happening in the house that distract us all the time, try not to add another distraction. If you can, refrain from checking your Facebook feed or tumblr or whatever else you use. I have finally managed to free myself completely from Facebook (even though I have my personal FB page and my author page) and I hardly ever check them. In fact, at the end of the day, I may check momentarily my author page, just in case a new follower appeared or someone sent a message (which hardly ever happens, by the way). But now that I’ve freed myself from Facebook’s clutches, I’m more focused and I feel happier when I see it’s one o’clock in the afternoon and I have written almost 2000 words.