May 21, 2018
I’ve written two columns in my writing career: “Sharin’ with Sharron” (in Oklahoma for one year) and “Reliving Anoka County History” (in Minnesota for fifteen years). If you’ve considered writing a column, these tips may help.
- Write about what interests you. If you’re interested in your subject matter, your writing will show it and your reader will see and share that interest.
- Develop your own voice. Your readers want to know your ideas and thoughts, not just a repetition of another writer’s style.
- Look for a variety of things to write about. When you find a variety of things to write about, you open all sorts of possibilities for column ideas.
- Read what you write out loud. I belonged to two different writers groups for many years. One met weekly and the other monthly. The writer read his/her work out loud to the group in the weekly one. A different group member (not the writer) read the writer’s work out loud in the monthly one. In both groups, hearing the words instead of just reading them with eye helped point out confusing sentences, fillers, and excess verbiage. If you don’t have a writers group, read your work out loud to yourself or to a friend who will be honest with you about what they hear.
- Scrutinize your verbs. Avoid using the same verbs repeatedly. Check each verb in your column and challenge yourself to find a more active and more accurate verb. Some examples are ponder versus consider, stroll versus walk, stare versus watch. You get the idea. Use verbs that create images and say what you mean, but keep them simple so the reader doesn’t have to wonder what you’re saying.
- Spend time on your column ending. Writers know to hook their readers in the opening/beginning sentences/paragraph. It’s just as important to spend time writing a satisfying ending.
- Make sure you have a point to every column you write. The point may be minor or subtle, but it should exist to give meaning to your column. “Sharin’ with Sharron” offered more opportunity for general topics than “Reliving Anoka County History.” But the purpose of each column was different. Know the purpose for your column.
If you’ve thought about writing a column, consider these tips. Happy writing!
May 1, 2018
Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, or both, settling for the first draft never produces your best writing. Consider trying some of these ideas to help you when your nonfiction article needs something, but you aren’t sure what.
- Determine what you’re really writing about. I told my writing students they should get at least three different articles from whatever it is they were researching. For example, I interviewed a woman who owned an antiquarian bookstore. The three articles I sold from that interview were: (1) Her story as a business person, (2) what types of people bought antiquarian books, and (3) what to look for (condition, edition, etc.) when buying antiquarian books to start a collection.
- Detach yourself from your writing and consider your reader. Get rid of long sentences, extra words, anything that’s unclear at first reading. Don’t make your reader work to try to figure out what you’re trying to say.
- Hit the ground running. Your opening paragraph should grab your reader’s attention. You do that by writing in your own voice, creating vivid images, or bringing out an emotion within your reader.
- Limit your focus. Each article should have a narrow focus or angle. Test your focus by summing up your article in one sentence or by writing a headline that grabs the reader’s (and editor’s) attention.
- Organize using an outline. One of the most useful outline tools I learned in graduate school is mind mapping. It allows you to insert ideas into your outline without the structure of Roman numerals, numbers, and letters. Google “mind mapping” and consider using it as a tool for you.
- Show, don’t tell. Yes, I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s worth keeping in mind when you write. Readers visualize images, not written words. Go through your article and highlight the generalities (which are harder to see) in one color and the specifics (which pop up fairly quickly) in another to see how well your writing creates visuals.
- Remember to communicate with your reader. Writers love words, which is one reason we use so many of them. Readers, on the other hand, want information and how they can use it. Think communication when you write.
- Describe the personality of your piece. Is it enthusiastic? Authoritative? Challenging? Inspiring? Entertaining? Humorous? OR Is it bland? Argumentative? Superficial? Infuriating? Horrifying? You get to decide which you want it to be.
You don’t have to use all of these ideas on everything you write, but consider which will help you improve your nonfiction writing, then try them. Happy writing!
April 24, 2018
If you’re a writer who waits for inspiration, you may find yourself waiting a long time. Consider using these tips to help you actively grab inspiration instead.
- Observe everything around you. Include perceptions (yours and those of others), dreams and expectations, and information.
- Give some thought to what drives you to write. Do you write in order to make money? To share a vision with others? To experiment with language? When you realize your motivation, you’ll concentrate on your writing better.
- Work within the rules of the form you’re writing. There are formulas for genre fiction such as romance and mystery. There are rules for poetry. Your challenge is to write something new and creative while staying within the rules.
- Test the limits of your writing ideas. For example, write about a character as seen through the eyes of the mail carrier. What type and quantity of mail does the character get? What perceptions form within the mail carrier’s mind about the person based on that mail? What you write may not be worthy of including in your story, but it will expand your creativity to see the character with new eyes. You can move ahead from there.
- Learn to enjoy being alone with you. Set aside a place and time for writing. Remember Pavlov’s dog? You can condition yourself. When you go to your writing place, you automatically think writing. You know you can’t leave for, say, thirty minutes, so eventually something will come to mind and you’ll start writing during that time. It may not be what you expected, but at least you’re writing. My point is you have a lot inside of you that stays hidden unless you learn to enjoy being alone with you and give yourself permission to discover what’s within you.
- Allow yourself to be patient. In our instant gratification world, we want things quick and now. But sometimes things take time to learn, to happen, to come to fruition.
- Be confident. You know that you can write. Since writing is a craft (sorry to disappoint you if you thought it was just talent), the more you write, the better your writing gets. Consider this story. I tried out for sixth-grade band. I wanted to play drums, but back in those days, I was told girls don’t play drums–they played clarinet or flute. I chose clarinet but could never stop squeaking, no matter how much I sucked that reed or practiced. Since I played piano, I knew I had some musical ability. But instead of persisting, I gave up band the day I ended up in last chair behind a girl who didn’t even show up. How bad must I be when I’m deemed worse than a no-show? What I did learn, however, is that I didn’t lack confidence as much as I lacked desire. I didn’t want to play clarinet in the first place. Be honest with yourself about your writing and if you really want it, confidently practice it as much as you can.
- Understand you get to destroy what you write. Some call that editing or rewriting, but I call it power. You don’t have to share anything you write until you think it’s ready to be shared.
- Know that not everyone will like what you write and that’s okay. Not everyone likes gardening or eating fish. Just remember that most published writers have been rejected numerous times before being accepted. What makes the difference? The publisher who accepted the work liked it while the others didn’t. And that’s the real key. Publishers/readers/agents reject the writing, not the writer. They don’t reject you. They don’t even know you, so don’t take the rejection personal. If you get a rejection, simply say, “Next,” and send it out to the next market on your list. Just make sure your writing is your best effort when you do start sharing it and be willing to listen to any suggestions you may get along the way. It’s your writing, not theirs, but they may give you some ideas to make it better, so be open to considering what they say.
This post is longer than most, but creativity is a complex topic. I hope you find something here to help you lure inspiration to you rather than you wait for it to show up. Happy writing!
April 16, 2018
Many writers focus on character or plot, and they should. They should also consider giving their readers a real sense of place the characters occupy and the plot evolves. One only has to think about the house in Psycho to realize how powerful place can be in a story.
Here are some ideas to help you capture place in your writing.
- Observe buildings, landscapes, entertainment venues, etc. Take pictures, note your first impressions/feelings about the place, consider why the place was constructed as it was, think about why it is the way it is currently.
- Research places you’ve heard of but not yet visited. Books (don’t overlook the bibliographies in those books), brochures (see what the marketing people thought would entice visitors), people (memoirs reveal things not found anywhere else), and, of course, the Internet are all good research options. Look for floor plans, what was going on in the community/society when the place was built or designed, what changes were made over time.
- Spend some time in the place. Go there and look for things that are original to the place, things that may have been updated/upgraded, and what was once there but is now gone.
- Tap into your creativity and imagine who enjoyed the place, what they did there, when they were there, where they came from (and where they went), why they chose to be there, and how that place impacted their lives.
- Allow yourself to notice the little things that can make a big difference. Is the landscape neglected or kept with obvious pride? Are the windows in the building clean? Open? Closed? Broken? What sounds do you hear? Children laughing? Music? Birds? Barking dogs? Creaking floors? How do you describe furnishings–plush and homey or smooth and institutional? Well, you get the idea.
Place can be a very important part of your story. Give your reader the opportunity to be there with you. Let your reader see and feel what you do. Happy writing!
April 4, 2018
Creative people rely on finding inspiration to help them expand their creativity. Creative people also run the risk of being too hard on themselves if they don’t find inspiration when they’re looking for it. And that’s the lesson--stop looking for inspiration and start allowing it to show itself to you. Here are some ideas to help you.
- Be open to the various gifts of inspiration that surround you every day. Some of them reside within you. Some of them appear unexpectedly around you. For example, a song may trigger a memory of someone you hadn’t thought of in years and that memory may expand beyond the person into something you did with that person, a gift you gave or received from that person, or even a secret you shared with that person.
- Give yourself permission to join bits and pieces from things that inspire you. For example, you may start with the personality of one friend and combine it with the appearance of another to create a totally new character. Add the career of a third person and your character becomes even more inspired.
- Take a memory and write it out in detail. Include descriptions, facts, assumptions, all you can remember about the people involved, location, weather, feelings, fears, joys, etc. Then sort through what you wrote and use what works in your story. Save what doesn’t work in that particular story for use in another.
- Appreciate the people and places you’ve previously ignored or discounted. Maybe those people are not as dull as you originally thought. Maybe something exciting happened in that old post office building a hundred years ago. Most people and places can offer something inspiring if you dig a little deeper and give them a chance. Maybe you’re the one with something to offer that few people know about that you can use in your writing.
- Be honest about what you’re writing. Not every book deserves to be written, or at least shouldn’t be written by you. I’m a teacher. Corporations hired me to teach needle arts to their employees after hours. School districts hired me to teach needle arts in adult education programs. I learned that I enjoyed teaching and my students seemed to enjoy learning. I expanded into teaching writing, speaking, communication, business, and management at colleges (graduate and undergraduate courses at both private and public universities). I even wrote and reviewed college textbooks. But as much as I love teaching, I didn’t love writing textbooks. How about you? What book should you be writing and what book should you stay away from?
I hope these ideas help you recognize inspiration when it comes to you. There is not another person in this world who sees things exactly as you do and only you can write what you write. I hope you enjoy the journey. Happy writing!
March 27, 2018
Almost everyone has heard of one stereotype or another–some relate to blondes, others relate to old men, others relate to rich kids, etc. A stereotype is nothing more than a widely recognized description of a section of humanity. Most readers don’t appreciate the triteness of character stereotypes. Here are some tips on how you can avoid making them.
- Enhance common stereotypes by avoid predictability. If your character is poor and ignored by society, start with that. Then can change reader expectations of what your character does by adding characteristics not normally associated with the stereotype.
- Allow your character to make decisions and take actions not normally associated with that character’s stereotype. One caution, however, is to make sure your character doesn’t get too far from his/her origins or your reader will feel duped.
- Consider which stereotype your reader might assign to your character, then develop other sides to that character that your reader wouldn’t necessarily expect. Add details throughout your story to make your character stand out away from the initial stereotypical impression.
- Show a totally opposite side of your character. If your character is a self-giving individual, have him or her do something that’s totally self-serving and unexpected. Be sure you provide the reader with the motivation for this opposite side, however, or your reader won’t accept it as believable. You can do this with emotions, flashbacks, scenes showing a part of your character that’s known only to that character, for example.
- Offer a life-changing event in your character’s life that makes your character step away from the stereotypical actions/reactions. It could be the loss of a loved one, loss of a dream, birth of a child, or any other life-altering event, but it has to be huge and have a major impact on your character.
- Allow your reader a glimpse into the depths of your character that shows your character always possessed what it takes to become the non-stereotypical character he/she’s become. Again, you can weave this through your story with memories, emotions, etc.
- Use other characters to show the non-stereotypical traits of your character. Other characters can witness actions, discuss concerns, offer insights, etc. Allow other characters to help answer questions your reader may have about what makes your protagonist or antagonist who they are.
The old quote that writers are observers of life fits here. Observing people to help you avoid making character stereotypes might be one of the most fun things you get to do as a writer. Observe, note initial impressions, then ponder what could really be behind what you see. Your characters (and readers) will appreciate it. Happy writing!
March 21, 2018
Yesterday was the first day of spring. Consider using spring as a springboard for giving yourself permission to write, especially if spring is a time that takes you away from writing in favor of other ways to spend your time.
Here are some miscellaneous ideas to get you going.
- Consider writing simultaneous projects. Writing a variety offers you opportunity to work on whichever project speaks to you on a specific day. Getting stuck on one article or one character or one story rather than moving on to another that beckons you creates writers block. Once you give yourself permission to temporarily step away from one project toward another, you’ll find your writing flow begins anew.
- Ignore the nag on your shoulder that plants seeds that people won’t like your story or article or whatever. Of course some people won’t like what you write. Some people don’t like fish. Some people don’t like romance novels. Some people don’t like football. And some people won’t like your book. But others will love it. That’s just the way life is.
- Avoid putting things in your book that don’t belong there. Instead, save those great ideas, descriptions, relationships, etc. for another project. In other words, don’t force something into your story simply because you like it or someone suggests it. If it belongs in the story, it will fit let you know. Indulge me as I tell the story of the dog we rescued four years ago. We got a telephone call from a woman we met at a restaurant a few days earlier. During dinner we talked about animals and mentioned we hadn’t had a dog is 30 years because I didn’t want to hurt over losing an animal again. She remembered us, called, and asked if we’d meet the dog her neighbor intended to have put down because the daughter wouldn’t take care of it. The dog was five and still didn’t have a name. The restaurant woman said, “Don’t worry, he’ll tell you his name.” So we met the dog. He answered to nothing. Then, a name popped into my head, I said it, and he perked up and looked at me. That’s been his name ever since and he answers to it always. My point? If something is supposed to be in your story, you will know.
- Remember to not tell the same story twice. I read a lot of book series and am amazed at how well the best sellers tell a new story in each book. If you’re writing a series, consider keeping a chart for each book. For example, if writing a mystery series, track the story set up, details on the killer and the victim, the crime motive, how the crime was committed, and the climax of the story. You can change character interests, change settings, change vocations, all sorts of things. Just don’t tell the same story twice.
- Do your research. Read everything because ideas are everywhere. If writing nonfiction, make a detailed outline of chapters and subheads within the chapters. Once you’ve done that, your research will help you fill in the details. You may want to consider that for fiction as well–outline what happens, when characters meet, how they meet, etc. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you need to do a lot of research because your reader will know if you didn’t.
Writing isn’t a destination. It’s a life-long journey. Give yourself permission to enjoy it. Happy writing!