Ways to Improve Your Writing without Actually Writing

August 24, 2017

Someone once said that writers are observers of life. If you’re stuck in your writing, perhaps you’ve forgotten to take the time to do just that–observe life. Here are some tips to help you improve your writing without actually writing.

  • Become well-read. By that I mean read more than just your favorite genre or nonfiction subject. For example, I keep a small notebook handy when I read and jot down a new word or phrase or description that catches my eye so I can refer to it later.
  • Expand your social life. When you talk with people, you can learn things you hadn’t considered before. Of course that means you not only talk, but you also listen. You need people in your writing, whether as experts to help you or characters to help your story, so why not include socializing as part of your writing research?
  • Get physical. You’ve heard about the physical benefits of 30 minutes of exercise a day, but what do you do when you don’t like to exercise (like me)? My doctor told me to find my guilty pleasure and incorporate it into an exercise. I’m old enough to remember Elvis, Fabian, Annette, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and I like to turn on “Malt Shop” music on my satellite t.v., so I turn on the music and dance around the house. Thirty minutes is not enough time! The positive feelings abound, and I’m ready to write again when I’m done.
  • Look at the world around you. I opened this post with the notion of writers being observers of life. Now I challenge you to do just that–observe life. What color is house next door to you? How many windows are covered with curtains or shades? Why is that, do you think? How many cars in the parking lot at the neighborhood church and how long after service do they stay? Does that mean the congregation socializes or the service runs long? What are the early morning sounds around you? Traffic or nature or pets or some combination? Well, you get the idea. Observing the world can help you write setting, time, decorations (inside and outside), etc.
  • Sit back and do nothing but let your mind wander. If you’re like me, there are times you need to give yourself permission to sit back and just do nothing for a few minutes (not hours, mind you). Let your imagination run from thought to thought, from image to image, from feeling to feeling. As you do, you’ll reconnect with ideas and emotions you can incorporate into your writing.

I used to teach a class at the local college called “Become a Writer in 30 Minutes a Day” and challenge my students to find 30 minutes each day in their busy schedules for writing. We’d brainstorm ways to find time such as get up one-half hour earlier or go to bed one-half hour later or turn off television for a half-hour, etc.  Then I’d ask them what they could do in the 30 minutes besides write that would count as writing. I’ve given you a good start in the bullets above. See what you can add to the list (then do at least one thing on your list every day). Happy writing!

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Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

February 6, 2015

For more than fifteen years, I wrote a weekly newspaper column that was published in three newspapers. Granted, that’s not many newspapers, but I had a following, so needed to make sure I didn’t let my readers down. There were times, however, I experienced writer’s block I had to overcome. Here are some tips to help when writer’s block hits you.

  • Remind yourself your ideas are there waiting for you to write them. Avoid any negative thoughts that you can’t write. You can. You’re a writer.
  • Take some writing action every day. When I taught my “Writing for Fun and Profit” series at two local colleges, I encouraged students to find thirty minutes every day to work on writing. Then we brainstormed what counts as writing. Could be research. Could be note taking. Could be writing. Could be editing. You get to decide what writing action you take every day.
  • Write about something that interests you. There’s a cliche that says writers are observers of life. Write about what you observed that you cared about enough to think about, try experience more of, or simply tell others about.
  • Allow yourself time to write before your deadline. Some people like the adrenaline rush they get from waiting until the last minute before meeting a deadline. Others like to get things done early, then take the remaining time to go over what they did and fine-tune it. If you’re not in the second category, consider trying it at least once.
  • Stare at the blank screen or paper. You read that right. If you want to write, but nothing is coming, just sit there in your writing space for as long as it takes to finally start writing. You may not be writing about what you sat down to tackle, but at least you’re writing. WARNING: If you use this tip, allow no distractions (phone, email, music, visitors, pets, etc. during your staring time).
  • Change your routine. If you write at a certain time every day, do something else during that time, then write at a different time. Try this for a few days.
  • Reward yourself. When our children were small, we hung charts on the wall for each one that showed things they were to accomplish (brush their teeth, make their beds, pick up their toys, etc.). At the end of the day, if they did whatever was listed, they got to place a shiny star in the box on the chart for that day. At the end of the week, they got a reward based on their accomplishments. What reward would you like? Lunch with a friend? Go to a movie? A quiet hour just for you? Once you decide on your reward, decide how you’ll earn it. Perhaps you’ll write four pages a day. Perhaps you’ll research your current topic for an hour. You get to decide.
  • Write in chunks. Sometimes the project we face is overwhelming because it’s so large. You’ll feel more in control if you think about writing a small part of the project. Could be a character sketch or a scene or dialogue or even a complete chapter. What’s important is that you break your big project into smaller pieces and work on those pieces.

If you haven’t experienced writer’s block, chances are you will one day. Keep these tips handy and use them when you need them. Happy writing!


Suspense Basics

July 23, 2014

My favorite leisure reading is mysteries because I like trying to figure out whodunit and why. It follows that I also like reading suspense, and I’m not alone. Many readers like the juggling of hope, fear, or time.

Here are some suspense basics you can try.

  • There’s something to fear. The bad thing hasn’t happened yet, and readers don’t want it to happen, but they fear that it may. The bad thing can be death, disappointment, financial ruin, moral injustice, capture by the enemy, or something like not being invited to the party.
  • There’s sympathy. Suspense involves the fear something bad may happen to someone whose side we’re on. We not only fear that it could happen, we anticipate when it could happen–and we don’t want it to.
  • There’s a force working on the side of good. But that force should be a surprise to the reader. A hero/heroine who just saves the day is not good because the reader gets cheated out of clues that help the reader figure out how the bad (whatever it is) will be defeated. You mustn’t keep a secret from the reader, but make sure the reader gets the enjoyment of figuring things out without being handed the answer too easily.
  • There’s a time limit. Play the suspense effort against time and work up to something (a revealed clue or event or observation or something else that will engage reader’s involvement).

The one complaint I hear the most from my mystery-reading friends is the author reveals either the who (villain) or the why (motive) too soon. Consider incorporating these suspense basics into your writing and void disappointing your reader. Happy writing!


Make Better Decisions

June 19, 2014

Writers constantly make decisions as they write. They decide what to include, when they’ve done enough research, who their characters are, what their characters do and when, etc. Perhaps the hardest decision is deciding when an article, story, or novel is finished.

When the writing is done, writers make decisions about whether to self-publish, royalty publish, or subsidy publish. If they decide to self-publish, they also decide what type of book to publish–hard cover, soft cover, audio, e-book. Then there are decisions about editing, cover design, interior layout, pricing, etc.

Once published (and it doesn’t matter whether an author is royalty published or published some other way), marketing the book is totally up to the author. That means more decisions about publicity, book signings, publish parties, media coverage, web presence, etc.

Here are some questions to help you make better decisions.

  • Is this something you want, or is it something you need? Life is full of wants, but you’re better off to take care of deciding the things you need first. It might help you distinguish between wants and needs if you try to imagine life a year from now and the impact your decision will have on your writing, publishing, marketing, budget, income, etc. in a year.
  • Have you investigated all your options? It’s easy to justify a bad decision with “I had no choice.” As a friend told me at lunch this week, “You always have a choice, but every choice has a consequence. You have to decide if you can live with the consequence.” For example, if you decide to pay to publish, there are consequences involving budget and  decisions on editing and design, etc. But if you decide to find a royalty publisher, there are consequences involving ownership of your intellectual property (you no longer own it) and basic decisions about your book.
  • Are you being honest with yourself? If you’re telling yourself what you want to hear, you may not be completely honest with you. I’ve often told the story about a member of a writing group my husband and I belonged to. It was hard to follow this writer’s writing because it was disjointed, angry, and venting. Finally, after this writer was done with a reading and the room was silent because it was hard to comment on what we had just heard, my husband  asked the writer, “What are you trying to say?” As if really thinking before answering, the writer looked at my husband and said, “Good question.” The writer never came back, but he and I happened upon each other during a business call a few years later. Since we were on the phone, I didn’t recognize his voice, but when he heard my name, he introduced himself and told me to thank my husband for asking the question years earlier. It made him really think about his writing, and he was happier because he moved on to other things in his life.
  • How “right” does your decision feel? It’s hard to define what feels right, but you know it when you feel it. If you’re struggling with a decision, tune into your body. Does the option you’re considering make you feel energized or drained? The answer is a good beginning for determining how right a decision feels.
  • What would you do if you weren’t afraid? If you’re afraid of something, that fear will hold you back whether it’s a realistic fear or not. Just because an option instills fear into you doesn’t mean it’s a wrong option. Do your best to avoid letting fear make your decisions.

Consider the idea that most decisions can be changed with another decision. If you’re a writer, you’ve got lots of decisions to make. Today’s as good a day as any to start making them. Happy writing!

 


Watch Out for Characters

March 26, 2014

If you’re writing fiction, you know you get to create the entire world around your story. One of the most memorable components of your story is the characters.

Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, Hester Prynne, Ichabod Crane, Harry Potter, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the list goes on of memorable characters from decades of good fiction.

Here’s an exercise you may want to try if you’re working on creating characters in your writing.

  • Watch people in real-life scenarios. CAUTION: Do not model your characters exactly after real people, however. Most people aren’t very exciting, and some are prone to lawsuits. What you’re looking for is various pieces from different people that you can put together to create your own character.
  • Use different facets of different people to create a “whole” that’s more interesting than its parts. For example, if you’re watching a customer service representative in a store interact with a customer, jot down your perceptions of each person. You can describe each physically, you can note each one’s non-verbal communication, and you can watch for reactions of others observing the same scenario you are.
  • Decide which person is the protagonist and which is the antagonist in a given situation you’re observing. If you know either person, or both people, personally, you’ll have to discipline yourself to become objective and put your own feelings/prejudices aside when you make this decision.
  • Concentrate on the protagonist first and ask yourself probing questions. For example, write down what is motivating that person. Note his/her reactions to the other person (and even reactions to any interruptions or anything else unexpected during the scene you’re watching). Write down any actions the protagonist takes. Finally, note how others react to the actions, non-verbals, words, etc. of the protagonist.
  • Now repeat the bullet point above with the antagonist. Capture as much of the same information as you can so you can make a side-by-side chart to compare the two.
  • Fill in the blanks. Since no one knows what another person is really thinking, you, as author, get to fill in the blanks based on the clues you captured in your observations. For example, how well do the people you watched like each other? What might their backgrounds be? Is one from a privileged background and the other not? Does one harbor a sense of entitlement while the other believes in rewarding only hard work? What’s behind each person’s attitude, motivation, action, reaction? Why do others react as they do to the protagonist? to the antagonist?
  • Create your character from your analysis. It’s immaterial whether you like your character or not (and sometimes you won’t). What matters is that your character is believable to your reader.

There are pieces of your characters all around you that are just waiting to be put together into a new creation. All you have to do is increase your awareness and watch out for characters!

Happy writing!

 


Your Writing Process is Yours Alone

March 13, 2014

One of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer is give yourself permission to write the way you write. I’m not talking about breaking established rules in grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. I’m talking about embracing your writing process.

Writing requires ideas and images that you bring forth in the form of words. You won’t write your best (nor will you enjoy writing the most) until you realize only you write the way you write so you may as well figure out your process and embrace it.

If you haven’t stopped to figure out your writing process before, here are some things to help you find out what works best for you.

  • Listen to your intuition. When something feels right, go with it and see how it works.
  • Experiment. Try outlining before writing, or don’t outline at all–just jump into writing. Start at the beginning and write straight through the way you want your article or novel to be read, or write the ending first and work your way toward it. Write what comes easiest first then fill in the gaps, or write from various angles/viewpoints and see which works best.
  • Take stock. When you get in the flow of your writing process, stop and take stock of how you got there so you can claim your own writing process.

There’s no rule that says everyone should write using the same process. If you write better in one consistent setting than in various places, do that. If a variety of places gets your writing juices flowing, go to those places and write.

Your writing process is as personal to you as your thoughts, your feelings, your expression of words. Discover your writing process and embrace it.

Happy writing!


Nine Rules for Making Your Book Look Good

October 29, 2013

I’ve edited books for authors for more than three decades, so I’m offering the disclaimer that I’m an editor, not a book designer. However, I’ve worked with many book designers and have learned nine rules for making your book look good–both the cover and the interior.

  1. Be purposeful when making your decisions. If you self-publish, you get to make all the decisions, including font style and size, interior page layout, how to handle graphics, page shading, folios (page numbers), and that’s just for the interior. For the cover you get to decide on color, graphics (if any) placement, author’s photos (or not), back cover copy placement, etc. Study some of the books in your own library, and record your own reactions to what you see. That should help you see how much design decisions impact reader reaction.
  2. Be organized in your presentation. Make sure your pages flow in order and chapters follow your table of contents. Keep the information on your cover organized so the reader gets the feeling the book is organized as well.
  3. Keep things simple. If you’ve got a lot of clutter on your cover, the reader will wonder how cluttered the pages are. The interior should show some white space so the reader doesn’t open the book and see nothing but lines and lines of black type.
  4. Offer contrast. Work with your designer to see which colors and fonts contrast well and are attractive.
  5. Differentiate. Your book is your creation. You spent time researching it, writing it, revising it, editing it, and proofreading it. You want it to reflect what you have to say. Too often books look a lot alike (which is okay if you’re branding the same author or series of books). But most of the time they look so much alike because authors use the same templates every other author has access to. When you can, get a custom front cover made for your book.
  6. Project an appropriate image. Do some research and see what image books like yours project. Mysteries tend to use darker colors. Romance novels use more cheerful colors. History books may use historical images of the period the book covers.
  7. Show unity. Be sure the cover design complements the interior design. You want your design to project cohesion.
  8. Be selective about what you emphasize. Everything in your book can’t be equally important, so be selective about what you emphasize on the cover, in the cover text, and in the interior.
  9. Pay attention to detail. Not every reader will be detail-oriented, but as soon as one who is finds mistakes or obvious errors you or your designer should have caught, your credibility suffers. Why yours? You are the author and your name is most likely the only one visible on the cover and/or page header. You don’t want the detail person to tell others what’s wrong with your book.

There you have it–nine rules for making your book look good. They aren’t that hard to follow and the payoff is worth the effort.

Happy writing!