Between Books: 7 Ways to Stay Productive When You’re Not Actively Writing

This ties back to some recent writing advice that really resonated with me: that not all of one’s writing efforts need be towards a novel or some quantifiable end. As I am between books right now and in search of the next story I want to pursue, this notion is both highly relevant and influential to me. In the last week, and in the last few days especially, I’ve been thinking a lot on what one can do for one’s book– before one is actively writing it. Or even planning it. Because believe me: as difficult as writing a novel can be, for a writer, not writing one (or rather, not even outlining one because you haven’t found your next true spark yet) is worse!

So here are some ideas for nourishing your next book before it comes into focus:

1. Read. A given for all writers at all stages. Reading improves your writing as well as your storytelling ability while exposing you to the stories/tropes already out there. Plus, it’s FUN!

2. Write every day. This should be another given for writers, but let me go a little further and advise committing to some kind of daily practice, like freewriting for 30 minutes each day. There might be a format that calls to you– letters, sonnets, journaling– but as a writer of fiction, it’s especially helpful to practice crafting scenes propelled by goals and conflict and tension. You can quickly recognize what works and what doesn’t, and you might even find something you want to draw out or use later. (The Brainstormer is one great source for prompts.)

3. Examine books that have resonated with you.  Ask why? Begin to see devices, formats, stylistic choices, outside-the-box thinking you admire. Even if it doesn’t directly feed into your next book, observation will get you thinking about something you might do– or do differently.

4. Create/refer to a list of things that capture your interest. Then pursue items on it through research, mind mapping, free association– and of course good old-fashioned experience (see below)! Try pairing items from the file together. Turning them on their head. Asking what you can do to reimagine or incorporate them into a narrative.

5. Get out. Try something new or go somewhere you’ve never been before. Give yourself more to draw from by broadening your experience in the world. Incidentally: new settings are great places to freewrite!

6. Study concepts. Have you ever coveted another book for its original idea? Writers often hear the term “high concept” to refer to ideas that are easily pitched, and often unique. (Two that I deeply admire: Logan’s Run, where people are only allowed to live to 21, and Delirium, where love is classified as a disease.)  Examining concepts gives one not only an appreciation for what has been done before (as well as a healthy reminder of how hard it can be to do something new), but a sense of the sort of things that might be done, and thus opens the way to broader thinking.

7. Study tropes, archetypes, motivations, etc. Not without significance are the smaller details that make every story what it is. Study the masters. Learn the parts. Then emulate and reinvent. Experiment and improve.

What do you do when not actively writing?

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Good Writing Advice: Show Don’t Tell = Action

I borrow today’s writing wisdom from author A.B. Westrick and her recent contribution to the “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” column of Writer’s Digest.

“Show Don’t Tell = Action. Early-on, I thought “show don’t tell” meant showing every little detail in a character’s life. It doesn’t. It means that when you’re writing a scene, you describe—physically—what your characters are doing. You don’t interpret the characters’ actions for the reader. You don’t label their emotions, such as, “Stephanie felt sad or angry or frustrated or confused.” Instead, you show what Stephanie does and let readers infer the meaning of her actions. So you might write, “Stephanie slammed her fist into the wall” or “chewed the left side of her lip until it bled” or whatever. You draw the reader into a scene using the five senses—taste, smell, sound, sight and touch.” —A.B. Westrick

That’s a long quote, but there’s a lot of good advice in it. In fact, I’d like to break it down a little and expand on several points Westrick makes in that one item.

Starting with Show, Don’t Tell: This is arguably the first rule of writing. It’s one that anyone learning the craft will encounter early, and often– from instructors, from fellow writers, and of course in How-To books. And yet, especially with starting writers, it is a guideline too often overlooked. A.B. Westrick says it beautifully above, but I would like to add that the “action” she suggests is not necessarily limited to characters. Casting objects, surroundings, and even weather into action (rather than describing these things solely with adjectives) breathes life into them and makes them more powerful. A famous example:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is right. Ask yourself which sentence is better: “The moon was shining,” (“shining” being an adjective), or “Moonlight glinted on broken glass” (“glinted” being a verb: action).

In a period in which I thought I might go into advertising, I read Ogilvy on Advertising. In a strange but highly relevant connection, author David Ogilvy touted the use of motion in any commercials pertaining to food. Food in motion (hot fudge being poured over ice cream, for example) was found to make it appear more appetizing, and thus led to greater sales. Lesson in translation: choosing active images (whether for characters, objects, setting, food, etc.) over stagnant ones makes them more appealing. In short: action (verbs and nouns) over adjectives.

The other thing I want to highlight is the importance of letting readers infer things. Westrick above discusses specifically how to show emotion rather than tell it, and again she’s right on the money. But one thing I have learned is that it is not only emotions a reader must infer; it is often thought process, backstory, relationships with other characters, etc.

Some straightforward explanation may be necessary, but I think especially for first-time writers, or even experienced writers writing a first draft, there is a tendency toward introspection and over-introspection. The main character over-explains things because we, as authors, are first telling the story to ourselves. This kind of narration typically makes for dull, dry reading, and detracts from– here’s that word again– action.

That said, here’s the second tip I come away with: if introspection detracts from the movement of the story, the things being discussed are probably things the reader needs to infer (and which should therefore be demonstrated with action, not explained). That, or the passages should be pared down.

Finally, Westrick points to the five senses. An excellent reminder: all five senses, not just sight, can be applied to active vs. stagnant language. “The grass was prickly,” vs. “The grass blades bit her palms.” “The alarm was shrill,” vs. “The alarm wailed against the walls.” “The cookies smelled divine,” vs. “The smell of warm butter and chocolate wafted from the kitchen.” Show with senses!

Good Writing Advice: Test Voice with Visceral Reaction

Voice: it’s one of the more difficult terms to define when it comes to writing craft. Not only is it the resulting synthesis of many different elements (language, punctuation, pacing, flow, character commentary, etc. etc. ad infinitum); it varies hugely writer by writer, and often even piece by piece.

For this segment of Good Writing Advice I’m sharing quotes on voice from two literary experts that I find immensely helpful.

First, if the term “voice” is still a bit broad, consider how literary agent Jason Yarn captures its significance:

“I want an author to take over my mind. When I read most queries, I am in “agent mode,” quickly getting a feel, seeing if something is cool enough to warrant further inspection, etc. Rarely, I will suddenly realize that I’ve stopped reading in my own voice and have been taken over by the author’s.  That’s when I know it’s something special.”

Nicole Resciniti of Seymour Agency gives an even more succinct definition:

“For sake of clarity, your “voice” is your unique way of telling a story. […] It conveys a tone (dark, humorous, sarcastic, light). It is a calling card of sorts, because it identifies you as an author.”

While coming into one’s own voice is a different process for everyone, Mr. Yarn suggests this:

“…look to your own favorite authors and see not only their technique, but try and feel how they get into your head.”

Even if we can’t imitate the voices of our favorite authors (surely we do not want to; we want to create our own voice!), this practice of merely actively observing can help us get a better idea of all the intricate details that voice comprises, and we can more consciously play with those elements in our own work.

Now: when we think we’ve got it, how can we be sure? Voice is a strange, elusive creature! Fortunately, Ms. Resciniti offers excellent insight on measuring [voice’s] success:

“That is a big secret of hooking an editor/agent—cause a visceral reaction. If we laugh/cry/shudder/smile/become afraid, you have physically made us FEEL something, and that means we’re totally immersed in your manuscript. Look at your opening chapter. Is the writing tight? Does your voice pop off the page? Do you make the reader FEEL?”

Writing 101: Showing vs. Telling

I recently unearthed a short story I’d written in high school. It was a favorite, I remember, and one that my friends had actually been lining up to read after I’d finished and word got round that it was good. Digging it out from old papers was like the scene in Amélie when she discovers, quite by accident, an old tin box of toys, photographs, and trinkets hidden inside the wall: delighted, I forgot everything I was doing, blew off the dust, and sat down to examine the treasure.

Three sentences in I nearly died: I had already used five adverbs.

I tore through the pages, mortified, and sure enough all the way through it I had written lines such as “he said viciously,” “she said reassuringly,” and “he painfully added”. This, my friends, is another sad case of descriptive overdose, and an all-too-common breaking of what many call the first rule of writing: Show, Don’t Tell.

 “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Anton Chekhov

The good news is, showing is easy: all you have to do is replace adjectives and adverbs with nouns and verbs. This helps replace general, abstract words with more concrete ones, and it is the concrete that creates a lasting image in the mind of a reader. Let’s look at some examples. For extra emphasis print the lines out and circle or underline the nouns and verbs in each sentence. What helps show the best?

Telling: The cinnamon rolls looked and smelled divine.

Showing: The cinnamon rolls steamed as they came from the oven, filling the room with the aroma of brown sugar and butter.

Telling: “No snacking, Martin,” Nora sternly warned.

Showing: “Don’t even think about it,” said Nora, her eyes narrowing into talons.

Telling: Cautiously she left the kitchen. Then Martin was alone with the freshly-iced batch.

Showing: She backed out of the kitchen, eyes still pinned to him. Then it was just Martin and the plate of pastries, their icing glistening as it melted.

Telling: He was sorely tempted.

Showing: He approached, saliva dripping from his teeth.

Telling: He listened carefully. When he was sure that Nora was gone he quickly grabbed one and fled.

Showing: He strained his ears and looked over his shoulders. When he was certain  Nora was gone he seized one and bolted.

Simple, right? For practice, try one of the prompts below. Remember to focus on using nouns and verbs.

  1. Describe a character’s emotion without naming it. Ask someone to read it and see if he or she can tell you what it is.
  2. Describe your favorite dish or recipe.
  3. Find something you have written in the past and rewrite it without using any adjectives.