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Monica WoodMonica Wood  

Tips for Writers

[Please do not reprint this copyrighted material without permission.  Thank you.] 

Are you a beginning, discouraged, or struggling writer?  Here are some tips to help you with your writing -- and your writing life. Look for archive links at bottom of page for more tips.

 

 UNIVERSAL WRITERS' TIP: 

GET A CAT. 

(The one pictured is Sid.)

For some football-flavored advice, go here.

TIPS for 2012 :

Because I've been book-touring all summer, I haven't been writing much. But I have recently employed some advice I always give to busy adult writing students: Write for 15 minutes every day. Just 15 minutes. It's amazing effective.

***

Read aloud. Every sentence, every paragraph. The whole thing, no matter how long it is. 

***

Make friends with other writers. It will be a balm to your soul. Don't neglect these friendships; they're essential to your writing life, as important as an agent or editor. They UNDERSTAND. Nobody else will, not truly. So, go call one of them right now and arrange a date.

***

Go through your draft and look for every instance of doubleness. Examples:

"You ass!" she shouted. Ditch the "she shouted." It's already clear from the dialogue.

He loved the yeasty smell of baking bread. Your adjective here is obvious, because we already know what baking bread smells like: yeasty. So pick a more unusual modifier to make the sentence do two things rather than one thing twice. E.g., "unsettling smell," "clarifying smell," or "hometown smell" gives us information about what the character might be feeling.

***

Try reading your own work as if you were a reader and not a writer. It helps to print out a version in which you change all the names to something you'd never choose. In other words, don't stop at an inclement clause or crummy construction; instead, tear through it ONLY for story. Don't have a pen in your hand. Does the story hold up? If it doesn't, your revision is not about sentence structure, it's about compressing time, collapsing scenes, adding pressure to the characters. Sometimes we get so hung up on making lovely sentences we forget what they're really for: storytelling.

***

A related exercise to to write out a blow-by-blow of the plot--in utterly pedestrian prose, no cross-outs or do-overs--to see if what you have looks interesting. Put up a sign in your work area: STORY STORY STORY. The rest is frosting on the cake.

 

TIPS for 2011 :

This advice I got from an interview I read with Richard Russo, who was asked how he manages such long, long novels. He explained, so wisely, that a writer can't do it all at once. "If it's Monday, you just do your Monday work." I found this indescribably helpful, because I'm one of those writers who try to do it all at once, and panic if I can't. And of course I can't! Nobody can! So, if today's work is fixing one page, so be it. Do your Monday work. Save your Tuesday work for tomorrow.

***

Time yourself. You'll be amazed what you can accomplish in 25 minutes (if these are electronics-free minutes: see below). Set a watch or timer and see what happens. Keep the pen on the page, the fingers on the keyboard. DON'T STOP. At the end of 25 minutes, congratulate yourself and have a Reese's peanut-butter cup. Or a cup of green tea, whatever rewards you.

***

I recommend an excellent book on the fiction-writing process. (As opposed to technique.) Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson. Inspiring and smart and often very funny.

***

In a stuck place? Move. If you normally work at a desk at home, spend two hours in a library. A change of venue really, really helps.

What else helps? Turn off all vibrations/alerts/alarms on your phone/computer/tablet/gadget-du-jour. Make a specific time to check texts, updates, emails, tweets, all the many intrusive etceteras that are the enemy of concentration. Yes, we love them. Maybe we can't live without them at this point. But be honest about what they are doing to your creative life. To repeat, in case a text message was coming in the first time you read this: The enemy of concentration. If you are serious about writing, hit the "off" switch for your world, at least for a couple of hours. You will be amazed at the increase in your production. 

***

Writing prompt from poet Patrick Donnelly: Write a letter-poem (or just a letter) to someone to whom you may no longer speak. (They might be dead, or imaginary, or in jail, or otherwise gone from your life.) Use few abstract words ("love," "pain," "curiosity") and many concrete words ("house," "Church of England," "penny," "subway"), that is, words that allow the read to hear, feel, taste, touch, or see something.

***

I've been writing a lot of nonfiction lately--short essays, mainly. What I've learned, the hard way, is that an 800-1000-word essay is about ONE THING AND ONE THING ONLY. Early drafts of this form usually introduce three or four concepts that the author tries in vain to connect in too few words. Simplify, simplify, simplify. That's my advice. What you toss from those early drafts might become essay number two, three, and four.

Example: Let's say your first draft is about the time your father bought a new truck with money your mother wanted to spend on a bedroom suite. (This is an example from a former student.) Your Dad was a hunter and the truck meant waaaay more to him than just a way to get around. Your mom, at the same time, put a lot of care and effort into the house, etc., and the bedroom suite--well, oh la la, lots of symbolism there, lots of info about the probable state of their marriage. He invites for a ride, she refuses, but finally relents. 

By the second draft you've tossed the bedroom stuff but the diverted money is still there, trying to find a place within the man-truck-angry wife motif. 

By third draft, you've cut the money part and now Dad and truck rule the piece. Truck is Dad's instrument of identity but also of seduction, as Mom finally gets in. Depending on your language, imagery, the piece can now work on literal level but also with all kinds of implication about the state of their marriage on the day Dad brings truck home.

The trouble with nonfiction is that it contains too many truths. (Dad and Mom never agreed about money. Mom liked money better than sex. Dad used hunting as a way to get away from Mom. Mom used house-decorating as a stay against loneliness. Dad loved Mom. Mom loved Dad. I didn't know Dad loved Mom till I saw him hoist her into the new truck. I didn't know Mom resented Dad until I saw her...etcetera forever.) Pick one. Write about that. (The student's essay turned out pretty good!)

***

One of my current students at the Maine Correctional Center has come up with a great way to keep pen on paper. She uses crossword-puzzle answers as random nudges, a version of an exercise I use in class called "word-a-minute," in which I call out words which the students must insert instantly into what they're writing. With no "caller" available most of the time, Lynn simply lines up words in advance and checks the list, in order, whenever her attention wanders or her confidence fails. Brilliant!

***

I love resolutions. LOVE them. They tell me how I want to be (more helpful, more fair, more healthy, more fun), and it's good to keep in mind that picture of my ideal self. So why not make a list of writing resolutions to remind you of your ideal writing self? Writing resolutions work best if they're really specific, for example:

1. Finish section four by 3pm next Friday.

2. Work on the book from 6 - 7:30 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

3. Read the draft of rejected  book by March 1. Then decide whether to rewrite. If not, put it away for good.

4. Start new story/poem/essay/etc. every Monday morning for four weeks running.

5. Submit X for publication on the first of the month.

You might also trick yourself into keeping resolutions fresh in your mind by tying your task to a time:

1. Finish section four by four o'clock on the fourth.

2. Send out third story on February 3.

3. Finish Chapter 14 by June 14.

And so on. Good luck!

 

TIPS for 2010:

I've been reading lots of student work lately--judging various competitions. Herewith are some tips for polishing up that final draft.

1. Get rid of any dialogue tags that are just sitting there doing nothing. Tags should be almost invisible, existing only to occasionally remind the reader of who is speaking, or to break up a line of dialogue in a rhythmically pleasing fashion. Stick to the simple stuff: he said, she said.

2. Please don't begin your story with a character waking up, especially to the sound of an alarm clock. You wouldn't believe how many writers do this. Really, you WOULD NOT believe it.

3. Think in terms of suspense, for every scene. In other words, we should know something at the end of each scene that we didn't know at the beginning. Never, ever include in the final draft a scene you put in there merely as a bridge to the next scene. Skip it and jump to the next place in the story, preferably with a transition sentence that's interesting in and of itself.

 

TIPS FROM 2009:

Tip 1:

Make yourself a "writing kit" for the long, cold winter to come. Here are the ingredients (doing this in a group is more effective and loads of fun):

1. A huge list of words you love, either for their sound, meter, meaning...

2. A list of 10 questions, headed "How." Example: How do they train monkeys to assist the handicapped? How does one interview for a toll-collector job?

3. A list of 10 questions, headed "Why." Example: Why did my aunt paint her house that color? Why did a woman like Sarah marry a man like Mike? Why do Sundays always feel so sad?

4. A list of 10 "pairings." With a friend, put together three columns: People; Places; Situations. In each column, write 10 items. (People: a priest, a hockey player, a hotel clerk, a little boy, a Russian doctor. Places: a park bench, the United Nations building, a backseat, the produce aisle. Situations: a burning house, a stolen suitcase, a bounced check, a betrayed secret. Taking items randomly from these columns, put together a list of 10 pairings. Examples: A priest meets a hockey game; a Russian doctor's house is burning down; a hotel clerk finds a stolen suitcase...

5. A list of 10 titles of stories you'd like to read or write.

This little packet of stuff should help you jumpstart a laggardly writing session. Grab a word to fix a sentence, a pairing to begin a story, a "why" to deepen character, a "how" to embark on a research project, a title to get started.

Happy writing! 

Tip 2 (written for summer):

Try to forgive yourself for summer distractions, but make them work for you. For example:

Pack a notebook into your beach bag. 

Add some books on writing and/or writers to your summer list. I'm reading the letters of Steinbeck along with everything else.

Take advantage of the long days by writing at night. Even an hour a day will get you somewhere.

Write about heat: both literal and metaphorical.

Summer television stinks. Turn it off.

Set an end-of-summer deadline to finish one thing: a chapter, an essay, a whole book, a first draft. My birthday falls in mid-August, so my first draft of a new novel is "due" then. Looks like I'm gonna make it, too.

The scrolling marquee on my laptop helps. Every 60 seconds it reads, in humungous letters: DEADLINE DEADLINE DEADLINE!!! WRITE FASTER!!! This kind of thing lights a fire under your pants, believe me.

 

Tip 3: 

Here are a couple of tips from The Pocket Muse Endless Inspiration: New Ideas for Writing

 

Write a scene that depends on the failure of a reasonable expectation, such as:

            an anchorman who refuses to speak 

            a car door that lacks a handle 

            a radio that receives a single station 

            a museum guard who touches the paintings 

            a faucet that delivers something other than water

 

One-word story shakeup:

Change a "no" to a "yes" and watch what happens.

 

Second Follow-up Notice from the Department of Procrastination Prevention: 

Three words: bowl of chips.  One sentence, one chip.

 

Tip 4: 

Since I'm heading out on the road, this month's tip is a metaphysical one: When you're NOT writing, forgive yourself.  Life is long.  Really.  You can fit a lot in, especially if you quit watching TV.  

Tip 5 (for April): 

For the "cruelest month,"  write about an act of cruelty that yields the opposite of the intended outcome.

Tip 6: 

Make a list.  Of anything.  Places you visited; boyfriends you dumped; jobs you quit; letters you never wrote; colors you hate; women you admire; things you should have named; regrets that laid you flat.  See where this list leads you.

Or, make a New Year's resolution list for one of your characters. 

 

Tip 7:

A couple of prompts from The Pocket Muse Endless Inspiration: New Ideas for Writing :

Write about the one who got away -- and regretted it.

What's the most you ever paid for something you didn't want?  Why did you fork over the dough?

Write about the worst holiday gift you ever gave.

Tip 8 (written for spring): 

Ah, spring.  The birds are coming back, just as we knew they would.  Write about a day when something that always happens...doesn't happen.

 

 Tip 9 (for September): 

Because school starts in September, I think of this month as the beginning of the year.  Why not write a few beginnings -- first lines, to be precise.  Pile up as many first lines as you can manage, and change the tense (present, past) and person (first, second, third) for each one.  Like a squirrel hiding acorns, you can dig up these lines on some cold, uninspiring day in winter.  

To get you started:

1. Papa told us that as soon as he returned he would spill the whole story.

2. The first thing you notice -- barging into their apartment, checking your watch -- is an odd smell.

3. I tell this with all due deference to the harridan who calls herself my mother.

4. In a wide green clearing the boys found a rifle and a dog.

 Tip 10: 

When was the last time you wrote longhand?  I recently found myself feverish with inspiration and about two hundred miles from my computer.  Hmmmm, what to do, what to do.  After dithering for about half an hour, ruing my bad luck--yes, friends, I could not think of a way to make thoughts without technological intervention--I resorted to putting literal pen to literal paper.  An interesting experiment that I highly recommend to other captives of the keyboard.

Writing tip for warm summer days: One cold, icy glass of beer/iced tea/white wine/Moxie/cranberry juice for every two pages you write.  Delayed gratification is a powerful writing tool.

 Tip 11: 

Sorry for the long pause between tips.  My excuse is that nobody sends ME tips, so I've been suffering from the writer's block I always get after finishing one big project and gearing up for another.  All is well now, and off we go.

It's spring again: birds and bees, cycle of life, sunshine and tulips, blah blah blah.  Beware, writer friends!  'Tis the season when our worst sentimental impulses take over, and the Muse stands in the corner rolling her eyes.   As the trees become atwitter with returning birds, write some cold, dark, wintry prose.  Possible kick-starts: a man waiting under a darkened Wal-Mart sign; four girls in a courtroom; a grim discovery (not a body) in a winter field. 

Tip 12: 

A revision technique that requires guts and fortitude is to ask yourself what would happen to the story if the last line became the first line.  Scary.  And very effective.  Often we have to write what seems like an entire story in order to get to the authentic first line.  Don't despair if you must discard all that came before.  That's just part of the process.  The good news is that you're starting with something you know about, rather than starting in the dark as you did with the draft you just tossed.

Tip 13 (written on January 1): 

Okay, folks, another year of your writing life is underway.  Time to clear out the workspace.  This annual ritual (which I will have accomplished before week's end) never fails to inspire me.  You have to make the time for it, though, and bring reinforcements on the order of a great cup of coffee and a box of cherry chocolates.  Schedule nothing else for the whole day.  Exterminate the piles of paper!  Re-shelve the unread books!  Toss the leaky pens!  File the heap of correspondence!  Vacuum the rug, for God's sake!  Empty the trash, already!  What, were you raised in a barn?  This is metaphor in action, my friends!  Make ROOM!

Usage note for the new year:  Resolve to use the past tense of "lay" correctly.  I have addressed "lie" and "lay" elsewhere in these tips, more than once, but nobody's listening.  In the two wonderful books I read over Christmas, this mistake came up.  I am seeing this over and over these days in so-called literary novels.  How have writers gotten it into their heads that "lay" as the past tense of "to lay" is literary?  "Laid" is the past tense of the verb "to lay."  Today you lay your coat on the back of the chair, exactly where you laid your coat yesterday.  "Lay" is the past tense of the verb "to lie."  Today he lies on the same couch where yesterday he lay all day."    

 

Tip 14: 

I'm struggling with two short stories at the moment: one has too little going on, the other too much.  Here's a tip: borrow from yourself.  Take something from one story-in-progress and put it into another story-in-progress.  I'm thinking about taking a musician from Story A and introducing him to the widow in Story B.  Thus, the overcrowded story gets some extra room, and the undercrowded story gets a visitor to stir things up..  

Tip 15 (for fall): 

Welcome to autumn!  It's time to get the imagination humming after the indolence of summer. Here's some help:: 

Are all your characters reasonably attractive? Ugly someone up and see what happens. While you're at it, place the character in a highly descriptive setting without using color.

Tip 16: 

 When was the last time you wrote something without the slightest thought about where it might eventually end up?  Do that today.

Usage note: I've already gone over "to lie" and "to lay."  And yet, shockingly, I continue to hear these verbs misused by newscasters who obviously are not reading this column.  Please, please, if nothing else: Do not say, "It's summer!  Time for laying around in the hammock!"  It's LYING around in a hammock, or LYING down for a nap, or deciding to LIE down for a nap, or heading outdoors to LIE in the hammock.  Remember it this way: When a good writer LIES down, he's not really napping, he's making up LIES for his next story.

Tip 17:

 If you're feeling anything like me today, the words are coming very hard.  Try a word-association game with yourself to get the creative flow back.  Start with an ordinary word: "tree."  Then start associating like crazy until you come up with something that interests you.  Tree, bird, sky, plane, hijacking.  Try it again, with "road."  Road, asphalt, steam, engine, battery, assault.  I've just talked myself back into writing.

Usage tip: To be perfectly precise, use "persuade" when you mean getting someone to DO something, and "convince" when you mean getting someone to change his opinion.  "I convinced Peter that our new landlord was evil, then persuaded him to murder the chump in his sleep."

 Tip 18 (for late winter):

 If you live anywhere north of, say, southern Georgia, you've had a hard winter.  Subzero temperatures, ice and snow, burst pipes, the works. Celebrate the coming of spring (yes, friends, spring is coming) by buying something inspiring: a new pen, a handmade notebook, polka-dotted paper clips, 24-weight paper, a book of quotations...a gift that a writer would appreciate.  Then give it to yourself.

Usage note: Why is everybody suddenly mangling the past tense of the verbs "sink" and "shrink"?   "The ship sank" is correct.  "His hopes sank" is correct. "Sunk" is used for the past perfect, as in: "The ship had sunk" or "his hopes had sunk."  Ditto the verb "shrink."  "The dress shrank in the wash."  Movie titles notwithstanding, the proper form is "Honey, I shrank the kids."  

Tips 19:

 If you followed last month's tips, you must have something new underway.  Are you stuck already?  Read over what you've got so far.  If there is any dialogue at all, at some point one character probably answers "yes" to a question.  Change the answer to "no" and see what happens.

Tip 20 (written in January 2003):

 No one who knows me well will find this hard to believe, but I spent most of the fall anticipating the advent of the year 2004.  Imagine my surprise on New Year's Eve to discover I'd gained a whole year!  Hence, the first writing tip of 2003: Write about a problem that involves somebody's misunderstanding of time.  

Tip number two: Clean your writing space.  Whoever said cleanliness was next to godliness must have been referring to the internal ahhhhh that happens when you enter a writing space that's ready for you.  No piles of files, no pencils stubs and old calendars, just a fresh, clean, organized space ready for another year's pileup of good work.  Don't let your junk cramp your spirit!  Get rid of it.

Looking for more? The last three years are archived at these links:

Archive of Tips for 2002

Archive of Tips for 2001

Archive of Tips for 2000

 

 


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