It was a dark and stormy night… then what?
You might be thinking, “The first sentence flows nicely—now time drags deathly slow as I stare at a blank page.”
Ever felt this way when starting a writing project? If so, you’re in good company. About 80% of people want to write a book yet less than 1% will actually complete and sell a book. There are many reasons for this, and it leaves me wondering how much of it has to do with writer’s block.
It happens to everyone sometimes, even prolific authors. The important thing is to get past it. When you find yourself feeling blocked, do what I do and force some typing even if the sentences are utter garbage, only to be tossed later after serving the purpose of warming up fingers and getting creative juices to flow. Don’t edit anything, ignore typos, just keep going even if it’s junk. You might be pleasantly surprised what it morphs into within a few minutes.
Although there are no rules in love or war or writing, there are common sense guidelines. Writing advice abounds with tips like “show, don’t tell,” “use true-to-life dialogue” and “beware of too many adverbs.” Okay, that’s good stuff, but writing is still an art form—there’s no way to define in a nutshell what makes for good or bad writing. Plus there are genre nuances for thrillers, romance, biographies, young adult, etc. However, some books please lots of people and get read in bunches while other books are duds, so I’d like to focus on what seems to be common factors for authors who produce works that sell.
What are your best writing tips? Leave them in the comments. Here are 11 of mine and general guidelines that have helped me:
- Have something to say. It sounds incredible but many writers begin manuscripts because they always dreamed of being an author. There’s nothing wrong with that dream; it’s just not as effective a motivator for telling a fascinating story as having the idea for a fascinating story. When inspiration strikes, write! When it doesn’t, feel free to do other things. Once you have a story concept and characters, make an outline and start writing anything that comes to mind.
- Commit to a schedule. The hardest part is sitting at the computer and turning off distractions. Set a timer for 30 minutes, or make a goal to write a little bit every day for one week. You’ll be amazed how many pages will pile up quickly.
- Find your voice and trust it. No need to emulate Stephen King or J. K. Rowling; just be you.
- Hook the reader early. New writers don’t have long to impress so make your first few pages draw the reader in. Dump your main character in an awkward spot, or create conflict right off the bat, or present a fascinating concept.
- Bring in the five senses. Help the reader feel, see, hear, smell and even taste elements of the story. These are tidbits that make huge differences, like adding spices to a meal.
- Trim the fat. Find excessive words and delete them. Less is more.
- Know your characters and show them. You might be more plot-oriented, but spending time getting to know your characters will help immensely. Write pages on what they were like as children, their habits, who they’d argue with, even choices for ice cream. Knowing them better will generate ideas for the plot.
- Learn the craft. This was especially needed by me because I began my career with exciting story ideas and limited writing experience. I had no idea how to tell it in ways which would enable others to see the same beauty that I saw. Learning the craft means so much more than understanding grammar; it’s all about presenting the conflict to engage the reader, maintaining a pace, not dumping info all at once, creating a flow to keep the pages turning.
- Read paragraphs aloud. Do they flow easily or sound as good as they look? This little trick does wonders for discovering bad habits. Go one step further and ask friends to read a paragraph out loud. Can they do it smoothly, or do they have awkward moments?
- Once the book is written–rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Each time is an opportunity to trim fat, add spices, perfect the dialogue and make it better. Don’t rush to publish until you know it’s ready.
- Join at least one critique group. There are dozens online. Read other’s first chapters, critique them, and then they’ll read yours. Take comments with an open mind; you’ll probably learn many bad habits that might be repeating throughout the manuscript. Here’s a short list of sites with critique groups:
http://www.goodreads.com/ – all about books.
http://redroom.com/ – where the writers are.
http://www.authonomy.com/ – where writers become authors and more.
Now comes the scary part; what if readers have complaints or simply don’t like it? Learn to listen without getting defensive (this can be extremely difficult). Maybe they mention grammar errors, not feeling connected to the characters or that the story just didn’t appeal to them. This has happened to me plenty of times. In some cases, rewriting must be done to make issues better. Often little additions can help a lot. However, not everyone likes all of my books and that’s okay. This will probably be the case for you too.
The most important thing is to keep writing; do it for yourself first and then with others in mind. Hopefully they’ll discover the same beauty within your story that you see.
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