I was driving west on a two-lane road, straight as a plumb line, and then…
Finish the sentence and then the scene. If you are on a roll, finish the story. This exercise is akin to games you may have played as a child, when one person starts a story which is then expanded and redirected by each subsequent participant.
You can generate these story starters for yourself by opening any novel to any page, choosing a sentence at random, and writing from it or any part of it.
If this sort of story starter appeals to you, check out The First Line. Every quarter this journal posts the first line of a story. Every story submitted for that issue must begin with exactly the same line.
Whenever something strikes you especially intensely, focus on it with a writer’s eye. Whether it’s a salmon-hued sunset or anger so strong you’re left shaking, a bit of amusing dialogue or a drooling newborn, note as many details as you can and work them into your writing–for that day, or in a notebook you keep for future use. When you write use strong verbs and nouns, and try to incorporate all five senses. Even if that scrap never finds its way into a story, the practice is good for you.
This tip emerged during my interview with Sharvette Mitchell (see previous post) but it bears repeating: Read what you want to write! You need to know the unwritten rules of the genre to which you aspire. Readers in a particular genre expect–even demand–that authors conform. Need I say that the rules for romance novels differ drastically from the rules for a spy thriller? There are many books out there with titles that begin How to Write a …. Such books typically spell out the rules for you. But even knowing the rules, you still need to read broadly within that genre–books you like and those you don’t. Try to analyze their differences, identifying what you want to emulate and what you want to avoid.
To Sharvette Mitchell for being such a great interviewer! Before I knew it, my fifteen minutes of fame had expanded to twenty-five, and it was all her doing! If you missed the show–or would like to hear it again–you can do so at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/mitchell-productionss/2010/03/15stacy-hawkins-adams-and-vivian-lawry–richmond-authors-spotlight.
How do you recognize a weak verb? Look for adverbs!
When you find a sentence in which you give the reader a tag telling how an action was performed, chances are you have a lazy verb–one you didn’t really think about as you plugged it in. For example, if you have a character going slowly to the door, consider whether you really meant sauntered, crept, strolled, or dragged. If your character walked quickly to the door, think about replacing those two words with rushed, ran, dashed, flew–whatever is most appropriate for what you see in your mind’s eye. It’s both more concise and more vivid.
I was much taken with Ammon Shea’s book, Reading the OED, a memoir of the year he spent reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary. In the Exordium (otherwise known as an Introduction) mentions that he has approximately a thousand volumes of dictionaries, thesauri, and assorted glossaries, and labels himself a collector or words. My own assemblage of such books is about one-tenth of his, but I know the feeling. I share his passion.
And so I will mention just one of my favorite words: quirk. For one thing, it sounds so much like itself, which always makes me smile. And for another, I like the four concepts it can label: a peculiarity of behavior, a trick of fate, a freak, a flourish in writing. But those are only the standard definitions. If you get into old usage, it could be a hollow in a molding. It also shows up as Air Force slang from WWI or WWII, meaning an officer in training–or any freak type or unusually designed airplane.
Just below quirk in the slang dictionary I happened to pick up (an old edition of Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English) I came across quirker, any odd little thing, animate or inanimate. It’s a real quirker, how reading dictionaries starts.
The March 11th Wall Street Journal had a front page article about a man who wants to open an eight-track tape museum. Story ideas are everywhere. Get in the habit of noticing them.
For example, create a character who is obsessed with establishing a museum for some antiquated or esoteric object.
The time has come to become a real blogger. Watch this space to read Tips For New Writers.
Tip 1. Write every day.
You may be thinking, “Impossible!” Bad attitude. It’s easier than you think if you don’t get too rigid about what you consider to be “writing.” It needn’t be a whole story, poem, or even thought. You can record hints of stories. You can do it in a notebook. In a pinch, you can simply list words that appeal to you. Do this until it becomes such a habit that a day without writing brings on a guilt attack. And you are on your way.