We are told never to share all of our wisdom at once or the universe might have no more use for us. That being said, here are five of the most precious writing gems I can share with you.
1.) Inspiration is a habit. The very nature of inspiration is airy and hard to pin down, a trail of thoughts connected to each other like spiderwebs, easy to break if you touch them. It’s better to follow the lines with your eyes and trust the intangible web that ties it all together. That being said, inspiration can be found in some places better than in others. For some writers, spending time in a crowd will offer them snippets of dialogue or intriguing faces. For others, listening to music will give them ideas for emotions or conflict.
Find things that pique your curiosity, seek out music and photographs and smells and tastes and fabric swaths and movies that linger in your mind. Write these elements down somewhere, or better, string them around you. Hang the photographs, compile the music, set a date to sit down with someone who inspires you. Wear the jacket, drink the pumpkin spice tea with a drop of milk and a dash of cinnamon. If something has created a tangible feeling of inspiration in you, make note of it and return to it often. Writing takes time and sometimes that time can become years. During that time your mental landscape will change, which will also change the tone of your book or project. Sometimes this can create an uneven writing style or even frustration for you. Returning to elements of inspiration will stir familiar feelings and help place you in the same mind-space that you were in when you first experienced the inspiration.
As writers, we tend to hold onto our feelings stronger than anyone, so never doubt the power of that sad indie song you heard when you began your novel. It might hold all of the keys to emotional scenes and the melancholy that you need, now, to finish the threads you started a year ago.
2.) Embrace opposition. Many times you’ll hit a wall. For some of us, it’s in the second chapter. Or maybe it’s the middle. Or maybe it’s that big ending that you’ve been moving towards all of this time but suddenly feel ambivalent about. If you’ve been staring at your page/computer screen to no luck, bouncing a ball against the walls of your office like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, it may be time for you to shake things up.
Try the rule of opposites. Take your planned scene (no matter how vague) and flip it. Say you had planned for your characters to come back to their private school after a weekend frolicking in the city, and your notes say the school is going to be in a riotous panic of worried teachers and terrified students. If this just isn’t working, create the opposite scenario. Bring your characters back to find an eerie calm, everything in its right place, to teachers who haven’t noticed that one of their students has been murdered.
By creating a mirrored scene, you may find that the reasons for your stand-still lie in too little conflict. Following an outline can sometimes leave you caught up in the “this, then this, then this” and make your writing dry and boring. Throwing opposition into the mix might push you to go places you would have thought too extreme… and many times, this is exactly what you need to get you going again.
Even if you don’t keep this new version of the scene, it will help you look at your piece (and most likely your characters) in a new light.
3.) It’s all about your point of view. Sometimes readers tell me that they love the descriptions in my books and that they wish they could write in a similar fashion. YOU CAN. It’s all about point of view.
Everyone observes the world around them through a filter. You might see an older woman and a new female temp at an office, overhear them exchange a few cold words, and think to yourself that the young woman is being an annoying upstart. Conversely, depending on your own views, prejudices and observations, you might think the old woman is being cruel and trying to keep the plucky young woman from getting her big break in life. Either or both of these observations could be “true”, because it’s all relative. So it is in writing.
Even in third-person, novels must stick close to the mind, prejudices and observations of your protagonist(s). A thirteen year old will view life around her very differently from a 50 year old man. Take for instance, these two passages:
She moped around for a while, checking her phone every few seconds and waiting, waiting, waiting. Ugh, waiting. If Brad didn’t get here soon to pick her up, Mom was going to finish up washing the dishes or whatever and realize Sarah was missing, throw a fit, act like a complete freak and then probably call Dad. Not that calling Dad would do anything for anyone, since he was far away and he’d just give the same line as always. “She’s never going to get into a good college if she keeps acting so irresponsible.” Like she was gonna go to college anyway. Ha!
The dishes were done, finally, and no thanks to Sarah. If Sarah wasn’t sitting up in her room blabbing on her phone, she was in the basement watching shows with a lot of repulsive humor and bad language. Jane had asked around to a few neighborhood moms and it seemed that the filth on TV was spreading like an infection, unstoppable, creeping into the minds of children younger and younger with each passing year. One of the moms (the dark haired one with the nice little silver Toyota) said that her 8 year old son watched something called South Park and went around quoting it at school.
Filtering words, phrases, descriptions and ideas through the mind of your viewpoint character will not only make the book less confusing to us as we go along, but it will make the characters far more interesting, memorable and sympathetic to us, even if their thoughts are different from our own.
4.) Don’t fear the reread. Sure, reading a novel for the first time is a rush, just like tearing the plastic wrapping off a brand new CD and popping it in for the first time is thrilling. But what about journeying back through the well-worn pages of your favorite novel, rereading letters sent to you by your best friend in middle school? Watching your favorite movie? These are not just nostalgic activities; they are also incredibly beneficial in teaching us through example. What makes you want to read your favorite book for the fifth time? What do you notice now about “Interview with the Vampire” that you didn’t ever catch when you were 19?
Use these stories, books and movies as a classroom of sorts, a chance for you to pick apart the perfection of the lines that make you swoon, the scenes that make you cry, the lyrics that have just the right cadence. Learn from these things, and never feel guilty for the time you spend rereading, rewatching and relistening. (This also ties into #1)
5.) Good writing is only good editing. Writing begins as something beautiful in your head and becomes something ugly and unrecognizable on the page. Editing begins as something ugly on the page and ends in something beautiful. Don’t worry about this process and don’t judge
yourself by a first draft, or even a second draft, or a third. Embrace editing and you’ll
find the worthwhile story beneath that mountain of messy words.
Don’t be afraid of bad writing. You may write 1000 pages of bad writing before anything is good. See now? That takes off a lot of the pressure you’ve placed on yourself in a panic to write perfectly.
I have it on good authority from a friend that has seen some of Neil Gaiman’s novels before they were released… even masters like Gaiman need editing. Find your voice, sharpen it, surround yourself with inspiration, study the work of your personal heroes and write as much as you possibly can. The rest is all good editing.
Kendra L. Saunders is a novelist, poet, lyricist and writing coach. Visit her online at http://www.kendralsaunders.com for writing advice, helpful links, poetry and information about her novel “Inanimate Objects.”