Thursday, October 4, 2012

5 Easy Steps to Better Writing

John Yeoman has a novel approach to writing—he suggests a lazy 5-step program to improving your writing. Lazy? LAZY???? Does the word even feature in any dedicated writer’s vocabulary? Aren’t writers supposed to slog all hours that God gives in order to squeeze out some creative scribblings that may or may not be the next Amazon bestseller? I must admit, I feel guilty if I miss a day of writing. I read the phrase “It’s like having permanent homework” somewhere and it’s true. However, John has some very good advice in his article, which I have reproduced here with his kind permission.

A Lazy 5 Step Program to Make Your Stories Glow
Yes, and a thousand writing mavens on the web will hustle to reveal it to you. Truth is, there’s only one formula that succeeds, time and again. And here it is... the 5-step program that most top authors use, although they’ll rarely spell it out for you.

#1. Don’t be afraid to write dross: We’ve all heard that we must write every day, and it’s true. But what shall we write? Perhaps we’re developing a story or novel. We know where it should be going, but we’re stuck for words. Solution? Write garbage. And write it fast.

Drop in the first phrases that come into your head. Your object is not to write great literature—just to get that wretched episode finished! There’s no point in playing word games. Not just yet. Probably you’ll junk that whole episode anyway at the final ‘cut’.

Amazingly, the garbage approach works. We have no problems going back to a page of rubbish and, with an amused sigh, editing it into something sensible. Writer’s block? Forget it. There’s no anxiety in this approach so our mind stays calm. We can hack out 1500+ words a day, without pain. Make it your goal to draft total nonsense for an hour. How can you fail? You can then have fun improving it later.

#2. Study television dramas: Now you have a great excuse for watching television. Study how the actors in sitcoms and soaps behave. Every five minutes, somebody will insult, distress or romance somebody else. Watch their faces, lips, and body movements. Also hear how their voices change. Jot it all down. True, the actors overact. But you could use that body language, toned down, in your stories.
Also take careful note of every ‘scene hanger’, the way an episode closes. Maybe it’s an unresolved question or note of alarm. That uncertainty will tease us into the next scene, even across a commercial interlude. Adapt those scene hangers and you’ll soon have a wealth of ways to link the episodes in your own stories, so the reader stays hooked.

#3. Act as a walking tape recorder: Christopher Isherwood inspired the phrase ‘I am a camera’. It described his work. He had reproduced, without judgement or interpretation, what he actually saw and heard in post-war Berlin. You can do that in conversations that you overhear. Take a discreet note of every colourful turn of phrase. Folk say the most amazing things that you would never be able to invent for yourself.

Okay, we know that ‘real’ people do not speak the way they do in books. But you may be amazed at how often people fail to complete a sentence, or reply to a question, or even speak coherently at all. Almost all communication is done ‘between the lines’. If you get that sub-text into your stories, your characters will seem ‘real’.

#4. Find something boring to observe: Boring? Yes. Here’s a wonderful way to make a walk productive. Stop at random, wherever nobody can see you. And just look. Are you staring at a shop window? A poster? A car-filled motorway or a placid park? And is the scene boring? That’s wonderful! Why? Imagine what a child would make of that scene, if they had never seen it before but possessed an uncanny gift with words. A bare brick wall becomes a magic landscape. A mundane street is an adventure to be explored...

Write a description of that scene, using all the five senses—as if you had never seen anything like it before. And pack all that sensual detail into one sentence. Now is not the time to be lazy. Use words that precisely convey the uniqueness of that moment. In effect, write a haiku.

True, this is a tough exercise. How can we describe, say, a graffiti-covered wall in words that make it fascinating? But it’s the key skill of a great writer. Master it and you’ll be able to ‘switch on’ this habit of perception instinctively.

I once had lunch with a popular UK author. ‘Look over there,’ she said. ‘Who?’ ‘The man with a face like a pork pie.’ She was describing her publisher, who had just entered the restaurant. I wager that phrase found its way into her next novel (if not her conversation with him). Point is, she couldn’t stop herself using colourful phrases, even in casual observations!

#5. Acknowledge that your story will never be perfect: Can you write a perfect story? Of course, not. Nobody can. Even Shakespeare’s plays have lines that make no sense at all, even to scholars. (Perhaps he was drunk...) Point is, you have to re-write a story at least a dozen times before it’s fit to present to anybody, let alone a publisher.

One painless way to do this is: get your story as good as it’s ever going to get (you think). Then drop it into a closet for a month. Drag it out and try not to laugh at how bad it has become, all by itself. That wonderful paragraph you spent hours on? Dross. And why do your characters drone on, and on...

The ideal time to re-write a story is when it has spent a year in limbo. Of course, you can’t afford to leave a story on the shelf if you write for a living. Professional authors have to make do with getting their work 80% perfect and letting their agent and copy editor tidy up the rest. Still, everything they submit will have gone through the ‘closet’ process a good many times.

Yes, there is a sure-fire formula for writing stories that succeed. It’s the one above and it has been around since stories began. Of course, no formula will work unless you have some writing talent. If you have, it’s just a matter of developing good habits, like those above. It's how every pro author started...

John's free book How to Win Story Contests for Profit and free 14-part course in story writing for the commercial market can be found at:

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1 comment:

Linda Cadose said...

#2 sounds like the most fun!