And now back to your regularly-scheduled programming…
This is your basic nuts-and-bolts “tips and tricks” post – or at least what passes for such when I write one. Nothing fancy, no deep insights, no self-amused sarcasm (okay, who am I kidding with that last one?); just the tools and techniques I recommend for effective writing.
“Tools and techniques?” I hear the non-authors in the audience asking, “what do you mean ‘tools and techniques’? You just sit down at the keyboard and type! What more is there to writing than that?” Well, uh, in point of fact, quite a lot. Certainly, the actual act of producing a manuscript is as simple as hunching over a keyboard and plunging your fingers down into the keys, one after the other, but there is significantly more that goes into producing (quality) prose than simply dropping words onto a page (hence, by the way, the mildly ironic title of this blog); crafting a good tale is hard work – or at least it always has been for me, and for the vast majority of other writers I’ve ever seen discuss the subject at any length. (And if it happens to come effortlessly to you, then a) I am confused as to why you are still reading this post, and b) you have my warmest invitation to go take a long walk off a short pier.) Fortunately for most of us, it’s a labor of love, one we undertake willingly – and those of us who spend enough time at it invariably discover a number of tactics and resources that make the process easier. These are mine.
In keeping with the format I used for my piece on querying, I’ve organized this post into five general categories – although sadly, in this case I have no fantasy-appropriate acronym to make them easier to remember (unless the fearsome RREMM play a role in some novel I have yet to read?). They are: research, reference, environment, managing the creative process, for lack of anything better, miscellany.
So, without further ado….
Google. Wikipedia. There ya go, you’re welcome.
In all seriousness, authors today are incredibly lucky to be working in the age of the internet. Not so long ago, if we wanted to investigate a topic in any depth, we had to go to the library – or more specifically, if the topic was an obscure one, we had to go to the right library; today, however, we need only click over to our preferred browser and perform a quick Google search. Think of how much time this saves! Honestly, sometimes I’m amazed that anyone who worked on a book prior to the year 2000 ever got any actual writing done at all.
Take the following example: just the other day, I was sketching out a scene that took place in a room with a bay window – not a detail that was particularly important to the plot, but even so, I needed to know the right terminology in order to do an effective job in describing the action (I mean, I couldn’t very well type “turning away, he threw open the leftmost horizontally-swinging-wood-and-glass-panel-thingy”). Seems an easy enough task, right? Pop quiz: what do you call the framed glass element that makes up the greater portion of a window – you know, the part you actually move to open or close it? (The sash.) Oh, you knew that? How about when it doesn’t slide vertically, but rather swings outwards, like in most bay windows? (A casement.) You knew that too? Okay, what about the thin bits of wood or metal between the individual panes? The lower bar of the sash you typically grip to pull up or push down? The outer ledge of the sill? (And if you know those last three off the top of your head, then you are a glazier or carpenter or something, and you can just hush.) In years past, it would have cost me a two-hour trip to the library simply to get that language right – and in my neighborhood I happen to be blessed with one of the best libraries in the world! (I can only imagine how long this would have taken for a writer in a small town, or out in the country, before the advent of the internet.) Yet, when I had this issue earlier this week, all I needed was two minutes browsing online, and I was back to writing.
Now, that said, there are quite a few tricks that can make your searching more effective. You may already know some, but there are tons out there, and so I’ve done my best to gather those I find most useful on the list below:
- I probably don’t have to tell you that Google will be your first stop for any subject matter searches you may have – but did you know that there are quite literally dozens of shortcuts that can enable you to use the world’s most popular search engine more efficiently? This article provides 36 tips, including how to find an exact phrase, how to deal with omitted words, and more, all presented in an easy to digest table format.
- You may also want to try Google advanced search. This little-known Google interface provides much of the same functionality described in the article above, as well as some added features – and allows you to easily use them in conjunction with each other, without requiring you to type a dozen confusing descriptors.
- When searching for the technical terminology to describe something of a physical nature, how said something works, or the manner in which it is constructed (e.g. my bay window problem, above), try searching for that something plus “diagram” or “plan” or “schematic” – and then head over to Google’s images results. You will almost always discover a visual aid that lays out in perfectly-labeled detail exactly what you want to know.
- You will find yourself on Wikipedia with such frequency you’ll consider making it your homepage. But a Google search won’t always bring you to the best Wikipedia result; sometimes it is better to search the site itself. When you do, there are plenty of shortcuts you’ll want to know (not surprisingly, many are quite similar to those you can use with Google). For a full list, please refer to Wikipedia’s Advanced Search Help.
- And last, but not least, perhaps the best trick I can share: nearly all Wikipedia articles provide at least a few citations, references, further reading and/or external links at the bottom of the page. If you can’t find what you need in Wikipedia’s summary description of the subject, try clicking these. Many is the time I got what I needed not from the article, but rather from the more detailed resources that it referenced.
Between Google, Wikipedia, and the trove of links found at the bottom of Wikipedia pages, I’ve found almost everything I’ve ever needed when doing subject matter research, but if you have other resources, or other tips, by all means – provide ’em in the comments below! (This post is, after all, about writers helping one another.)
It may have struck you as odd that I made no mention of vocabulary-related searches in the previous section. (Though the good folks at Google would no doubt tell you that I did in fact point you to a resource for language searches, because their engine can provide you with whatever you need if you simply use their “define” and other similar prefixes. To which I say “eh.”) There was a reason for this omission – or rather, exclusion. Simply put, words are of such great importance to a writer that they deserve their own category; and I’ve researched this particular subject so well that I can give you significantly more targeted guidance than “here are some tips on how do a search of the entire internet.” (Besides, what would Dr. Johnson say if I told you to “just Google it”?)
I hope it’s obvious from my writing, but language is extremely important to me. This may seem like a bizarrely obvious statement from an author, but trust me – it matters more to some than to others. Furthermore, even those of us who care deeply can have very different opinions as to what it means for language to be “good”. For me, the best-written prose is as lyrical to the ear as the poetry of Coleridge or Wordsworth (and conversely, the worst-written, as painful as angsty high school verse). Flow, cadence, choice of vocabulary, variation of expression, the use of simile and metaphor… to my mind, all of these (and more) contribute to the beauty of the work – and I am of the strong opinion that a writer should strive for beauty whenever possible. Books, I believe, should sing, not drone.
Not that this means fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) need be wordy, or flowery, or that the language should jump off the page at the reader. Indeed, if the words interrupt the story – other than at those rare moments when the story is meant to be interrupted – then the writing has failed. What it does mean, however, is that finding the right words is critically important. And here, once again, the internet proves invaluable. The online resources I recommend include:
- Thesaurus.com (What? Sometimes the most obviously-named choice is the right one!)
- Dictionary.com (See what I mean?)
- Oxford Dictionaries
- The Free Dictionary’s Idioms and Phrases resource
- the-difference-between.com (Because even the best of us sometimes get confused about the differences between similar-sounding phrases.)
As to how I use the above, by definition (pun very much intended), when searching for a specific term, I almost always already know what I want to say; the question I am generally seeking to answer is how I want to say it. Consequently, I find that a quick reference to the thesaurus will usually provide what I need, on the order of perhaps nine out of ten times. No magic there – especially once I had identified my preferred resource. But that still leaves the elusive one, where the word I want doesn’t exist, or the results are clichéd, or they simply don’t work with the rhythm of the rest of the sentence. What to do then?
I once read an article by John McPhee (yet another famed writer to teach at Princeton whom I never had the good fortune to meet) in The New Yorker where he advised that when searching for a word, the best course was in fact to always start with the dictionary, and that this would in fact produce a better result than the thesaurus. Now, I think that’s a bit much; defaulting to his methodology would probably lead most writers to produce significantly overwritten prose – I know it certainly would me. Ah, but when I stumble across that confounding one out of ten… that, my friends, is where McPhee’s suggestion comes in handy.
To show you what I mean, let’s say I’m writing a sentence that starts with
And so they ran…
and I want to expand upon that, adding a second clause to the first to describe where and how they ran in greater detail. Obviously
And so they ran, running around the corner and through the open door.
doesn’t work as written. It’s redundant, boring, visually arresting, gives no sense of the “how” I wanted to demonstrate, and clangs in the ear like a badly dented gong; frankly, the darn thing looks like I just got sloppy with my proofreading. So, I check the thesaurus for a synonym for the word “run” and discover
break, race, rush, spurt, amble, bound, canter, dart, dance, drop, escape, fall, flight, gallop, jog, lope, pace, scamper, scuttle, spring, sprint, tear, trot, whisk
but for some reason, in this particular instance, none of these quite work for me. To the dictionary! Consulting Dictionary.com, I find that the first definition for “run” is
to go quickly by moving the legs more rapidly than at a walk and in such a manner that for an instant in each step all or both feet are off the ground
and voila! This is what I need. I’m back to the manuscript, and now my clunker from before has become the much more elegant
And so they ran, their feet barely touching the ground as they went around the corner and through the open door.
Now, I’m not saying that sentence is the be-all and end-all of action descriptions by any means, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the original – and more to the point, hopefully it demonstrates just how (and how effectively) this technique can work.
On to the question of establishing the appropriate atmosphere for your writing (which is something altogether different than establishing atmosphere in your writing). Let me state up front that this is the category where I myself fail most often. Mind you, it’s not that I don’t want to work in the best possible environment to encourage productivity, but unfortunately, the practicalities of life frequently fail to cooperate. (As Rabbie Burns wrote, “the best laid schemes of mice and men…”) Still, that’s no reason not to try, and so below I’ve laid out the factors I’ve identified that, on those rare instances when you can control them, will produce the best results:
Location: perhaps the single most important variable. You will find it very difficult to write if you cannot situate yourself somewhere cozy and distraction-free. The goal is to cocoon yourself, so that you can escape into your mind to explore the story; if the world around you keeps calling you back to reality, this act of pure imagination becomes very difficult. Consequently, you want to find somewhere warm, quiet, uncluttered (do those dishes!), well-lit, comfortable, and with a minimum of jarring ambient sights and sounds. Basically, think your ideal reading spot – but with a power source and room for a laptop.
Time of Day: it was quite a surprise for me to discover this fact, but for some reason, you are likely to find that you are more productive during certain hours than others. Now, I can’t advise you as to what specific times of day to try, because they can vary from person to person, but I promise you: experiment with writing during various windows, and you will find that for some mysterious reason the words just seem to flow better during some periods than they do during others. (Actually, in my case it’s a bit different: I know the worst time for my writing – invariably it is right around dusk.) Obviously, once you’ve identified what hours work best for you, you should do your best to carve them out for work on your manuscript. And be sure to defend them! You need to be left alone in order to work; if you agree to keep an eye on the kids or deal with the plumber or any of the other things other people may think you ought to be able to do while “hanging out at home”, you won’t get any actual writing done during your chosen period. Remember, you aren’t “hanging out at home”; you’re writing.
Music: I find a good soundtrack essential to my writing process. All that time alone in my head, all those distractions from the outside world… if I didn’t have music on in the background, I’d either give up writing entirely, or I’d go nuts. (Actually, the former might well cause the latter, if I ever tried it.) Now, obviously music is a matter of taste, and you will no doubt have artists you prefer that I don’t like at all, and vice versa – but I do have some general suggestions that I think are fairly universal:
- avoid anything that includes abrupt loud noises that will break your concentration (the 1812 Overture is probably not a good choice for anyone, no matter your preferences);
- try to find music that supports the mood of the scene/style you are writing (I have one playlist composed entirely of the more mystical Led Zeppelin tunes that is just perfect for composing a fantasy epic – I mean, c’mon, how can you go wrong with lyrics so chock full of references to Tolkien?);
- avoid anything with super catchy words (crafting your own language is hard enough without trying to do it while singing along to the latest pop hit); and
- stick to playlists you’ve compiled, or use paid music streaming services (radio/free streaming service ads are designed to interrupt your train of thought so that you sit up and take notice of them – they are the last thing you want to hear while writing).
Oh, and one other thing: if it isn’t too much of a financial burden for you, I highly recommend you go out and buy a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. They do a beautiful job of making otherwise impossible writing environments manageable.
Managing the Creative Process*
Speaking of manageable… what’s with the title to this section? Why not stick to one-word format I used for the preceding three categories? Perhaps “Creativity” or “Process”? Ye gods, I’ve broken my own structure!
Sigh. If only I could tell you how to be creative, or could describe a magical process that somehow produces manuscripts as easily as if they were paint-by-numbers exercises. If only there were some secret that would allow you to sit at the computer and continuously type rock-solid prose until you were tired. If there were, we’d all churn out something along the lines of 50,000 words per week. (Just think – George R.R. Martin would’ve finished A Song of Ice and Fire before the year 2000!) Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. The creative process is an unpredictable mistress/master/genderless-demon-from-another-plane and there is absolutely no directing it; all you can do is attempt to manage it.
Which is why my first tip in this category is to always be ready to take notes. Let me repeat that: ALWAYS BE READY TO TAKE NOTES. Insights come at the oddest of moments, and experience has taught me that there is something very real to the idea that your subconscious is most likely to deliver a burst of inspiration when you are relaxed or your guard is otherwise down. Dreaming up ideas while you’re taking a shower, during your evening commute, as you’re falling asleep… You know the old saying about clichés being clichés for a reason? In this case it’s definitely true. I guarantee you that you that once you start to write, you will have ideas at the most inopportune moments. But they’re only inopportune if you let them be. Have a notebook on hand at all times, get familiar with the note-taking app on your smart phone – heck, send yourself texts, if that’s what it takes. Just don’t lose those nuggets whenever your mind chooses to deliver them. There’s GOLD in them thar thoughts!
Which leads to my next bit of advice: sometimes you need to step back from the manuscript in order to give your subconscious a chance to do its thing. This is especially true when you’re stuck. There’s a temptation (for me, anyway) to tinker, and tinker, and tinker some more until a problem is finally fixed – but sometimes hammering away at the issue just doesn’t work. Your conscious mind can get too locked in to a specific turn of phrase, or can become convinced that such-and-such needs to occur here. When this happens, getting up from the computer to take the dog for a walk, or go to the gym, or run an errand allows you to break the free from the rigidity of your thought pattern, and importantly, gives your unconscious mind the opportunity to chew on the matter by itself. Try it. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll come back from the grocery store with a gallon of milk and a new spin on that troublesome passage.
Lastly: read. Read, read, read. “They” say that all writers steal from one another, and while I don’t like to think of it in those terms, there’s no doubt that perusing someone else’s work can spark inspiration. Besides, it’s not like avoiding other writers helps in any way. I should know. Not long after I first began The Herald’s Dark Progress, I picked up Patrick Rothfuss’s excellent The Name of the Wind, opened it… and discovered myself smack-dab in the middle of a tavern scene. Now, at that time it just so happened I was working on my own tavern scene (the current Chapter 3, which is included in this sample, if you’re interested), and so what did I do? Afraid that I would be unduly influenced by what I was reading, I immediately slammed the book shut, and proceeded to avoid all fantasy novels (my favorite genre!) from that point on, until I was finished with my manuscript some five years later. And you know what? In the end it didn’t matter one whit! I still wound up with something like five or six elements of my story that have strong parallels to elements in his work (as well as that of many others). There is simply too much literature already out there to worry about duplication; whatever you write, it will have similarities to something that’s gone before. So, continue to read, and read what you enjoy – it’s much more likely to be of benefit than of harm. Rather than the point of view I adopted towards The Name of the Wind five years ago, take my current view: “hmm… I wonder what I can learn about my own tavern scene by reading his?”**
Before I wrap up, three additional thoughts that didn’t fit neatly it into the larger categories above:
- Writing is a lonely business, especially if you endeavor to do it full-time, and most especially if you live alone. Go outside – not just when you’re stuck – and make a point of interacting with people. (Getting a dog is ideal for combatting this problem. A pup will a) keep you company while you’re in the house, b) require you to go outside on a regular basis, and c) force you to interact with people, because people will interact with your dog.)
- Do your best to avoid social media while you are writing. Having a strong online presence is important for a writer, but it does you no good if it interferes with the writing itself – and a day of Facebooking with your buddy whose politics don’t quite line up with your own can easily do that. Restrict social media usage to your non-writing hours and/or during your breaks (and no making breaks just to hop online – that’s cheating).
- Trains are absolutely amazing for writing. Not cars, not planes, not old-timey horse-drawn trolleys – just trains. I don’t know why this is true, but it is. (So, I guess, yes, technically I do have one tip for boosting your creativity: spend more time on Amtrak.) Whenever you know you have a train trip of any length ahead of you, be sure to carry your laptop with you everywhere; there are few greater tragedies for a writer than hearing “all aboard!”, and then realizing you left your computer sitting on your desk.
No doubt that much of this seems like nothing more than common sense – and honestly, that’s all much of it is. But it did take a fair amount of trial-and-error over a fair amount of time to learn it all, and if some of those tips on Googling, or McPhee’s suggestion about turning to the dictionary, or something else entirely winds up being useful to some of you, then it was worth the time it took to post. Like everything else I share on the process of writing, it is only meant to help.
*Note that in my mind the creative process and the writing process are two intimately related, yet very different things. Confusing, eh? (Note: if anyone has a more differentiated, yet equally accurate term for one or the other, by all means, please let me know.)
**Seriously, what was I thinking with this? Only like 98.3% of all fantasy novels have a tavern scene of some kind.