Friday, April 1, 2011

You Should Be Writing!

Thursday night has become my favorite night of the week. It's displaced strong contenders such as just-me-and-Iris night, sushi-at-Bizen night, jam-with-the-band night, and code-until-dawn night. Thursday night is Jenny's-writing-jam night: two hours of sharing what we've written over the past week, discussing what worked and what didn't, learning new concepts and techniques, and then trying them out.

Iris and I leave our writing sessions feeling super-charged and ready to take on the world. It's clarifying, it's energizing, it's transformative and it's fun.

This morning I woke up with the thought, "Wow, everyone should experience this! Everyone should be writing!"

While I can't provide you the experience of sitting in the room with us, I thought I'd start by sharing some of what I've learned over the past couple of months that has helped me to become a better writer.

Every Day
As with pretty much anything you want to become good at, learning to write well begins with writing every day, even if for just ten minutes. Of course, you can learn to write without doing it every day. However, writing every day is the best way to infect yourself with the writing bug, transforming writing into something habitual. To skip it becomes something like skipping a meal or short-changing your sleep. You miss it.

Perhaps most importantly, you can't write every day and still judge your writing. Either you'll stop writing or you'll stop judging. The two can't co-exist for long.

How'd that Feel
Whether fictional or true, when telling stories our descriptions tend to be visual. What color was her hair? How big was the car? What shape was his body? We talk about what we have seen in reality or what are seeing in our minds' eyes. Compared to our multi-sensory experience of the real world, narrative that employs just visual description is flat, one-dimensional.

An easy way to make your writing more engaging is to employ other senses: taste, touch, smell, and sound. What did her red hair feel like when you ran your fingers through it? What did the big car sound like as it rolled up the gravel road? How did he smell carrying 200 pounds of extra weight?

Strong visual description is great, but you can make your stories pop by expanding your narrative to include other senses.

Who Said That?
Most of us tell personal stories in the first person. I was on my way to work this morning and I... or The boss walked into my office and told me that...

We talk about others in the third person. While walking to class, Sally noticed... or That crazy Mark Kaufman, did I tell what he did today?

When you write there are infinitely many perspectives from which you can tell your story. There are the classic perspectives of first person, second person and third person, but there are also temporal perspectives: is the narrator experiencing the story as it is unfolding or is she retelling something she previously experienced?

There's the question of how much the narrator knows. Does she know more than the reader? Less than the reader? Is she omniscient? Are there gaps in her knowledge?

Here's the best part. You don't have to be the narrator. You make the narrator anyone you like adopting the perspective and tone of the someone else telling the story. The narrator can be a teacher you had in high school or your dad. She can be a civil rights leader or a racist. He can be completely honest or carry a hidden agenda. She can be well educated or a high school dropout.

You can tell the same story over and over changing who's telling it and thereby changing the story and thereby changing you.

More or Less
The beauty of taking time to write is that you don't have to come up with words on the spot. You can write for ten minutes and then, as you read what you've written, take time to look up alternate words and phrases.

A productive way to use your editing time is to strip your writing of adjectives and adverbs, especially adverbs that amplify adjectives. As an exercise, you might want eliminate them altogether.

"Ran really fast" becomes "raced" or "charged".

"Tiny piece of dirt" becomes "a speck".

"Really mad" becomes "furious".

By avoiding adverbs and adjectives, your writing becomes tighter and cleaner and clearer, and your vocabulary stronger.

For Starters
Well that's it for starters. If you've already made a habit of juicing, then the next thing you gotta do (even before running) is to start writing every day! Whether you want to publish a novel or better communicate at work, learning to write well will help and writing well definitely makes writing more fun.

To get you started, here are some prompts. Pick one and spend ten minutes following it wherever it takes you.
  1. There were signs and signals...
  2. Something astonishing
  3. Every morning...
  4. Caught in the act
  5. If I had just one thing I could do over, I would...

Happy Friday!

1 comment:

  1. thanks. setting the time boundary allowed me to just go with the flow. there was no time for second guessing. A great idea!


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