Posts tagged writing tips

Growing a story: The art of doing nothing

How much time do you spend doing nothing? Nothing as in being by yourself without the TV on, without your phone or computer or even a book. If you want to write, learning to do nothing is an important skill to develop.

In her book If You Want to Write, Author Brenda Ueland calls this “moodling” time. Moodling is letting your mind wander and explore without distraction, allowing it to work out problems and find ideas.

I was moodling one day a few years ago in my house in Iowa. There was a picture on the wall of my great-grandparents on a rickety porch with chickens running around in the yard. I looked at that picture and let my mind wander for a long while.

I let one thought lead to another and then another, from that photo to a tombstone in a prairie cemetery with the name I’d misread as “Tugs Button,” to my grandmother and her long gangly arms and something her father had said to her once about not getting a swell head.

The thoughts piled one on top of another until an idea sprouted. I took that idea for a walk in the woods and let it grow a little taller. I sat again in front of the picture until the idea bloomed, then I picked up a pen and started scrawling loose sentences.

All the time that may have looked to an observer like I was being unproductive, I was actually growing a story that turned into three books about the comically unlucky Button family: The Luck of the Buttons, Button Down, and a third that I’m writing and moodling over now.

Do you want to write? Put down your pen, turn off the TV and radio and computer and phone. It’s time to do nothing!

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Tiny Collections

I am a collector of small things. One of the great things about being a writer is that even a hobby like collecting can be part of the job. Do you like to write? Here are a three collections you could start for yourself.

I’ve been collecting postcards and photographs since my great aunt started sending me art postcards before I could read or write. Hundreds of postcards and photographs fit nicely in a shoebox. Read my last post to discover how collecting images inspires my writing.

In elementary school I started collecting names. The smallest notebook has space for dozens of names. Characters like LeRoy Pence (Dear Papa), Harold Sylvester George Klein (Little Klein), and Verlon Leek (Button Down) were inspired by names I collected as far back as 3rd grade. Whenever you hear a name that you like the sound of, or is interesting to you, write it down.

And my favorite tiny collection? Words. I keep my words on small slips of paper in an ordinary jar. Sometimes a word just strikes my fancy and I’ll write it down: labyrinth. If I’m feeling verb-y, I’ll go to a cookbook and write down all the action words: mix, stir, whisk, sift… Sometimes I start thinking of a group of words and add a bunch at once. Recently I added words I like saying out loud: Iowa, Ohio, Maori, autumn, iota, swift, oriel, oleo.

I started collecting words with my writers group several years ago. We drew words from our word jars each time we met, then each of us would write something using the same four words for our next meeting.

Every chapter in Little Klein was written using those word jar words. Harold turns out to be sickly so I could  have his mother warm a teakettle day and night. A storm arose when I had to use the word wind. 

If you like to write, I think you’ll have as much fun as I do collecting pictures, names, and words. Better yet, grab a friend and start collecting together. Then watch your writing soar!

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Picture Your Story

DEAR PAPA is fiction, but it was inspired by family photographs, three of which appear on the cover of the book.

Say two writers get this assignment: Write about an elephant.

One writer thinks: What happens to the elephant? 

The other thinks: Who is the elephant? 

One writer starts by considering story, the other by considering character.

I am the second kind of writer. I can’t start writing a story until I know my main character.

So where do characters come from? For me, it all begins with pictures. After my first post, commenter Ella shared that she’d read Dear Papa, so I’ll use Dear Papa as an example.

My grandpa died when my mom and her siblings were young so I never met him. I asked my aunt once what he was like. She started by telling me that she wrote a letter to him before he died when she was in fifth grade. I asked to see the letter but we couldn’t find it. What we found instead were boxes of old family photographs.

I was particularly taken with a picture of my aunt as a child. This looks like a girl who could have an adventure, I thought. As is my way, I misremembered the facts and thought she’d told me that she had written her father a letter after he died.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl and her letter. So, with the photo taped on my computer screen in front of me, I wrote a letter like I thought she might have written, made up a name for her, then invented an adventure for her and just kept writing.

Here’s a writing game for you:

Look for a childhood picture of one of your parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles. Spend some time imagining what they might have been like as a child.

Study the picture and ask yourself, what could have been happening right before the picture was taken, what might have happened afterwards? Then set your timer (see last post) and see where your imagination takes you!

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Figuring out your main characters is just as important as figuring out your plot.

So you have worked out a plot. You know how your story starts and where you would like it to end but before you can begin writing it pays to think about your characters. I have some rules that will help you write great characters and also help you write great stories

1) Don’t have too many. Lots of characters are not only confusing to write about, they are confusing to keep track of when you read

2) Its often less important how they look (blue eyes and blond hair is unlikely to have any affect on how they solve their problem and achieve their goals in your story) and more important how they behave. Are they polite and respectful, angry, sad, or rebellious? Are they good at art, maths, good with friends, awkward, or shy??? Do they watch a lot of tv, or read a lot of books? Are they sporty and adventurous? Do they pick their nose, obey their parents, lie, or avoid their homework?

3) Little details can tell you a lot about a person. Do they wear nail polish to school when the school rules forbid it? Do they wear odd socks because home life is disorganised or they think it looks cool? Is that scar from an accident or where they were marked by their enemy? Do they sniff a lot (allergies, bad cold, bad habit?)?

4) The better you know what kind of person your main character is the easier it is to figure out how they are going to deal with the problems you throw at them in your story. Are they the kind of person to solve their problems alone or will they get friends to help? Do they have special skills or talents or are they brave and determined?

5) In the best stories the main character will change or learn something as they solve their problem. Maybe they are a loner who needs to work with others to fight the bad guy. Or perhaps they have to overcome their shyness or their fear. if you have an idea what that change is it will make it easier to write the story.

6) The right name can make a big difference. Calling your character Myrtle or Arthur will have a different affect on your reader, compared with calling them Hannah or Josh. Voldemort would never skip, sing nursery rhymes or smell flowers but then Suzy is unlikely to use the killing curse.

7) Don’t be afraid to have your character behave or react as you would behave or react. It helps make them more real to your reader.  My characters often have bits of me in them but because I mix in some qualities I would like to have and then add a few other qualities no one can tell which part is which.

8) No one is perfect. Your character shouldn’t be perfect either. The best characters have good qualities as well as bad qualities.

Good luck with your characters. The better you know them the easier they will be to write about and the more fun they will be to read about.

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Where do ideas come from?

As well as talking about books and reading on this blog I thought it might be useful and fun to talk about writing. Over the next few weeks I’ll share my thoughts on plot and characters and names and all the twiddly bits that you need to think about when you are creating your own stories. A good place to start is ‘ideas’. A question I almost always get when I am visiting schools and talking with groups about writing  is, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ My answer is that ideas are everywhere – out there in the world in day to day life, out in the playground, at home, in the conversations I have with people, on tv, at the movies, in the news and newspapers and of course in the books you read. Now if you are just starting out with your writing and you are having trouble coming up with good ideas this answer isn’t very helpful at all. But there are three things I can tell you that may help.

1) Before you can find your own ideas, you must know what a good idea looks like. The best way to do this is to read a lot. If you really want to write you need to start asking why you liked a particular book and what was so good about the story. I also ask these questions when I am watching a good movie or television programme. Part of the idea for my novel Jack the Viking came from watching the third Lord of the Rings movie.  And the more you read, the more you discover how inspiring language can be. Sometimes my ideas spring from a few words that are combined in just the right way to get my brain turning excited somersaults.

2) Start with simple ideas. My summer holiday. The first time I cooked. We got a dog/a cat/ a bird. We lost a dog/a cat/ a bird. Starting a new school. The thing that went bump.

The wonderful thing about how we get ideas is that it is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the bigger and stronger it gets and the better it works. It can take a little while to build up this muscle but giving it regular exercise is a good idea.

3) I think ideas come from 3 things – experience, imagination and curiosity. My stories tend to be a mixture of all three but if you are a bit short on one of those three things, try making up for it with one of the other things. When I watched the third Lord of the Rings movie I was curious about what would happen if you put a modern day boy into a battle from a thousand years ago and that’s what inspired Jack the Viking. But I also used my own experiences to create the central character and his day to day life, and my imagination to help describe places I’ve never been to (a thousand years ago). The more things I do and see, the more ideas I get. The more I read and watch, the more my imagination grows. The more I ask questions, the more interesting the answers are to me.

So if you are having a hard time coming up with good story ideas, don’t worry – read lots, try and think about what made your favourite stories good, practice with different ideas, and remember ideas come from the things you do, the questions you ask, and your own imagination.

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Some fun writing rules

Hi everyone, I hope you all had a great weekend. I was lucky enough to see the comedian Lenny Henry on Sunday night, which was a lot of fun. I’m still in a light mood, so thought I’d share some fun rules on writing. The biggest part of a writer’s life is checking and rechecking work for grammatical mistakes and other errors. I have a fun list next to my computer screen which helps me with this. Here are some pointers:

 1.        Don’t abbrev.

2.         Check to see if you any words out.

3.         Be carefully to use adjectives and adverbs correct.

4.         Don’t use no double negatives.

5.         Just between you and I, case is important.

6.         Don’t use commas, that aren’t necessary.

7.         Its important to use apostrophe’s right.

8.         It’s better not to unnecessarily split an infinitive.

9.         Only Proper Nouns should be capitalized. also a sentence should begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop

10.       Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

11.       Avoid unnecessary redundancy.

12.       A writer mustn’t shift your point of view.

13.       Don’t write a run-on sentence you’ve got to punctuate it.

14.       A preposition isn’t a good thing to end a sentence with.

15.       Avoid cliches like the plague.

16.       1 final thing is to never start a sentence with a number.

17.       Always check your work for accuracy and completeness.

 

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Some writing tips

For those of you who love writing, I thought I would share some tips that have helped me on my own writing journey:

* Write about what interests you and then your passion will shine through in your writing.

* Great stories involve the main character facing a problem or obstacle and overcoming it through their own efforts. The main character grows and changes as a result.

* Great stories need great characters. Characters must be both interesting and believable. And remember your main character shouldn’t be perfect: even Batman has his weak spots.

* Use all the five senses when you write; describe scenes or action using sight, hearing, touch, smell, and even taste.

* Use strong and interesting verbs. Instead of “he walked to school” what about “he trudged to school” or “she skipped to school”; they convey more emotion and meaning.

* Show, don’t tell in your stories. For example, if your character is unhappy, don’t tell your reader by writing “Susan was unhappy.” Instead show how Susan is unhappy: for example, “The tears tumbled down her cheeks.”

*Start your stories with a great hook that will make your reader want to continue reading. And end chapters with a cliffhanger or a question not answered so readers want to turn to the next chapter to find out what happens.

* Writing is a craft: the more you practice it the better you’ll get!

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