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Me Write Pretty One Day

Novelist Fred Leebron's list, circa 2012, of what could be at stake for your characters.

Whenever I’m learning a new skill – let’s say, how to properly document a sea turtle nest, surf tiny waves, or make toast without burning it – I stop now and then to review what I’ve absorbed up to that point. It helps me retain new knowledge.

Writing well requires continuous effort over a lifetime. I’m still at the beginning of that journey. The learning, much like the self-doubt, never ends. My first novel, City in a Forest, debuts in September. As I gear up for my next big project, I’d like to pause and reflect on what I’ve learned so far about writing well.

In Me Talk Pretty One Day, humorist David Sedaris describes his childhood struggle to overcome a speech impediment. I'd like to overcome my limitations and write pretty one day. Here are a few tips I picked up from various classes as well as books.

Show Don’t Tell. Remember this writing class chestnut? The idea here is to shoot for something like, “Under a gray sky, Jessica walked across the icy lawn on numb feet” (or whatever the case might be), instead of, “Jessica felt sad.”

The Objective Correlative is Your Friend. To show your readers what’s happening without telling them, use an “objective correlative,” which T.S. Eliot described as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” Writer Naeem Murr taught me this concept.

What’s at Stake for Your Characters? Novelist Fred Leebron (Six Figures) teaches that characters need to make high-stakes decisions. Action reveals character. What might be at stake? Fred’s list includes birth, sex, death, friendship, family, money, identity, spirituality, and liberty. What other high stakes can you imagine?

Motivation Drives Plot. What do your characters desperately want and relentlessly pursue? In literary novels, characters should I think have a physical and an emotional desire; that is, the protagonist might pursue a tangible goal such as saving the family farm, but she should also have a deeper desire, say, for family and belonging.

Set the Clock Ticking. As your protagonist relentlessly pursues her heart’s desire, readers should imagine an hour glass running out of sand. She needs to attain her goal within a certain timeframe, or risk dire consequences. This will keep readers turning pages. I learned this from Laura van den Berg, author of The Third Hotel, Find Me, and Isle of Youth.

Think About the Shape of Your Story. Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies, Florida) offers lessons on story structure. Don’t ask me to summarize her lessons because she’s more brilliant than my feeble brain could ever comprehend. I think the gist of it was that, yes, every story needs a beginning, middle, and an end – the introduction, climax, and resolution – but can you visualize the silhouette of your overall story?

Adverbs are Not Your Friend. She set the cup on the table. She did not lovingly ease the cup gently onto the table.

Embrace Your Shitty First Draft. In her wonderful book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote that “the first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Make the Personal Universal. Jessica Handler, author of The Magnetic Girl, told me once that I should not shy away from writing about real life because personal experiences can be universal if the reader recognizes her own life in a story she’s reading. This is why we read – to share the human experience.

To Make Characters More Three-Dimensional, Try Using Different Points of View. I can’t remember who told me this, but I have now written three novels in this fashion.

To Keep Your Novel's Tone Consistent, Stick with One Point of View. After writing the aforementioned novels, I learned that switching points of view can make it a tad difficult to maintain a consistent tone throughout the book.

You Have to Risk Melodrama to Make Drama Real. No writer wants her protagonist to backhand her own forehead and swoon onto a sofa. That would be melodramatic. Yet, writing about real emotions in a profound way requires the writer to risk going overboard. Go for it. You can always pull back in revision.

Avoid Fancy Dialogue Tags. Stick with “she said” or "he said." Avoid “she retorted” or “he inquired" or even "they asked." If you can’t use “s/he said,” try making it clear who is speaking without using any dialogue tag at all. For example, “Tracy plucked a credit card from her purse and flipped it Frisbee-style onto the counter. `I’ll take one in every color.’”

Avoid Comma-Splice Sentences, They Undermine Your Authority as a Writer.

Be succinct.

There’s so much more, but this blog post is getting rather long. Would you please share your favorite writing tips with me in the comments below? I'm still learning. Thank you. Write on!

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