From time to time I get asked to speak to creative writing groups or English classes. I always oblige. I love taking questions from enthusiastic students of writing and sharing what [modest] knowledge I have. There are five tips I always share with the groups; five tips that I believe have improved my writing.
So here they are. They may be helpful for some people.
1. Keep a journal (or in my case use post-its!)
Almost everything you will ever read on creative writing will suggest that you should keep a journal. You’re supposed to carry it around with you so that you can take note of every idea you have as you have it. Any of these ideas could eventually make a story.
I tried it for a while a few years ago and it just didn’t work for me. I found that my ideas became too jumbled and that I couldn’t focus on one. I’m an unusual case though. I find it much easier to work an idea through in my head for a few weeks before putting pen to paper. And I can juggle a few ideas at a time.
However, when I am sitting down at my laptop to write, I like to plot out that day’s chapter using post-its. I scrawl a plot point on a post-it each and stick it on the wall in front of me. Then, when I’ve written that plot point, I pull away the post-it and dump it. It’s hugely satisfying!
So, I don’t keep a journal. It might work for some people but it doesn’t work for me. That said, I do think that everyone should try it for a while. If it works for you, you will never want to be without your little notebook. Failing that, use post-its. I swear by them!
2. Be a sadist
Torture your characters.
When I first said those words to a writing group, I got a laugh. People thought I was joking. But I couldn’t be more serious.
No matter how nice your characters are, put them through hell. In fact, especially if they’re nice put them through hell. No one wants to read a story about a load of nice characters having nice, safe, easy lives. This is not drama. Get a character and give them a hard time but show them overcoming this. This is drama, this is interesting.
3. Use short names
This is purely a practical piece of advice but it certainly can be useful. If you have a character that you know you’re going to writing about a lot, I suggest using a shorter name. I’m not saying you should name your hero Jo or Lee or something – (although, by all means, do if you wish!) What I’m suggesting is that for your secondary recurring characters, it can be a good idea to give them shorter names. It’s simply so that your fingers can get a bit of a rest. It won’t improve your story. It won’t even harm your story.
Also, on a related note, I’m reminded of something George Orwell said. ‘Never use a long word when a short one will do.’
4. Read a lot; write a lot.
This one is obvious.
No-one can become a writer without reading a lot. Personally, I find it difficult to concentrate on reading a book during the periods in which I’m writing a book. But when I’m not writing, I devour books. You should also think about reading a variety of genres. Sure, if you want to be a fantasy writer you should read a lot of fantasy. But you never know what you might learn from a drama or a biography or romance. Everything you read could inspire you.
5. Get in late, leave early!
This is tied with number 2 as my favourite tip.
But what does it mean? Well, I’ll break it down. Imagine the following scene…
A man is pacing a hotel room with blood on his hands and a knife on the floor. Next to the bloodstained knife is a dead woman. She’s been stabbed multiple times and is almost unrecognisable. He looks at the woman, unsure of what to do, maybe even unsure of what he’s done. Then – there is a knock on the door! END SCENE
Now that scene is a really simple example of tension. We started the scene after the murder. As readers, we don’t know who this man is, who this woman is and why the man has murdered this man. We’re instantly hooked. We ‘got in late.’
But then there’s a knock at the door! And just as we’re beginning to wonder who it could be or what the man will do, the scene ends. Now we’re even more hooked. We desperately want to see what happens next. We ‘left early.’
You can see why ‘Get in late, leave early’ is one of my top tips. Using those two simple premises, we can ramp up the tension and drama immeasurably.
So that’s it! I hope you liked my tips and that you may have found something in them. Do you have writing tips you live by?