This blog’s title could also be “The Art of Writing”, “The Art of Writing Well”, “Steps to Writing Well”, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” or any of the hundreds of published titles that hold the promise of success within their glossy covers.
But what is the craft of writing? What does that even mean?
I pondered how to write this article. I mean, I was a teacher for nine years and taught literature and creative writing at the college level – surely I should be able to come up with something, even if it was just a regurgitated lesson plan. But this topic isn’t something that can be covered in just one blog article. In fact, discussing the craft of writing is a bit like asking the meaning of life – everyone has an opinion and values particular to them. This topic encompasses so many facets, so many areas, and each one deserves its own heading and attention.
Don’t panic! While I could write for days about the craft of writing, I won’t. Instead, what follows is a general overview that conveys some of the essentials to help guide you down the path of writing well.
Know your genre
If you want to write well, you need to read widely, especially, but not exclusively, in your genre. The fact is, you may not even know your genre when you first start writing. Learn the common elements of different genres. For example, there are certain guiding rules for those who write mysteries, one being that the detective must solve the case using rational and scientific methods. No pulling a rabbit out of a hat allowed. Familiarity with similar, well-written books by authors you admire will help ensure that you are following the accepted method that readers rely on. That’s not to say you are limited to only these methods—just use them as a guide from those who may have more experience as you let your own creativity and words flow.
Know your story and plot
Some people are prodigious plotters, going so far as to create character backstories before they start. Others eschew the outline and let their pen or keyboard take them where it will. Whatever method is best for you (and don’t knock one until you’ve tried it), what matters most is that you know what you are writing about, even if you don’t know exactly how the story is going to unfold. One tip to help in this area is to know your story’s main themes before you start and make sure the storyline is consistently presenting them. A theme is not a topic or subject. A theme is the idea you wish to convey about that subject. For example, a subject could be pride. The theme could be that pride can be the downfall of the greatest people. Themes are best when they attempt to convey human experiences and wisdom.
Think about structure
After deciding on your topic and plot, it’s often helpful to decide on the structure. This means deciding on how you want to tell your story. You may have a straightforward, chronological tale à la The Tortoise and the Hare. But maybe you want to use flashbacks, or jumps in time. Perhaps you’re interested in some added complexity by layering in subplots, which are especially intriguing when they complement the main storyline. Multiple character arcs and perspectives (think Star Wars: Phantom Menace) provide depth for your reader to sift through and establish their own meaning of your story.
Is your story told in first person? This technique is great for engaging the reader and really making them connect with the character. Most stories are told in the familiar third person, and if it worked in Harry Potter for J.K. Rowling, you should feel pretty confident using it yourself. Second person narration isn’t very common. It addresses the reader as “you” instead of the first person “I” or third person “he/she/they.” One novel that uses this technique brilliantly, however, is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. This technique brings the reader closer to the story: we are the characters in the story. Your novel’s point of view is an integral element of the story and can help convey mood and tone.
Any story your write, in any genre, should have what’s called a narrative or story arc. This refers to the chronological construction of the plot. Typically the arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. It can be helpful to do more reading on each of these and think about how they might look in your story before you start writing.
Create compelling characters
No one likes bad characters. And by “bad” I don’t mean the villains, I mean the poorly written, flat, static, one dimensional characters. You want your characters to leap off the page and nestle into our hearts and minds the way that Anne Shirley does. Bring your characters to life. One of the easiest ways to do this is through simple details. You don’t need to dwell on their appearance, although Anne’s fiery red hair complements her passionate temperament, but you can use elements of their appearance to build their personality. Would Quasimodo be such a sympathetic character if he were a strapping, handsome young man? No. Other ways to describe your characters are through their actions, words, thoughts, and how other characters respond to them. Make sure that your character is growing and changing throughout the story by means of conflict.
Drum up good dialogue
I have discarded books with perfectly enticing storylines and otherwise well-written narratives because the dialogue sucked and the first page of conversation signaled an amateur scribbler who hadn’t grasped the mechanics of speech. A professional author adroitly uses dialogue to build character, reveal relationships, and propel the plot. You need to be adept at crafting natural-sounding dialogue. Dialogue is hard to write and even harder to write well. One way to improve upon it is to listen to conversations around you and record them. Listen to the nuances, innuendo, rhythm. Don’t be afraid to punctuate your dialogue with ellipses or the em dash to show hesitation, trailing off, or interrupted sentences. These things happen in real life. Novice writers, in particular, need to study dialogue writing.
Find your voice
When I was still teaching, I was lucky enough to connect with Lawrence Hill and invite him as a guest speaker for my classes. One of the things we talked about was prose style and how important it is for each author to establish their own voice. This is easier said than done. We often consciously or unconsciously mimic the writing styles of authors we admire or read often. Hill’s suggestion was to start with small, daily writing tasks that focus strictly on your own observations with the freedom of not having to share this with anyone else. For example, describe a person you know intimately, focusing on appearance and then personality. Just write the thoughts that come immediately into your head when you think of them. The next day, write briefly about a memory you have of an event or occasion. Again, you are using the words that only you have about this time. From here, you can expand into larger paragraphs about situations you’ve experienced. The idea is to keep these writing activities intensely personal and write from your point of view. This will help you to remain authentic and you can then look over your entries to note the types of words and sentence styles that are intrinsic to your own writing style.
Bring your setting to life
Off the top of my head, when I think of the strongest examples of setting or world building in novels, I think immediately of Hogwarts, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Oceania in 1984, and 221B Baker Street in Sherlock Holmes. There’s Alice’s Wonderland and even the rabbit-run Efrafa in Watership Down. Sensory imagery brings settings to life. Many novice writers get bogged down with descriptions of setting. Don’t be one of them! Instead, use strong literal and figurative language to show us places and yes, situations. Don’t tell us that London is raining, because when isn’t it? (Sorry, Londoners! I love you and your city!) Show us it’s windy when a character struggles to open and hold on to her umbrella. Convey how it’s cold and wet by her reddened fingers clutched around the umbrella’s shaft, slipping down as she tries to maintain her grip without impaling someone’s eye or sloshing in a puddle. Be creative.
Do the research
Thorough research and accuracy are imperative. You might not like wading through the library stacks for a piece of obscure 11th century Germanic folklore, but that’s why we have Google. Don’t guess facts. If you don’t like to research, hire someone. If that’s not in your budget, consider offering the job to a student in return for providing a recommendation. This is especially true if you’re writing historical fiction. I would love to ask Diana Gabaldon how many hours she spends researching for each of her Outlander books.
Also, don’t fall behind the times. If you’ve decided to dig out a dusty manuscript from your college days, check that the names of people and places haven’t changed. Ensure the dialogue, setting, even actions of your characters are in sync with the timeline of your story. This may also require researching the types of language, fashion, hairstyles, and even appliances or cars of a certain period.
If research and fact-finding are difficult or don’t interest you, you may want to consider writing fantasy.
Get another set of eyes
I may be biased on this next point but hire an editor. You might have fantastic ideas, you might be able to spin the greatest yarn, but grammar and sentence style are tricky little devils. A professional editor acts as an extra pair of eyes. While learning about grammar and punctuation (two very different things) will undoubtedly help you, if you aren’t trained in these areas, or in how to give a manuscript evaluation or a developmental edit, you’re going to miss things. If Hemingway, a professional journalist and one of the world’s greatest authors, needed an editor (the brilliant Max Perkins) so do you.
Connect with your readers
Finally, learn as much as you can about writing, but never forget the purpose of writing is to tell a story. Stories that connect with your reader and take them on a journey of emotional or intellectual discovery. Stories that show how we cope with tragedies and rise up on the wings of dreams. Stories that speak of who you are and who you may become. Stories that inspire, terrify, encourage, or teach. Stories that bring a smile to our face and a tear to our eyes. Stories that show us we are all connected somehow in our differences.
While this is by no means an exhaustive exploration on the craft of writing, it is hopefully enough to give you the motivation to sit down, pick up your pen or laptop, and begin sharing that story that’s waiting to be crafted.
Cassandra Filice is a professional editor and writer. After a nine year teaching career, she turned to her editing business, Write to the End, full time. When not reading and writing for others, she can be found riding horses or trying to eke out time for her own stories and poems. She lives in eastern Newfoundland with her husband and fur babies.
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An important step in my editing routine is this: rooting out repeated instances of characters' sighs, frowns, smiles, head nods, head shaking, and (yes!) long, steadying breaths before acting or speaking. Repetition is often a sign of flabby writing, and this particular kind has cropped up often enough in my own work to earn itself a nickname: the bobblehead syndrome.
Characters who are limited to just a handful of generic responses become less real and less relatable for the reader. In effect, the flabbier the writing, the flatter the characters are. Therefore, I've trained myself to think of vague emotional indicators as placeholders in a manuscript. They're acceptable in early drafts, but only until I can substitute a more detailed, more telling, and more authentic description of what the character is feeling inside, or how it appears to a point-of-view observer. Here are some examples from recent stories:
First draft: “I can see where this is going,” she said, frowning. “But I'm not going to break the law."
Edited: “I see.” Her lips and brows contracted as though pulled tight by the same string as her old-timey purse. “But don't think for one moment that I'll break the law to protect you."
(Frowns are so generic. This is a much more vivid and revealing description of her expression.)
First draft: He drew and expelled a long breath before speaking. “Well! It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
Edited: “Well!” he declared after a beat. “It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
(This character is simply buying time to process an unexpected development. Save the long breath for a high-stakes pivotal moment, such as when a character is about to commit perjury on the stand.)
First draft: She shook her head. “Absolutely not!”
Edited: "What? No! Absolutely not!"
(Unnecessary repetition here, a silent response followed by an identical verbal one. Check to see which one is more effective in the given situation, then go with it.)
Sometimes a simple frown or nod is a character's most authentic reaction. When it's not, I've found it helpful to have an "emotional thesaurus" on hand. Here's the recipe:
Collect any apt or well-worded character responses that you come across in your reading. Classify them according to the emotion being felt. Add your own original phrases to the list as well. (I've mined drafts of earlier stories for spot-on descriptions that came to me in moments of inspiration.) Then, while editing, dip into it for interesting emotional reactions that will strengthen your writing as they reveal the various dimensions of your characters. Your readers will appreciate it.
Arlene F. Marks
Arlene F. Marks took up writing at the age of 6 and is now helplessly addicted to it. Since retiring from the classroom, she has completely surrendered to her muse, authoring two multi-volume literacy programs and a writing manual, along with a great deal of imaginative fiction. Her current project is Sic Transit Terra, a series of space opera novels set at the turn of the 25th century that she describes as "Dynasty meets Star Trek with a side order of 24". Book 5, The Cockroach Crusade, will be coming out later this year from EDGE Publishing. Arlene lives and writes in the beautiful Georgian Bay area of Ontario.
Arlene's website: www.thewritersnest.ca
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Your story begins with beautiful, lyrical prose. You engage the reader's interest with your scenic descriptions, the protagonist's wounded backstory, and a hook that makes the reader hungry for more. Then it's time for someone to speak, and you feel like your characters can't string two words together.
Some authors struggle with dialogue, and if that's something you can relate to, I'll be offering a few tips to help you put just the right words in your character's mouths.
First, consider your genre, decade and setting. If your novel is set in a Dystopian future on an imaginary planet, make sure your characters' vernacular reflects that. I am also not a fan of filtering words or censoring my characters. Readers want to relate to the heroes in the story, and if someone stubs their toe on a coffee table really hard, you bet they are going to share an expletive or two.
You also have to remember to add the bits and pieces of real life that would naturally interrupt a conversation. No one speaks in full paragraphs without interruption. The phone will ring, thunder might boom, or that pot of boiling water on the stove will need tending.
Give your characters a voice that will be hard for the reader to forget. Make them as real as possible. Admissions of love, for example, should sound realistic and not contrived or forced, or worse, cliched.
I like to write my characters as if I were directing them in a movie. Remember to add expressions, hand movements, or even music. During a heated argument, a person doesn't stand stoically. They pace, they stuff their hands in their pockets and do everything human. Add emotion to your dialogue accordingly. A death-bed scene will include crying. A celebration will consist of shouts of joy or contagious laughter.
Dialogue is every bit important as the rest of the book. Passion is key; realism too. Your readers will want to relate to your characters (or wish that sexy protagonist was speaking directly to them.) As the reader, if you feel like you're eavesdropping on something juicy and wonderful, then the author did a great job.
When all is said and done, read it out loud to yourself to hear the conversation just how the reader might interpret it in their mind.
Last, but never least, be bold. If you're unafraid of what your characters will say next, your readers will no longer think of them as imaginary people, but simply someone they would love to befriend. That's a great compliment to any writer.
Barbara Avon is a multi-genre author. She is also the author of three children’s books. Her books have been received favourably across the board, entertaining readers with an almost “movie-like” quality. Barbara has written since she was young, pursuing her dreams and vowing to write for as long as she can. She has worked at several different media publications and will continue to publish novels until “her pen runs dry.” She believes in paying it forward, and you can read about this belief as the theme is given voice in most of her books. Avon lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, Danny, their tarantula, Betsy, and their houseplant, “Romeo.”
You can find her engaging in the Writing Community conversation on Twitter: @barb_avon
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