To improve our writing, we have different help options to choose from—workshops, courses, teachers and mentors, books, blogs, websites. But with so many help possibilities, we can feel as if we’re drowning in possibilities.
How do you assess what best suits you?
Dive or wade?
Some writers like to dive straight into the help pool, immersing themselves in many kinds of writing assistance. They zap through innumerable books, workshops, and websites. If they decide to try a writing group, they may join not one but several.
Some writers find it exhilarating to get their hands on so much information and help in a short period. For others, the informational deluge is confusing, stressful, and can lead to a loss of confidence.
Wading is a preference for some writers, and for others work and other commitments make it the most practical option. They start at the shallow, comfortable end of the writing help pool, perhaps reading a few relevant blogs and books, participating in a short workshop, attending a one-off lecture. As they grow more confident about their needs and interests, they strike out into deeper, adventurous water. They may enrol in a long-term course or sign up with a mentor. This approach is positive and does not overwhelm learners, but some find the learning process frustratingly slow.
Writing help works best when it fits your needs. Rather than focusing on cost and convenience, assess your
- present capabilities
- current interests
- long-term goals
Your present capabilities
What do you think are your strengths are as a writer? Where do you need to improve?
Your current interests
Jot down the last five major items you have read.
You may be surprised. Some people daydream about writing poetry but tend to read modern novels. Others may decide to break into the potentially lucrative romance market, when the reality is that they are drawn to reading essays. And some don’t read at all.
With this knowledge, you can decide if you want help options that support your present writing interests, your future interests, or both.
What drives you, makes you passionate to write? Knowing your drivers can hep you identify the learning options that best suit you. Maybe you get a kick out of experimenting with ideas and storylines. Or capturing personal experiences. Or perhaps you like the technical challenge of a particular form. Or find research satisfying. Or discover reading your work out loud is the most enjoyable part of the writing process.
Your long-term goals
What do you ultimately want to achieve with your writing in terms of these outcomes:
* Material—books, poetry collections, screenplays, etc.
* Financial rewards—money, more or better career opportunities
* Recognition and readership—local, regional, national, international
How long do you expect to write? For example, once you’ve written your life story is that it for writing? Or do you see yourself writing as long as you have the ability to do so?
What happens when you are faced with obstacles and lack of success? Setbacks make some people more determined to succeed. Others accept the obstacle—OK, I’ll never crack the NY Times best-seller list—modify their goals, and keep writing. And others stop writing and find another, rewarding interest.
Is it still . . .
Whatever writing help you choose, regularly evaluate it to consider if it still meets your needs and interests.
Participating in a writing group may be useful at first, but as members come and go, you may find that its educational value for you has weakened. Continuing to join basic workshops may be comfortable but not challenge or provide new information.
For your chosen help option, ask yourself—
- Is it still moving me closer to my writing goals?
- Is it still helping me identify my writing strengths and weaknesses?
- Is it still helping me become a more skilled writer?
- Is it still providing other benefits, e.g., networking with other writers?
Ray Bradbury started early as a writer, penning his first story when he was 11 years old. He began the habit of writing each day and kept submitting his stories to popular pulp magazines. At 22, he succeeded in getting a story published. A long writing career followed, with 27 published novels, including the popular Fahrenheit 451, and 600 short stories, including the collections The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. His writing helped shift the focus of sci-fi from the monsters from outer space to the scarier monsters within ourselves and our society.
Years later, as a famous, respected author, Bradbury distilled his thoughts about the writing in a series of essays, collected in the book, Zen in the Art of Writing. I recently read it and enjoyed his enthusiasm and confidence.
The title is based on a book, Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosopher. While teaching in Japan in the 1920s, he took lessons in Japanese archery, which combines physical and mental skills. One day, he discovered a ‘shortcut’ that enabled him to hit the target, again and again. However, his teacher chastised him for relying on his ‘much too wilful will’ rather than functioning within a state of being ‘without purpose’, in the zen of the moment.
Get good story ideas
- Read the works of authors who write like you and the ones whose writing differs from yours.
- Read poetry each day. Poems provide story ideas, expand your senses, and provide powerful, beautiful metaphors and similes.
- Read practical non-fiction articles, but do so as a dilettante. Rather than trying to understand or learn, let your reading connect with your subconscious, your memories and beliefs. A travel article about an isolated beach may lead you to recall a childhood experience. Or start you brainstorming about what could happen there, and to whom and why.
Develop a rich, successful writing habit
Write for readers’ needs
Bradbury believed that after the first draft, writers should shape their material by focusing on their readers’ needs:
- Provide sensory richness. Help readers use their senses. Your story will seem real if you include rich sensory details—colours, shapes, sizes, smells, sounds, textures.
- Energise your story. What do your characters want? What do they dream of doing, becoming?
Knowing their focus helps readers understand your story’s dynamo or energy. Your characters will then develop much of the story for you. Incorporate:
- Emotions and passions that drive your characters
- Tensions, which come from conflicts and differences between your characters. Bradbury writes about making characters ‘fly together in a great clang.’
- Release. End a story with a crucial action that releases all the tension that has built up. The action must also ring true in terms of your characters, and what they desire and need, or think they need.
Herrigel, Eugen. (1953, pdf file of English translation). Zen in the Art of Archery.
A few months ago, I was at nearby Lyrebird Dell, doing my monthly volunteer bush regeneration. While grubbing out invasive weeds, I found broken beer bottles, a pair of deteriorating panties, and this train ticket.
Only the ticket is memorable. Why? Because I pulled it out of the mud on 2 April, the same date as the ticket, although given the Monday date, it was probably issued two years ago. What an amaaaaazing coincidence.
But what if I wanted to include a similar incident in a story? A woman is desperate for money to pay off a bad guy but can’t get the funds. She finds a dirty slip of paper—a lottery ticket. Checking the lottery website, she discovers it’s the winning ticket! Need more of a coincidence? How about if the day she finds the ticket is the deadline for collecting her winnings?
Coincidence works better in real life than in fiction. We’re like hearing about real examples. Like an acquaintance who journeyed to remote Easter Island, only to run into a work colleague. We tell each other these true tales and comment on how amazing life is, six degrees of separation, fate, and so on.
But the allure of coincidence diminishes in fiction, particularly when it breaks the sense of authenticity readers expect. It’s not that writers eschew coincidence. It’s common in genre fiction such as crime novels, where it can help mislead readers. In comic writing, coincidence can up the humour, as readers wonder ‘what else can possibly go wrong?’ In the movie The Great Muppet Caper, Miss Piggy needs to stop a jewel heist but is stranded on the side of the road. Guess what? A motorcycle fortuitously falls out of the back of a passing truck. As she puts it, it’s the perfect most ‘unbelievable coincidence’.
If a movie or novel is fast-paced and/or complex, viewers and readers may not notice the coincidences piling up until later when they can reflect on the story. But use one ill-considered contrivance crucial to the plot, and readers can no longer suspend disbelief. Examples:
- A character is looking for someone, and uncanny as it seems, that person shows up precisely when most needed.
- Something (spaceship, car, boat, walking boots) malfunctions, threatening disaster. But lo and behold, the character has some little thingy that is exactly right to fix it, thus saving the roadtrip/escape plan/planet.
- A note falls out of a book, and amazingly, it provides the most important clue. Or a character discovers the very information she has been searching for when she overhears two people discussing it.
- Two individuals both fall in love with each other at first sight. (Contrast this with the richer story possibilities when one character falls in love and the other doesn’t know or care.)
- A favourite from a forgettable movie I saw. A young woman spills something on her blouse and chooses to walk to the laundry, way at the back of a dark, spooky yard, to clean it, where, as fate would have it, the murderer waits.
- A woman who takes an interest in a young woman’s career discovers that this person is the baby she gave up for adoption years ago.
How the above items play out depends on how awkwardly or cleverly they are slipped into the story. And my point is not that writers should never use a coincidence. But rely on it too much, or use one to to create an unbelievable revelation or plot twist, and your readers may give up.
If the incident is crucial to your story, you can foreshadow. Making your mild-mannered teacher suddenly go a killing rampage leaves readers bewildered. But if small examples of the teacher’s inability to control himself are included earlier, his later meltdown becomes plausible. Some movies and books do this very well, escalating the seriousness of each subsequent incident so that the final, major outcome makes perfect narrative sense.
Today in Australia it’s the 4th of July. I celebrated the occasion with friends at a restaurant in Hartley Vale, with a lovely lunch in front of an open fire—great on this cold winter’s day. I asked everyone to wear something red, white or blue, and for the table centrepiece I brought two miniature American flags picked up last year when I was the 4th of July parade at Flagstaff Arizona, a sister city to Australia’s Blue Mountains, where I live.
Because the word HOLIDAY has many deep associations for most of us, it provides a writing prompt rich in possibilities. Have a go.
First, pick a particular holiday that you have personally celebrated.
Secondly, consider it from different perspectives, using the following prompts. Start freewriting or jotting down ideas. Either stick with one prompt, try several, or go through the whole list.
- How was the holiday celebrated when you were younger? Be specific: foods, activities, traditions and rituals, the people involved, entertainment.
Was there anything unusual about how it was celebrated?
- Does any particular year for the occasion stand out? Why is it memorable? What did, or did not, happen that year? What was the outcome for you? For others?
- How did you once feel about this holiday? Why? Do you feel the same way now? E.g., Although I have great childhood memories of Christmas, a friend hates the holiday due to his father’s alcoholism.
- Did the holiday change for you when you matured? As you moved from childhood to adolescence? In your early adult years? As an older adult?
How has it changed, or not? Have some traditions been abandoned or revised in some way? How do you feel about the difference?
- Have you ever been in a very different situation (e.g., different location, different people involved) during this holiday? If so, was the holiday celebrated traditionally, differently, or not at all? Why? How did you feel about this?
- Do you think it important to commemorate this holiday? Why or why not? Who would think it important? Who would not?
- Was this holiday particularly sad, comical, disturbing, or exciting one year? What made it so?
- From your perspective, what’s the worst aspect of this holiday? What’s the best aspect?
Thirdly, go through your written results and highlight any items that jump out at you as strong and interesting. Then, drawing on these major items, try writing 500-1000 words.Maybe it will turn out to be a fictional story, a reminiscence, or an essay of sorts.
The University of Chicago Press offers a free e-book each month from its list. The e-books can be downloaded in a variety of formats. But if you have a Kindle, only Kindle Fire is possible. I usually download it to my computer.
Last month the selection was a biography of Liberace. This month it is The Reprisal, which is set in an Italian village in winter 1943. Local fascist supporters capture a pregnant woman they think has collaborated with the partisans and hold a trial to decide her fate.
The author, Laudomia Bonanni, drew on real incidents to explore ‘the overwhelming conflicts between ideology and community, justice and vengeance.’ Publishers Weekly described it as a ‘profound, gritty novel’, one that for too long has been available only to Italian readers.
Elizabeth McCracken, in her article, If Strangers Talked to Everyone Like They Talk to Writers, makes the humorous but true point that people consider writers to be fair game. People ask questions and make comments that they wouldn’t dream of addressing people in non-writing jobs.
Source: Electric Literature online magazine.
Personal drive helps writers move closer to reaching their writing goals. But even if you are passionate and dedicated, you may find the writing path hard if you lack certain skills and knowledge.
Luckily, writing help is widely available and comes in many forms: Classes and workshops, books and magazines, mentoring, blogs and websites. But as the ancient Romans warned, caveat emptor–buyer beware. Writing education is a huge and lucrative market, with few quality controls. When considering avenues for gaining writing skills and knowledge, you may find it helpful to focus on the following 8 questions below.
In considering educational opportunities, it helps if you can establish where you hope to go with your writing. Do you see yourself writing mainly for the sheer fun of creating? Does writing help you make sense–of your life, or the society you’re in? Is your intent to make writing your career?
1-What is the cost—and expected benefits?
Costs range from zero to exorbitant. What are you willing to spend? And what do you expect to get in return, in terms of increased knowledge and skills? If the educational experience doesn’t specify learning outcomes, ask.
2-What delivery mode suits you?
Are you looking for something convenient and comfortable? Or do you feel like stepping outside your comfort zone? Do you appreciate the ‘any time, any where’ convenience of an online class? Want a traditional classroom experience? Like the individualised attention of a mentor? Or do you find that you do best with independent study, creating your own reading list of articles, websites, blogs and books?
Educational offerings range from a couple of hours to classes that run for one or more years. What duration is realistic in terms of the time you have to pursue writing education?
The spectrum ranges from writing basics for beginners to masterclasses, with competitive selection. What’s your next realistic level in terms of writing education? If you’re interested in a masterclass, it pays to find out the expected class size, the topics to be covered, and the kinds of activities that will be provided.
Is the scope of the educational offering broad, e.g., the short story in the 21st century, or narrow, e.g., how to write a professional synopsis. What best suits you at this stage in your writing education?
Writers, editors, writing educators—all offer educational opportunities. What kind of expertise do you expect, and why? Successful professional writers are not automatically inspiring, helpful teachers, so it pays to investigate.
7-Preferred learning mode?
For a learning experience to be positive, much depends on how well it aligns with your preferred learning mode. When you process information, do you depend on the visual, aural, kinesthetic, or logical?
The teacher of my French 1 class made us listen to the language for two weeks without opening our textbook. I’m predominantly a visual learner, so I was adrift. It was only when I could see the dialogue that French began to make sense. But you can gain insights when you move away from your dominant mode. At university, I usually wrote research papers. A professor suggested submitting a visual art project. The new way of processing information gave me insights I would otherwise not have considered.
- Visual. Reading, note taking, observing, and getting visual information (charts, maps, pictures, diagrams, demonstrations).
- Aural. Talking books, CDs, lectures, discussions.
- Kinesthetic. Action-oriented activities, e.g., roleplaying, making models, interviewing.
- Logical. Identifying a subject’s underlying ‘system’ or logic, e.g. explanations, well-structured information, theories.
8-Interpersonal? Or intrapersonal?
We differ in terms of how much interactivity we are comfortable with. If you are strongly interpersonal, you may learn best when you work with others. E.g., informal discussions, and question-and-answer sessions. If you are strongly intrapersonal, you may prefer minimal interaction with others. E.g., structured online classes, books on writing, individualised help from a mentor.