“Write first drafts on paper. This cancels self-criticism immediately; unless you have truly ugly, banged-up handwriting, everything you write will be visually and stylistically unified by ink. Better still, in an age of Internet-rehab apps like Freedom and SelfControl, nothing approaches the uncluttered nondigital quiet of a page. Take confidence in the fact that much of our canon was composed on paper. But mostly, when you achieve a flow, you’re much less likely to break it on the page than on a screen—you’ll be less tempted to double backwards into revision, checking e-mail, opening a tab. I found this to be true when I wrote the first complete draft of my second novel, The Association of Small Bombs. For years I’d been struggling to make progress, only to lapse back into revision. The minute I committed to paper, the story ribboned forward, inventing itself. I had never felt anything like it.”
—Karan Mahajan, author of The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016)
Like many editors I’ve collected my own gaggle of words and phrases that I find annoying. I can become curmudgeonly if I spot certain words in a manuscript, especially when they’re abused and appear over and over. Now, I realize that taste and preference are highly subjective and chances are I might stand alone on this peeve, but writers you do not need to append “took a” and “take a” to a verbs. As in:
Took a step
Took a bite/drink/sip/gulp/swallow
Took a breath
Took a swipe
People and characters can simply step, drink,sip, gulp, swallow, and breathe.
And by the way “took a deep breath” is probably the most abused cliche in writerdom.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart and write in the active voice.
“As the pen rises from the page between words, so the walker’s feet rise and fall between paces, and as the deer continues to run as it bounds from the earth and the dolphin continues to swim even as it leaps again and again from the sea, so writing and wayfaring are continuous activities, a running stitch, a persistence of the same seam or stream.”
~ Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
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“Between where you are now and where you’d like to be there’s a sort of barrier, or a chasm, and sometimes it’s a good idea to imagine that you’re already at the other side of that chasm, so that you can start on the unknown side.”
~ David Bohm
Consider weaving meaningful objects or possessions throughout your story. Then make certain these objects are repeated or reappear. In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief there are books, the alphabet etched on the cellar walls, and the beautiful accordion. The books and alphabet represent a whole world that opens up to Liesel when she learns to read, her hunger for knowledge, her connection to her adopted father Hans and the Buergermeister’s wife who daringly loans her books. The title reflects this–young Liesel was so desperate to learn to read that she grabbed a book that someone had dropped–a gravedigger’s handbook. In one scene after a book burning ordered by the Nazis, Liesel snatches a burning book from the pile and carries it home. The accordion is a sign of friendship and connection.
Objects can also serve to push events along in a story. The family’s situation turns downright dangerous with the arrival of Max Vandenburg, the fugitive son of a Jewish comrade who saved Hans’ life during WWI. Hans now owns the accordion.
On the other hand, as the story goes along, the symbols of the Nazi regime also infiltrate, permeate the story. The flag with its swastika–an ancient symbol that once meant well-being–the armbands worn to signify Jewish identity, the troops and their powerful machinery of war.
In Lord of the Rings it’s the conch shell.
In Alice Hoffman’s latest novel The Marriage of Opposites the sea turtles come to shore every spring to lay their eggs and return to the sea. This also shows time passing and underlines the sense of magical realism and nature that permeate the story.
These items, or motifs, serve to connect the story, enhance themes, add subtext, and create emotional resonance. The objects can be static or can change such as the marigold thriving and wilting, and can also serve as sensory anchors in the story.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
“I was learning a lot of times what people said was not at all what they meant….It was hard to learn all the languages spoken in our house. There was the loose limber American language that we all spoke, and then there was the riverine sinuous Irish language that the old people spoke when they were angry, and there was the chittery sparrowish female language that my mother and grandmother and aunts and neighborhood women spoke, and then there was the raffish chaffing language that other dads spoke to my dad when the came over for cocktail parties, and then there was the high slow language we all spoke when priests were in the house, and there were the dialects spoken by only one person–for example, my sister, who spoke the haughty languorous language of her many cats, or my youngest brother, Tommy who spoke Tommy, which only he and my sister could understand. She would often translate for him, apparently he talked mostly about cheese and crayons.”
Brian Doyle, My Devils, The Sun Magzine