12 Basic Writing Tips

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I once volunteered as an assistant editor at Leading Edge Magazine, a semi-professional, student-run science fiction and fantasy magazine at BYU. My job was to read what we called the submissions “slush pile,” providing the authors we reviewed both highlights and constructive criticism while also hunting for stories we thought would work well for the magazine. This was a very good experience for me as it taught me how to give feedback to other writers and how to improve my own work. As we’re well into National Novel Writing Month, and I have a number of friends endeavoring to complete a novel for first time who have asked me for advice, I’ve put together this list of twelve tips addressing challenges common to new writers.

    1. Every story uses three basic elements: Plot, Setting, and Character. Knowing the elements of story is the first step to building one. Plot is the tension-driven structure or scaffolding of event sequences that drives the story forward. Setting (sometimes called milieu) is the physical backdrop that grounds your world spatially and temporally, and provides atmosphere. Characters are the human element, the agents we attach or respond to emotionally who make the plot and setting relevant, providing us with a reason to care about what happens next. Many new writers have a tendency to neglect plot or setting in particular. They may show characters doing mundane tasks in meticulous detail without any tension to move things forward, or put characters on the run without enough details about the setting to help the reader visualize or connect to where that character is going or why it seems important. More rarely, some writers will describe their magical world in textbook terms without giving us a character to connect with. You don’t have to have each element of story figured out perfectly before you begin writing, and you don’t have to flesh them all out completely as you go, but all three are essential ingredients that make stories tick. Knowing the elements of story will make it easier to assess where your story lacks concreteness and what you might do to make it more coherent.
    2. Begin your story with a scene. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell,” this is exactly what scene creation is all about. It’s common for beginning authors to write summaries about their world or about things the character does, “telling” their readers what happens instead of “showing.” Writing, like other art, is about capturing and exploring emotions. While figuring out the mechanics of your magic system and deriving background on your character may be important for you to map your story, the ultimate presentation needs to provide readers with a rich emotional experience rather than a mechanical one to feel engaging and satisfying. In accomplishing this, you will likely not present every detail of your planning explicitly.
    3. Use the five senses and internal emotions to describe the scene as the main character interacts with it. This is how you “show” instead of “tell,” how you go about painting an emotionally rich scene. When we read a phrase like “the boy leapt from his family’s sedan and bounded barefoot through the soft, warm grass, chasing the bitter-sweet fragrance of his uncle’s orange grove all the way to the front door,” the parts of our brains associated with moving our feet, and the physical sensations of touch and smell or taste literally activate as though we are actually running through that orange grove ourselves. Within the physical descriptions are other layers of emotion that reveal things about this boy’s personal feelings and relationships in the moment, as well as what conflicts we might expect to encounter as the scene and story progress.
    4. Explore a conflict rather than an idea. Conflict is the core aspect of a plot, and the engine that drives a story forward. If there ain’t no trouble, there ain’t no story.
    5. Have both tangible and intangible conflicts. Some authors call these “external” and “internal” conflicts respectively. My sciencey brain sometimes trips up on these terms because someone with a bullet lodged in their gut or a bad case of indigestion is actually experiencing an “external” conflict despite the fact their wound or suppressed flatulence is technically a physically internal issue. Tangible (external) conflicts might include hunting for buried treasure or rescuing a child who has fallen in a river. Intangible conflicts deal with emotions and relationships, and might include resolving bitter differences with an enemy or overcoming one’s fear of drowning. Good stories need and use both to create a) an interesting plot (the tangible aspect) and b) an emotionally interesting journey (the intangible aspect).
    6. Decide what your characters want and why they can’t have it (until the end). Every story boils down to one central plot or “main plot.” Main plots, and lesser, diverging subplots which provide contrast and depth in conjunction with the main plot, consist of some combination of intangible and tangible conflicts that persist throughout the story. Many authors like to think of their main plot in terms of one, and only one, central goal or thing their protagonist wants, and the obstacles or conflicts that will arise to keep them from getting what they want until the climax. You don’t have to begin your story with your main conflict or plot sequence, but you certainly can. In the three-act structure, the main plot conflict is usually sparked toward the end of Act I, signaling a shift that sets your character on their journey to change, answer, or achieve that one thing. While most stories will have only one main plot, short stories will usually have only one subplot in addition (or none if it’s really short), while novels might have two or three, or more, in addition to the main plot.
    7. Use try-fail cycles. I consider try-fail cycles the basic mechanism of compelling plot structure. After the main conflict has been initiated in Act I, and the main character’s goals have switched gears to focus on getting what they want that they can’t have because something has gotten in the way, he or she should make multiple attempts to solve the problem or overcome obstacles before he or she finally succeeds. After each try-fail attempt, the problem should grow, expanding in scope to affect more people, compounding in its effects, raising the stakes, and putting more strain on you characters. Having at least three try-fail cycles, climaxing, and resolving the story after the third attempt, works best. (See this article for a great discussion on the Rule of Three).
    8. Make your characters proactive. Assess whether your hero or protagonist is being chased from plot point to plot point by one bad circumstance or incident after another, or whether he is actively making choices and compromises that get him into deeper and deeper trouble until the story climaxes. Characters feel more realistic and dynamic when they are proactive agents of their plight rather than passive puppets of fate and other people’s actions.
    9. Open your scene with two or more characters interacting with each other. I gleaned this advice from David Farland at a conference where he talked about what he looks for in the stories that he picks to be finalists in the Writers of the Future contest. Because characters provide the emotional attachment (or distance) between the audience and the events of the story, it’s much easier to create conflict and to make a scene emotionally relevant if two or more people are proactively engaging with each other in some situation. Avoid an opening with one person sitting alone, eating her serial, and thinking about how sad, happy, bored, amazing, etc. she is until some outside force stimulates her to take action.
    10. Make the weirdness in your world relatable. This is another place the five senses can help make your fantasy world both imaginative and comprehensible as well as emotionally relevant, although any creative combination of the familiar with the strange image or character you’re trying to create will work well. Have an alien creature you want to describe? In Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he uses a variety of familiar analogs to describe the alien things replacing people in town, including seed pods, minted coins, and wax figures. What about a steampunk airship battle? A little research on the environment and culture aboard an eighteenth century European sea ship would probably work quite well–just substitute the motion of the sea for fighter-jet turbulence and you’re set.
    11. Let your characters act natural. Take a close look at the actions and especially the dialogue of your characters. Ask yourself whether this is what you’d expect someone to say or do in real life, or how you’d expect them to reasonably act given the circumstances. Even if they’re living in a bizarre world that works very differently from our own, your characters are still human (this includes the non-human characters we personify in some way). Readers will be disappointed if the characters who already know the backstory describe past events to each other like actors in a TV commercial trying to get you to buy some weird new brand of bleach that will change your life for just $19.99 plus shipping and handling, or they do something the plot requires but is totally out of character for their previously demonstrated personality.
    12. Avoid purple prose. Beginning writers will sometimes focus on making descriptions pretty and ornate, or pretentiously poetic, rather than on telling a good story. This is called “purple prose.” Purple prose distracts the reader from the story by making all the story elements feel contrived and over the top. Remember that having good plot structure, an interesting character, and a well-suited, well-integrated setting are what make stories meaningful and entertaining. Focus on what’s important. Keep descriptions simple and real.

To finish today’s post, here is a list of my favorite books and websites on writing, plotting, and story craft. You can also find links to the websites on my sidebar.

Books:

Online Resources:

Measuring Success

325891_3463302665783_2040394455_oThree years ago when I attended LTUE for the first time, my favorite author wrote this note with his autograph, encouraging me to keep writing.

I’ve been on panels with some amazing authors at Utah conventions the past couple of years–national bestselling authors who have had incredible success and a lot of experience working with major publishers, negotiating contracts for advances on their manuscripts, and teaching the craft of writing. I love learning from these people about their writing processes, their experiences, and their strategies, and have copious notes on their nuggets of wisdom stowed away. These people are brilliant. They work hard at their craft. They get people, and they know how to spin the stories their audiences want to hear. They also seem to recognize they wouldn’t be where they are today without somebody–a publisher, an agent, people they’ve never met browsing the shelves of a tangible or virtual bookstore–deciding to take a chance on them. For anyone, putting our work out there is a gamble, and that gamble doesn’t always pay off in the way we hope or expect.

Something I think is important for new and veteran authors alike to recognize is that everyone’s path to success is going to be unique. Major bestselling authors can describe their own journey to fame and fortune inside and out, but they can’t fully translate that success into an exact formula that will turn you into a bestseller too. It isn’t for lack of trying. Like I said, a lot of them teach professional workshops and actively reach out to new writers who may be either looking for someone to point them in the right direction or who may be discouraged. They have a lot of great insight to share. They make a concerted effort to foster creativity in others, advocating the power of learning and the value of perseverance. Somebody else taught them about craft and business somewhere along the way, and they want to pass it on.

Tenacity, skill, and networking to build both a fan base and a peer-support base are all essential to a writer’s growth and success. Taking classes, reading, attending professional writing conferences, working hard, and learning from the pros are almost guaranteed to make your writing solid and sellable. People who study the publishing market, however, have a hard time identifying exactly what makes one product soar up the charts seemingly overnight while another flounders and flops, or does “just okay.” It’s a weird combination of timing, of making something that is good enough quality to resonate with people, marketing it properly, and hitting just the right nerve with the masses at just the right season.

Most of the time, writing fiction is a labor of tough love fraught with rejection, stagnation, confusion, isolation, and meager successes that build credentials but can’t pay the bills. I was talking to a really nice man back at Steven Peck’s release party for Wandering Realities who’s published a heck of a lot of short stories. I won’t name him, and I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing his story because it struck a cord with me. He said he tends to be self-conscious about his writing abilities and carries a feeling of inadequacy around with him, even to this day. He has never reached his goal of making it into a Writers of the Future anthology (despite being a finalist FOUR TIMES), or finished a novel. This made him so discouraged he gave up writing for many years because, despite his incredible track record, he felt like a failure.

He assumed he wasn’t a very good writer, so he withdrew from doing what he loved–and what he was, in fact, good at. His very beautiful and earnest advice to me was this: don’t undermine your successes because you’ve failed to meet your goals.

When I was in high school, I received my first ever C-grade taking a calculus class my junior year. A friend of mine in the same class, who was on track for a D that term and was a lot less stressed about her grade than I was about mine, communicated a similar sentiment when she told me, with an amused and reassuring grin, “After the first one [C-grade], you get used to it.” I consider this some of the best life advice I’ve ever been given.

Success does not appear to be a simple equation with obvious outcomes. Your success will not be my success, and my success will not be Tracy Hickman’s, or James Dashner’s, or Jack Horner’s (I might as well throw in a famous paleontologist while I’m at it). We may not achieve exactly what we’ve dreamed of, hoped for, worked for, or expected, but we have likely accomplished far more than we give ourselves credit for.

In the words of a scripture I love, in LDS Doctrine and Covenants 58:3-4, “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings.”

Whatever you may feel and wherever you may be with various accomplishments and milestones in your life, hang in there, and don’t sell yourself short. We’re all making more progress than we may think we are.

Distortion In Fiction

I like to think that telling a story–whether fiction or a real life event–is much like trying to draw a two-dimensional map of the three-dimensional surface of the Earth: no matter how meticulous, how detailed, or how accurately one attempts to portray it there will always be distortion.

Jurassic Park III came out in theaters when I was about thirteen. It had a rather predictable plot; the characters didn’t have much depth, and if I remember correctly I think it continued some vague, cliche moral about “the consequences of tampering with nature” that had already been exhausted in the first movie and many others like it. What my family remembers most, however, is how my sister and I argued the whole movie about what each of the dinosaurs were called and whether they were being portrayed accurately.

My family growing up has long found amusement in predicting the plots of shows we watch and criticizing any inadequacies or inconsistencies we can find. I’ve been writing fiction (practicing writing fiction?) nearly full time the past two-and-a-half years. In that time I’ve discovered that no matter how meticulous I am about research and getting details accurate (and trying to decide whether sacrificing some of that accuracy allows me to tell the story better at times), my story will never, ever be completely perfect. Oh, I might be able to get a story past people every once in a while in a way that feels so real to them it seems almost flawless. But eventually someone will find a plot hole, an inconsistency, a contrivance, something that doesn’t add up, something that wasn’t explained enough or that had so much detail it felt superfluous and boring. Something that doesn’t quite work or that doesn’t quite make sense. This used to frustrate the heck out of me because initially I had no idea how to create a story that actually made sense let alone one so amazing my family couldn’t poke holes in it.

Now I realize those holes are what get people talking–about relationships, about their lives, about their values, about civilization as a whole, about the way things work in real life, and about the story itself. Fiction is inherently flawed. There’s no way around it. Rather than shaking my fist at the inadequacies of language and storytelling, I’ve decided those holes are really what storytelling is all about. They’re an intrinsic component of the art.

So, my thought is don’t get frustrated if your story falls short in some way. Keep writing. Find your audience. Have the courage to put your story out there, to let people praise it and criticize it as they will. J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, Suzanne Collins, and many other authors have hit emotional cords with people around the world and made a lot of money on stories that some consider deeply flawed.

Tangible and Intangible Conflicts

I’ve noticed lately that my stories come out “right” (complete/satisfying/like they’re meaningful and I’m really pleased with them) when I braid together one each of two main kinds of conflicts: a “tangible conflict” or external conflict, like a quest for treasure, looking for an antidote to the poison, building a wall before the flesh-eating spiders arrive; and an “intangible conflict,” like love, loyalties, trust issues, morality–internal and relationship conflicts. Without a tangible conflict, I have a hard time moving my plot forward and establishing setting. Without an intangible conflict, my characters are non-dynamic, lack sympathetic appeal, and I have a hard time establishing motive to drive them from scene to scene (yes, my main character is trying to find the antidote because someone important to them will die if they don’t, but why do they care? Is he/she afraid? Has he/she failed to save loved ones in the past?).

My strategy that seems to work so far has been to lead, first line, with a tangible conflict, and begin following with intangible conflicts as soon as the characters and setting have come into focus just a little bit. What this does for me is create a clear line of direction for my story to follow with the tangible conflict while I evolve and “discovery write” how my characters are reacting to the situation, what it means to them, and why (the intangible conflicts). Ultimately the two conflicts direct each other until I’ve tried three or four ways to solve the tangible conflict (remember try-fail cycles).

My advice in keeping a story tight, for what it’s worth, is to pick one main tangible conflict for your story, and one (or maybe two) main intangible conflicts for your story if writing from the perspective of a single character. That way, you’ll have everything you need to create a great plot, character, and setting suite without getting bogged down in superfluous detail, meandering, getting lost, wondering what passages are relevant and how you’re going to continue the story thread.

One clear “tangible conflict” + one relatively clear “intangible conflict” = one robust story with unique element combinations. Try it!