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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fifty-Three Ways to Strengthen Your Writing

I found a similar article of fifty-two ways to change your life, torn from a 1996 magazine and, although all but one had already been incorporated into my years, I kept that single page on my desk.  Tempting me.  Calling me.

So this post is where it led me. At first, while only at item twentyish, I was wondering if I would make a full list of fifty-two points so that my readers could take one to focus on weekly--even out of order or repeating a beloved one for several weeks.  But, being the novelist that I am and not a flash-fiction author, I made it one beyond, to number fifty-three.  Enjoy!

53 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing
  1. Study poetry, Rumi, Mother Goose, Psalms, song lyrics, whatever your predilection. It teaches tight writing.
  2. Study Shakespeare.  He understood human failings. Great for plots, drama, conflict. Plus he had humor and fantasy woven in, to remind us about the lighter things in life.
  3. Study the Bible. I maintain all the plot variations are found therein. On the flip side, don't feel you have to steal from a soap opera and have every malady and mishap known to man happen to your poor heroine.  Look at Nora Roberts.  She writes about everyday people, living everyday lives, for the most part. Unless you ARE writing a soap opera.  Or a spoof of a soap opera.  Then go right ahead.
  4. Study the masters. Get out your old high-school recommended reading list and set out to read at least ten this year. Better yet, read one every week.
  5. Study your mentors, your heroes.  Nora Roberts aka J.D. Robb is one of mine. It is so very hard for me to disconnect from her storytelling long enough to study her art of writing behind it. I found two short stories of hers for free on her website and, since they are only four or five pages long, maybe I can be objective enough with them. For now, I'm just assigning emotions to each paragraph. How I feel when I read her words, and specifically which ones evoked which reaction.
  6. Study another language. Nothing gets your understanding of root words so well . . . rooted (sorry!) than a look at Latin.
  7. Subscribe to receive a word-of-the-day email.  Or just read a new one in the dictionary. It helps us authors with our fresh writing to find that unique word and implement it.  Gets us away from the stale and hackneyed.  The cliché.
  8. Study the thesaurus as well.  Granted those wonderful words I find other authors using are never found within synonyms in the dictionary or the thesaurus. 
  9. Keep a list of these great words.  Study them.  Are they nouns made into verbs?  Are they a great updated twist on an old phrase? Do you prefer similes and metaphors to other rhetorical devices? Find those literary tricks and locate your particular faves.
  10. Study rhetorical devices. I still do not know their names, but I know one when I see one. It adds a certain literary depth to the work.
  11. Take writing classes.  Online. At your local community college.  At FunEd.  Or just via reading one of the many good writing books (I've recommended several on this blog in earlier posts). Take good notes. Type them up.  Distill them to the Top 10. Keep them handy on your writing desk.
  12. Like Tony Robbins said, he tries to find one good thing from every seminar he attends, and I presume book he reads and people he meets.  Do the same.  Keep track of that one great thing you learned. Add it to your Best of the Best notebook.
  13. People-watch.  Wherever. The mall. The coffee shop.  In line at the market. I've overheard some great conversations that are stockpiled to be scenes in future books.  Plus you get exposed to the rhythm of different speakers.
  14. Speaking of rhythm, play one of your all-time favorite songs.  Close your eyes.  Without retyping the lyrics, write what you feel.  Define the emotions that song ignites.
  15. While your eyes are closed, sit, evaluate.  What do you smell? What do you hear? Underneath those layers, what else is there to smell and hear that you are so accustomed to that you overwrite those images as "old" and "already noted"? Touch the items on your desk. Note the feel of familiar items. Taste your coffee.  Really taste your water. Take notes.
  16. Change locations.  Maybe sit outside.  Note the main thing you see, hear, feel, taste, touch. What emotion pulls at you as you focus on these five things?  I'm a true believer of intuition. So be sure to add this sixth sense to your writing where needed, too.
  17. Make a list of foods that evoke "home" to you.
  18. Make a similar list of smells.  Like cinnamon on the peach cobbler in the oven.  Or the smell of potpourri simmering on the stove. Or maybe just a chicken roasting, or steaks on the grill. It could be the wonderful smells of coffee and bacon being cooked outside on a campfire.
  19. From memories or old pictures or magazine pages or Pinterest boards (yours and others), gather a selection of homes that immediately bring a story to your mind--one you feel compelled to share.
  20. Repeat the preceding item but focused on people--characters you want to live in your future books. They can be actors or famous people of old or that conglomeration in your mind.  Find pictures that best match your mental image. Name them. Set them up on a Pinterest board.
  21. Do nonwriting things you enjoy.  Gotta fill your reservoir with a variety of data to pull from as you write. Plus gives your life balance.
  22. Take a day trip.  Get out of your normal environment.  Mix things up.  Especially if you are butt-in-chair hours upon hours for days upon days.
  23. Enjoy other art forms.  Go to a museum. If you find a particular painting speaking to you, whispering a secret to be shared, go home, print it out to remind you.  Set it by your computer.
  24. Take a painting class. It gives you insight into how an artist would see a place, a person, a thing. Should help you, the author, in expressing same on the white page.
  25. Attend to the comfort of your workspace.  If you are at all like me, comfort does not rate high on your daily radar either.  Yet, again, if you are at all like me, and tied for hours to your computer, then we should address that matter.  I particularly like my keyboard tilted via the little prongs at the back and placed squarely in front of my screen.  Do y'all remember that cute scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love. where the son is at work with the mother and she's typing at a ninety-degree position away from her monitor?  Who does that?  Just seems weird to me.  But if it works for you, set up your station that way.  I'm just saying, pay attention.  Fix it.  You're the boss now. Don't do it the way it was always done back there at those corporate 9-to-5 jobs.  Do it better.  Do it personally.
  26. Do what you love. Write the genre you read on your days off or at night to unwind.
  27. I cannot work in a cluttered environment.  Or let me reword that:  I prefer not to work in a cluttered environment.  (I am tending to all that, just in fifteen-minute increments.) Make your office a haven, a place you feel relaxed and yet encouraged.  Soothed and still suffused.
  28. Research. Doesn't need to entail actual travel for those of us still money-challenged. This can be via books alone or simply the internet (just carefully choose the more authorized site to cull your intel from). Select topics that interest you.  Make a list.  Keep one by your computer.  Add a subject matter that smiles at your heart as you are reading through blogs during the day or your emails or from whatever source.
  29. Keep lists. Aside from Pinterest boards or dream boards or white boards or spreadsheets or software programs, I like hard-copy lists. A backup for when the internet is down or the electricity is off. Make one for people--list archetypes you prefer to write about. Further characterize them.  These adjectives will help you not only describe them in your next book, but can be used like pepper on white sauce to further enhance your story, to perpetuate your theme of the bad-boy-gone-good hero or the wrong-side-of-the-tracks misunderstood rebel.
  30. Still within the People subject, make a list of careers.  I am particularly bored with the lawyer and doctor themes still found in romances even today.  Since I'm a Nora fan, I love her use of unusual careers for her main characters in  her books.  Like in Chasing Fire, there is this one scene that is branded into my memory about "shake and bake." It will never be about hamburger anymore to me.
  31. While still on the career angle, add an array of adjectives that describe the job.  The good.  The bad. The minute. You can use those descriptors to not only define the main character's workspace, but him and his life. Like Nora Roberts did with one of her books about a magician.  I detected the "magic" theme coloring a lot of her choices in adjectives.
  32. Character sheets.  I'm not into all that history-taking-notes mind-set about where they went to high school and their hobbies.  Unless this IS a story about them attending high school and their after-school hobbies further the plot. I'm more into emotions and themes, so I gravitate toward the mind-mapping exercise, labeling our characters with four/five words as to what archetype they represent, what major emotion they portray within this particular story, etc.  (See previous posting about Mind Mapping--it's just great.)
  33. Places.  Again, make a list of spots you'd love to see first-hand. Search the Net. Gather info, tidbits, details. Attach some wonderful scenes to a Pinterest board for handy reference. On your written sheet, maybe add in what words come to mind when you think of each place.  Like Paris may evoke love. Italy, food. France, wines, farmers' markets.  Whatever it is, spell it out.  Use it to add color and depth to your tale.
  34. Concrete nouns. Yes, use "Corvette" instead of "car" to seat the correct vision into your reader's mind.  If you use "car" but are thinking "Corvette" and your fan is thinking "sedan," miscommunications will follow.  Like for instance, why the hero cannot give a lift to two buddies.  It is not that he is rude or insensitive or uncaring or selfish.  There is simply no room for three grown men in a hardtop Vette. 
  35. Active verbs.  Make yourself a note to watch for is, was, and other forms of To Be verbs. Rework the sentence to delete them whenever possible.
  36. Watch for useless words.  Example: he strolled leisurely . . . 
  37. Watch for repetitive words.  You know what yours are.  (Two of mine are so, just.)
  38. Listen to your CP group.  Find your weak area and particularly watch for it.  Now this does NOT mean incorporating every change they suggest into your writing.  It is still YOUR writing and should reflect that.  Like me, for instance. I write conversationally. Therefore, a lot of my "sentences" are not fully formed but are truly phrases.  I'm not changing that.  Now I will change it when I start too many with "And" or "But." 
  39. Know when to break the rules--but not so that you lose your reader. With each story, you are in effect writing a term paper, selling your reader on following--and agreeing--with each progressive step. You make an illogical leap and your readers are no longer "your readers" but "your debaters" having put down your book to go consult an encyclopedia on a point or to rant to their spouse. Not that you cannot propose an alternate viewpoint.  You just better make dang sure that your point is both valid and believable, or you knock your reader so far out of  your story that they don't come back.  Have no desire to. Ever.
  40. KISS.  Yes.  Keep it simple, sweetie.  Make your sentences clear.  I'm not talking about writing to an eighth-grade level either.  I don't care what the statistics may show on that front.  Look at the J.K. Rowling fanatics.  In a news spot showing her readers waiting for one of her final releases in the Harry Potter saga, I saw three-year-olds reading her book.  So don't tell me to dumb-down my writing. You can use big words and even rarely used ones in such a way that, in context, you will effectively communicate with your reader.
  41. As both an author and a freelance copy editor, I know the difference between infer and imply.  As an author, you should too.  You are called a "wordsmith" for a reason.  Words are your tools.  Use them wisely.
  42. Grammar rules help your reader to fully receive the vision in your mind.  Follow them.  I find that most blog errors (yes, posted by authors) fail to properly communicate because the bloggers do not understand the why and how of punctuation marks. Each one serves a much-needed purpose.
  43. List of themes (like "love conquers all" and "good wins out over evil" or just standing up for the underdog or being honest, etc.). Decide on yours for each novel and as you create each scene. Again, go with what interests you.  You aren't out to make every person on the planet your reader.  I firmly believe that each author has their own following.  It's just a matter of waiting long enough for the two to connect.
  44. List of great first lines. Find them--at the library, at the bookstore, in your own personal collection. Write them down.  Study them.  See if there is a pattern to them that calls out to you.  Then take that pattern and tweak it for your use.  In your books.
  45. List of great hooks that ended chapters. Study them. See what would work in your particular chapter.  NO PLAGIARISM WHATSOEVER ALLOWED!
  46. List of taglines/loglines that move you.  This is my newest focus in the marketing arena.  It's free.  Surely us creative types can come up with a twenty-five-words-or-less slogan to describe our tome.
  47. List of all-time favorite movies.  Find out what they share in common.  That's your writing niche.
  48. Study favorite movies and make a list of the 120 beats, or 90 or however long corresponds with the length of the movie.  I find some movies are more cohesive than the books they started with.  Plus I'm a NaNoWriMo winner and I begin my process by basically writing down dialogue and actions--the mainstay of a screenplay.  With later versions, I add in a little description.  (I'm not a description fan.  In J.D. Robb's futuristic police series--where it is necessary that she detail this made-up world for us--she doesn't use a whole paragraph to describe her NYC of 2058.  I don't think she uses a whole sentence without adding in some activity. Atlas Shrugged, which has got to be my number one favorite novel of all time, has that forty-page-or-so monologue toward the end of the book.  With my ten readings or more, I have never read that portion completely. Never will. Now if you want to summarize it for me, giving me the highlights on one page or in one paragraph, I may read that.)
  49. Make a list of your favorite people.  Break them down into a series of qualities about them that you love.  Incorporate some into your hero/heroine.
  50. Conversely, make a list of the people who repeatedly push your hot buttons.  Jot down the qualities that irritate you endlessly, forever, without fail. Use a little of this for your contagonist.  Use a lot for your villain.
  51. Study archetypes. They can help you label your characters so each one has representation.  I read somewhere that we humans are all the eight archetypes combined in our various and unique ways.  Which explains why in some things/areas we'll take the lead, while in others we procrastinate.
  52. Study Campbell's twelve-step hero's journey.  I'm not a plotter.  But as my most recent CPs have convinced me, I may be a hybrid.  I have nothing written down, but yet I already have a scene in mind for probably six or seven of the main plot points.  Now, they may change as I begin to write.  But you gotta start somewhere, you know?  
  53. START.  I feel I write better today than in my twenties.  It is like anything.  You cook more, you are bound to become a better cook.  So . . . write.  Keep on writing.  Even J.K. Rowling's world-famous series is said to show a progression in her writing skills from book one to book seven.  You do the best you can at that moment.  Tell the story of your heart.  Write for you.  THAT you can control.  You cannot control your readers.  The people who don't like your stuff are not your intended audience.
As always, take what resonates, toss the rest and keep on writing! Love you, guys!

Denise Barker, author + blogger +
Freelance Copy Editor, http://bit.ly/freelanceCE
Good Ole Boys, a love story at http://amzn.to/GoodOleBoys


  1. Great list! And #3. Did you know that dragons and unicorns are mentioned in the Bible? Someone posted a ton of verses on fb today. You just never know where you'll find inspiration. :-)

  2. Rhonda told us about this on FB and I am so glad I read it. I'm going to subscribe to your blog.

  3. Don't know where my previous comment went, but I also found this through Rhonda's FB post. Loved it so much I'm tweeting a link to it.

  4. Thanks, guys! I sent each of you private responses but just have to say another huge "Thank you" to you all. It is great to know someone besides me reads my posts--ha! db