5 Pieces of Writing Advice That Failed Me . . . and One That Worked

Posted: August 29, 2014 in Jobs and Career
Tags: , , , , ,

WriteAdvice

I’m beginning to understand why the old cliche “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has stood the test of time. When we were kids, it was nothing for us to learn new skills because, well, we didn’t know anything, and everything was a new skill to us. Now that we’re adults, learning a new skill seems tedious, nerve wracking, endless, or fruitless. I’m learning a new skill right now. One that is actually a skill I first learned when I was about five: writing.

I forgot how hard writing is.

Oh, sure . . . I have been writing nonfiction articles and blogs for several years. I had that shiznit down cold. The format was pretty much the same for each piece. I knew what to write based on my research. Have a catchy title, interesting hook, lots of information geared to a specific audience, and include quotes when appropriate.

Boom.

Done.

Here’s the problem with what I was doing: I was beginning to get that restless feeling. I was bored. And I knew I couldn’t continue to be interesting and informative to an audience of readers if I wasn’t into what I was doing. Sadly, I knew what this meant, because I had felt that feeling before. It meant I was ready to move on.

I cast about for several months, trying to pinpoint exactly where to head next. It came to me almost like a bolt out of the blue one day. Return to what I used to love doing. A long time ago, in high school actually, I wrote stories. Then, when I was in my twenties, I signed up for a course on writing for kids. For that, I wrote nonfiction articles and fiction stories, all aimed at kids. I also spent a little while in a writing critique group led by a lovely older lady who was both a writer and an artist (you can do that??). For that, I wrote a memoir and started work on a fiction thriller for adults.

Then? Life . . .

I had a baby, went back to work, bought a house that needed fixing up. I’m sure many of you know how that all goes: you get caught up in living life. As a result, I lost touch with that type of writing for a long time.

So here I am, years later, wondering what my next move is. That’s why I was so surprised when, after thinking it through for days, weeks, months, I realized I wanted to write stories again.

It took me a while to decide what to write, who to write it for, etc., etc. It’s kind of like knowing you want to bake a cake and being unable to decide what kind . . . chocolate? Carrot cake? Angel food? For a birthday? A potluck? The county fair? Exactly like that.

I knew my first dive off the cliff would be relatively small: I decided to tackle a short story. After turning over a bunch of ideas in my mind, I landed on one that seemed interesting and sat down to begin . . .

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Oh, hi blank screen.

That blinking cursor is where I’m supposed to pour out lots of creativity and direct yet interesting yet original prose, right?

Sigh. Tap fingers.

Hmm, I wonder what’s going on over on Facebook. Ah, there’s some new pins Pinterest thinks I should check out.

Hell, this is not a good start to my new career.

In the face of total paralysis, I did what I do best. Research. I decided to look for advice on how to get started and . . . stay started. The internet is full of helpful advice, plus now every type of successful and bestselling author has words of wisdom to share. Surely I could find something to help me write a measly short story! My search led me down the rabbit hole of the old Interwebs, to Pinterest boards and websites, free reports and email newsletters. There are oceans of information, but there was only one thing that mattered to me:

Which piece of advice was going to work for me?

No way to know until I tried one. Here’s the 5 bits of advice that didn’t do it for me, and finally, the one that did.

Writing Wisdom #1: Start with interesting characters. This is very helpful if you have an idea for a character, and you want to create a story for them. However, I had an idea for a mystery. I had characters in it, but I wasn’t even sure which one would be my main character. I wrote a few pages, trying to dump some characters into my plot. After a while, I realized that my story had no focus at all, because I didn’t know who was telling my story. So, Catch-22: I had to develop my idea more before I could start talking to imaginary people.

So, some advice works only if it matches up with what you know you want. I didn’t, so I kept searching.

Writing Wisdom #2: Write from an outline. Ugh. Outlines. Maybe I should start diagramming sentences next? This advice was universal, it seemed. Outlines made better stories. You were better able to organize your thoughts, see where everything was heading, and have a clear idea of what was going on when you sat down to write. So I gave outlining a go.

I didn’t get very far. It’s hard to write down specific points about your story when you don’t know what they are.

Sometimes universal advice works, but sometimes you need to try something more unconventional.

Writing Wisdom #3: Wing it. Apparently, there’s a group of people that exist out there called “Pantsers.” This is not a newly discovered tribe in the Amazon, or a cult religion. These are just people to fly through whatever they’re doing by the seat of their pants. Don’t plan, don’t map out every minute detail. Just do what feels necessary and you’ll be able to work your way through it.

I tried being a pantser. I glanced at my skeleton outline and just decided to sit and start typing, and see what formed. For several pages, I rolled! Wow, this is totally working! I laid down words, created dialogue, did some action, and threw in a little description. Maybe this advice was just what I needed.

Until everything came to a screeching halt. After that large and productive brain dump, I wrote myself in between a rock and a hard place. For at least a week, I would open up my file, stare at the place where I left off and halfheartedly type a sentence, then hit delete.

I was stuck, and I didn’t know where to go, or how to get there. Winging it just created confusion.

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Writing Wisdom #4: Play “What If.” One piece of advice I came across was for helping to unstick you when you’re stuck. This was actually not specifically for writing, but for life decisions in general. Make a list of possibilities by asking “What if…?” What if your main character became just a minor player, what if an uncle arrived from Fresno, what if aliens landed in the field? Write down things both reasonable and outlandish. Then pick two or three that seem likely and try those out.

I did this, and had an inspiration for an unlikely love connection between two characters, so I went through and wrote several scenes that followed this idea. After a while, it was clear to me that this idea wasn’t going anywhere. Defeated, I quit writing again for a few days.

The “What If” idea was a good one, but in this case, it just sent me in the wrong direction.

Writing Wisdom #5: Get pissed and give up. Uh, this might be my own personal advice, to myself, when I was frustrated. I spent a little while wondering what the hell I was thinking, and there was no way I was cut out for this, and people who wrote books must just be smarter, or more talented, or have some sort of magic sauce I hadn’t yet discovered. After I threw myself a proper pity party, I gave myself a pep talk.

I was gonna finish this story if it killed me, damn it! Just to prove I could.

I went back to the Internet. One thought I had was, How long is a short story, anyway? Maybe I was trying to cram too much stuff into something that should be more simple, more focused. Once I had a reasonable idea for a word count, I could see if I was spiraling off into the atmosphere or not.

What (Finally, thank you sweet baby Jesus!) worked:

I happened to come across a website that discussed the word counts for short stories, novellas, and novels. Then, below that, was a suggested count for number of scenes in each type of writing, with a rough estimate of how many words per scene I should write.

Hallelujah!

Suddenly, I could picture it. The site suggested writing down my scenes as a mind map, and to either work from the beginning of the story all the way through, or to decide where the story ends and then map out how the story gets to that point.

My Story Map

My Story Map

There’s no other appropriate word here except for “Duh!” It made so much sense to me. I had to think “How will this end?” and then decide what to do to get there. Within 10 minutes I had my seven scenes (short story!) and an ending. Then, I took a page of my notebook for each scene and began to jot down my thoughts for each. Again, within about 20 minutes I had all my scenes mapped out.

The last thing I needed to know was who the heck was my main character? I listed all the characters I had come up with so far. Wouldn’t you know it, the last on the list, and the least likely one to focus on was the one that suddenly made sense to me. With that, I had my complete idea, with a character to focus on and each scene laid out with what would happen in it.

So, what’s the point of all that? It’s something that can be applied to anything you are facing, whether it’s writing a story, like I was, learning a new skill, making a decision, or any time you’re tackling something new. When you get stuck (and at some point, it’s likely you will), it helps to have a solution that works for you.

But you may not always know what that solution will be when you find yourself stuck, and that’s when it helps to be able to turn to someone who has been through it already and can offer a solution. Then, if that doesn’t work you go find another, and another, until you get to what does work.

Whether in writing, or in life, you have to try many things to find the one answer that is right for you. The good news is, it’s totally worth it when you do.

Have you ever tried to work through something, and found you had to go through several solutions before you found one that worked for you? Was it frustrating, or did you keep the faith that you would figure it out? I would love to hear your experiences in the comments!

 

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