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Writing Tips


I lead a local writing discussion and critique group, and over the years I've amassed a number of tips and tricks that I will be collecting here. This page is a work-in-progress, so expect it to change and expand as I add to it, and please understand that parts are going to be rough because this is half brainstorm. Some of these will be turned into full-on posts as I build it out. In other words, if you found this page and it interests you, come back often, and if there's something you want me to expand on sooner rather than later, bug me on twitter.

Also, bear in mind that I've absorbed these from I-can't-even-remember where, so while of these are original, some were almost surely stolen from Writing Excuses or some such.

General Tips

  • Nobody wants to read your goddamn memoir.
  • Get in the habit of writing to a word count.
  • If you're going to break rules, the reader needs to know that you're breaking them on purpose.
  • Nobody but nobody does P.O.V. better than Romance authors.

Dialogue

  • Dialogue is a form of action. It needs to be motivated.
  • Don't rely on dialogue to deliver exposition.
  • Tag your dialogue. You're not Ernest Hemingway for Chrissakes.
  • If you tag dialogue with anything other than "asked" or "said" then you're calling attention away from the dialogue and towards the tag. If that they shouted is more important than what they shouted, then that's fine. Most of the time it's not, though.

Ideation

  • Ideas are cheap. That said, if you have an idea, write it down, so it'll still be there when you need it.
  • Edgy humor is dead, folks.

The Business Of Writing

  • The best pre-writing is whatever the minimum you need to have is to not lose momentum on a story.
  • "Everything I ever wrote before is garbage" is a pretty normal feeling for writers, to be honest.
  • The shorter a story is, the weirder you can get away with making it.
  • Double and triple-check your publisher proofs. As soon as you okay it and it's too late to fix, you'll notice a verb tense error and then it will be all you can see when you look at that story.

Sentence/Paragraph Mechanics

  • Five word sentences are gospel.
  • The most memorable parts of any kind of passage are the beginning and the ending. If you want something to stand out in the reader's memory, put it at the front or back of a paragraph.

Plot/Character Arcs

  • If you have to choose one or the other, always always always sacrifice plot for character.
  • You can get away with all manner of plot shenanigans if you have a straightforward easy-to-understand character arc at the heart of the story. That's basically the only reason Inception works as well as it does.
  • Coincidences work best when they: a) happen earlier in the story, b) complicate rather than simplify plot, c) make things worse for the hero, d) are clearly foreshadowed. (This came up in a writing forum and was dubbed "The Pankau Criteria" so feel free to use it but I would appreciate it if you kept the name!)

Description

  • You don't have to be that precise and you don't have to cover everything. Two or three specific, evocative details will paint a clear picture of something for the reader and their brains will fill in the rest.
  • Description only fails when the mental picture the reader generates differs from something you put on the page later.

More Complex Stuff

On the topic of Head-Canon: I tend to think of things transactionally. E.g., you use the awesome/compelling bits of your story to "purchase" buy-in from your audience, and then you "spend" that buy-in on handwavium and contrivances in order to wrangle the plot and deliver more awesomeness. If the balance of buy-in for a story never goes below zero for the reader/viewer, perfect. You can carry some of that over to your next project. If the balance occasionally dips below zero but on net stays positive--that is, the reader was annoyed or mildly taken out of the story at times, but on the whole had a satisfying experience--then they'll create head-canon. If the net balance of buy-in goes below zero and stays there, then they'll gripe about plot holes.

Not all ensemble pieces have obvious character arcs. That's becomes sometimes it's the team that has an arc, even if none of the individual team members do. This is what's happening in Ghostbusters, for example. The protagonists are mostly static, but the team undergoes a pretty straightforward character growth arc. Romances do this too, where the relationship has an arc that is separate from either of the main love interests. And if you want to get really crazy with it, watch While You Were Sleeping, in which Sandra Bullock goes through a "group" relationship arc where the other half of the relationship is the entire Callahan family.

When women write about characters in love, they internalize the attraction. It's not about how the person looks, it's about how their looks make you feel. Men, on the other hand, tend to depict the object of affection as objectively beautiful, so as to make clear the reason why their character was attracted to her. This comes off as--wait for it--objectification.

A hot dog is more of a sausage than a sandwich, but if we're going to be completely honest with ourselves, a hot dog is clearly a taco.


Hat tip to Michael W. Cho for suggesting I compile them into a single list in the first place.

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