3 Tips on How To Improve Your Writing

When I first started writing years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. Like, NO idea. I just sat down in front of my laptop and started writing a story. In theory, that’s what writers should do. Sit down and write. Period! However, in order to become the best writers we can be, we need to broaden our practices beyond the obvious.

Many of us have read or heard the Stephen King quote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Yes, King is right. To become a better writer, we need to read–a lot. But, what are some other ways to improve our writing? Well here are three of my favorite practices to consider:

1. Writing Contests/Challenges 

Writing contests and challenges are terrific for many reasons:

  • They push us out of our comfort zones. Are you a novelist who’s never written anything under 80K words? Have you only ever written romance? Or only horror? Contests push you to explore, experiment, and challenge yourself in new (sometimes terrifying) ways.
  • They introduce us to new genres and categories we’ve never considered. For example, I always thought I’d be a YA author (I even optioned a YA novel to a Hollywood producer). After a few writing contests, I realized I’d missed my calling. I have a stronger knack for adult fiction, namely suspense, thriller, and/or horror.
  • They teach us to tell tighter, fuller stories. When we only have 1K words at our disposal (maybe even less), we learn the art of brevity. We also learn the importance of developing every aspect of a story (plot, characters, descriptions, etc.). If we miss one, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
  • They lead to new stories. One of the biggest benefits of participating in writing contests and challenges is walking away with a new story that can be developed into something bigger. For example, the novel I’m about to query is the byproduct of a short story I wrote in 2015 during a contest; and I have about ten more I could develop if I wanted to (and probably will at some point).

If you’re looking for some excellent writing challenges to participate in, here are some I recommend:

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenges (Check out his blog every Friday to see if a new challenge has been posted).

NYC Midnight (Let me emphasize, I recommend this as a challenge, and I highly recommend you participate on their forum. The contest aspect is a bit laughable.)

Fiction War (A newer contest that’s still working out its kinks, but I’ve heard decent things. Definitely worth the challenge, if nothing more.)

#WritingContest on Twitter. (You’re bound to find the perfect challenge for you!)

2. Beta Reading

Whether we’re a self-taught writer, or we’ve received an MFA from a prestigious institution, we can benefit from critiquing other people’s stories. When we beta read, we:

  • Learn through others’ mistakes. Slow pace? Cliche characters? Too much exposition? As we point out these flaws in other people’s work, we notice them in our own.
  • Become more analytical. It’s difficult to be objective with our own work, but the more we evaluate other people’s stories, the more we evaluate our own. Naturally. Yes, our stories remain our precious babies, but we learn how to “parent” properly. We no longer turn a blind eye to problem areas. We face them head on and address accordingly.
  • Grow thicker skins. Sharing our work with readers can be a scary experience. We’re basically displaying our souls to the world and opening ourselves up to criticism. Well, the more we participate in beta reading (both as betas and as those being beta’d for), we overcome a lot of our fears. We gain confidence by seeing other writers struggle too, and we learn how to accept positive and negative comments.

3. TV Shows, Movies, and Live Theater

Okay, this may seem like a weird one, but there are a lot of benefits to critiquing the TV shows, movies, and live theater we watch:

  • Be an active audience member. Who are the characters? What are their motives? What subtle clues are being dropped that will come into the story later? Do all the dots connect? Was the pacing well done? When we breakdown a production as we’re watching it, we learn how to rapidly evaluate our own stories. We ask more questions and critique every sentence to decide if it’s contributing to the story as a whole.
  • Cinematography lessons. Whether we’re writing a character-driven, literary piece, or a sweeping commercial blockbuster, films and stage productions teach us how to bring our stories to life. They spark our imaginations so there’s more color, more movement, and more oomph! They teach us how to show rather than tell.
  • Reactions, actions, and more. Let’s face it, we don’t always have firsthand experience with the types of theatrical events depicted on screen or stage (thankfully for some things): violent riots, spectacular romantic gestures, devastating betrayals, flying into space, etc. As we watch TV shows and movies, our brains naturally archive various facial expressions actors make; or dramatic action sequences we’d never see in real life (ex: bombs dropping on Dunkirk); or chilling atmospheres that leave us cold to the bone. Film and stage productions are emotional, heart-pounding, beautiful buffets for writers. We may not even realize we’ve memorized little details (like an actors subtle grin or sultry voice; or hazy sunlight glinting off a decrepit skyscraper in the far future)–but our imaginations do!

How about you? What are some of your off-the-wall methods that have improved your writing?

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Confession: I love when books are made into movies

It’s true. I love it when a book gets adapted for the big screen. Gasp! Ugh! WHAT? Yeah, yeah. I know, I know! But, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. Whenever I find out one of my favorite novels has made it to Hollywood, my heart does a giddy leap and my feet do a happy dance.

Oh, and, er, I like Katy Perry, too…

*throat clear*

Yeah…Apparently, this is gonna be “one of those” confessions (brutally honest and slightly shameful). You better prepare yourselves…

On Sunday night, I watched the Golden Globe Awards (wow, two seconds in and already another confession: I love Awards Season; love the glitz and glam, the Red Carpets, the golden trophies, all of it!). Anyways, as I watched Sunday’s show, I realized how many of the films nominated this year are based off books (12 Years a SlaveCaptain Phillips, Philomena, Labor Day). How cool is that? Well, it was cool enough to prompt me to write about this debatable topic.

The moment I hear one of my favorite books is going to be adapted to screen, I think, “Yes! At last, I get to see this awesome story brought to life!” Then I proceed to tell everyone in the world about it. Like, everyone. Example: When I discovered The Book Thief was going to be made into a movie, I almost peed my pants (almost!), and then I went on to blog and Tweet about it, and share the news on Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest…

extra_2010082896270

I admit, I went a little crazy with the news. But, I couldn’t help it. The Book Thief is one of my favorite books of all time…Of course, it’s not the only book I’ve ever shouted, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” for. I’ve done this with countless novels, including The Mortal Instruments: City of BonesBeautiful Creatures, Catching Fire, Divergent, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in Our Stars, The Help, If I Stay, The Maze Runner…Sheesh, there have been/will be a lot of quality books put on the big screen. And, yes, I plan on seeing them all (if I haven’t seen them already).

Unfortunately, not all book-to-film projects succeed. Far, far from it (don’t even get me started on Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief or Eragon). That’s why I always try and keep a level head when I enter a theater to watch these adapted films. As I sit down and dig into my popcorn and Peanut M&Ms, I give myself a firm mental slap and tell myself, “Jenna, this isn’t the book. It’s the movie version of the book. Things are going to be changed and slashed and rotated and implanted and screwed up! So don’t get your hopes up.” And, thanks to that personal pep talk, I’ve saved myself from innumerable broken hearts and shattered dreams.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking right: A bad movie means bad press for the book, which means the book will lose readers in the long run. On some level, I agree with you. If a movie bombs at the box office, there will surely be people–many people–who’ll never read its book. But, if you think about it, even if a movie does an amazing job, there’s a good chance people still won’t read its book. It’s sad, but there are (and probably always will be) more people in this world who’d rather watch a two-hour movie than read a 400-page book.

So sad. So disappointing…

Okay, let’s move away from the negative and look at these positive facts:

First, movies raise awareness. How many people would even know about certain books if they didn’t have a movie made for them? We’re not all book nerds. Heck, I AM a book nerd and even I don’t always get the memo, not even for big blockbusters like Harry Potter (yeah, go ahead and mark that down as shameful confession #500 in this post). Movies help draw attention to good (and not so good) books and promote them to the non-reading masses. And, more and more often, they seem to spark an interest in books, especially in younger audiences.

Second, movies can make books more likeable. I can’t tell you how many I’ve read that I just didn’t like and/or didn’t get.

Then I saw their movie version and was like, “Ohhh. Got it!”, followed by, “Ohhh, I like it!” Sometimes, you just need to “see” a plot unfold, or “watch” a character develop, or “hear” a story told. And thanks to movie magic, those things can happen and book epiphanies can take place. Stories that didn’t translate so well on paper can be appreciated on screen (same story, different format).

Look, there are plenty of reasons to love or hate Hollywood for adapting our favorite books. Perhaps you think movie versions discourage people from reading? Perhaps you think a book should be left in its purest, most natural form; it’s a piece of art that shouldn’t be tainted with brutal editing and iffy casting? Perhaps you just don’t like movies?

Or perhaps you’re like me and you think movies honor books? Perhaps you think they take the characters you loved so much on a black and white page and give them life–moving, breathing, colorful life? Perhaps you think movies are a celebration–a giant congratulatory pat on the back to the author who wrote a great book–a double thumbs up for a job well done?

Okay, go for it: tell me what you think. Are you pro-adaptations? Or do you think it’s a crime against nature when Hollywood gets their hands on your favorite book?

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Movie Review: The Book Thief

It’s taken me longer than I planned, but I finally saw The Book Thief last weekend. I grabbed a bucket of popcorn and a box of tissues and sat back to–hopefully–enjoy one of my favorite books on the big screen.

MV5BOTE3NzkyMjAyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDc5MTE0MDE@._V1_As a whole, I did enjoy the film. I feel the adaptation was true to the book and brought Himmel Street to life beautifully. And judging by the round of applause inside the theater at the end, I’d say other fans enjoyed it too.

Probably the best and most spot-on part about the film was the cast. Sophie Nélisse as Liesel was amazing, and Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Hans and Rosa were exactly as I imagined them. And–just like the book–my favorite character was Rudy. In fact, I might love him even more after seeing the adorable and endearing Nico Liersch play him. (I just want to pinch his cheeks!)

_MG_6517April 02, 2013.cr2Okay, now for a couple of things that…disappointed me. And let me preface this by saying 1) These are nit-picky complaints coming from a book lover’s perspective, and 2) Despite these complaints, I still give the film two thumbs up.

First, was Death’s downgraded role. In my opinion, one of the best parts about The Book Thief was Death’s unique narrative. It added such an eerie tone and impending sense of doom. And although the movie opened with Death welcoming us, it quickly faded into the background and only returned here and there. This caused the movie to fall a bit flat for me. Without the ongoing presence of its morbid storyteller, the story just wasn’t as dark or suspenseful or special as it could’ve been.

book-thief-trailer-08212013-125609(If haven’t read the book or seen the movie (and plan to), don’t read this next paragraph).

****

****

Second, was Rudy’s death. One of the worst and best parts of the book was its horrific ending. I knew the moment Hans said goodnight to Liesel and left her in the basement that I was going to need my tissues. And, trust me, I used them. BUT my tears were staunched when Liesel ran to Rudy’s body amongst the rubble, shouting his name and begging him to open his eyes–and he did! Whhhattt? Okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking: “What’s the big deal? So what if Rudy lived an extra couple of hours than he did in the book? He still died and it is still awful.” And yes, it is. But, for me, Rudy’s death was one of the most haunting scenes in the book. The way Death embraced his soul and took extra care of it was both tragic and comforting…I also felt his death scene was on the melodramatic–even cheesy–side. When Rudy opened his eyes and gasped, “Liesel, I have to tell you…” and then died, I felt more amused than sad. It just seemed so cliche and predictable.

****

****

Okay, I’m done complaining. Back to the positive.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this film to both fans of the book and those who’ve never heard of it. It’s a remarkable story that stays with you for days–weeks–months–years after reading/watching it. So don’t miss out!

And, seriously, go read the book if you haven’t. It’s. Amazing!

Jen’s Rating

4 Star

Movie Review: Hunger Games – Catching Fire

Good news book nerds: The adaption of Catching Fire was aaaah-mazing. When I walked out of the theater yesterday, I felt like I’d just re-read the entire book. I loved how the film remained true to Suzanne Collins’s dystopian world and brought it to life in the most enthralling way possible.

Two big thumbs up!

Everything I expected, everything I wanted, made it into the movie. From the fiasco at District 11 during Katniss and Peeta’s Victory Tour, to Wiress’s sane/insane “tick-tock, tick-tock” muttering, to Gale’s ominous “Katniss, there is no District 12.” line. And then there were the smaller details I’d hoped to see, but didn’t expect, like Finnick’s flirty sugar cube offer, President Snow’s bleeding mouth ulcers, and Johanna Mason’s shocking, but hilarious strip down in the elevator.

There were even direct lines from the book that made it into the film, including Katniss and Peeta’s conversation about their favorite colors (green and sunset orange). And, my personal favorite, Peeta’s simple promise to Katniss: “Always.”

Of course there were tweaks here and there that diehard fans might notice–like the reason for Gale’s flogging (book: illegal hunting; film: interfering/tackling the new head Peacekeeper). But let’s remember: this is a movie and not all audience members are bookaholics like us. So, some details must be sacrificed for the greater good and to keep things moving along. And, in my opinion, the details that were sacrificed were so small, so insignificant, that it didn’t matter.

All in all, this was an awesome adaptation of Catching Fire, and I highly recommend both fans of the Hunger Games series and those new to the story to go see it. Of course, I still encourage people to read the books beforehand, because no matter how great a film is, the book is ALWAYS better! 😉

Great job, Catching Fire team. Great job! I’m now looking forward to Mockingjay.

Jen’s Rating

5 Star

Book of the Month – November

To celebrate its movie release on November 8th, I’m spotlighting The Book Thief this month. (Sorry Catching Fire. I love you too, but you get enough hype as it is. You don’t need my help ;-)).

19063-1The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Synopsis

“The extraordinary #1 New York Times bestseller that will be in movie theaters on November 15, 2013, Markus Zusak’s unforgettable story is about the ability of books to feed the soul.
It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.
Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.”

Jen’s Review

When people ask me, “What’s your favorite book?” I first glare at them, and then I tell them I don’t have a favorite (what book nerd does?). Then, when they still won’t leave me alone, I spout off a handful of memorable titles. The Book Thief is always on the list. Always.

How about a kiss, Saumensch?”

Now, I’m not going to lie: The Book Thief starts out a bit slow. You must be patient the first 100 or so pages while you warm up to the author’s style and the narrator’s unique voice. Once you get a grip on both, the story starts to fly by, faster and faster, until you can’t put it down and you’re heading towards what is shaping up to be a cataclysmic ending…Don’t worry, I won’t tell you what that ending is. This is a spoiler-free zone, remember? However, I will tell you that to this day (two years since I read the book) I still get teary-eyed about it. Happy tears? Sad tears? Tears of relief? Tears of frustration? Tears of I-can’t-believe-the-story-is-already-over!? Well, I’m not telling you! You’ll just have to read it and find out for yourself.

A small fact: You are going to die….does this worry you?”

I can’t express how much I love this book. And I hope everyone reads it, especially before they see the movie. Because, as great as the trailer looks, we all know the book is always better than the movie, right?

Jen’s Rating

5 Star

Read more about the Book Thief here!