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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How To Write Good Dialogue: Ten Tips

Welcome to Twitter Treasure Thursday! So, one of my favorite things to write is dialogue. Simply put, it’s fun!

Plus, I find it easier to convey a story through a character’s words. For example, while writing my last story for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I struggled getting the scenes in my head onto paper. About halfway through my first draft, I realized why: I only had one character. Therefore, I couldn’t rely on back and forth banter like I usually do. Instead, I had to–*gulp*–depend on longer, more detailed descriptives to convey what was happening.

Now, I’m fully aware many writers don’t share my love of dialogue. In fact, I know many struggle with it (just as I struggle with writing those darn descriptives). But fear not! While skimming Twitter this morning, I came upon this helpful article via K Grubb (@10minnovelist):

How To Write Good Dialogue: Ten Tips

conversation

5 – Read Out Loud
After writing a scene of dialogue, put it away for a while. Then go back and don’t just re-read it, read it out loud! That’s right: read it out at the speed and with the emotional tone you would as if you were the character speaking it. Reading your dialogue out loud helps you to hear if it works.

Whether you love writing dialogue or not, I recommend you check out the full list of tips here!

For more useful advice, follow K Grubb on Twitter!

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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015

I know many people don’t want to take the time or spend the money on entering writing contests. I was in the same boat up until a year ago. Then I took the plunge and entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2013, and whoa! My entire attitude changed.

Before I began entering the NYC Midnight writing challenges, I assumed my writing skills were at their best…wrong! In just two Flash Fiction Challenges and one Short Story Challenge (FFC 2013, SSC 2014, FFC 2014), my abilities have grown exponentially. I’m actually kind of embarrassed by what I considered to be my “best”. I won’t even let my friends or colleagues look at my old work. Yuck…

So, what has writing flash fiction and short stories taught me, exactly? Well, I’ll tell you:

  • Write a complete story. To make a story truly shine, all facets of it must be developed and balanced equally. Plot, characters, scenery, etc. If you miss or lax on one, it stands out to readers.
  • Characters count. Characters carry a large portion of a story’s weight. Making them as 3D and likable as possible is a must. Also, too many of them tend to be confusing/burdensome for a reader. So, make each one count, and make each one memorable.
  • Keep it simple! Chop, chop, chop. Do you really need that character? Do you really need to talk about that fact? With their limited word count, short stories force you to take a step back and consider what’s vital to a plot. If it’s not pushing it forward or making it deeper, get rid of it.
  • Take the road less traveled. Go outside the box. Be creative! Ask yourself, “Is this different? Will it make me stand out?” Example: In round one of the Short Story Challenge 2014, I received these prompts: Suspense, wedding, chef. My first impulse? Write a story about a bride and groom who are trying to off each other, and in the end the bride poisons the groom with the help of the chef. I immediately tossed it out and forced myself to dig deeper and think beyond the obvious. And I’m glad I did. Most of my competitors wrote stories about poisoned food and vindictive brides and grooms. Mine, “Chasing Monsters,” was nothing of the sort. And because of that, I landed myself a 2nd place finish.

Those are just a few things I’ve learned while participating in these challenges. To list all of them would take a decade. I will, however, point out some specific benefits of participating in an NYC Midnight Challenge. The main one is their private forum. NYC Midnight offers competitors a location to interact and share their stories with each other. And I love it! The forum helps you:

  • Overcome your fear of sharing your work with others.
  • Discover what you do well. Positive feedback is always nice to hear, right?
  • Learn to open yourself up to constructive criticism. If you’re planning to enter the Harsh Land of Publishing, you will need to know how to do this. Trust me.
  • Critique other stories. You wouldn’t believe how much you can learn about the art of storytelling by reading and critiquing other people’s work. When you (tactfully) explain to someone what you liked and did not like about their story, you will likely apply those observations to your own work (whether you realize it or not).
  • Meet other writers! While doing these challenges, I have gained a lot of friends and colleagues. I’ve also found a few trustworthy beta readers to help me with my future work.

So, with all of that said, registration has officially opened for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015. I strongly–strongly–encourage you to consider entering it. Yes, it costs some money, and yes, the actual challenge is, well, a challenge. But I promise, if you go into it with the right attitude and participate on the forum, every penny and every stressful second will be worth it. Plus, the manuscript you’re working on now (or in the future) will thank you for doing this. I know the one I’m working on is thanking me.

10734194_10152421763496776_3321341572966777122_nOf course, the NYC Midnight writing challenges aren’t the only ones out there. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge, or aren’t in a position to spend the moola, then I still encourage you to look into a blog or website that hosts free weekly challenges. My favorite is Chuck Wendig’s, terribleminds.

 You have until December 11th to take advantage of the early entry fee. There’s also a Twitter discount, so be sure to use that to lower the cost even more. Final deadline is January 15th.

Hope to see you all on the forum!

To learn more about the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015, click here!

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