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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NaNoWriMo – Find Your Reason

In a couple of weeks, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicks off. Thousands of writers from around the globe will attempt to write 50,000 words in one month.

Perhaps you’ve been among the thousands who’ve attempted to complete this insane challenge? Perhaps you’ve never considered it until this year? Perhaps you’re reading this blog and thinking, “Hmm, that sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll give it a try?” Whether you’re a seasoned vet, or new to the game, you should ask yourself an important question before NaNo starts on November 1st:

“Why am I doing this?”

The obvious answer is, “Because I want to, duh!” But, let’s take a step back and think beyond the obvious. We each need a specific reason for taking on such a massive task. Without one, we’re far more likely to fail. At some point during the process, we’ll smack into a wall and think, “Ugh, why am I doing this?”

Here are just a few reasons for participating in NaNoWriMo:

Start a Novel

Probably the most popular reason people decide to participate in NaNoWriMo is to start a new novel. And, why not? There’s no better way to dive into a first draft than word vomiting 50,000 words.

Write, write, write, write, write…

That’s what we’re supposed to do with a first draft: WRITE! Open the creative floodgates and go for it. But, often times, we act like perfectionists during a first draft. Many of us refuse to move on from chapter one because “It’s just not right.” Or we’ll find the strength to push on, and we’ll make it to chapter twenty before we suddenly realize we made a mistake in chapter one. Then we’ll go allllll the way back to fix it–which, inevitably, leads to starting over. Ahhhh!

NaNoWriMo prevents perfectionism. It forces us to suck it up and push through the horridness of a first draft. Because, yes, first drafts are horrible. They’re suppose to be! They should be heaping, steaming piles of plots, characters, typos, and loopholes that reek of general awfulness. Trying to make them perfect is…pointless. It’s like trying to mop the floors while your children or pets stomp around with muddy feet. Just let the mess happen and then clean it up.

If anything, think about this quote by Shannon Hale said:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

Finish a Novel

Perhaps you started writing a novel last NaNo, but stopped the moment you hit 50K words. Perhaps you started writing a few months ago, but you’ve gotten stuck in the Perfectionist Zone and can’t bring yourself to move past the first 30K words. Or, perhaps, you’ve picked up your novel and written a few pages, put it down, worked on another project, picked it up again and wrote another few pages, set it down, walked off and neglected it for a month, picked it up and tried again…

Whatever the case, NaNo is a great way to finish a novel already in progress. Is this cheating? Um, no. Remember, NaNo is about writing 50K words in one month. That doesn’t mean those words have to be for a brand new novel. They can be for the second half of a novel, which is just as important as the first half.

Many writers don’t even make it to the second half of their story. They reach the middle and slam into a brick wall; and rather than kicking the wall down and trudging forward, they limp off to write another story instead. It’s just easier that way. Don’t take the easy way out. Try using NaNoWriMo to charge through the muck and mire of a story’s middle to reach the end. You might not love what you write, and you’ll likely change it in the next draft, but at least you’ll have a complete first draft. Which means you’ll have a story you can mold and shape into something fit for readers.

Get Motivated

Let’s say you’ve been out of the writing game for a while. Or maybe you’ve been battling writer’s block and just can’t find your footing. If you’ve lost your mojo, then it’s time to NaNo.

NaNoWriMo is one of the best kicks in the butt a writer can get. It’s our very own Loretta Castorini, who slaps us in the face and shouts, “Snap out of it!” (Yes, that was a “Moonstruck” reference.) When we NaNo, we don’t have time to think or question what we’re writing. We just write. Write, write, write, as fast as we can. Again, it’s all about word vomiting. We could start out writing a YA fantasy, and 10K words in realize we’re actually writing a contemporary drama. Great! Who cares? Run with it! And if the genre, plot, and/or characters change again, so be it. There are no boundaries with NaNo. We write what we want, however we want.

All that matters is we find inspiration to write and keep writing past November 30th.

Prove You Can

Have you ever been told you can’t do something? Or maybe you’re super competitive and want to win just to win?

Many people take on ridiculous challenges just to prove they can. I know I do. For example, this past summer I ran my second half marathon after I swore I’d never, EVER run one again. I was convinced my body could not handle the miles and miles and miles of asphalt, dirt paths, hills, and mountains. So, what did I do? I signed up for a race just to prove I could do it. I wanted to silence the negative voice within me that said I was too weak, too busy, too out of shape, too whatever. And silence it I did. Not only did I complete the half marathon, but I had a blast doing it (much more fun than my first half marathon ten years ago).

Writing can be like running a race. It’s hard work, it’s emotionally draining, and it can be overwhelming. We often question ourselves and everything we put on paper. We doubt our talent, our imagination, and our goals. NaNoWriMo helps silence these doubts and prove we can write. It might not be pretty, and it might be exhausting, but we can do it. And once we gain confidence, we can tackle even bigger challenges (yes, even bigger than NaNo).

Create a New Routine

Life gets busy. Chores, family, school, work, bills, meetings, special events, exercising, etc. Sometimes life gets so busy, writing plummets to the bottom of the totem pole. It’s sort of like the gym. We miss going one day and tell ourselves we’ll make it up the next. But then the next day arrives and we just can’t find the time for it, so we delay another day. Then another and another until suddenly working out is no longer part of our regular routine. It’s only something we do when the mood strikes–and it probably doesn’t strike often because we’re out of shape and–ugh! It’s gonna hurt.

Writing is the same way.

If we’ve fallen off the wagon, one of the best ways to get back on track is NaNoWriMo. Think of it like bootcamp. The first week is going to be painful, and we might not even meet our daily word count. But, as we stick to it, we’ll start to get our rhythm and flow back. Not only that, we’ll start to make time for it again. We’ll squeeze in a writing sprint while we’re waiting to pick up our kids from school. Or we’ll wake up a half hour earlier–or stay up a half hour later. Or we’ll choose to skip Netflix after dinner and escape somewhere quiet to write instead.

NaNoWriMo forces us to adjust our schedules, reset our priorities, and make time to write. Better yet, we’ll be able to carry our new routines past November 30th.

There are many reasons to participate in NaNoWriMo (far more than I’ve listed). Whatever your reason is, make sure you have one. And don’t just say, “I want to start a novel.” Be specific. “I’m going to start a novel, and I’m not going to revise as I go.” Or “I want to finish my novel, and then revise it starting December 1st so it’s ready for literary agents by May 1st.”

Find your purpose with NaNoWriMo, and you’re sure to win it. Good luck!

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NaNoWriMo Tips – Tricks to Reach Your Goal

NaNoWriMo is rapidly coming to an end (where did November go?), and I’m sure by this point many of you are feeling the wear and tear.

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So, I thought I’d offer up some tips on how to push through the last chunk. Even if you’ve fallen behind or decided to completely start over, these tricks are sure to help you reach your goal (be that writing 50K words by November 30th, or finishing an entire novel by next November).

Writing Sprints

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This is, by far, my favorite strategy when it comes to getting work done. I set my watch for an allotted amount of time (one hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, etc.) and then GO! During that time, I’m not allowed to do anything but write. No internet, no phone, no eating, no nothing! The only things I’m allowed to do is write, write, write. Once I hit my goal, I can take a break. Check my emails, skim Facebook, get another cup of coffee…Then I set my watch again and GO!

I recommend this strategy to all writers at all stages of the writing process (not just during NaNoWriMo). Even if you’re editing, you can use this method to get a lot of work done. It’s all about forcing you to focus.

Hermit Day

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My second favorite strategy is setting aside one whole day a week to write. I lock the doors, close the blinds, and commit my entire day to being a hermit. Chores get skipped, the gym gets ignored, and invitations get turned down.  I don’t even bother brushing my hair or getting out of my pajamas. For 12-hours, I put all of my focus into my story.

Again, I recommend this strategy to all writers, whether they’re NaNo’ing or not. However, I understand not all writers have the luxury to shut out the rest of the world for an entire day every week (let’s face it, being single and childless definitely has its advantages). But even if you can’t block out an entire day, hopefully you can block out a chunk of time (even a couple of hours) each week to focus 100% on your project. No distractions, no interruptions. Just you and your novel.

Race another writer to the finish line

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Last year during NaNoWriMo, I–inadvertently–got into a competition with a writing buddy. It happened a couple of weeks into NaNo. One night, my friend casually asked me what my word count was. The next day I casually asked him. Then, before we knew it, we tumbled into a race to the finish line. Every day we–good-naturedly–flaunted our word counts to each other. Somedays he’d outdo me, somedays I’d outdo him…To tell you the truth, I can’t remember who reached 50K words first. But, it doesn’t matter. The point was, we pushed each other to not only reach our goals, but exceed them.

This is a great method to use if: 1) you have at least one competitive bone in your body, and 2) you have a trustworthy friend to “compete” against. Don’t team up with a writer who will rub your face in it or taunt you for “losing.” Find someone who will positively push you to the finish line (even if they beat you to it first).

Treat Yo Self!

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Reaching our goals is great. Reaching our goals and getting a “treat” for it is even greater! As you hit a milestone, pat yourself on the back and give yourself something for all of your hard work. It could be glass of wine, a nice dinner, a day off, a new book, whatever. The choice is yours. For me, it’s a chocolate chip cookie dough sundae.

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This is what awaits me at the end of my designated writing day. It’s right there in my freezer, taunting me. Telling me, “Hey, if you reach your goal, you can have me. If not, too bad. Better luck next time.” So, even when I’m not in the mood to write, I’ll push through just so I can get my hands on some ice cream.

This is another strategy I recommend to all writers. Why not reward yourself for your hard work? Just stay honest with yourself. Personally, I like to publicly announce my goals via social media. That way, I feel like others are keeping me accountable. If I announce I’m going to try and write for nine hours, then I have to try and write for nine hours. And if I hit nine hours, then I get my delicious treat!

Whether you’re trying to finish NaNoWriMo on time, or finish a novel at any time, you need to find ways to keep yourself on track. And I hope one of the tips above help you do that.

What about you? What are some of your favorite tricks to reach your goals?

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Then, and then, and then

There’s a word out there many writers love to use, including myself. We like to insert it into a sentence and then sit back and smile. Then, without realizing it, we like to use it again three sentences later. Then again, then again, then again.

Jen's Editing Tips

And then, after we’ve put the finishing touches on our work, we send it off to our beta readers to critique. Then, after waiting on pins and needles, we get their feedback and discover we’ve used and abused this most beloved word. So, we then grab a red pen and start crossing it out.

Cross, cross, cross!

With each deletion, our adoration for this word cools, colder then colder. Then, before we know it, we realize the word is nothing more than a crutch. A filler. A fluff word that acts like a catalyst for action and movement, but then turns out to be a hinderance in disguise. So, we then decide to avoid the word unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But then, and only then.

And Then

Like the word “as,” many writers tend to overuse the word “then.” Who can blame them? It’s a great word! Unfortunately, when we repeat it again and again, we risk a handful of problems:

Fluff, fluff, fluff

In a way, “then” is like “that.” At least 50% of the time, we don’t need it. It’s a fluff word we insert on instinct, not necessity. We also tend to add words around “then” to help us transition into the rest of a scene; fluff words that lead to over-explained actions, cluttered sentences, and stilted tones.

To show you what I mean, here’s an example from my action-adventure, “La Jolla.”

With “then”:

Cole pried himself free and then struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

But then, before he could reach his brother, the bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole cried out and then his knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him, but then missed.

Right then, Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails. “Cole!”

Then the tracks collapsed.

Then the train plummeted.

Without “then”: 

Cole pried himself free and struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

The bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole’s knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him and missed.

“Cole!” Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails.

The tracks collapsed.

The train plummeted.

Laundry List 

The more we use “then,” the more our stories resemble a laundry list of actions. Mr. Character did this, then this, then this, then this

After a while, our stories start to sound like a broken record. And we all know what happens when a reader gets bored or annoyed by a story’s repetitive rhythm…Yep! They stop reading.

Here’s another example to illustrate what I’m talking about.

With “then”:

And then gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and then smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and then even backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole then looked down.

Finn raised his arm and then strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—and then Finn lunged and grabbed Cole’s wrist. Right then, as he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and then catapulted him into the rear window face first.

And then, for a breathless moment, he stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Without “then”: 

Gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole looked down.

Finn strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. He stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Spoon-Feed 

Then this happened, Ms. Reader. Then this. And then this–Are you following along, Ms. Reader? Am I being clear enough? Because then this happened. And then this…

Readers are smart. They do not need to be taken by the hand and guided from point A, to point B, to point C, etc. So, be brave and trust your audience’s intelligence by transitioning scenes in simpler, more creative ways than “then.”

Here’s one more example from “La Jolla” to show you what I’m talking about:

With “then”: 

Then Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. Then he sat up and blinked. All around him, a symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. Then he took a deep breath and struggled to his feet. Then he reached up and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down and then set him on the ground.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” Then he kneeled down and struck the damaged window with his elbow. Then again and again.

Nothing.

Then, out of nowhere, Cal Poly appeared. “Watch out!” She peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. Then Cole blinked. He thought about asking her how she’d found it, but then decided it didn’t matter. People packed the weirdest stuff. Then he took hold of Finn’s arm and shoved him back, out of the way.

And then Cal Poly dropped it.

Without “then”: 

Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. A symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. He struggled to his feet and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.

Nothing.

“Watch out!” Cal Poly peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. He didn’t ask her where or how she’d found it. People packed the weirdest stuff. He shoved Finn back.

She dropped it.

So, how do we prevent ourselves from overusing “then”? Well, here are a few strategies I have found helpful:

  1. Read your story out loud. You’ll be amazed how many repetitive words and phrases you hear when you do this.
  2. Ask someone to read your story to you. That way you can close your eyes and listen to it without being distracted by how it looks on screen/paper.
  3. Use the “Find” option and search for “then.” Remove as many as you can.
  4. Replace “then” with a ridiculous word like “hiccup.” See if you need to keep it. Chances are, you don’t.

So, there you go! I hope you’re able to take this editing tip and apply it to your work. Heaven knows I have to every time I sit down to write.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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Jen’s Editing Tips – How To Punctuate Dialogue Tags

During the past month, I’ve critiqued over 80 short stories.

…Yeah, I’m a little tired.

But, I’m also excited to share some new editing tips based on common errors, bad habits, and other hiccups I stumbled upon while evaluating those 80-plus stories.Jen's Editing Tips

“So, which tip should I start with?” Jen asked her good friend, Ms. Red Pen.

Ms. Red Pen shrugged. “I don’t know. What was the biggest problem you noticed while critiquing all those stories?”

“Hands down, dialogue punctuation,” Jen said and shuddered at the memory. “I saw commas where there should’ve been periods, and periods where there should’ve been commas. Missing quotation marks. Uppercased words that should’ve been lowercased, and lowercased words that should’ve been uppercased. The list goes on and on.”

“Yikes!” Miss Red Pen exclaimed. “But, well,” she sighed, “it makes sense. Dialogue punctuation can be really tough.”

Jen nodded. “I know. But, once you get it, it’s easy.”

Dialogue Tags

As complicated and intimidating as dialogue punctuation can seem, it’s not. I promise. All you have to do is remember these basic rules of thumb:

If Dialogue Is Spoken

If a character says, asks, yells, whispers, or speaks in any way, then you should use a comma and lowercase your pronoun. Question marks and exclamation points are okay, too. For example:

Hey, I’m talking to you!” Bill said.

I know, I heard you,” Amy responded.

Then why won’t you look at me? Why?” he asked. 

Because I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you,” she hissed. 

If Dialogue Is Followed By An Action

If a character smiles, scowls, walks, sprints, or acts  in any other way, then you should use a period and uppercase your pronoun. Obviously, question marks and exclamation points are okay, too. For example:

Hey, I’m talking to you!” Bill slammed his hand against the dining room table.

I know, I heard you.” Amy glared at the silverware next to her untouched plate of food.

Then why won’t you look at me? Why?” His voice crackled with fury.

Because, I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.” Her fingers curled around her knife.

If An Ongoing Sentence Is Interrupted By A Dialogue Tag

If you insert a tag within a sentence, then use a comma to pause the dialogue (inside the quotations marks), and then use another comma to resume the dialogue (outside the quotation marks). Also, be sure to lowercase the first word of the connecting sentence (unless it’s a proper noun, of course). For example:

Hey,” Bill slammed his hand down on the dining table, “I’m talking to you.”

I know,” Amy responded, “I heard you.”

Then,” his voice crackled with fury, “why won’t you look at me? Why?”

Because,” her fingers curled around her knife, “I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.”

If Two Sentences Are Separated By A Dialogue Tag

If you insert a tag between two separate sentences (spoken by the same character, obviously), then use periods instead of commas, and uppercase the first word of the second sentence. For example:

Hey!” Bill slammed his hand down on the dining table. “I’m talking to you.”

I know.” Amy glared at the silverware next to her untouched dinner. I heard you.”

Then why won’t you look at me?” he asked. “Why?”

Because.” She took a deep breath and curled her fingers around her knife. “I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.”

So, there you go. Those are the basics of dialogue punctuation. Yes, there are others I could go into (ellipses, em dashes, etc.), but to avoid overwhelming you, I’ll save those for a future post. If you are overwhelmed, it’s okay. Really! It took me ages to feel comfortable with dialogue punctuation.

One thing that always helps me simplify matters is to ask myself one question:

“Is my character speaking or acting their words?”

Once that’s determined, it’s easy to figure out which direction to take the dialogue punctuation:

Spoken = Comma, lowercased pronoun

Acted = Period, uppercased pronoun

If you’re still struggling, then I urge you to read. Read, read, read! And while you’re reading, study how authors punctuate their dialogue. That’s how I learned best when I didn’t know how to handle this annoying, but essential aspect of writing.

And, of course, write. Write, write, write. The more you write, the more you’ll grasp its technicalities and nuances.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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Jen’s How To: 5 Tips For Writing A Short Story

Up until the fall of 2013, I’d only ever worked on novel length projects. Then I decided to sign up for an NYC Midnight (NYCM) challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And, with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.

5 Tips For Writing Short Stories

1. Choose One Main Event

Don’t confuse your readers! Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on (ex: a killer virus, a confrontation between two friends, a blind date gone wrong). If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).

You’ll also make it much easier for your readers to follow along. They won’t get confused as you jump from a grisly murder in an alleyway, to a deadly car chase, to an arrest at a gas station, to an epic prison break, to a fugitive on the run, to a hostage crisis at a bank, to a bomb explosion that kills everyone…

See? It’s too much for 2,500 words (or less). So, keep it simple.

2. The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

“I don’t know. What do you think, Maddie?” Sam asked.

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

“Why are you asking him?” yelled Sandra. “He doesn’t know anything!”

“Yes, he does.” Rachel rested her hand on Pete’s shoulder and shot Sue an uneasy glance.

Sue nodded. “We should listen to him. Or Alice. She’s done this before.”

“No way.” Timothy shook his head. “Pete and Alice are crazy. You’re all crazy!”

“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles picked up a knife and glared at everyone. “I think we should kill half the group so the rest of us don’t starve.”

Did you keep up? No? Well, trust me, if you do this in a short story, your readers probably won’t either. There aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their roles are, and why they’re important to the plot.

That’s why I suggest you limit yourself to four named characters. Four. Beyond that, readers lose track of who’s who.

3. Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

This tends to be a hot debate amongst writers. Some believe time/scene hopping works in a short story, while others (like me) believe it should be avoided. Why? Because, in my opinion, the more you move a short story around (especially through time), the more you dilute it. Characters lose depth, motives get fuzzy, and conflicts lose their edge.

Let’s look at an example. Below are two synopses based on my flash fiction horror, “Why?”.

Without time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her.

With this version, I’m able to dig in and write a detailed story about a little girl experiencing a terrible tragedy. Sights, smells, sounds, emotions, conversations. From start to finish, I’m able to convey this horrific event to the reader. Nothing has to be skimmed over or left out.

With time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her. Ten years later, she drops out of high school and runs away from her foster parents. Along the way, she meets a young man who convinces her to let go of her tragic past. Five years later, she marries him and they have a little girl. Ten years later, she agrees to visit a beach for the first time since she lost her family. Twenty years later, she smiles at her husband, children, and grandchildren, thankful she was able to rebuild the family she lost so long ago.

Rather than diving into the little girl’s head and experiencing the tragedy through her eyes, we skim over it and jump to the next phase in her life. Then the next, then the next…Although it can work if done right, this skim-jump rhythm doesn’t tend to satisfy readers. It’s too broad and jarring.

So, I say time hop if you must, but only do it once or twice. After that, your story starts to sound more like a summary of a much bigger project.

4. Single POV

When you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion and strengthen your plot is to use a single POV. It doesn’t matter if you’re using first or third person; just decide who your protagonist is and then tell the story from their perspective. If they can’t see, feel, hear, or think it, then it doesn’t exist. Period.

Personally, I like to think of POV like a camera. I set it up in my protagonist’s head and then push record. That way while I’m writing, I can continually ask myself, “Is this getting recorded?” If not, then I have to either chop it out or find a way to convey it from my protagonist’s viewpoint.

5. Think Outside the Box

Yes, I know. Duh! But you’d be surprised by how many stories I’ve read that have used obvious premises. For example, during the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2014, my group was assigned these prompts: Suspense, Chef, Wedding. What’s the first idea that comes to mind?

Are you thinking?

Got it?

Okay, was it a chef poisoning food at a wedding? Or, perhaps, a groom trying to off his bride? Well, guess what? Over half the people in my group wrote stories like that (and I almost did before deciding to take things in a different direction). So, before you start writing (especially if you’re in a competition like NYCM), ask yourself, “Will others think of this idea?” If so, you might want to discard it and keep brainstorming.

My personal policy? Throw out the first idea. If I thought of it, then someone else did, too.

Well, there you go! Those are my top five tips for writing short stories under 2,500 words. Of course, not everyone will agree with them, and I know many writers who’ve taken opposite approaches and succeeded. But, for me, these tips work. And I hope they work for you, too!

How about you? What are some of your tips for writing stories under 2,500 words? We all have our own methods of madness, so share, share, share!

Don’t forget, the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicks off this weekend. You still have time sign up, so go check it out!

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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

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NaNoWriMo Tips – Don’t Compare Yourself To Other Writers

A couple of days ago, I officially “won” NaNoWriMo.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 4.11.48 PMAfter I did a happy dance, I went online and skimmed through posts and Tweets about NaNoWriMo. As I did, a sense of unease overcame me. So many writers were acting discouraged and defeated because their word counts weren’t as high as others. It made me wonder:

Do early winners kill the motivation of other writers?

I decided to ask a handful of writing buddies this question. Some declared early winners inspire them because it proves NaNo can be done. Others admitted early winners make them feel overwhelmed, panicked, and even resentful.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it myself: during the last NaNo I signed up for, early winners irritated me more than they inspired me. While they declared themselves finished, I continued digging myself out of the 10K word hole I’d  fallen into…It wasn’t a fun or happy time.

So, today I thought I’d offer some encouragement to anyone out there who might be feeling overwhelmed, panicked, and/or resentful by early NaNo winners (or anyone with a higher word count). First off, let me assure you, writing 50K words in less than two weeks isn’t normal! It’s crazy.

Second, a variety of factors play into how fast people finish NaNo. To finish in ten days or less, I discovered you need to:

  1. Have ample time. Life is calm, work is slow, sleep is futile, etc. Writers who finish NaNo early tend to have plenty of time on their hands. Personally, my life was abnormally peaceful the past ten days. The only thing that prevented me from writing all day, every day was my job, and even that happened to be calm and stress-free.
  2. Be extremely focused. I made NaNoWriMo my main priority the past two weeks. I passed on invitations to events, turned down requests from family and friends, and resisted blogging and working on other non-essential projects. If it didn’t have to do with my manuscript, I ignored it. (Hermit, party of one!)
  3. Act like a competitive overachiever. Early NaNo winners can deny it all they want, but the majority of us are competitive overachievers. That doesn’t mean we’re trying to beat other writers. Not at all! It means we’re trying to beat ourselves. We have to match or do better than we did the day before. It’s a natural compulsion we can’t control.
  4. Experience creative energy overload. All writers experience creative highs and lows. Sometimes the words have to be ripped out of us, and sometimes they tumble out faster than we can type. During NaNo, some of us get lucky and experience a high. We get in an amazing groove and can’t stop writing even when our eyes hurt and our fingers cramp. It’s a blessing, and it’s a blessing that needs to be embraced before it disappears.
  5. Word vomit. A lot. I’m usually a sucker for revising as I write, but this time during NaNo, I refused–absolutely refused–to revise anything. I word vomited all over my pages and didn’t care about the giant mess I made. If I had a new idea or discovered a plot hole, I jotted it down in my notebook and kept going. I never went back to fix things. Never.

unnamedAnd if I didn’t like the direction I was taking my story, I added a few spaces between my paragraphs, wrote “SWITCHING GEARS” , and carried on as though I’d made the change. Nothing stopped me from writing, writing, writing.

Bottom line: It takes a magical combination of luck and hard work to finish NaNoWriMo early. Time, inspiration, and determination play key factors in propelling some to the 50K mark in the blink of an eye.

But, that’s them.

And you are you!

You can’t look at another writer’s stats and then question your own. You can’t! I learned that during my first NaNo when I kept comparing myself to those who finished early. Their amazing success didn’t inspire me. It hurt me and it made my journey harder.

So, if you’re like me and get dragged down rather than lifted up by early winners, here’s my advice:

Tell yourself everyone handles NaNoWriMo differently, and a million factors influence how fast people reach the finish line. Some writers are able to sprint, others must jog, and others are forced to walk. The truth is, the pace doesn’t matter. What matters is you achieve your goal. If that goal takes two weeks, one month, or an entire year, then so be it.

Just keep writing!

Take it one day at a time. Don’t think about how far you still have to go, or how much work you will need to do in the future. Think about today. Today is all that matters in the land of writing.

Keep up the good work, everyone. You can do this!

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