How to Build Your Writing Skills

stick_figure_happy_laptop_400_clr_3330Every day, new writers decide to have a shot at being published. They come up with an idea, rough out a plot, and enthusiastically start pounding the keyboard.

Then, when they read through their scenes, disappointment strikes. Their prose just doesn’t sound the way they imagined. The dialogue doesn’t flow; the characters seem flat. There are (gulp) bits that just seem plain boring. They don’t know what to do. When they read about technique online, there are twenty million articles and…well, it all seems just too hard.

It’s not just new writers that end up in a fit of the doldrums because of the difference between what is in their heads and what appears on the page. Established writers, too, can get stuck on one element of craft – or even go through a rough period where everything they write seems like total rubbish. It’s not a nice feeling. (Ask any writer. Most of us go through it.)

Whether you’re new or you’ve been in the writing game for years, you need to get some perspective on the problem. Once you can see it objectively, you need a plan of attack.

  1. Get a second opinion – preferably from more than one person. (Is your writing really as bad as you think, or do you just need some distance from your work?)
  2. Pinpoint your problem areas. Be as specific as you can. (E.g. Problem area: dialogue. Specifics: (a) too much talk, not enough action and (b) repetitive sentence structure)
  3. Make a list of what needs work in order of priority. (A good many writers who are successfully publishing could improve on aspects of their writing – but they still have a list of keen readers who can’t wait for every new book. They write, publish and steadily work at building their skills as they go. Therefore, if some of your writing is OK, pick the area of technique that is giving you the most grief and work on that first.)
  4. For each problem area, do this: write short scenes both from in your work in progress and just for practice. It’s repetition of good technique that will make it automatic as you write. When you’re trying to get a novel finished, the temptation is to focus on a problem area for a scene or two and then plunge ahead to meet your quota of words for the day or week. This is why it’s good practice to spend 15-30 minutes a day just working on the problem area. You’ll be surprised at how much you can achieve creating a scene that has nothing to do with your WIP.
  5. Continue to get feedback on this specific area of technique. Tell your crit partner exactly what you are working on and what you’re trying to do; don’t just ask for general feedback. NAIL it – and then move on to the next thing that needs improvement.

Some writers find it useful to turn to the work of an author they admire (someone who has nailed whatever it is they’re trying to fix) and copying out a scene by hand. This can help to identify the exact strategies and rhythms used to achieve the effect they want. You might find it helpful to read it out loud, too – both the work of another author, and your practice scenes.

10 Common Problems – Can You See Yours Here?

I spent years tutoring new writers. Some were naturally talented; others had to struggle before they mastered technique. Here is a list of the common problems I encountered:

  1. Telling, not showing. (Probably the biggest problem for newbies. Instead of becoming immersed in the scene so that the reader feels that he or she is there, listening and watching as people talk and act, the writer ‘tells’ the reader what is going on. Think of it as the difference between your seeing a movie for yourself – seeing the expressions on the faces of the actors, watching them in action, hearing them talk etc – and having someone else tell you about what happened in it.
  2. Stilted dialogue. (‘Talking heads’ instead of real people who move and gesture while they talk, note the reaction of other people and have random thoughts about the topic. Mastering dialogue is a must.)
  3. Viewpoint slips. (Whose head are we in when the scene starts? How can the author clearly communicate this to the reader? Are you being true to the viewpoint character throughout the scene, showing only what he/she can see, hear, and know?)
  4. Info-dumping. (Dumping a load of backstory or explaining something in the middle of a scene and therefore bringing the action to a grinding halt. You need to ‘salt’ your scenes with only as much backstory as is necessary to understand what is going on.)
  5. Too many flashbacks. (What happens when you move back in time? You are no longer moving forward. That usually means the pace slows. Avoid flashbacks whenever possible. They often cause problems, and some readers actively hate flashbacks. Try to blend necessary information into the current scene, with a brief memory or by including it in conversation. BUT – if you do this, make it natural: you want to avoid info-dumping!)
  6. Flat characters. (Before you begin to write, focus on your characters’ personalities and traits. Too many writers create a detailed character bio with all kinds of information including age, appearance, weight, height, where they were born, etc etc etc and yet still have no idea of what kind of personality their character has. Tip: pick a well-known TV or film personality that looks somewhat like your character. Study the way this person moves, speaks and dresses. This will help you to describe them naturally in your scenes. Bring out your character’s personality through dialogue and action – remembering to show, not tell!)
  7. Lack of emotional punch. (Describe not only what your character does, but how she feels and how things affect her. Use the five senses, not just what you can see. Emotional punch is closely tied to viewpoint – if you’re deep inside someone’s POV (point of view) it’s much easier to tap into emotions.)
  8. Slipping in and out of present and past tense. (Most avid readers don’t make this mistake; they’ve read so many books over the years that the correct use of tense comes naturally. However, some new writers who are great storytellers have been brought up on a diet of film more than books. They want to tell a story, but they’re not used to the conventions of print.)
  9. Slow pacing. (A story needs to move along at a rapid clip to hold a reader’s interest. This doesn’t mean that every scene has to end in a cliffhanger, but it does mean that a reader keeps turning pages, eager to see what happens next. If your story slows down, they’re more likely to bookmark the page and go do something else – but will they ever come back?)
  10. Slow beginning. (Start in the middle of action or a point of change. Hook the reader right upfront. If you need to write your way into a story, do it – but then go back and see if you can dump the first chapter, or pick a better starting point halfway through when the action gets going!)

I’ve restricted the ten points above to technique. Problems with plotting/outlining can be just as big a headache, and this is worth a post on its own!

If you’ve been reading through your scenes and feeling a dispiriting sense that they’re not quite hitting the mark, this is an excellent time to start finding out why. Get feedback, and then address the problem areas one at a time. Don’t forget to allot that short period every day just to practice, including scenes that are not in your WIP.

Go!


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