Tag: writing

Guest Post: Do or Don’t: Writing to Music

This week’s guest post is from freelance writer and self-avowed blog junkie Maria Rainier. Today she’s writing about the pros and cons of writing to music, and the best music to write to.

Do or Don’t: Writing to Music

Good writers find inspiration in other mediums, like paintings, films, silly commercials, and music.  Music, in particular, has always been the crux of my writing.

After trolling around writers’ forums and other blogs, it seems I’m not alone.  For me and other writers of fiction, nonfiction, and everything in between and about, writing serves multiple purposes.

The Spur

When it our day jobs have sucked all our creativity out from our very noses, music can get the juices running again.  It can remind us why we do what we do when we feel that we can do no more.  Maybe it’s big-hair metal or a lyrical Celtic lullaby, but either way, we get back to our computers and start typing.

“I put [music] on before I start,” says MeriPie on ssfchronicles.co.uk, “and sometimes the songs can get me in the right mood, but once I’m on a roll I can’t even hear it.”


When we hit writer’s block at a run and fall on our backs, as lifeless and dull as dirt, music lights a spark.  I can’t count the times I’ve brushed my teeth with my iPod and headphones in my ears and practically spit into the mirror when I’ve been hit with an idea.

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How to Use Dialogue Correctly

If you’ve never learned the rules of using dialogue in fiction, it can be bewildering when you hand your first short story in to a teacher and get it back covered in red marks. Nevertheless, the rules of dialogue are an essential and rarely broken law, for good reason: without these standards of how to use dialogue, it would be hopelessly confusing as to who was speaking in a story. If you’re unsure about some of the unwritten rules for dialogue use, brush up on your skills and read on.

Rule #1: A new speaker makes a new line.

If you have two characters speaking in a story, it’s important to keep it clear who’s speaking. Hemingway often makes things challenging by having long back-and-forths between characters without dialogue tags (tags are “he said” and “she said”). That’s allowed, as long as you make a new line every time someone else is speaking.

The wrong way:

“I wish I could fly,” John said longingly. “Why don’t you grow wings, then?” Sarah snapped back.

This is wrong because we don’t know it is Sarah speaking until we get to the end of the dialogue. The convention tells us that it is still John speaking.

The right way:

“I wish I could fly,” John said longingly.
“Why don’t you grow wings, then?” Sarah snapped back.

With the line break, it keeps the reader on track, knowing that someone else is speaking.

Rule #2: Quotes, quotes, and quotes

Even a small thing like using the wrong quotation marks can reflect poorly on your story, particularly if it’s being read by an editor or agent. Here are the rules to remember for American standard dialogue use.

Two quotation marks for speech; one mark for speech within speech

“You wouldn’t believe how he treated me,” said Mark. “He said, ‘Go back where you came from!'”

This way, we know for sure who is speaking and whether what is said is a direct quotation or not.

After the jump: rules of thumb for effective dialogue.

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How To Avoid Clumsy Writing

I recently looked back on a story I had written in high school and got a lot of laughs out of it. While there were some good ideas and even some passages I was proud of, there was a lot that needed work. I’m proud that I’ve moved on in skill from those days, but also proud of where I came from. I’d like to think there was potential in those pages! But I did learn a few things about clumsy writing and how to strip it ruthlessly from your fiction. It boils down to two basic ideas that you should keep in mind when both writing and editing.

Pare Down Unnecessary Words

The biggest mistake young writers make is trying to show off their vocabularies simply because they can. Often, the biggest word or most elaborate phrase does not match the mood, tone, or voice of the story. It doesn’t fit the character, the setting, or the emotion, yet we still use the most complex phrase or word we know because we think it will make us seem sophisticated. Experienced writers learn that good writing is actually a process of weeding these things out. Here’s an example of a sentence from my high school sentence:

It was, not without trepidation, that he turned his tennis shoes to Jameston Books, where he had worked before leaving for college.

What are your guesses about what is wrong with this sentence? I start to wince when I reach “not without trepidation”, which may be the clunkiest way possible to say that the character is nervous. Why not just say that he’s nervous? You are also allowed a chuckle at the bit of alliteration I wasn’t able to resist (“turned his tennis shoes”). A more efficient way to say that would just having him walking or going to Jameston Books. But trepidation is a word that just doesn’t fit in this sentence.

Pare Down Unnecessary Ideas!

Writers don’t just go over the top with their words — they spell out too much with their ideas. Show, don’t tell is an ancient adage, but it can’t be restated enough. Here’s an example of a sentence where I couldn’t resist saying exactly what I wanted the idea to be, rather than letting the reader figure it out:

“Arthur! David! Were you buying that book?” he demanded, with twenty years of solitude, bitterness, and fear coiled up in his voice.

First, this sentence is pretty laughably melodramatic, but it’s also a bad idea to be saying so much outright about what I think is going on. One writing teacher I had called this “Wonder Years syndrome.” If you remember the old tv show “The Wonder Years” (a terrific show, but with a few flaws), the show would often have a touching moment between characters. That was all we needed to understand what was going on, but then a voiceover would come in and say something like “With that smile, I knew she didn’t need me to protect her anymore.” We the viewers already knew this — we didn’t need to be told! Yet the temptation for writers to make themselves understood very clearly often leads to saying too much.

It comes from an inferiority complex, I believe; writers don’t trust the power of the scenes they’ve written, so they rush in to explain when no explanation is necessary. So when writing and revising, remember these two steps: strip out clumsy words and phrases, and strip out those clumsy, unnecessary ideas too.

Return to An Abandoned Story

 Abandoned stories are like
abandoned buildings, filled
with secrets.

We all have them. They’re like old keepsakes, covered in dust, lurking in the attic. They’ve been exiled to a never-visited folder on our computers or a never-opened notebook on our shelves. They’re the stories we’ve abandoned, and it’s time to dust them off and take a second look.

Stories that we’ve left behind are a lot like deserted ghost towns or abandoned houses. A tremendous amount of detail, human thought and effort has been left behind there to decay or to gather dust. Certainly there were things that needed to be left behind, like awkward writing, an impossible premise, or a plot that doesn’t make sense. But there’s so much good left behind along with the bad that it’s definitely worth a trip back into those stories to poke through the ruins, sifting for gold in the rubble.

When you return to an abandoned story, there are two main questions you should be asking yourself as you explore: 1) Can this story be revived? and 2) If this story can’t be revived, what should be salvaged from it? Let’s talk about each one of these questions, and how to answer them for yourself.

Can this story be revived?

When you come back to your abandoned story, don’t start with a condemning attitude. Instead, be generous with yourself. You may have written this story when you were young and foolish, but there are still good things in it. Are the characters well-portrayed? Are there some funny or genuine scenes? An intriguing premise? A good, exciting conclusion? Once you’ve patted yourself on the back for the good, take a critical eye to the bad. Are the interactions between characters childish? Too much overwriting? Poorly thought-out plot? Don’t let your eyes be clouded.

Once you’ve made a careful analysis of the story, make your decision. Is there enough good there to keep the story? Does it just need a polishing, a little dusting off? A new ending? A new beginning? If you think it can be saved, then go for it.

After the jump: what to do if your story can’t be saved.

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Do Some Writing Outside

As part of the teen summer writing program I recently chaperoned for, we had daily “writing times” where the girls could choose to write in their dorms or outside, either in central park or a city square with benches and shade trees. I sat with them several times outside, book in lap, watching them bent earnestly over their notebooks, and I really appreciated how valuable this outdoor writing time was. I took a notebook out myself and began to look around, writing a sentence here and there. The peaceful but dynamic environment was tremendously inspiring; just as my focus on the writing was beginning to waver or I felt myself out of ideas, I would look up, see a passersby or notice the wind in the trees, and feel refreshed and ready to write more.

One thing that people often discount about outdoor writing is how it can be both stimulating and peaceful. While writing in your room may seem more still, it actually isn’t. You’re there with your computer, with all of your things around you, with a thousand objects and things to distract you. When you are happily coccooned among your Stuff, it can be very difficult to focus on the task of writing.

Why the Outdoors Will Help You Focus

When you are writing outside, on the other hand, you’ve come armed only with what you can carry. Your notebook is your only source of entertainment, so you’d better use it. Your phone doesn’t ring. No one comes knocking at your door. While the air in your room is artificially still, a breeze moves outside that is more natural than a churning air conditioner. The quiet rhythms of the world are on display, but they do not intrude.

Why the Outdoors Will Stimulate You

On the other hand, your room can also be too quiet. The doors and windows are closed; no one walks past; no life stirs. It’s not exactly natural for us to sit in complete silence, and that void of sound and stimulation can be distracting. In contrast, the outdoors will keep you interested because there is always something new to observe. You can observe the intricate whorls of a tree’s bark, or you can watch people walking past, each with different facial expressions, each with different stories to tell with their gaits, their dress, what they are carrying.

So if the heat is tolerable, try using the good weather to write outside this summer. Your story will thank you for it.

What Is Your Ideal Writing Teacher?

As you know from an earlier post, I’m in the process of planning my first creative writing class as a teacher. I’m excitedly picking poems and stories to read, as well as writing exercises, but at the same time it’s gotten me wondering about larger questions, such as what kind of a creative writing teacher I want to be, anyway. I’ve had my share of them over the years, both as an undergraduate and a grad student. I’ve had admirable, aloof ones, dispensing wisdom from on high; I’ve had young, hip ones, joking and one of the gang; I’ve had funny ones, and drill sargent-type ones who want to put their students through “writing boot camp” (that last teacher was a former Marine, so it figures). But what is the ideal?

The first thing, I think, is to (obviously) be myself. I don’t have the confidence (or the ego) to be a lofty personality; I’m also not a huge joker, so it would end up seeming forced and fakey if I tried a comedy routine with every class. I’m also not a hardliner; I don’t yell and discipline that well. What I do do well is talk. I love discussions; I love seeing ideas develop and blossom through conversation. I intend to get my students talking, and to let them take the reins in these discussions about literature.

Not all aspects of being a teacher can be freewheeling discussions, however. There needs to be a clear sense of the expectations and rules of the workshop. After all, students will be graded on their performance, so they have a right to know what will go into those grades. A good learning environment is one in which there are fairly strict expectations and guidelines, I believe, along with a lot of freedom of ideas to go with it. I’m ready for the students to hate my reading list, for example, and I want them to talk about it, as long as they can tell my why the books are bad.

So let’s turn it over to you, readers! What kind of teaching experience do you expect in a creative writing class?

The Value of Note-Taking

I didn’t used to be an avid note-taker in the field of my creative writing. It was all stored up in my head, anyway, with very good accuracy, so what was the point of writing it all down? Since this summer, however, I’ve changed my tune. There are so many ideas and sensations we experience every day that could be wonderful touches to add to a story, but if we don’t write them down they are almost instantly lost. In our busy lives today, there’s just no way you can remember the strange, vivid way that ice cream tasted, or the funny way a stranger jumped over a rain puddle. Or – and it happens to all of us – you may be far away from your story in mind and body, and suddenly, like a bolt to your spleen, you realize exactly what the final scene should be, or why the main character comes back to the old homestead. This stuff is gold! Even if you can’t use it for your current story, it can be stored for later stories. So I strongly encourage my readers to get a little notebook that can fit in whatever bag you normally carry around, exclusively for notes about your writing. Take it out and scribble something down all day long. I’ve used mine for my trip to Texas this summer, to take notes about the shape and color of the country, the size of the wal-marts, and the interesting accents I heard. I also use it all the time to record interesting things that happen outside my window – like one day when a man drove past, got out, ferreted around in our recycling bin until he found one particular page of a newspaper, and then drove away. I write down interesting words I hear about, like hurdy-gurdy, which is a sort of mechanical violin that you crank, and questions to myself about my story that need to be resolved, like “where is her father during all of this?” Sometimes my stories veer far away from what the notebook actually suggests and outlines, but it’s a vital stage of the creative process to preserve all those great thoughts you’re having all day long.