Like musicians following musical scores and artists filling in numbered canvases, some writers feel obligated to follow meaningless mandates that suck the creative life out of their souls. Their work is left bland and mundane.
Lay aside your musical score and harmonize. Paint-by-numbers? Get a blank canvas and explore your God-given talents.
And the writers' rule book? Leave it on the shelf.
While being creative demands liberating oneself from nonsensical rules, the craft of writing encompasses some tricks of the trade. I apply these ideas to make my writing a joy to the readers. (The following are arranged with the most recent additions at the top of the list.)
None of the following begins with "You have to." Rather, each of the following begins with "I like to ..."
20. ... use symbolism
To the masters of symbolism, such as John Bunyan, C.S. Lewis and Aesop, the story was subordinate to the underlying apologue. It was a means to an end. The allegory was the main meal, the story was the plate on which it was served.
While symbollism makes a great main course, it can also be used to garnish and season an otherwise straight-forward story. For example, a character's odd personality may be suggested by giving that person an unusual name (see Canister Cousins), a startling revelation may coincide with the dawning of a new day, or disappointment can be suggested by a cold drizzle (see Bdeep.)
19. ... use implication
The purpose of implication is to encourage the readers to use their imaginations. And that, in turn, compels them to be immersed in the story. The challenge is to create an image in the readers' minds — not by saying — but by merely by implying.
For example, the following sentence makes the suggestion that the character lives in Kentucky: "Pasadena was a long way from Kentucky’s hills. It would be months before she would greet her mother at the airport, chat with her over a cup of hot green tea; snap more photos at the twin’s graduation. It would be months."
This sentence implies a lamp: "Canister twisted the key that caused the coal oil to burn even brighter."
This is particularly helpful when writing fiction. The idea is to imagine the events, dialog and environment — then describe what I see. The familiar story of David and Goliath is one example. Another example describes night scenes in a small town as a middle-aged couple reunites after years of separation. You may read it here.
While reading, keep in mind that my love for (and advocacy of) highly descriptive writing will be the bane of your high school writing teacher.
17. ...stretch into humor
Before writing humor, ask yourself this question: Why is funny funny?
Humor is humorous because it plays off real-life tension. Walking down a street is real-life tension. Slipping on a banana peel plays off that tension. Charlie Chaplin said that walking around the banana peel and falling into a manhole is funny.
"Now you know why they put me in the middle" is not a funny thing to say. But when I was standing between a Republican and Democrat who were throwing verbal jabs at each other, the crowd thought it hilarious. It wasn't the line that was funny, but the context of the tension.
You may read my stab at satire-slash-humor here...
16. ...set my brain.
Brain-setting is a term I invented so you will know I'm not talking about mind-setting. To set one's mind is to be stubborn. To set one's brain is to get into the mindset that fits the form and feel of whatever it is you are writing.
Examples: If you plan to write humor, go to Dave Berry's Web site and read a few articles. If you plan to write satire, try reading a few items written by Ann Coulter. If you want to write serious dialog, technical documents, drama, etc., invest a few minutes setting your brain.
15. ...be entertaining.
Ask anyone what Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh have in common. The answers will be many. Both are famous. They are outspoken conservatives. Both are engaged in the media, Coulter as a writer and Limbaugh as a radio pro. Some will even notice that both are phenomenally successful. What we often miss, however, is the reason for their success.
Coulter and Limbaugh are in the information business. Specifically, they are news commentators. Coulter shares her views through weekly op/ed columns and Limbaugh states his opinion from a radio studio. But what sets them apart from most others is their rare talent to entertain as they inform.
When writing, consider the relationship between your work and those who will read it. Do you view your readers as computers, and your work as data entry? The result will be boring. Make every effort to make your work a joy to read.
If you'd like to read an example of entertaining reading, buy a copy of Coulter's book, HOW TO TALK TO A LIBERAL (IF YOU MUST).
Or, you can read my review of her book, HOW DO DATE ANN COULTER (IF YOU MUST)HERE
14. ...take the advice of writing instructors with a [tiny] grain of salt.
Writing instructors often hold descriptive writing in contempt for the same reason 90 lb. weaklings despise football. They can't compete.
It's called "compensatory projection." The critics (in this case, the instructor and weakling) compensate for their shortcomings by projecting fault onto others.
Advice such as, "Tell the story, don't show it" flow from the lips of lightweight instructors (or those who've been duped by the advice of lightweights.) I find it unfortunate, even tragic, that the writing industry is dominated by those who disdain descriptive writing.
Keep in mind that professional instructors are taught to be systematic. That's why they have lesson plans, divide their calendars into grading periods, such as semesters, and promote their students in gradients or "grades." And that's a good thing.
The problem arises when they reduce creative arts to technical systems. Painters find themselves painting by numbers, musicians find themselves chained to written representations and writers find themselves following mindless rules. And any deviation from the accepted norm is promptly identified and the "offender" subjected to ridicule and disdain.
When it comes to grammar, spelling, et al, listen. When it comes to the art of painting word pictures, one grain will be sufficient.
Here's a point to ponder: The world's greatest fashion designers don't buy patterns from Simplicity. They create their own.
13. ...use words that correctly color the content.
Imagine viewing a work of art in which the forms were perfectly depicted, but the colors were all wrong. The trees were bright blue, the grass orange and the sky a very bright yellow.
The above illustrates the challenge encountered by many writers. They have great story ideas; even structure. But the words they choose fail to communicate a true portrayal. When we write, it is important to select the right "colors" when choosing words.
For example, in my article Night Vigil, I wrote, A red-caped, gauntly frame slithered stealthfully in from the cold. I chose the word "gauntly" rather than "skinny" because the texture of the word's sound "colors" the character.
"Life is stained by insignificance" is a phrase that sounds good to me. But I chose to use the word sully rather than stained simply because its color has a sulky tone. It came out like this, "So that is life. Seems sully, even insignificant. Is that all there is?" See Precious Memories to read it in context.
Note the "colorization" in the following sentence from I Wanna Be A Bug: Sir Hun would bolt; the squirrel would scram and shimmy up the leafy oak, then scold the barking brute for disrupting its day.
12. ...let others help edit.
Casual readers are readily available editors. Readers often spot mistakes we are blind to (such as ending with a preposition). But a word of caution: Casual readers are often wrong. For example, one reader noted the absence of quotation marks in a phrase that quoted one of my character's thoughts. Actual words spoken by characters — not their thoughts — take quotation marks.
If you've read my book, The Prayer of Hannah, you may have noticed there are two editors listed on the credits page. I hired two editors to read the manuscript independently of each other. While the errors found by the two editors were mostly identical, each found errors the other had missed. There is safety in a multitude of counselors!
11. ...write first, edit last.
This is particularly true when on a "roll." Punctuation, spelling, etc. are vital to projecting credibility to the reader. What's more, grammatical errors are annoying and, therefore, distract from your story. They are as important to readability as the story itself. However, when we place our focus on where the paragraph breaks more than the ebb and flow of the story, our ability to maximize the use of our God-given creative juices is impeded significantly. Any editor can point out punctuation errors, but only YOU can express you.
In applying this principle, I have found that the creative aspect of my compositions is enhanced. But the number of errors also increases; another reason to apply principle number 12.
I often begin a short story having no idea what it will be about until I type the first sentence. (There's nothing wrong with reading to discover stories. But I prefer to discover then on my own!)
Examples: If you read the first paragraph of my short story, I Wanna Be A Bug, you'll see an example. The idea of moving that story in its current direction never occurred to me until after I wrote that paragraph.
The same is true of my story, Frostbitten. I wrote the first two paragraphs of Night Vigil before the direction of the story came to me. (And was I ever shocked!)
9. ...pull the reader into the story with the first phrase.
Frame the context in the first paragraph, giving the reader a mental image (visual, audial and or emotional) of the scene.
Sans-context: "Death is a tragic event; a time for precious memories."
The problem with the above is it fails to capture the reader's imagination.
With context: "Silence reigns. No words are spoken. These are sacred moments. Broken hearts fail to search for words but speak, instead, through tender tears and muted tones; each tear a solemn testimony of love and every sigh a precious memory. Look, if you will, at the Nebraska countryside. Feel the breeze and see wind swept fields of grain surrender in billowing waves."
The above is designed to do two things: a) I wanted to pique the readers' curiosity; tell them only enough to encourage them to continue. b) I wanted them to be in the scene, emotionally, visually and audibly.
(Note the descriptive passage begins with short, blunt sentences for balance.)
Note the fragmented sentences in the lead paragraph to Night Vigil: "A hearth ablaze, a comforter for a wrap and a rocker slowly wasting away the moments — they were a haven from the winter night’s chill. Abigail’s eyes were fixated on the fire. The crackle. The mindless dancing of flames. Flying embers chasing upward through a blackened chimney. She was entranced."
Other examples include "Bdeeep. Another email" in BDEEP and "Two minutes to eternity" in the story Awakening. (More obvious may be the phrase, "A lot," in the heading of this section.)
6. ...use cadence in emotional writings.
Example: "Was this the one with whom he walked on earthen roads and heard in fields of lilies? 'The water into wine,' he lips moved, his voice was never present. 'The withered hand, the Blood stained crown, the stone; the hollowed side. Behold the Lamb of God!'"
Again, this isn't something that can be taught, but a sense that you have. It works well with highly emotional writings. See my entry titled, Would Parchments Fade, if you care to see the above paragraph in context.
5. ...balance descriptive phrases with short, blunt sentences.
Here's an example: "Weary eyes scolded the teenager as Eliab pealed the breastplate from his young brother’s torso. Nothing more needed to be said. But, of course, it was."
Highly descriptive: "Weary eyes scolded the teenager as Eliab pealed the breastplate from his young brother’s torso."
Blunt balance: "Nothing more needed to be said. But, of course, it was."
This isn't something I learned in school. It's just a sense one develops as you write.
4. ...watch for repetitive word usage.
In number 3 (above), I used the word "better" twice. When writing, I make a conscious effort to avoid using the same word repetitively. Readers find it annoying. Rather than writing, "Yeah, I like that a little better," I could have offered this line: "This is preferred."
3. ...be descriptive without being corny.
"Big, ugly bullfrogs burped out noisy night sounds." Oh, come on, you can do better.
"Somehow, the cacophony of nights sounds was reassuring." Yeah, I like that a little better.
2. ...avoid over-using the word "said."
Using such words as "said," "asked," "replied," etc. at the end of quotations is redundant. What's more, it's a wasted opportunity to express the scene at hand. Examples:
“Big business deal, huh?” he asked. [redundant; wasted opportunity]
“Big business deal, huh?” The cabby’s voice was familiar. [expresses the scene at hand]
1. ...write for the fun of it.
Put the critics out of your mind. Remember Mrs. Miller? Your Sixth Grade English teacher? She said your writing was "too wordy?" Seen her name on the best-seller list lately?
And an end note: The hard sciences — such as math and chemistry — require black and white delineations. But with notable exceptions such as spelling and basic grammar, creative sciences — painting, music, speaking, writing, etc. — are relative and cannot be encaged by stringent rules.
Thanks, Kenny -- I needed this. I am homeschooling three of my children, two of whom are eager writers anxious to learn. You've given me a great tool with clear, concise direction and example. We will keep it handy for reference.
Kenny - I'll add my thanks for your sharing these tips. When I started writing, I felt "led" by the Spirit. I promised that I would not write anything that I felt He had not given me. Sometimes the deadline is facing me and I have no idea what I should write. I pray about it and when I begin, the writing takes on a life of its' own! Thank you for the tips and also for what became an affirmation for me!
One of the must frustrating things is not
knowing why my writing isn't going over well
with others. How am I
supposed to fix a problem
if I don't know what it is? My writing challenge
entries are a good example. Most of them have done lousy and I
don't know why? I get lots of blessings in reviews but not very many
suggestions on changing my writing. I've abandoned preachy type and gone to humorous.
Honestly I just don't know I'm doing anymore.
Am I wrong in feeling
Great article, Kenny! I have on my website a place for free writing articles. Would you like to include it there, also? Even though you could sell this. C:\Hands for Hope Website\Free Writing Articles.htm