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Day 3: The Best Pieces of Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

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Day 3:  The Best Pieces of Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

MY JULY GOALS FOR LIFE FULFILLMENT:   

1.  Mediate every day for at least 10 minutes 

2. Read blogs and learn how to promote my own

3. When I’m about to say something negative, say something positive instead.

*Check out my book review of The Silver Star on Burlesque Press!*

When you ask people for writing advice, you often get fuzzy, feel-good stuff like, “write the story that’s in your heart,” or generic tough-love stuff like “sit your ass in the chair.”  That’s fine and all, but you might sit your ass in a chair and write the story in your heart, and it might still suck. So here’s some more specific advice you can actually use, most of which I learned during my days as a University of New Orleans MFA student.

#1 Something has to happen
It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how many stories I work-shopped in my MFA classes about some tough, introspective dude who sits at a bar, drinks whiskey, and thinks about stuff. Boring! You are the god of your own characters. Create conflict for them, and then, slowly, help them figure out how to resolve it.

#2 One way to deal with flashbacks
In lots of stories and novels the narrator jumps back to an earlier time for a few sentences or a whole scene. If you don’t do this right, it’s easy for your reader to get confused. One simple way to avoid flashback confusion is to write your story in the present tense. Whenever you want to talk about something that happened in the past, use the simple past. Easy.

#3 Another way to handle flashbacks: The 3 In – 3 Out Rule
If you write your story in the past tense, you have to use the past-perfect for flashbacks. The past perfect is the tense used to talk about something that happened before something else that happened in the past. I call it “the had tense.” For example, the past perfect is bolded below:

He walked into the bar and saw her standing near the pool table. The last time he’d seen her, she had stabbed a fork into his leg.

But the past-perfect gets old awfully fast with all those “hads.” The solution is to start off your flashback with the first three verbs in past-perfect. This makes your reader aware of what’s going on. Then switch to simple past, which is much more pleasant to read. At the end of your flashback, make the last three verbs past-perfect to get your reader “out” of the flashback.

#4 Lift your title from the story itself
Stuck on a name for your story or novel? Instead of choosing something too obvious or too generic, like “The Black Cat,” read through the story and look for a phrase that works for the whole piece. A professor of mine, the wonderful Canadian author Joseph Boyden, was the one who told me this, and one of his students, Barb Johnson, mastered the technique in her story collection, More of This World or Maybe Another. Miranda July, author of the collection Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, also does this with her titles.

Drawing by me, Eva Langston!

Drawing by me, Eva Langston!

#5 Mix summary with scene
In most short stories and novels, you are going to have scenes with dialogue and action, and then you are going to have sections of summary where the narrator “tells” the reader what happened. The key is to blend the two seamlessly and try not to have too much of one or the other. Too much summarization can fall into the dreaded “telling instead of showing” realm, while too many scenes (or scenes that go on for too long without a break) can be fatiguing for the reader. One strategy is to decide on the important, pivotal scenes and write those first. Then fill the spaces in between with summary.

#6 Make your story a little bit “messy”
At the beginning of my MFA program, my beautiful and brilliant professor, writer Amanda Boyden, often accused me  of wrapping everything up too neatly, solving all the characters’ problems, being too obvious with my symbols. Real life is messy, she said, and fiction should reflect that. Sometimes issues are unresolved, words are unsaid, and people are unreliable. Resist the urge to make all the pieces fit perfectly into place. Resist the urge to explain everything. Let your reader do some of the sorting out themselves.

#7 End with an image
As much as you might want to end your story like an Aesop’s fable, with a neat little moral summary or a pointed sentence explaining what the story “means,” you have to let your reader determine that on their own. One good way to end is with the description of an image that you want to linger in the reader’s mind. Take, for example, the last paragraph of “The Monkey Paw” by W.W. Jacobs and notice the image he leaves us with in the last sentence:

The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house. He heard the chair drawn back and the door opened. A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long, loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The streetlamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.

RELATED READING:

What’s Their Story?  (An article about writing couple extraordinaire, Joseph and Amanda Boyden)

How to Write a Short Story

The Best Writing Advice You’ll Ever Get from Huffington Post

Ten Ginormous Signs It’s Time to Tell Your Story:  A Diagnostic Tool by Jen Violi on Burlesque Press

Happy writing, and come back again soon! I plan on posting about the best grammar advice and the best advice for writing dialogue I’ve ever received.  (I have a lot of tips — people give me a lot of advice!)  

My birthday is today. Here is a picture of me with a birthday pinata I bought for myself at a market in Mexico a few years ago.

My birthday is today. Here is a picture of me with a birthday pinata I bought for myself at a market in Mexico a few years ago.