My home computer is adorned with a bright yellow post-it note that reads: “Don’t confuse what happens in your story with what your story is about.” This pithy writing tip, submitted by a Writers’ Program instructor during a recent promotional campaign, was actually my big “aha moment,” the one when I realized that what I thought my novel-in-progress is about — and what it’s really about — are two entirely different things.
Working at the Writers’ Program means I’m privy to all sorts of writing tips and tricks courtesy of our roster of more than 200 published and produced instructors. Most of these wise words are shared with our fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter, but here are some of the longer gems we’ve received recently — the ones that can’t be said in 140 characters or less. While most of these tips are unlikely to fit on a post-it note on your computer screen, they might never-the-less resonate with you and provide you with an “aha moment” of your very own.
Are your characters falling flat? Screenwriting instructor Victoria Wisdom offers this suggestion for making them three-dimensional:
“Create and motivate your characters first, before deciding where you want them to go. Plopping an unmotivated character inside a contrived storyline leads to a plot told from the periphery, not from an emotional center. Put the horse in front of the cart and the audience will follow your characters anywhere.”
Does your main character have a friend who has nothing but time on his hands? Instructor Barney Lichtenstein proposes this method for beefing up the poor guy’s role:
“When developing a secondary character that for some reason is problematic to write, create a synopsis following that character’s relationship with the lead. If he or she doesn’t make some significant impact on your lead and the narrative, you’ll more easily see where the weak areas are that need adjustment.”
Here’s how memoirist and novelist Samantha Dunn suggests solving problem areas in your writing. Caution: you might want to purchase some protective padding before you try this one at home.
“I say sleep with your laptop. Literally. When I have trouble getting a grip on what I want to say, or have trouble finishing a scene, for example, I read over my work before I go to bed. Invariably during the night my subconscious will do the ‘heavy lifting’ of figuring out what my conscious mind couldn’t quite crack, and I’ll either wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid solution, or will have the urge to write at the crack of dawn. It’s easy if I have either my laptop or a pen and paper bedside so I can pour all of it onto the page!”
For those of you with friends on the high seas, this tip from childrens’ author April Halprin Wayland is guaranteed to keep you writing every day.
“Each day I send a poem to my friends who live on a boat and sail around the world. Each night while washing the dishes, they discuss it and send me feedback. They depend on my poem for this nightly ritual…and I depend on them to keep me writing. Every day for 2 1/2 years I’ve written a poem.”
Okay, so maybe your friends don’t own a boat, but I’m willing to bet that you own an iPhone or an iPod or at the very least, a television set. If so, this tip from screenwriting instructor Andy Guerdat will boost your thought process and help you get words onto the page.
“Take a walk. Without an iPod or a cellphone. Let your mind go where it wants to go. Sooner or later it’ll start thinking about your story. Stop surfing the net, turn off your TV, turn off your music, and force your brain to think about what YOU think about the world, rather than processing what Howard Stern or Jon Stewart or Oprah or Rachel Maddow or Quentin Tarantino or the blogger du jour thinks.”
And speaking of words on a page, here’s some sage advice from instructor Mike Janover.
“Your writing must keep the reader’s mind on the page so he tunes out the world, and all that exists are your characters and your story. Edit your script until the words flow like honey and the story moves with the strength and power of the Mighty Mississippi. Write so that the reader will not, CANNOT put it down.”
Cindy Lieberman is the Program Manager for the Writers’ Program. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.