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The mind churns out a million thoughts a day –– most times without you even realizing. What am I going to do today? Why’d I wake up so late? I need to lose weight. That girl that walked by was cute. Why didn’t I smile? These things flow in and out of our heads at all times; most times too fast for us to analyze them –– hence therapists and psychiatrists. One of the perks of being a fiction writer is the ability to finally be able to control thoughts –– albeit fictional ones –– and channel them toward defining a character.
There are a couple ways to do this over the course of a story, and which way you choose depends a lot on what point of view your story’s set in. If first person, you can just shoot the thoughts out interspersed between narrative, which actually has a nice effect. Tom grabbed the bag of chips from the rack and stuck them under his shirt, we ran out of the store and down the block our lungs burning. What the hell am I doing?
If third person, you have to reveal thoughts in a slightly more indirect way. Instead of just blurting them out, you say something like Mike saw the kid who lives downstairs, the one with the Mohawk and hoop earrings. He hated the way he looked.
An important thing you must keep in mind while playing with thought is balancing it with action. Tweaking with that balance is what makes a good and memorable character. What someone thinks vs. what they actually do. Your characters are going to have desires. Do they act on them? Or do they just think about them? It’d be easy if thoughts and actions were in sync, but life doesn’t work like that –– humans don’t work like that. And the goal is to make your characters as human as possible. Read more »
Keep a nice little notebook in your back pocket, it'll do you wonders.
SIFI is the name of a little notebook I carry around in my back pocket at all times; it stands for “Shit I Find Interesting”. It’s full of scribbles and illegible statements in no real order. Snips of thoughts, ideas, musings, observations and well, anything I find interesting. It’s the type of book every writer should have.
Ideas strike writers at all times of the day. You can be on the train and over hear an interesting conversation, maybe see someone who looks eccentric maybe wearing something odd––and an idea for a story or a character might follow. You can be in class, zoning out in the back and in that moment of lapse, your mind jumps to a vivid thought, a memory of use in a story maybe even a scene. Or, you could just be lounging with your friends, talking shit around a table. One might say something, a statement that summarizes a complex belief of your age group, maybe a bit of slang that’s poignant, possibly useful for your narrative.
Learning how to edit your own work is crucial for a writer.
When it comes to my own writing, I crush easy. I fall in love with sentences, placing them on pedestals like God himself penned them rather than little ol’ me. I feel like they’re etched in stone, like I can’t hit backspace a few times and make them disappear. It’s a problem a lot of beginning writers have. In a perfect world, we’d have editors to send our stuff to and kick back while they go nuts with red ink and spit it back spick and span. But this ain’t a perfect world, and we’re not nearly successful enough to afford those dudes, so the next best option is ourselves. Being a good self-editor is important for a young writer. It allows us to screen our writing and weed out a good chunk of the faultiness in it. I’m no expert, but in the last year I’ve improved my editing abilities a lot with a few steps I’ve learned through experimentation and experience. Read more »
I just finished my first year of creative writing graduate school (cue exhausted applause), and now I’m facing the prospect of a semi-unstructured summer in which I need to: a.) earn money, b.) continue to write my thesis manuscript, c.) do research for my thesis, d.) sit in the sun a lot and have picnics, e.) recuperate from the stress of school.
To that end, I’ve secured a part-time job and have applied to a bazillion writers retreats, conferences, and residencies.
My name is Andrew Boryga, and this post is the beginning of a bi-weekly column I’ll be writing entitled “From One Young Writer to Another.” The purpose of my column is to give a different perspective on the literary world. Through my own experiences as a young writer I want to provide some advice for people my age, or at the least, examples of what not to do.
I am a freshman English major at Cornell University. I first became interested in literature in middle school, and since my sophomore year of high school, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a writer. The majority of my writing thus far has been journalistic. I have been writing fiction for less than a year. In most cases my inexperience would be a limiting factor, but on this site it’s a gift.
So if there is any writing issue you’d like to see tackled from a young person’s perspective, whether or not you’re a young writer yourself, let me know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I began my first real short story in November. Billy was my first protagonist.
He lived in a small Midwestern town and worked a gas station. He was a sophomore at a decent college but didn’t like it much. He wanted out of his life.
A man pulled into his station one day driving a car covered in bumper stickers, offering Billy the ride of a lifetime. “Come watch the lines on the road with me,” said the ragged old man.
This whole story had been mapped out: the plot –– everything. But after four pages, I had nothing to say. Billy was still in school, getting ready to leave with the traveler and I was preparing to write crazy adventures for the two of them –– crazy adventures I’ve never experienced myself. I’ve never hitchhiked, never bought anything but roundtrip bus tickets and I’ve always known when I was coming home. And so Billy’s story remained four pages long.
During winter break in December, I went home. I enjoyed the food and my old friends. I reminisced. I pulled out my box of old middle school photos. I thought about all the stupid things my friends and I used to do. I thought about my old principal who’d only give late passes to the pretty girls and I thought about the bus driver on the BX 55 who’d yell and holler every time I went through the back entrance.
Then it hit me.
“What the hell am I doing writing about a kid from the Midwest?” I asked myself. I’ve lived in the Bronx for 19 years –– I don’t know jack shit about the Midwest. Read more »
While reading Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award Winner, The Corrections, I realized the amount of words I simply do not know: rube, elephantine, elfin, tumid, the list goes on.
I don’t know if this is the case for everyone else, but for me, as a reader, I tend to gloss over words I don’t know and rely on figuring them out in context. If that doesn’t work I skip them all together, so long as they aren’t central to what the sentence is trying to say.
So I began a collection of words.
I went down to my school store and bought two packs of 5x8in index cards. I cut them into eighths and kept them close to me while reading Franzen and anything I might have had to read for class. Every time I came across a word I didn’t know I circled it in my book and looked it up. When finished reading I went back and wrote the definitions to the circled words on the cards. So far I have 137 from the first half of Franzen’s book alone.
To give my collection value I set aside 10 minutes of my day to read over my cards once or twice, reading aloud the definitions and letting them sink in. I don’t remember every single word (on a good day I’ll remember a quarter of them), but I am becoming acquainted with them.
There’s a great post from Mark Gluth over at HTMLGIANT right now about cannibalizing your own writing (warning: before you go read the original post, beware that the image on the post is rather gross):
The pest control guy told me about rats that cannibalize dead rats. He’s seen cats that eat cats. Then I read about this cannibal star that’s eating a planet. It got me thinking about a ton of stuff, and as per usual I started to think about writing, about how I write, about how much the end results of my writing process are built upon cannibalization of the lesser results of previous processes. About thoughts that kill previous thoughts to give rise to new thoughts.
I think Gluth brings up an interesting element of the writing process that rings very true for me. My separate writing projects aren’t so separate after all: I mix-and-match parts of different ideas until I see what fits.
But I think using the word “cannibalize” wrongly demonizes the quite useful and common act of revising, recycling, and re-using. Of taking the train of thought from a recently-killed project idea to jump-start the creative energy for a new writing project idea.
One of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve gotten from a writing teacher is to create a text document prominently placed on my computer desktop called “Saves.” Every time I cut something out of a work — an idea, a phrase, a character, an entire written-out paragraph, something that is beautifully-crafted but no longer fits in my work — I cut and paste it into “Saves.”
The “Saves” document is now chock full of great snippets that I hope will find their way back into a completed writing project. You have to revisit it everyone once in a while to see what you have.
Better yet, once you’ve collected these snippets for years, publish the whole document as is, a pastiche of pretty little things with no home (at least that’s what my professor, Leslie Sharpe, humorously suggested).
Pretty much everyone I know loves and has a crush on Ira Glass. Yeah, you know him, the host of This American Life, the radio series (and now TV series) broadcast every Sunday on NPR affiliates around the country.
The show, a favorite since childhood, picks a theme each week and presents a story or many stories expounding on that theme. Many celebrity writers have built a name by producing shorts for TAL, including David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, but many other voices add to the mix.
People are obsessed with this guy — he’s probably the most well-loved indie guy of all time. Somehow he’s made it trendy to be awkward. But more importantly, the show has brought back the shared experience of radio — millions of people tune in each week to hear stories.
So I was thrilled to discover Glass’s video series on storytelling tips. Check out the four-part series below: Read more »
Oh, horror movies. How I adore/hate you. With your sharp-fanged monsters, and your copious amounts of fake blood, and your unnecessary nudity, and your sequels and your sequels to sequels being released so quick that I just can’t keep track which version of Final Destination or Scream we’re up to anymore.
I spent the other evening re-watching a horror film I had first watched in high school, and hated. But I was on one of those Wikipedia sprees where I was reading one entry that linked to another entry that linked to another, and I ended up on the Wiki page for the film. And because I’m a little bit of a masochist, I rented it and watched it. And I still hated it. The acting was terrible, the writing just sucked, and as the credits rolled I was left wondering why I had just wasted two hours of my life that I would never get back. But, being the optimist I am and needing to find the good in everything, I realized: your standard horror movie fare can provide a really good lesson in constructing a compelling story. Even if you don’t write horror.
The whole point of writing a story (besides your own personal satisfaction) is to in some way affect the reader. To get a reaction out of him. So what better genre to learn from than horror, which is decidedly the most baldfaced in its attempts to get a reaction out of the reader. I mean, really, most taglines for horror films are usually some variant of “So scary you’ll wish you were DEAD!” or “You’ll wet your pants!” And for the most part, the films deliver. People get scared. Reaction = caused. Mission = accomplished. So what can the average schmoe learn about fiction from crappy horror movies? Read more »
Well, I do. I’ll use any excuse to procrastinate, even if I already have a ton of ideas of what to write about. If you’re in the same boat, then you’re in luck. Author Gretchen Rubin has created a list of “13 Tips For Actually Getting Some Writing Done.” Check out some highlights:
1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week.
2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”
3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.
4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought — even mid-sentence — so it’s easy to dive back in later.
6. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that creativity descends on you at random. Creative thinking comes most easily when you’re writing regularly and frequently, when you’re constantly thinking about your project.
7. Remember that lots of good ideas and great writing come during the revision stage. I’ve found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.