Four Writing Techniques I Needed in 2019

I read a lot of writing advice. Books, blog posts, twitter feeds, you name it.

I know it won’t all work for me. But how else can I improve my craft, other than trying new things, and seeing how it comes out?

So here’s four techniques I tried out last year (or carried over from 2018) that have stuck with me, and that I’ll be using a lot in 2020.

One-Inch Picture Frame

Source: Anne Lamott

My current go-to technique. When I’m sitting at the keyboard and the words won’t come, and I think this is it, my imagination’s run dry and I’ll never finish another story, I reach for this.

The idea is simple, and powerful in the way few simple ideas are: Instead of worrying about writing the chapter, or writing the scene, I focus on writing only one little piece of the scene. Just describe how she feels after getting caught in a lie. Describe how he looks at his old room differently, now that he’s been away from home for ten years.

Drill down into something very specific, and write just that. Nothing more.

The narrowed focus lets me relax a little. Because I can’t write a chapter anymore, oh no, and I can’t write a scene, that’s for sure, but I can write how it feels to see someone you love after thinking they were dead. I can do that

And once that’s done, once I’ve really described everything in my one-inch picture frame properly, I look up and I’ve already hit my daily word count goal.

Tracking Word Count Score

Source: Scott Sigler

This one’s a carry-over. Sigler first laid out his points system for tracking word counts at a Writers Coffeehouse in 2018. I tried it out then, and it got me back on track to finish the first draft of my current novel.

Since then, I’ve kept using it: 1 point for each first draft word, 1/2 point for each word gone over in the first editing pass, 1/3 for the third, etc.

It’s helped me feel productive in cases where I wouldn’t, like revising a short story I finished months ago, to get it to the point where I can submit it to magazines. And it’s pushed me to keep writing until I hit that daily word count, and relax when I do so, because I know by hitting it, I’m working steadily towards my larger goals.

Showing Emotion and Thoughts Instead of Telling

Source: Chuck Palahniuk

I was really skeptical of this one. He wrote it up in a post for LitReactor, and it’s couched in language that’s self-confident to the point of being arrogant.

But he’s right. Switching from using language like “she was nervous” to “She looked away, and bit her lip. The fingers of her right hand started drumming a quick beat on her thigh, tap-tap-tap,” is a huge improvement. It’s pushed me to think more about how each of my characters expresses themselves in unique ways, and given me the tools to show that uniqueness to the reader.

Scatter and Fill

Source: V.E. Schwab

Schwab’s twitter feed is a fantastic one to follow for writing advice. She’s very honest about the struggles she faces, and how much guilt she feels over being such a slow writer.

But the brilliant results (in her books) speak for themselves!

In one of her posts, she talked about how when writing a novel, she doesn’t write it in any sort of order. She’ll fill in some dialog in one scene, then a set description in another, and then action in a third. She gradually fills in the work, like painting a canvas, where every brush stroke counts and adds up to the final product.

I’ve always felt compelled to write in strict order, start to finish. So reading this technique works for her was very liberating for me. I still usually write in order, but now if I’m finding it hard to get motivated, I’ll skip around. Write down some dialog that comes to me, or an action or two. Sometimes I can hit my daily word goal this way, and sometimes it just primes the pump so I can fill in the rest. Either way, it gets me around my mental block, and lets me make progress.

Alive by Scott Sigler

Intense.

The prose is stripped clean of excess, going down so smooth it injects the story right into your bloodstream. And hot damn, it’s a good one.

I haven’t read a lot of YA, but this is the first one I enjoyed, start to finish.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • First-person, step-by-step, can be brutal: by sitting right inside the character’s head, it’s easy to get sucked in, and then when the shit goes down, you feel every victory and defeat like they’re happening to you.
  • Every group has a jerk. Every group in fiction needs a jerk.
  • One way to handle writing a large group, where each person needs their own personality, is to write scenes in which the group rotates through different configurations. The numbers stay manageable, but the composition of the group in the scene changes, giving each member a chance to shine.

Notes from Writers Coffeehouse, Feb 2018

Attended my first Writers Coffeehouse in a few months yesterday. I’m glad I did; I came away feeling more like a “real” writer, connected to a community of fellow writers, than I have in a long while.

Plus, our host, Scott Sigler, gave us a system for tracking our progress week by week that I think will help me with my current novel.

Many thanks to Scott Sigler for hosting, and to Mysterious Galaxy for letting us hold it in their (frankly awesome) store!

My notes from the Coffeehouse:

  • sports in stories: do enough research that you can color in the character; less detail is more: more detail is more chances to screw it up for people that know it; be specific, but drop it in and move on
  • vocal tick, physical mannerism, first name last name: stephen king’s technique; uses for secondary characters as a flag or anchor for readers; establishes it all in one paragraph, then uses throughout
  • the scorecard: set a weekly goal, meet it, challenging but doable, set consequences if you don’t make it (scott loses a bass from his collection for two months)
  • not sure what to do? write a short story. you’ll accomplish something, and if your brain is distracted by something, that’s what you should work on next
  • scott sigler: “how to write your first novel” on youtube: unorthodox writing advice
  • his scoring system is based on a page: 250 words.
  • when writing first draft, it’s pure words produced
  • second draft: each word counts for half, so double the word count goal and achieve that
  • third draft: each word only counts one third
  • calls with editor, agent, etc: counts for half (ex: 1,000 words an hour means a half hour phone call counts as one page)
  • what about research? doesn’t count. research doesn’t pay the bills
  • characters, relationships, conflict: all that matters. do just enough research to enable the writing. that’s it
  • research trick: find and read a kid’s book on it; they’ve distilled it all for you
  • outlines? depends on how much you use them. if you do: single-spaced, count each page of outline as a page, timebox the work (ex: 2 weeks to get the outline done)
  • another reason to put off your research: sometimes only when you get to the end do you know what you need to research (backspackling the grenade needed in chapter 30)
  • query letters? that’s business, so half-count; set a reasonable goal, like one query letter per week (that’s twelve queries in a quarter, not too shabby)
  • and track what you’ve done: on paper, or todo lists, or however, but record your daily work, and total it at the end of the week
  • when you make it: celebrate it!
  • beta-readers? prefers finding serious readers, not writers. why? TWILIGHT
  • best reader is you. take the book, let it sit for six months, come back and read it. you’ll see what you really wrote instead of what you thought you wrote
  • reedsy.com: site for finding freelance editors; sigler uses it (but do your research, interview them, etc)
  • POV shifts: helps show different aspects of the characters, by giving insights from one pov character about another
  • tension: a daily chore that if not done causes trouble (the shining: he has to release the pressure from the boiler every day; lost: they have to go down and push the button every day or else); good way to put a ticking clock in your story
  • prisonfall: have the characters in danger from the start, use dealing with that as a way to do your world-building
  • muse gone? go write a shitty short story; go write some fan fiction; do something else and come back to itp
  • recommends putting first book of a series out for free to start out, to get it in the hands of readers, so you can find your audience
  • save the cat: great screenplay writing book, woth chapters about elevator pitches
  • attendee recommends donald maas’ workshop; went last week in irvine, learned a lot
  • don’t be afraid to say no when you get a contract from a publisher; hold onto all the merchandising, film, etc rights you can