The Write Practice is here to kick-start your practice. You have to write millions of words no one is ever going to see before you can write the ones that will change someone’s life. Fifteen minutes a day, six times a week, you will practice writing like Hemingway, James Joyce, Malcolm Gladwell, and many others.
We’ve all been in this situation: you write a first draft, or the beginning of one, and it seems like nothing is going well. All you want to do is give up and throw everything away. It can be extremely tempting, and while it’s okay to give up on projects sometimes, you should never throw anything away.
3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Delete Your Writing
The saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies to writing, too. You never know what gems you’ll find hidden amongst the abandoned or terrible first drafts. Here are three reasons why you should never throw anything away.
1. You can incorporate writing somewhere else
Sometimes a bad piece of writing isn’t bad at all, it’s just misplaced. A certain scene may not work for one story, but it could be the start of a different one. The same goes for characters who aren’t working in certain stories.
Even a whole passage of description you’re no longer keeping for one project can still be useful. All it takes is looking for one good line and it can become part of a poem or a song. Look at your writing with the eye of an experienced thrift shopper: anything can be transformed.
2. You can look back and see how far you’ve come
Whenever I’m feeling down about my own writing abilities, I can do one of a couple things to boost my morale. One option is to find a favorite piece of my own writing and reread it. Another option is to read something I wrote terribly.
This might sound counterproductive, but it works. The key for me is to find an old piece of writing that I’ve put several years of distance between. That way I don’t reopen fresh wounds. Reading something you wrote years ago and recognizing how much your writing has changed can give you an instant surge of confidence.
3. The writing can become a deleted scene
Authors often release deleted scenes from their novels as a perk for their newsletter subscribers, or for a limited ebook release, or for any number of things. Readers eat those things up. But where do you think the authors got those deleted scenes in the first place?
From old drafts. Old pieces of writing they may not have ever wanted to lay their eyes on again. Had they not saved that writing, they never would have been able to share those scenes with their readers.
You may not be a published author with a thriving newsletter (yet), but my point is, you never know what your discarded writing can become.
RESIST THE URGE TO DELETE
Let your writing sit in a storage folder, collecting dust, no matter how much you may want to use it as kindling for your campfire instead. I promise you, the very thing you hate now could become something you love later.
What do you do with your old drafts? Let me know in the comments.
Take a look at some of your old pieces of writing you’ve saved but never done anything with. Salvage a scene or line of dialogue and use it to start a completely new project.
Try not to let it resemble the original writing in any way. Instead, take this opportunity to begin something new.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’ve finished, share your practice in the comments, if you’d like. Don’t forget to give your fellow writers some love, too. Have fun!
Perhaps you’ve heard the old publishing proverb: The first page sells the book; the last page sells the next book. I’m convinced there’s a mammoth grain of truth in that. The beginning and the end of any story are critical elements that you really want to nail. Today, we’re going to focus on how to start a story—in other words, how you can craft a spectacular beginning that will hold readers spellbound and get them to turn that first all-important page.
Whether you’re pitching to an agent, a publisher, or direct to the reader, your opening lines form the basis for how they’ll judge the rest of your story. You have about a sixty-second window of influence before that initial judgment solidifies. It follows that this is a good place to invest your time and effort.
Granted, a compelling opening is not an easy task to accomplish. Besides grabbing reader attention, you want to ground readers in a setting, establish voice, hint at theme, and introduce a protagonist readers can get behind. To do this, you need to answer specific questions for your reader, while at the same time planting others.
Story Revolves Around Questions
Cultivating questions for your reader is what keeps her turning the pages, but you’ll lose her if you don’t provide answers, as well. Writer plus reader is a relationship. If you want your reader to commit to your story, it’s best to establish a few essentials right up front.
Whose story is it? You’re asking your reader to spend serious time with your protagonist. They’ll want to know who they’ll be rooting for.
What kind of story is it? Readers go into a book looking for a particular type of reading experience and you need to let them know they’ve come to the right place.
When and where is the story happening? Setting is hugely important to selling your reader. I did a workshop with top editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and one of the most frequent critiques she gave writers was: “There’s no setting. You lost me on setting.”
What’s the story behind the story? When readers think story, they think plot. Writers know the real story is internal—not what happens, but how those events affect the characters. While you won’t necessarily lay your hero open on the first page of your story, hinting at his internal struggle gets the reader on his side.
Why should the reader care? The most glorious descriptions or action-packed drama won’t hook your reader if you don’t give them a reason to care about your character. Answering the four questions above will help do this, but you’ll need to give more.
Want to hook your readers from the start? Give them a reason to care about your character in your opening lines.
10 Compelling Ways to Start a Story
You’ve got to command reader attention and answer some important questions, but what does that look like on the page? How do you structure your opening to accomplish those objectives?
Have you heard of modeling? Life coaches and success gurus talk about it a lot. It involves finding someone who’s wildly effective at doing what you want to do and studying their methods to duplicate their success. If in doubt, go to the opening pages of bestselling books in your chosen genre and see how the masters did it.
The beginning lines of a story should establish a character, in a setting, with a problem.
Beyond that, there are so many ways to go. Here are ten ways to start a story you might consider:
1. Strong Voice
Example: “Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.” The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Example: “I smiled when I saw the dead girl. Just for a moment. Reflex, I suppose.” The Snow Angel, Doug Allyn
2. Relevant Anecdote
Example: “When Ella Brady was six she went to Quentins. It was the first time anyone had called her Madam. A woman in a black dress with a lace collar had led them to the table. She had settled Ella’s parents in and then held out a chair for the six-year-old. ‘You might like to sit here, Madam, it will give you a full view of everything,’ she said. Ella was delighted.” Quentins, Maeve Binchy
Example: “I hope this video camera works. Anyway, this (click) is a blowup of a model’s eye, the bluest I’ve ever seen. The only other time I remember seeing that exact color of blue was the day my sister Nicole drowned. It was everwhere: in the water, in the sky, Nicole’s skin. Blue, I remember, and coughing.” Forgetting The Girl, Peter Moore Smith
3. Intriguing Mystery
Example: “Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?” The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks
Example: “People’s lives—their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences—begin at different times. The real life of Thad Beaumont, a young boy who was born and raised in the Ridgeway section of Bergenfield, New Jersey, began in 1960. Two things happened to him that year. The first shaped his life; the second almost ended it.” The Dark Half, Stephen King
4. Uneasy Suspense
Example: “The smell of newly rotting flesh hit Jakaya Makinda. He stopped his Land Rover, grabbed his binoculars off the seat beside him, and trained them in the direction of the odor’s source.” Death in the Serengeti, David H. Hendrickson
I used this as an example of Uneasy Suspense, but Hendrickson kicked it off with a startling first sentence and infused it with setting, layering the effect.
Example: “Water gushed out of the corroded faucet into the chipped, porcelain tub, pooling at the bottom with a few tangled strands of long, brown hair. The water was easily 120 degrees. So hot that Katelyn Berkley could hardly stand to dip her painted green toenails into it. The scalding water instantly turned her pale skin mottled shades of crimson.” Envy, Gregg Olsen
5. Stirring Theme
Example: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.” The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
I used this excerpt as an example of stirring theme, but it is bursting with other elements and could be placed under setting, suspense, voice, character, world tilting off-center, and an enthralling first sentence.
Example: “Sometimes it’s overwhelming: the burden of knowing that the man you most admire isn’t real. Then the depression that you’ve fought all your life creeps in, the anxiety. The borders of your life contract, stifling, suffocating.” The Adventure of the Laughing Fisherman, Jeffery Deaver
This one’s got a pretty kicking first sentence, too.
6. Dynamic Setting
Example: “Out of a cloudless sky on a windless November day came a sudden shadow that swooped across the bright aqua Corvette. Tommy Phan was standing beside the car, in pleasantly warm autumn sunshine, holding out his hand to accept the keys from Jim Shine, the salesman, when the fleeting shade touched him. He heard a brief thrumming like frantic wings. Glancing up, he expected to glimpse a sea gull, but not a single bird was in sight.” Tick Tock, Dean Koontz
This is also a nice instance of uneasy suspense.
Example: “They were parked on Union, in front of her place, their knees locked in conference around the stick shift, Janna and Justin talking, necking a little, the windows just beginning to steam.” Shared Room on Union, Steven Heighton
7. Quirky or Startling Opening Sentence
Example: “The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.” The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Stephen King
Example: “As soon as he stepped into the dim apartment he knew he was dead.” Garden of Beasts, Jeffery Deaver
Both of these examples also instill suspense, as they suggest danger and leave the reader anxious to find out more.
8. Compelling Character
Example: “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.” The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
What kind of character is this you ask yourself, compelled to go on.
Example: “Everyone knows this kid. He is dirty and dumb and sits in a corner, lonely, but not alone. His face has an involuntary twitch, and when he makes eye contact, his lids and cheeks squeeze his eyes shut. We call him Blinky. Blinky rolls with it, though, smiles big and toothy when kids shout his name across the schoolyard.” A Bottle of Scotch and a Sharp Buck Knife, Scott Grand
I chose this for character, but it’s got a big dose of voice in it, as well.
8. Tilting World
Example: “The ravens were the first sign. As the horse-drawn wagon traveled down the rutted track between rolling fields of barley, a flock of ravens rose up in a black wash. They hurled themselves into the blue of the morning and swept high in a panicked rout, but this was more than the usual startled flight. The ravens wheeled and swooped, tumbled and flapped. Over the road, they crashed into each other and rained down out of the skies. Small bodies struck the road, breaking wing and beak. They twitched in ruts. Wings fluttered weakly. But most disturbing was the silence of it all.” The Doomsday Key, James Rollins
Is there any doubt the world in this story is twisting off its axis?
Example: “On the afternoon I met my new neighbor, a woman others in the cul-de-sac would dub ‘Ramba,’ I wasn’t looking for trouble. In fact, I wasn’t looking for anything other than to enter my first full month of retirement with a small military pension and dreams of a hop to Florida or Hawaii once a year until my expiration date arrived.” Many Dogs Have Died Here, James Mathews
Nothing explicit occurs off the bat, but Mathews sets up for the punch. This poor sucker’s world is tilting.
10. Engaging Dialogue
Example: “’You look like crap, Pen.’ Pendleton Rozier, my longtime mentor, opened the door wide, then coughed into the crook of his elbow. ‘If only I felt that good.’” Rule Number One, Alan Orloff
Example: “’Which is even weirder yet,’ Gowan said. ‘But that ain’t the best part.’ At approximately which point, Kramer didn’t want to hear any more. It had been a mistake to let Gowan get started. He went outside into the mild March evening to take a leak and get away from Gowan for a little while before hitting the sack. ‘Seriousy, I got the skinny on ‘em,’ Gowan said, unzipping and joining him at the edge of the porch.” Spring Rite, Tom Berdine
You’ll notice voice and character here, too.
Invest in a Great Beginning
Spending the time and effort to craft a superb opening for your story is a good investment. However, worrying over it can hold you up. If you’re spinning your wheels over how to start a story, just get something down and move on.
Then, when you’ve reached the end of your story and you have a better understanding of the theme, tone, and characters, you can go back and fine tune or start from scratch to design your perfect beginning.
In fact, doing so may afford you the opportunity to bookend your story with a beginning and ending that reflect on each other, enclosing your story in a nice, thematic package that’s very satisfying to readers.
For instance, my thriller novel Nocturne In Ashes opens with the protagonist, a concert pianist, bombing her comeback performance. Then at the end, after surviving a series of harrowing experiences and battling her inner flaw, she’s gained the confidence she needed and nails the Beethoven that was her downfall.
I’ve touched on some ideas to get you off to a great start, but there are many other types of openings to explore. If you’re having trouble, hit the library and see how others have done it. You’re sure to find something that works for your story. And have fun!
How about you? Do you struggle with how to start a story? What book openings have made an impression on you? Tell us about it in the comments section.
Using one of the types of openings outlined above, write the beginning for a story idea you have in mind, or choose from one of these prompts:
Stella is nervous about meeting her ex-husband for dinner.
Darren takes his son on a hunting trip, determined to teach him how to be a man.
Cheryl wants to try out for the girls’ softball team, but the captain is her ex-best-friend.
In many parts of the world, people are forced to do something that is completely absurd: They give up an hour of their lives. And today, we’re turning the pain of sleep loss into writing prompts.
It’s called “Daylight Savings Time,” but it’s more like “Good Night Sleep’s Losing Time.” It’s as if Thanos came to Earth, snapped his fingers, and 1/24th of everyone’s day turned to dust.
Yet as painful as it was to wake up an hour “later” Sunday morning, Daylight Savings Time can be the inspiration to write a story in any genre, from comedic to tragic.
3 Daylight Savings Time Writing Prompts
Ready to turn your loss of sleep into story gain? Here are three Daylight Savings Time-themed writing prompts to get you started:
1. Whose Idea Was This?!
If modern politicians were foolish enough to propose stealing an hour of sleep from the people, they would be laughed out of office. Yet this practice has deep roots in international history.
Thanks to the tilt of the earth and the effect this has on day length throughout the year, the need to adjust our schedules to the sun has always existed. This began long before time as we know it was measured so precisely. Until train schedules demanded on-the-minute clocks, time was treated relative to the people measuring it. For example, ancient Romans used water scales to determine the length of an hour, and it varied based on the time of year.
But the modern origin of Daylight Savings Time is credited to George Hudson, a New Zealander who wanted more sunlight after work so he could keep up his favorite hobby: collecting insects.
Yup. You lost an hour of sleep because a guy had a thing for beetles.
Another politician who can possibly take credit, or blame, is William Willett, an avid golfer who wanted more time out on the links before sunset.
Yet the idea caught on during the energy shortages of the World Wars, as the two warring sides needed to conserve coal and other fuels and adjusted their clocks to take advantage of another hour of sunlight.
Writing Prompt: How did their friends and family react when the originators of Daylight Savings Time decided to steal an hour of everyone’s sleep?
Regardless of which story is truest or most responsible for your loss of sleep, one thing is absolutely true: All of these explanations make for interesting story starters!
Writing Prompt #1: Jump into the world of George Hudson, William Willett, or someone close to one of these men. How did their spouses react to their ideas? What kinds of conflict were sewn by their self-interested ideas?
2. Lose Sleep, Lose Your Mind?
Everyone values his or her sleep. Yet we’re rarely getting enough of it.
Like many of you, I can’t function until I’ve had my cup of coffee in the morning. For others, it’s tea, but the point remains: We need caffeine to survive!
Losing sleep isn’t just inconvenient, though: It can be dangerous.
Sleep deprivation can lead to car accidents, personal injury, and more. Just ask any new mother. When you lose too much sleep, you might as well be losing your mind.
With this troublesome fact of life in mind, let’s tackle a fun writing prompt based on this rite of passage (at least for some Americans) that feels more like highway robbery.
Writing Prompt #2: Create a protagonist who is already weary and has just lost another hour of sleep, thanks to Daylight Savings Time. What does he or she want to do? How is the sleep deprivation jeopardizing what they value most?
3. “But It’s Not Dark Out!”
If you have a child under the age of 13, you heard these words recently.
Before having children, Daylight Savings is either a minor inconvenience (like now) or a gift from the heavens (in autumn).
But when you have a little one, Daylight Savings is a mean joke played by a cruel universe.
Not only do the kids have legitimate complaints about bedtime (“It’s not dark out!” “I’m not tired yet!”), but carefully maintained schedules get thrown off, taking the entire week to set right again.
This is especially true if you have a little little one who won’t sleep unless you get him to bed at the exact right time. Thought you had that bedtime schedule right on track, huh? Well, guess what: It’s gone!
Daylight Savings Time not only disrupts our own circadian rhythms; it destroys the painstakingly established schedules we depend on to keep our family lives sane.
This is the perfect setup for a story ripe with conflict, and you can take the narrative in any direction you wish. You can make jokes for a hilarious comedy, or you can introduce tragedy and pain for a drama of the utmost power.
Writing Prompt #3: A single parent of three wakes the morning after Daylight Savings to absolute chaos. How has the time change affected the kids and unleashed anarchy on this delicate family? How will the parent face these challenges with dignity?
Chaos to Story
It’s not pleasant to experience disruption in our lives. But disruption is a crucial ingredient for great story. So whether you love it or hate it, turn the disruption of Daylight Savings Time into a brilliant new story today!
Can you think of any more Daylight Savings Time writing prompts? Share your writing prompt ideas in the comments.
From epic fantasy arcs like Game of Thrones to stand alone stories like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, series are all the rage. But how do you write a series readers will love?
3 Essential Tips for How to Write a Series
While putting together a series is similar to putting together a book, it requires a higher level of focus and a longer memory. When my writing partner and I started building our first series, The Defense of Reality, we made a lot of mistakes. If I could rewind time, there are lots of things I would do differently that would have made the writing easier and faster.
Below are three tips I wish someone had given me when I began writing my first series.
1. Have an idea of where you’re going
Whether you are writing standalone books with repeating characters like James Patterson’s Alex Cross books or you are writing a continuous story where each book builds on the next like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, your characters are going to need to grow and develop.
For example, one of the things I enjoyed most about reading Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series was seeing how Tess’s love life developed from one book to the next. Even though each book was a self-contained mystery, I wanted to know how Tess was growing and changing over time.
Even if you hate plotting out storylines and would rather write “by the seat of your pants,” having an idea of how your characters will change across a series can be helpful. For each main character, take time to decide where they are going through the series arc. Will they start single and search for love in each book? Is there an arch villain they will face that will slowly build to a climactic confrontation?
Writing a series? You don’t need a detailed outline for every book, but you do need to know where the series arc is heading.
Knowing where your series is going before you start writing will allow you to start dropping hints and future plot points that will build to the final book.
2. Give yourself a quick plot exit
When my writing partner and I started talking about our first series, we put together a giant plotline. It filled two enormous whiteboards in my office and would take at least ten books to write.
At the beginning, this long journey sounded fun, but after four years of writing and publishing in the series and five books on the market, I needed a break. Unfortunately, the readers who had invested in the series and loved the characters weren’t excited about us pausing the series in the middle of a cliff hanger.
If I had it to do over again, I would still keep the ten book plot. Thinking of epic stories in that way is fun, and even though I’m taking a break from it now, I know I will come back to it. Building complex worlds and histories is exciting.
At the same time, I wish I had worked some natural pause points into the plot line. If I had been smarter, I would have divided the master plot into small sections that could be covered in two or three books. Creating pause points in the massive storyline would have allowed me to write three books in the series, and then take a break from the series without frustrating my readers.
In my second series, I’ve designed characters I could write fifty or sixty books for. The only thing limiting the number of books in the series is my ability to come up with mysteries for them to solve. At the same time, I created a small story arc for the first four books that will allow me to pause the series and give readers the feeling of closure.
As I am currently finishing the first draft of the third book in the series, I’m thankful I took this step. I can feel the exhaustion with the storyline setting in. I know after book four I’m going to need a break.
3. Keep character descriptions on hand
Something I wasn’t prepared for when writing my first series was introducing characters. In every book, I had to reintroduce every character to the reader.
I thought I had a good picture of all the characters in my head, but after I finished the third book, one of my readers pointed out to me that two of the side characters kept changing heights. In the first book character A was taller than B; in the second book, B was taller than A; and in the third book, the characters returned to their original proportions.
It was an embarrassing mistake.
Another mistake I made was the age of one of my characters. From one book to the next, I kept forgetting how old he was. So whenever I had to talk about him, I ended up having to pull up the first book, find the passage in which I discussed the character’s age, and figure out how old he should be in the book I was working on.
When we write a series, we can drive ourselves crazy jumping back into old books to find descriptions and details. From how characters’ names are spelled, to what characters look like, to the types of clothing they wear, there are a lot of details to remember.
In order to help keep all this straight, in my second series, I’ve started keeping a Word document that has character descriptions and details in it. I’ve found it incredibly helpful to write with. When I need to remember a detail about a character, I just flip it open and find the information I need.
The Reward of a Series
Writing series can be difficult, but the long story arch and the experience of taking characters on a long journey is rewarding for both us as writers and the readers that invest in our work. When tackling a major project like a series, we need to do what we can to make our jobs easier.
Do you want to write a series? Or are you writing one, and you have tips to share about how to write a series? Let us know in the comments so we can all learn from one another.
For today’s writing challenge, practice writing a character description that you could use across multiple books. For fifteen minutes, write a description of a character or a setting. Make sure to cover all the details you might need in future books.
When you’re done, share your character description in the comments below. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Can you steal ideas from other stories? What if someone steals your ideas? In fact, are your ideas even good enough at all? If you’ve ever asked questions like these, I have good news for you.
A common refrain I hear from writers is that they have an idea, but it’s too much like ___________ (fill in the blank with whatever book, movie, show you like). Or writers hoard ideas like a dragon sitting on gold, convinced that someone is about to steal them. Both of these beliefs hurt you as a writer because they are grounded in fear.
What if someone steals my idea?
Sometimes writers guard their ideas like they are top-secret, waiting for the right moment to write them. They hoard their ideas to keep others from “stealing” them. Can an idea be stolen? Yes and no.
I stumbled onto a Reddit thread recently that compared stories or films with similar plotlines that had been executed into wildly different stories.
Plot: “Tom Hanks’ flight doesn’t go well.” Stories: Apollo 13, Cast Away, Terminal, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. (Source: Reddit, golfandpie)
Plot: “Overprotective, single father falls into dangerous situations in search of abducted child.” Stories: Finding Nemo and Taken. (Source: Reddit, AndySocks)
And my favorite:
Plot: “Stole a loaf of bread, went to jail, was given riches by someone, gained political office, took part in rebellion against the government, has longstanding feud with one specific government official, ultimately influences this enemy to defeat himself.” Stories: Aladdin and Les Miserables. (Source: Reddit, zninjazero)
Were these premises stolen? *gasp!* The idea is laughable. No one walked into the writing room on Taken and said, “You know, let’s write Finding Nemo as an action film!”
But even if they had, they created something so vastly different, for an entirely new audience. All of these plotlines could be spun into unique stories, depending on the characters, setting, and voice.
Some even argue that there are only a handful of plots. (See Foster-Harris’s three basic plot patterns, Vonnegut’s story shapes, Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots or the twenty master plots of Ronald Tobias.) The originality isn’t in the core plotline — it’s in the unique, specific execution of that plot, of that character’s journey.
The point is this: an idea can’t be stolen. A finished book can be stolen in whole or parts — that’s called plagiarism or theft (see the copy and paste scandals happening right now). But an idea, one you’re just talking about? One that isn’t developed or finished? That can’t be stolen.
An idea can’t be stolen. Two writers who begin with the same idea will create two vastly different stories.
I’m just asking if it’s good
Once a writer gets beyond the hoarding phase and begins sharing ideas, too often they only do it to secure approval. My students sometimes come in or email me, “I have this idea. Can you tell me if it’s good?” Some writers do this same thing, sending ideas and half finished chapters to authors they love for feedback (stop doing this, please).
My answer: Who knows? Who knows until you execute it fully?
In my early days of teaching, I probably would have guided writers to ideas I found more “worthy,” but I have since realized that I am not the gatekeeper of good ideas. This frustrates students to no end.
“Just tell me if it’s good!” they say, exasperated.
I tell them, “Look, if you had come to me ten years ago and said you want to write a story about tornadoes and sharks, I would have told you to pick either sharks or tornadoes. Now there are six (YES, SIX!) Sharknado movies. Execution is everything. Until you write it and try it out, who knows if it will find an audience?”
Elizabeth Acevedo, author of The Poet X, has talked candidly about her frustration with a professor in her MFA program who had assigned a poem about nature. She’s from New York City, and she’d chosen to write about rats.
Her professor told her rats weren’t noble. That they weren’t a good idea. Then she wrote an astonishing poem that captured her unique point of view and voice. She would go on to publish a best-selling book and electrify audiences with her poetry and prose.
Stop waiting for someone to tell you an idea is “good.” If it is something you’ve been mulling over for a while, something you can’t get out of your head, write it down and finish it. Only then can you evaluate where it lacks originality and then you can revise.
The same, but different
There are entire books about how real artists build and adapt from ideas already in the world (see Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist, or the entire Shakespeare canon). When you find ideas in others’ work that capture your attention and keep you up at night? Spin those in your own direction, in your own voice.
You may start in the same place as another writer, but you will likely end up somewhere different because you have a unique point of view.
Genre fiction works on the entire principle of “the same, but different.” Anyone who picks up a romance expects two people to meet, experience setbacks and complications, and then finally accept they are in love. The romances that rise to the top tend to execute those expectations in an unexpected or fresh way.
So stop worrying about similarities when you know you’re not copying and pasting someone’s work. I would argue most developing writers mimic their favorite authors at first anyway, and it is a natural part of growth. Try out different voices and discard those that you outgrow. It will help you find your own voice.
It’s unproductive to remain paralyzed in fear that your idea will be stolen or that it’s too similar to something else. Stop letting those excuses keep your from writing your story.
What ideas have you been hoarding or worrying were too much like something else to try? Share if you dare in the comments.
It’s your turn to “steal” an idea. Using one of the movie plots above, spin a new version by adding character, setting, or voice to create a unique premise.
Or do you have an idea you’ve been saving up, one you’ve been too afraid to try? Start now. Write the first paragraph or page.
Take fifteen minutes to write. When you’re done, share your writing in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Who doesn’t love to laugh? A good, healthy chuckle goes a long way toward making a character more likable and a reader more willing to stick with that character through difficult situations. Most stories, whatever the genre, benefit from moments of humor. Yes, humor writing is hard—but these strategies will give your writing the perfect blend of levity.
5 Hilarious Strategies for Humor Writing
Comedy writing is hard, and requires a special sort of skill set. That’s not what this article is about. These tips are not meant to equip you to write for late night television or snag a job on your favorite sit-com. I’m just talking about ways to add some laughs and light moments into your stories, to liven up your dialogue, and endear your characters to readers.
Let’s dive in to these five techniques for humor writing.
1. Take an unexpected turn
This technique can produce delight in the reader, as well as giggles and grins. This is when you lead your reader down a particular path, setting up an expectation, and then at the last moment you switch direction completely.
Here’s a rough example of what I’m talking about: James didn’t like working with attorneys. It’s not that he had anything against them, personally. It sprung more from the fact that lawyers—even the most ethically correct and upright of them—are spawn of the devil.
It seemed, at first, that James was being fair-minded in the reasons for his dislike, and the reader is expecting a fair explanation. Then—twist—and not what the reader expected. Unless, of course, they’ve spent time with lawyers.
Beer is not the answer. Sure, when your problems are getting you down, drinking beer might temporarily improve your mood. But what happens when the beer wears off? You’re right back where you started, still stuck with all the same problems. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to face the harsh truth: You need more beer.
2. The Rule of Three
Schoolhouse Rock declared it and we all know it’s true—three is a magic number. Despite being odd, it brings a feeling of completeness. The Trinity. Three strikes and you’re toast. A Jedi, a priest, and a Rabbi walk into a bar.
This trick takes the unexpected turn and pairs it with the power of three. Set up three items. The first is logical, the second follows form, and the third is off-the-wall.
For instance: In her free time, Sally liked to crochet, go to the movies, and crack heads at the local roller derby. Or maybe: Jared opened the cabinet in the evidence locker. It contained a wrist watch, a handful of coins, and a well-worn whoopie cushion.
Another example from Dave Barry. What can I say? I recently read the book. Here it is:
I should be a happy man. I have all the elements of a good life: a loving family, a nice home, a dog that doesn’t pee indoors without a good reason.
Here’s a quick and easy way to infuse humor into your writing: set up a list of three items. The first is logical, the second follows form, and the third is off-the-wall.
3. Set it up and pay it off
This powerful method will not only inspire laughter, but can form “bookends” for your story, giving it a nice finishing touch. You do it by setting up a situation early on and paying it off at the end. Or, in some cases, simply later on in the story.
For example, in a story I recently wrote, my protagonist is a guy named Tal Bannerman. Tal does not want to get married. At the beginning, he goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid such commitment (ironically committing himself to something far more dangerous) and finally drives his girlfriend, Bridget, to dump him.
The story is a thriller, and after a whirlwind of tension-filled perilous action involving Tal and his new, government-issue buddy, Wrigley, it ends with Tal inviting Wrigley to the wedding, saying Bridget can’t wait to meet him.
Another example of this device that requires a setup and subsequent payoff would go something like this: Convey to your reader that your character lives for three things only. Let’s say spouse, pet cat, and Stouffer’s Lasagna. That alone will raise a chuckle, as it follows the Rule of Three.
But later in the story, his house explodes, leaving nothing standing but the refrigerator. He anxiously runs to it and flings open the freezer. Everything’s going to be all right. The Stouffer’s Lasagna survived the blast.
4. The Bash or Bless Method
This is a great way to brand your character. Find something your character either really, really loves or really, really hates and keep hitting on it throughout the story. Readers will come to link him with this particular thing and will think of him whenever they come across it, even when they’re not reading your book. An awesome way to stake out some real estate in the reader’s head.
Here’s how you use it to make your reader laugh. Let’s say your character is a high-level chef who loves haute cuisine. In her book, the most abominable of all human creations is SPAM. She abhors it, and this comes up enough times in the book that your reader can’t fail to know it.
Her husband is behaving strangely and she hires a PI to investigate. When he reports in, handing her the envelope full of incriminating evidence, her blood runs cold. An affair, she could’ve handled, but this! The photos show hubby secretly eating SPAM—fried, roasted, spread on crackers. She’ll have to get him into rehab.
Of course, there are many ways to use this technique, and you may find one that’s just right for your story.
5. Character consistent observation
If you want readers to get fully drawn into your story, you should be using the power of POV to do that. Point of View, used properly, is a massively powerful tool and you can use it to add humor through your character’s observations.
For instance, your character will see things in a way that is distinct from others, based upon what makes them unique. Let’s say your character is deaf. She cannot look at a roomful of dancing people without cracking up. Imagine if people walking down a crowded street suddenly started swaying their hips and moving in sync with each other.
It would be ridiculous without the music. The beat, the song, is what makes sense out of their movements. Without the sound, their behavior is just downright embarrassing.
Use your character’s observations and unique point of view to show the absurdities that exist in situations we think of as ordinary. Consider Halloween. Is it normal for parents to dress their children in outlandish costumes and send them to the neighbors to beg for candy? Only on this one day of the year does something utterly bizarre become normal.
Have your character observe the absurdities in life.
Jerry Seinfeld is a master of observational humor. Here’s an example of his unique perspective finding the farce in statistical data:
According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
Kick your shoes off and pull up a chair
Adding humor to your work is an excellent way to engage readers and keep them turning pages. Whether you do that with one of the devices discussed above or with a fresh, original character voice, or by some other means, humor is a winning strategy.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, one of my mentors, maintains that when readers open your book, they are inviting you into their living room to spend some time. They want characters that are comfortable and enjoyable to be with, as well as entertaining.
A little laughter goes a long way toward making that happen.
How about you? Do you use humor in your writing? Do you have any more tips for humor writing? Tell us about it in the comments section.
With regard to a piece you’re currently working on, choose one of the techniques above and develop a scene with humor. If you’d rather, use this prompt for your scene:
Jody shouted and waved, running to catch the blue bus, but she was too late. The bus drove off without her. Now she has to deal with all the stares from people waiting to board the purple bus.
Remember, you want your readers to enjoy spending time with this character, and to laugh. Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your work in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
If you’re like most writers I know, you want to publish a book. But not just any book: you want to publish a book you can be proud of. A book you can confidently share with friends, family, and clamoring readers. A book that will prove to them with just one glance what an amazing author you are. You want to publish a beautiful book.
Of course, rarely do writers set out to publish books that aren’t beautiful. But despite their best intentions, not-beautiful books are uploaded to Amazon and offered for sale every day.
So how can you ensure your book is beautiful? That it’s a book you’re truly proud of?
How to Publish a Beautiful Book
A beautiful book starts with that most essential element of any book, the thing that keeps us coming back to a book and an author again and again: an amazing story.
An amazing story is the core of any book. You can make a book as pretty as you like, but if it doesn’t have a great story, you’re just putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. A captivating cover and fascinating description won’t stop a reader from putting a book down if the story isn’t strong all the way through.
But an amazing story isn’t the only thing you need. And in fact, authors who try to publish an amazing story without all the other elements that make a book beautiful actually end up more disappointed.
What else do you need? Let’s look at the ten elements beautiful books share.
1. A great idea
An amazing story starts with a great idea. Write your idea as a one-sentence premise, then share it with a few people you trust.
How do they respond? Are they interested, curious to hear more? Getting feedback on your idea before you start writing will help you ensure you’re committing to a great story.
2. An amazing story
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.
Does your story hook readers from the start? Keep them turning pages as problems mount and stakes are raised? Reward them with a surprising yet inevitable conclusion? Wrap up with just enough resolution to leave them satisfied?
Your story is the reason you’re writing a book, the reason readers are interested, the part of your creation you’ll be most proud of. No, it’s not the only part of a beautiful book. But it’s arguably the most important, so invest time and effort to get it right.
3. Insightful feedback*
How will you know whether your story is amazing, or whether it still needs some more work? You need insightful feedback from savvy critiquers who will be able to recognize its strengths and weaknesses.
Look for insightful feedback from people like these:
Plus, you’ll get to read and critique other writers’ work. You might be surprised at how much the act of critiquing someone else’s writing helps you grow as a writer, too.
From a developmental editor
The best way to get vital feedback about your story is to hire a developmental editor.
A developmental editor will read your entire story, evaluate what’s working and what’s not, and give you high-level recommendations about how you can improve it. You’ll get feedback on areas like characterization, pacing, story structure, key scenes, plot developments, subplots, and genre-specific elements.
A good developmental editor is likely to charge upwards of a thousand dollars. Investing in your book at this point is the best thing you can do to ensure you craft an amazing story.
If there’s one place you should spend money on your book, this is it.
4. Polished writing*
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: your story is the most important part of your book.
But you don’t just want readers to enjoy your story. You want them to enjoy every moment of the experience of reading it, every brilliant turn of phrase and humorous aside you weave in.
Once your story is set, refine your paragraphs and sentences until they shine, so your readers will enjoy reading your book at every level.
5. Meticulous proofreading*
If you’ve read more than a few book reviews on Amazon, you’ve probably seen comments like these:
“This author should have hired an editor.”
“Did an editor ever see this book?”
“I wanted to enjoy this book, but it badly needed an editor.”
Usually, when readers complain about a book’s lack of editing, it’s because they’re catching typos and grammar errors on page after page.
Are your commas all in place? Is each word spelled correctly?
Don’t give your readers reason to critique your book — proofread it to ensure all those pesky errors are cleared out.
6. Elegant formatting*
To this point, we’ve focused on refining the words inside your book, making sure each one is the right one.
But the words in your book aren’t the first thing your readers will judge.
When your readers open your book, before they read a single word, they’ll notice how well your book is formatted.
Good formatting enhances the reading experience, making it easy, smooth, and enjoyable. Choppy or inconsistent formatting will distract readers from your story, frustrating them or even making them put down your book entirely.
Use a tool like Vellum to design an elegant book, or hire a book designer.
7. A captivating cover*
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s well-intentioned advice, but admit it: we all judge books by their covers.
Your cover is the very first impression your readers will have of your book. It’s the first clue readers will use to judge whether this book is for them.
Of course, there’s a wide variety of great book covers in the world. A fantasy novel’s cover will look different than a summer romance, different than a murder mystery, different than a contemporary YA novel.
But no matter your genre, your cover should look professional and clear. Browse the bookshelves at a bookstore or local library to get an idea of what covers typically look like for books like yours.
Then, find a cover that will look fantastic on that shelf alongside books similar to yours. There are a few ways you can do this.
A great cover designer will give you the best possible cover for your book. You can hire a designer to craft a professional-looking cover custom designed for you.
If you have a small to moderate budget for a book cover, you can purchase a premade cover that fits your story.
Alternately, you can DIY it and design your own cover.
Regardless of the route you choose, remember that your book cover is your one chance to make a great first impression. Show your readers right away that your book is beautiful, inside and out.
8. A riveting book description
If your cover draws readers in, your book description is the next thing they’ll evaluate to determine whether yours is a book they want to read.
Your book description will appear in a variety of places. You’ll use it on your back cover, your Amazon sales page, your book’s page on your website, and anywhere else where you want to give people a quick introduction to your book.
The key here is to remember that your book description is not a synopsis. It’s sales copy.
Think of the books you love, or popular books that made a splash when they were released. Take a look at their Amazon pages. What about those pages makes a compelling case that you should buy the book?
For starters, there’s the cover and book description, which we discussed above.
Then, there’s the number of reviews. The Fault in Our Stars has over 37,000 reviews. Even the 423 one-star reviews add credibility: this is a book that over thirty-seven thousand people have read. Seeing numbers like that for a book you’re interested in might make you think, if a book has that many readers, why haven’t you read it, too?
Scroll down a little further, and you’ll probably see professional reviews from major book review outlets like Kirkus or Publishers Weekly, as well as blurbs from other authors endorsing the book.
You’ll see a bio of the author explaining why they are the type of person to write a fantastic book.
You’ll see other books like this one, and categories defining the book’s subject and genre, both ways to determine whether this is the kind of book you would like to read.
Finally, the big, yellow “Add to Cart” button right at the top of the page makes it quick and easy to buy.
From top to bottom, a book’s Amazon page is designed to convince you that this is a beautiful book. Each element gives readers one more reason to believe that you’re a great author, you’ve written an amazing book, and if they buy it and read it, they’ll definitely love it.
Start off with adding your cover and book description. Then, once your book is published, ask your readers to review your book on Amazon, giving you credibility and social proof.
10. A professional author website*
At first glance, this might seem a little odd. You don’t need an author website to make your book beautiful, do you?
Let’s go back to that original goal. A beautiful book is one you’re proud of. It’s a book you can share confidently with friends and family. It will make all those doubters say, “Wow, you are a professional author.” It will make readers believe in you and your stories.
If you want people to believe in your books, you need to present yourself as a professional author.
Because let’s face it: readers don’t want to read any old book by Nellie Sal down the street. They want to read books by the next great author, someone who demonstrates that they’re an author they can trust to write amazing stories.
And one of the best ways to demonstrate that you are that author is by creating a professional-looking author website.
Your author website is your home on the internet. It’s where you’ll connect with readers, where you’ll announce new developments in your writing, and where you’ll display all the books you write.
Take time to create an author website that reflects who you are as a professional writer (because that’s what you are!). You can build your website yourself, or hire a web developer to build it for you.
Then, update your website at least once or twice a month to stay in contact with your readers.
*The Asterisk: Hiring Professionals
You might have noticed that six of these ten elements have asterisks next to them. These are the elements where you have the option of hiring professional help.
A developmental editor will give you high-level feedback on your entire story.
When it’s time to polish your writing, a line editor will comb through your story sentence-by-sentence to smooth out your prose and make sure each word reads beautifully.
A proofreader will examine each word, letter, and punctuation mark to ensure there are no typos or errors in your book.
A book formatter will format your manuscript for print or ebook publication.
A cover designer will design a professional-quality cover that matches your book.
A web designer will build and/or design your author website.
All of these can help you take your book to the next level. But you don’t necessarily need to hire each one.
If you’re on a tight budget, you might prefer to line edit your book yourself, ask a grammar-savvy friend to help you proofread, and learn to format your book, design your cover, and build your website yourself.
Remember, the most important part of your book is your amazing story. So if you have any money to invest, focus on developmental editing to make your story the best it can be.
Traditional or Self-Publishing?
If you’re publishing your book through a traditional publisher, there’s good news: they’ll provide the editors and designers for you. (You’ll still be responsible for building and maintaining your website.)
If you’re self-publishing, you’ll have to find and hire the professionals you need. While this means a greater up-front investment for you, it also means you’ll have more control over the process of creating your book from start to finish.
Remember, beautiful books are traditionally published and self-published all the time. (Not-beautiful books are traditionally published and self-published all the time, too.)
Beautiful books are traditionally published and self-published all the time.
It’s not the publishing route you choose that will make your book beautiful, but each of the ten elements above.
This Takes Time
This is a long article. Publishing a beautiful book is an even longer process.
It takes months to write a book. It takes more months to edit and proofread a book. And it takes even more months to prepare a book’s packaging: the formatting, cover design, description, and web presence that will put your book on display and show people that it’s worth investing in.
But the end result is so worth this time and effort. If you persevere, if you commit to making each element of your book beautiful, you’ll produce a book you’re truly proud of.
Your friends, family, readers, and even doubters will be amazed to see your name on the cover.
And your book will look right at home alongside all your favorite books on your bookshelf.
Will you commit to not just publishing a book, but publishing a beautiful book?
Which of these ten elements do you tend to focus on in your writing and publishing journey? Let us know in the comments.
Turn to your bookshelf and choose a book you like. Then, examine it to see if it has all ten elements of a beautiful book.
Check the copyright page and acknowledgements for the names of the editors and designers who contributed to it. Take a look at the cover: what about the cover design makes you want to read the book? Read the book description, and flip through a few pages to see the interior formatting.
Look up the book on Amazon. What elements on its Amazon page demonstrate that it’s a book worth buying? Read the author’s bio, then see if they have an author website. What information do they share there
Take fifteen minutes to study the book. Then, share your observations in the comments below. What element most convinced you that this is a beautiful book, one you’d love to read?
Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers, too!
Writers are imitators. At its heart, our job is to watch the world, listen to it, feel it, and then reproduce it using the tools of language. We writers are readers, too.
That is why we tend to “write what we know.” Human beings are built for input, and what we put into our minds likely comes out in our writing.
That is why it’s important to choose our reading carefully. Choose the right literature and you’ll be infinitely inspired to create wonderful work.
But choose the wrong reading material and you’ll find yourself struggling to an audience.
Writers Are Readers
There’s a cliche that “writers are readers,” and it exists for good reason. Writers are people who love the cycle of storytelling. It goes something like this.
Person reads a story and loves it. Person imagines a similar story in his or her own head. Person sits down to write that story. New person reads the new story. Repeat.
If you are a writer, you are probably a reader, too. And most writer-readers look to their literature for inspiration.
But you must be cautious when choosing inspiration.
Every book you read will influence your writing, so read a lot, and read carefully.
When Pleasure Reading Affects Our Writing
Most writers flourish within a specific genre, or small group of genres. Yet they often like reading outside these genres. I know I do.
And while pleasure reading can extend to any form or genre, business reading needs to be focused and specific. Again, human beings are creatures built on input, and whatever goes in tends to come out in some form.
Here’s an example.
As a younger writer, I fell in love with the work of Cormac McCarthy. The first book of his I read was The Road, a desolate, heart-breaking story of a father and son trying to find somewhere to call home. I was amazed at the quality of McCarthy’s prose, and before long it began to appear in my writing.
Unfortunately, I had no idea how to grow a career with desolate, heart-breaking stories!
I wanted to write books that readers couldn’t put down because they were so immersed in the stories. But by mimicking The Road, I focused instead on the beautifull stark prose and McCarthy’s long-form style, two storytelling elements that I would never recommend to a new author trying to build an audience.
(On a side note, The Road contains a beautiful story. But I was so impressed by the “shiny objects” of his limitless vocabular and gutsy “one long chapter” choice that I neglected to study the core relationship and journey that makes the book so special.)
So instead of becoming the next Cormac McCarthy, I just produced moody material that didn’t take readers on a journey.
This is a great case of my pleasure reading interferring with my writing. I was much younger then, and reading a wildly talented author made me want to be just like him.
But I didn’t know what genre I wanted to write in, nor did I appreciate just how important genre was to building a trusting relationship with my readers.
When Business Reading Affects Our Writing
I recently read a book that also affected my writing. But this time, I sought out a book I knew would help my writing. I read it as a thrilled reader and attentive student-writer.
The book was Star of the North by D.B. John, a white-knuckle thriller the centers on North Korea and its secretive regime’s dirty deeds. Paired with what I’ve learned from Shawn Coyne and The Story Grid, my reading of Star of the North was like taking a masterclass on structure.
One might think that because D.B. John’s story is a thriller, the kind one will buy in an airport or at the front of Barnes & Noble, that the prose suffers. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In addition to being an example of great macro and micro structure, Star is beautifully and powerfully written. I read each page, my heart thumping with same jealousy I felt when I read The Road.
So what’s the difference between The Road and Star of the North? Should you immediately download one on Kindle and shun the other? Of course not!
It all has to do with why you read one and the other.
What to Read for to Help Your Writing
Knowing your genre is essential. It’s the first thing editors look for, according to editor and author Shawn Coyne. If you don’t know your genre, and how to fulfill it and innovate its conventions, then your book probably won’t work.
With this in mind, you must approach your reading with the same considerations. Is the book you’re reading in your genre? Is it in a different sub-genre? These similarities and differences make a big difference.
Because what you put inside your head is going to come out somehow — unless you choose to compartmentalize it.
If you want to write something imagistic, grinding, and literary like The Road, then dig right in. Study it. Analyze it. And do your best to tell your own story, complete with its own three-act journey, in the same genre-specific way.
And if you want to write something thrilling, fast-paced, and similiarly vivid like Star of the North, then dig in all the same.
But know why you are digging in.
Are you digging in as a detached reader? Is it like being a professional tennis player, marveling at the talent of a professional football player?
Or are you diving deep to apprentice a master? Are you reading to soak up as much skill knowledge as possible, and to practice replicating it in your own work?
As an avid reader, and a passionate writer, it’s important to know why you’re picking up a book and putting its words in your head.
Read With Caution, but Read a Lot
Don’t let the message of this article mislead you. Writers are readers, so keep reading, and read a lot!
But always be of two minds when you read, sorting everything you read into two categories: Pleasure and Business.
And as you mature as a storyteller you’ll find yourself able to use more and more for Business than ever before. This is a sign of wisdom, recognizing the interrelatedness of ALL stories, and using those similarities for the good of your readers.
Happy (careful) reading, and happy writing!
What book have you read that has most influenced your own writing? Let us know in the comments.
Today, your challenge is to let your reading impact your writing.
First, pick up a nearby book, preferably one you’re currently reading or have read before. Take five minutes to read a few pages. Notice how the scenes progress, how the language flows, and all the elements that draw you into the story.
Think of one element you want to emulate. It might be the prose, the dialogue, the characters, or something else entirely. Then, take ten minutes to write your own scene, inspired by the author you just read. Try to recreate that element as much as possible.
When you’re done, share the book you read and your writing practice in the comments. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Are your stories feeling slow and boring? You might be making things too easy for your characters. So how do you create problems for your characters, make them uncomfortable, and challenge them?
Most of us try to avoid hard things. We have traffic apps to help us steer clear of wrecks and construction on the roadway. We espouse slogans like “work smarter, not harder.” We love hacks, apps, and tips to make most anything easier or more comfortable.
But what if the hard thing is the best way to become the people we want to be? What if we’re avoiding the very thing that holds the key to our growth?
Sometimes as writers, we let our characters settle for the easy life. What is the default state for your main character? Where is he most comfortable? You’ve got to get the character out of that state as quickly as possible.
Sources of Discomfort
Discomfort is a quick way to get your character out of stasis, and it can come from any number of sources. It can be internal, where the character’s insecurities, fear, or flaw cause intense discomfort.
Discomfort can come from a relationship or another character who makes your protagonist uncomfortable through a break up, an unethical request, or just plain rudeness.
It can come from difficult circumstances beyond the character’s control — an illness, a storm, or an accident.
Or discomfort can come through a character’s poor choices, which can amplify any of these other sources. Mix and match to see what stresses your character out most.
What stresses your character out the most? Don’t make their life easy—force them to face it.
The Hardest Thing
Once you have a good list of uncomfortable situations or choices that complicate your character’s life, you can turn to the larger obstacles. What would be the hardest thing for your character to do? What does he avoid at every turn?
Make a list of the hard things he or she avoids. It probably isn’t climbing Mount Everest or running an ultramarathon (although it could be — those are both hard things). For some characters, quitting a job might be their Mount Everest. For others, it might be crossing the street. Use that difficult action to push your character out of the status quo.
You can also challenge a character emotionally. What is the emotionally difficult thing for your character? Being vulnerable? Honest? Is it difficult for her to be humble or does she refuse to ask for help?
Explore what makes those things so difficult for the character. Then, exploit them.
Force Your Character Grow Through Action
Now that you know the complications and hardest thing your character could face, you can help your character grow. Put your character in a situation that requires at least one of those challenging choices. Better yet, make them choose between the two hardest things, and make them struggle through it.
In a short story or novel, the hardest thing is likely near the climax, and it might even be the crisis. Build to it using the smaller complications and discomfort, letting your character fail and make small strides as you go.
At the very least, recognize that as you struggle to figure out what the hardest things are for your character, you yourself are persevering through the writing practice that will make you stronger over time. Stick with it. Writing is often hard, but you can do it!
What are some of the worst (best?) complications you’ve seen characters face that forced them to grow? Share in the comments.
Ready to cause problems for your characters? Take fifteen minutes to think about the protagonist in your work in progress.
Make a list of everything you can think of that makes them uncomfortable, big or small. If you have time, brainstorm a scene in which they’re forced to face the thing that makes them most uncomfortable.
Don’t have a work in progress? Create a new character based on this prompt: she really hated getting caught in the rain. Take fifteen minutes to list out what else makes her uncomfortable, and why.
When you’re done, share your practice in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
You’re a writer. But do you write short stories? And is there any reason why you should write short stories?
“Writer” is an extremely broad term; after all, there are dozens of genres in which you might write. Poetry, novels, memoir, historical fiction, picture books, cookbooks, instruction manuals, fan-fiction, all of these barely scratch the surface of what you can do with your talents. No matter what you write, though, there are significant benefits to writing short stories that will help you learn and grow within your craft.
5 Reasons Why You Should Write Short Stories
If you’re a novelist or someone who focuses on longer works of writing, short stories may seem strangely daunting to you. I know I’ve definitely felt restricted at times when it comes to how much space I had to tell a story.
But trust me, there are so many ways that writing a short story can help you as a writer. Here are just five benefits.
1. It keeps you in a regular writing habit
It can be so much easier to sit down at your desk knowing you only have to write a little bit of a short piece than it might be if you were faced with the daunting task of continuing a 300-page novel. No matter how much—or how little—progress you make, progress is progress. As long as you’re getting your butt in the chair and typing away, you’re strengthening those creative muscles.
2. You finish more projects
The curse of most writers is having all of those half-finished, abandoned projects taunting you from the edges of your mind. Sometimes you might return to a project to finish it, often times only to abandon it again. This is especially common of longer works, like novels.
With short stories, though, it’s an easy practice in learning how to finish a draft, and then later on in how to revise it. Plus, finished projects are great for contest submissions! You can’t exactly win a contest or be in a publication with an uncompleted draft.
Want to finish more writing projects? Try writing short stories.
3. The stakes are low
If you do decide to trash a piece you’ve been working on, with a short story, you haven’t thrown out all that much. It can be disheartening to leave a story behind and feel like all of that work was for nothing, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Anything you’ve written can only help you learn how you can take on another piece in a more prepared way.
4. It lets you practice storytelling
Of course any form of story is a good practice in storytelling, but short stories are an excellent crash course in every single element of fiction. In just a few thousand words, you have to develop characters, a setting, a plot, dialogue, and polish your prose, along with several other aspects I didn’t even mention.
Once you’ve finished your short story, it’s also an easy piece to reread to figure out which elements of storytelling you might need to brush up on. By glancing at a few pages, you can pinpoint which parts are the weakest and why.
5. It eases you back into writing
If you’ve gone through an especially bad bout of writer’s block, you may not feel like going back to your creative work at all. Getting back in the saddle after an extended break is one of the hardest things you do as an artist. But short stories are a good way to do that.
Listen to some advice from Anne Lamott and take things “bird by bird.” Short stories are a gentle way to ease yourself back into writing. By the time you start one, it’ll be over before you know it. And once you’ve tackled one story, the rest will come so much more easily.
Other Short Forms
Though I focused on why you should write short stories here, I should also mention that short pieces of any kind can be beneficial to you: flash-fiction, articles, poems, anything that only lasts for a few pages. All of those apply, as well. What matters if that you’re writing, anything, that lets you continue to practice.
What has writing short stories done to help you as a writer? Let us know in the comments.
For fifteen minutes, write the beginning of a short story. It can be about anyone, set anywhere, so long as you commit to those fifteen minutes of writing. You have no obligation to keep your work afterwards, but this is a good way to practice writing for writing’s sake, as well as the various elements of storytelling.
When you’re finished, share your work in the comments, if you’d like. Don’t forget to give your fellow writers some love, too. Have fun!