More Motivation: Reveal by Doing

My desk calendar is on a roll this month with writing affirmations. You’ll recall its words of wisdom on perfection two weeks ago. It’s at it again today, this time with an adage I’ve found to be true of forming stories:


I think about my stories a lot. I think about them so much that I sometimes forget to write them. Other times, I choose to think instead of write because I don’t have all the answers ready to write down. I’ll procrastinate, write other things, anything to avoid the grave sin of writing something that isn’t 100% ready before placing finger to keyboard.

Still, I make myself write every day, even when I groan and sigh because pages of bracket notes await me. Can you guess how many times I’ve done this and written clunky sentences and stuff to fill in later? Every time.

Can you also guess how many times the story has answered my questions for me because I wrote it down — and answered it with clarity I never thought I’d have when the words were just in my thoughts?

Once again, every time.

Write it down, even if it’s not where you think it should be. It isn’t where it should be, but that’s because it’s in your head, and not on paper where it belongs. Put it there.

Talk it Out: Thoughts on Dialogue

I’ve been writing since I was little. A lot of my drive to write came from encouragement from my teachers. One thing I heard from grade to grade, and class to class, was the following observation: “You write a lot of dialogue.”

While never framed as a critique outright, I took it as an observation of something I should scale back. There are books, and there are scripts. I prefer to write books (or short stories). While I adore a good screenplay, it’s ultimately a writing medium that I don’t feel is my forte – beyond my knack for a good back-and-forth.

Unlearning my interpretation of my teachers’ observations has been one of the trickier parts of getting back into writing over the past two years. As I write first drafts — always a tough experience — I find myself stopping when I fill a page with a back-and-forth between characters. “It’s a book, not a script,” I tell myself. Then I keep writing – and keep writing dialogue. Cursed habits!

Or maybe they’re not so cursed. Over the past two years, I’ve heard more and more from people who encourage my dialogue habit. The most common refrain is one I’ve discovered firsthand: it’s one of the best ways to show and not tell. This seems odd, since characters speaking a truth is somewhat like telling. But in my own writing, I find that telling sounds more natural when it’s shared in conversation, as opposed to spelled out in narration.

This was my most common revision in Please Give, a trickier story to navigate the “show not tell” fields because it’s written in first person. My first drafts often had the narrator, Beth, possess amazing psychic powers about what the other characters were thinking. If she wasn’t psychic, then she was a lengthy narrator, going on and on about people’s histories and what was what. Sometimes that worked in narration (well, TBD — I’m waiting to hear back from my editor), but most of the time, it was long-winded, clunky, and unnatural. All those adjectives were erased when I converted explanatory narration into dialogue. Why should Beth speak for these people? She – and I, and the reader – can talk to them.

Further, having the characters talk revealed more things to me while writing than I thought possible when trying to speak for them as a narrator. This is true of both my first-person and third-person stories. Conversation can reveal many layers of depth, in ways that narration sometimes can’t.

My editor gave me some sound advice that I’d like to close with. When reading one of my stories, she found it didn’t flow as well as the others. It was also a story with less dialogue than I usually include. She said she realized while reading it that my characters need someone to talk to. I’ve often repeated that to myself when I get stuck on a dialogue-heavy story, because when I move past my doubts and make my characters to speak, I find that she’s right.

I would encourage any of you struggling with dialogue to consider if your characters need the same. Write a bunch of one-liners. Get them to talk to each other. Get them to talk to you. Even if you go back and take out superfluous lines, or add some narration to make it less script-like, or even feel odd writing so many lines, it may end up being the practice that helps your story come further to life.

Friday Motivation: Done is Better than Perfect

The following was the entry on my desk calendar the other day. It came at a great time, as I was hesitating to continue some projects because I didn’t think they were perfect or ready enough to continue or finish. In a quick post to get the weekend started, I wanted to share it with all of you. I hope you spend your weekend – or any day, really – completing your pieces! Writing something is always better than nothing. 

Done is better than perfect
Have a good weekend, everyone. 

When She Was Sloppy

All pieces start with a first draft, and with rare exception, all first drafts are bad. Aspiring writers — myself included — often forget that all great pieces came from bad first drafts, because we only get to see these pieces after they’ve gone through revisions, professional edits, and other polishes to make them less sloppy. I always appreciate it when my favorite authors share their early drafts to prove this point (though I say early, and not first, because I’m convinced that most first drafts will never see the light of day if their authors have anything to say about it).

I’ve discovered that the forgotten first draft experience can happen with my own writing. Over the past few months, I’ve engaged the most with second and third (and ninth and tenth) drafts of my pieces. The earliest drafts of Please Give ceased around New Year’s, with the first pages written getting heavily revised or completely rewritten; and any following pages being buoyed by those revisions. The new pages weren’t perfect by any means, but they were better than first drafts because I was more familiar with the story and where it was going.

Between chapters of Please Give, I worked on revising the short stories set to appear in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales — reading them, getting feedback from readers, incorporating edits from Evelyn, and reading through them again. The first drafts of these stories were even more buried than the first words of Please Give, going back to the spring and summer of 2016.

Despite writing every day in 2017, new writing — brand new stories, with no drafts whatsoever to guide them and no revisions to shape them — didn’t happen at all until May, when the full draft of Please Give was done. At last, I had the time and mental space to start the new projects that were simply ideas. I cracked my knuckles, opened a brand new Word document, and let the words flow from my fingers.

Words that, as they I typed them, landed rather sloppily on the page.

I found myself looking curiously at these drafts. Why are these sentences so clunky? Why can’t I come up with a good transition from this scene to the next? Why did I use three adverbs in one sentence? Why am I using so many parentheses, and writing asides and exclamations instead of narration?

It’s because I’m writing a first draft — and even after writing several pieces to satisfactory completion, I still felt daunted by that, stuck on the fact that the ideal sentence wasn’t what was currently on paper. No matter how much I write, and no matter how pleased I am with the final versions of my stories, I still have to contend with sloppy first drafts. There’s simply no avoiding them.

They also shouldn’t be avoided. First drafts are where all stories begin, after all. And even with some clunky stumbles on the way, practice does make better. I find myself able to write more in one sitting, and making less of the mistakes (both style and technical) that I made almost by default not one year ago. A first draft is a first draft, though; and even with all the practice in the world, first drafts will always be rough.

Still, I appreciate reminders of when I was sloppy, and I’d rather get those reminders through writing sloppy first drafts than simply remembering them (or rereading them, though that can be fun when looking for a reminder of how far a piece has come). Remembering them means I’m not writing them. And like many writers say, writing a bad first draft — which everyone does — is better than writing nothing at all.

Developing Characters: Imaginary AMA

I received a standard piece of fiction writing advice in an electronic media writing class during my undergraduate studies. While the class focused more on advertisements and nonfiction, our final assignment was to write a treatment for a fiction TV show. My professor encouraged us to develop our characters by talking to them. He told us how a past student said she had trouble doing this, but once she engaged with her character, the character “wouldn’t shut up.”

I think about my characters, and the stories which hold them, a lot, especially when I walk to work. I have a ten minute walk to and from the metro, which gives me plenty of time alone with my thoughts. I’ve often used that time to flesh out stories and come to some interesting realizations about my characters.

However, I don’t talk to them. I find this difficult to do, as I see the characters as separate from my world. They’re not people I engage with, even mentally and with the lens of pretense that “talking to your characters” requires. When I do get my characters to talk, it’s to each other. Sometimes that dialogue makes it into the story, but other times, it’s side conversations that take place off-page and help me write what needs to be there.

My most common method of character development, though, is engaging with myself. When I’m thinking about my characters, I like to pretend I’m being interviewed about them after the story’s been finished. I pretend I’m being asked questions about the story, and I answer them — usually in detailed, humorous answers that help to shape my own thinking about the story (rest assured, I do this in my head — I don’t make it a point to scare my fellow commuters by talking to myself).

I find this AMA (“Ask Me Anything,” for those who don’t know) format very helpful in discovering things about my characters and, subsequently, their stories. By explaining deeper motivations than what appears on the page, it helps me figure out why things happen and how I should write them. Sometimes it gives me better ideas to shape things that aren’t working as I’ve written them.

I also find it more helpful to do this in my head (or quietly mouthed to myself) as opposed to writing it down. Notes are handy, and the few times I’ve forced myself to write notes, I’ve gotten good results. However, the off-the-cuff nature of pretending I’m doing an AMA helps me capture ideas as they flit into my answers. Writing it down, for me at least, would take this aspect away, as I’d spend too much time trying to write the correct thing to really let the answers I seek flow through. Speaking is less structured but, in many ways, more truthful.

Be it through an imaginary AMA or an imaginary conversation with characters, I find it interesting that one of the best ways to write fiction is to engage in a fictional conversation. Perhaps that act in and of itself is what helps us write.