Tori Bond writes humorous and satirical fiction. Her work has been anthologized in FLASH FICTION FUNNY and EXTRAORDINARY GIFTS, and has also been published in MONKEYBICYCLE, ATTICUS REVIEW, CEASE COWS, and others. Tori won second place in the Rose Metal Press 10th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest and her story “Tourniquet Tuesdays” was nominated for Best of the Net 2016. She is the co-editor of NAKED CAME THE CHEESESTEAK, a murder mystery novel written by 13 Philadelphia-area writers. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College.
When not locked in a room revising her best-selling-novel-in-progress, chauffeuring kids to endless engagements, or patrolling the make-out palace formerly known as the basement, you can find Tori twisting herself into a pretzel—stick at the yoga studio or kayaking the ferociously calm waters of Bucks County, PA.
Do you have a writing problem? Are you in denial about that bad habit your writer friends notice but you keep telling yourself that you’ve revised it away? If you hear your friends say things like: “Your plot stumbles along,” or “I hate your protagonist. He never does anything,” or “Finding the beginning of your story is like fishing for keys after an all-night bender,” then it’s time to enter writing rehab. What follows is a five-step program to help you recover from that nasty writing habit you keep avoiding.
Step 1. Admit you have a writing problem
You can’t revise your way out of what you refuse to acknowledge. A theme emerges in the criticism you receive across your writing projects; you know it when you hear it, that comment that makes you groan. You can insist all you want that you don’t have a problem with [dull openings / lifeless protagonist /sloth-like pacing /_____fill in the blank], but when your critique partners go silent and shake their heads, it’s time to get real.
Journaling is the key to working the problem and finding a solution. Be obsessive in your search for understanding, and use journaling as your essential self-help tool. Write to discover, analyze, and keep yourself honest about your progress.
Admitting you have a writing problem is painful. Soften the blow with a [cookie/caramel corn/whisky/nap/_____ guilty pleasure]. Now that your problem is identified, you can start on the road to recovery.
Step 2. Examine past errors with the help of a sponsor
Select craft articles and writing books that address how to write [openings/characters/dialog/plot/________fill in the blank]. Get focused on the craft issue you’ve identified in step 1 and read for deep understanding. If you have a difficult time finding a great guide, ask other writers. They’ll have lots of suggestions. Select one text that speaks to you or helps you see the craft element in a new light. You may find a plethora of great advice, but narrow it to one text. Identify the “Rules” per this sponsor (craft article/writing book). Use their language or frame of reference to examine your writing problem. Sometimes we need to unlearn bad habits in order to improve. Write what you discover in your journal.
There are unlimited ways to approach [openings/character/dialog/plot/________fill in the blank] so the key to this step is narrowing your focus to understanding how the sponsor/author you’ve chosen frames the craft issue.
Step 3. Recognize a higher authority
Find stories or novels that transcend the ordinary and breathe life into [openings/character/dialog/plot/________fill in the blank]. Surrender to these texts. Read to discover how these master authors perform their magic. Apply what you have learned from Step 2, recognizing how the author uses or violates the “rules” you’ve gleaned. An important point to note here is that you are reading to understand the mechanics of craft, not get lost in the art of the prose. Deconstruct the text like you’d dismantle a clock. Discover how the gears drive the movement. What creates the precise [timing/mood/effect] of the piece? Read and reread with the conscious intent to understand how the writer achieves a particular effect; this may require many iterations. Be patient and persistent. Record what you discover in your journal.
We often look to master writers as a way to learn craft, but what makes these writers masterful is that their technique blends so seamlessly into their prose. Using “rules” from a craft article or book gives you the tools to dismantle the text and help illuminate the mechanics of what the writer is doing.
Step 4. Find hope: emulate a master
Write a passage, paragraph, or chapter using the craft elements identified in Step 3, but in your own words. Or, type the exact words of the passage, paragraph, or chapter. Mimicking the author in this way gets the words in your head, the rhythm in your fingers, and allows you to analyze the writer’s craft more intimately. You might discover how the author varies sentence length, or unique word combinations and choices, or how the writer slows down at a pivotal moment, or sinks into the protagonist’s internal thoughts. Whatever you discover, puzzle over it in your journal.
Make note of what you discover from these master writers in your journal, but be careful to stay focused on the “rules” you are studying. This process is designed to help you focus deeply on a specific technique until you conquer it.
Step 5. Make amends for errors
Start a new project or revise an existing story using your newly acquired skills. If you are revising a piece, be careful not to cling to your bad writing habits by simply tweaking an existing draft. To avoid this, rewrite the scene, story, or chapter from memory, incorporating what you’ve learned in previous steps. Analyze what you’ve written in your journal. Think on the page about what you’ve discovered and what you still need to work on. Don’t expect perfection—overcoming your writing problem is a process.
When overcoming a bad writing habit, it’s not enough to simply quit cold turkey, you need to fill the void with a new and better writing habit. If you feel uncomfortable experimenting with new techniques, good. It’s an indication that you’re evolving.
Writing Rehab is messy, so don’t get discouraged if Steps 1-5 don’t instantly lead to an epiphany. Keep working the steps. Go back and use a new craft article, examine other master authors, and try newly acquired techniques in your writing experiments. Sometimes you’ll have an aha moment that whacks you over the head with understanding. At other times, your progress occurs as a quiet recognition that something new has crept into your writing, or perhaps there is a new ease with which you draft material. Recognize and give yourself credit for the progress you’ve made. Now go celebrate with [Champagne/Wild Turkey/crème brûlée/shoe shopping/_______fill in the blank].
Have writing rehab experience? Over to you.