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Using Tricks From Other Writers

Flickr Creative Commons: Sarah Reid [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Sarah Reid

Even after 20 years as a journalist and three published novels, I still get stuck; my crappy first drafts still fill me with despair; I’m still convinced other writers know how to write faster, deeper, and smarter than I do. So I read writing blogs and books on how to write and newsletters on writing better. And here’s the thing about writing advice, from the gems in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to the piercing truths in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules on Writing: It’s only good advice if it works for YOU.

Over the years I have found several bits of writing advice that work for me. They may not work for you, but I hope they’ll illustrate how you can pick and choose the tips that fit your unique process.

Ray Bradbury’s lists

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury describes how he makes lists of nouns to spark ideas. I do this when I teach creative writing to kids. I set a timer for one or two minutes and have them write down as many nouns as they can. I do it myself when I’m stuck or having a bad writing day. Sometimes my lists have nothing to do with my work in progress, which is fine. Sometimes they surprise me. Sometimes my list is a poem.

For Bradbury, “These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull. The lists ran something like this: THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.”

That list, years later, turned into Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes. Set a timer; write a list. See if it works for you.

Copying the masters: Richard Russo

After spending a year on a novel that went nowhere, I had a difficult time with writing the beginning of a new novel. After many false starts, I decided to fall back on an old trick artists have used for centuries: Copy the work of the masters in order to perfect your own art. I love Richard Russo, so I opened NOBODY’S FOOL and studied the first sentence:

“Upper Main Street in the village of North Bath, just above the town’s two-block-long business district, was quietly residential for three more blocks, then became even more quietly rural along old Route 27A, a serpentine two-lane blacktop that snaked its way through the Adirondacks of northern New York, with their tiny, down-at-the-heels resort towns, all the way to Montreal and prosperity.”

I’d never opened a novel with a description before. I had never thought of opening a novel with a description. But it appealed to me. I loved the scene Russo set in a single sentence, the visual image it called up in my brain. I knew I wanted my novel to open in a small town in the Adirondacks. So I wrote this:

“The train station in the village of Westport, N.Y., a mile west of the town’s block-long business district, is the kind of quaint, whimsical building that makes people think, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a little town like this?’ The station is small but elaborate; a ghost of the wealth that once flowed into the Adirondacks in mahogany paneled train cars with lush velvet curtains and monogrammed portmanteaus. Cheerful yellow siding wraps around the station, and the roof is adorned with gables and copper spires and slate shingles and other beloved Victorian embellishments so picturesque it makes you want to put the whole thing in your pocket and take it home.”

It unlocked me. Once I had those first few sentences I put Russo away and wrote my book, the way I like to write. Try it with one of your favorite authors. You may surprise yourself.

Chuck Wendig’s Paper Boat

Yes, I spend way too much time clicking on links I find on Facebook or Twitter and then reading something and then I click on something else and then half my day is gone. But one day I happened upon terribleminds, a blog by novelist/screenwriter/game designer Chuck Wendig (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/04/29/a-smattering-of-stupid-writer-tricks/ [2]). No, I’d never heard of him either. But his “Smattering of Stupid Writer Tricks” included this tidbit: “After today’s writing, ask: does my character have agency? Did she push on the story more than it pulled on her? Could she be replaced with a potato being passed around? Is she a little paper boat on the river, or is she the goddamn river? (Hint: she should be the river.)”

I’d been struggling with a main character who was going through a life crisis and watching her life fall apart all around her and something about it wasn’t working. And I realized it was because she was watching her life fall apart—she was the paper boat—instead of taking action, even stupid, bound-to-turn-out-badly action. As soon as I rewrote the story with my character pushing on the story instead of being pulled around, it clicked. I have the words “Be the goddamn river” on a sticky note next to my computer, and I make that vow every morning before I write.

What writer tips have worked for you?

About Kathleen McCleary [3]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.