I posted this writing workshop blog on my MySpace page and got such good feedback that I thought I’d post it here, too.
Hey, everyone! I’ve put together a workshop designed to help other writers learn from my mistakes. Try to do the exercises yourself before looking at the suggested changes.
One of the hardest things about writing well is achieving what I call flow. What does that mean? Giving a rhythm to your writing. When you read a book, each word, sentence and paragraph flows into the next one, right? If it doesn’t, it’s jarring to the reader. Good storytellers don’t just have a good story, they know how to tell it. Look at the troubadours. They actually followed a distinct verse form.
My personal experience. People who generously agreed to read my earlier work would often tell me right away that they liked the story. But when they said this, there was a certain lack of enthusiasm. When I pushed them on it, they could never quite put their finger on what the problem was. Something was wrong, but they didn’t know what. So I had to figure out what that was. In the end I realized that while I had the basic stuff down, there was no rhythm to my writing.
And that’s bad…
So what interrupts or impedes flow?
- too many words in a sentence, or not enough (sentence imbalance)
- action is not clear or is incomplete (you left something out)
- scene or character is not clear or is incomplete (out of character)
- sentences and paragraphs do not connect (either you are missing something,
or there is no transitional word or phrase: Connectors)
- repetitive use of words
- sentences are all the same length
So how does one achieve flow?
1. Edit. The dreaded ‘E’ word. You might not want to hear this, but you have to be a ruthless editor of your writing, especially if you are just starting out. Unfortunately, it can be very hard to edit your own work. Why is that?
- As humans, we often tend to fill in things that aren’t there. It’s a trick of perception. We tend to do the same things as writers. We tell people, “I know what I wanted to say…” But you didn’t say it! That leaves the readers feeling lost and that interrupts flow.
Here’s what I do when I edit…
- Focused Reading. Read the sentence slowly, listening to it in your mind. Make changes. Re-read. Make changes. Go to next sentence. Read sentence 1 and 2 together. Make changes. Re-read. Make changes. Go to sentence 3. When you are finished with a paragraph. Re-read it and then go right to the next one. Get the picture?
Every time you make a change, it can throw off the rhythm of your work. Even just one word can make a difference.
- Read your work out loud, either to yourself or to somebody else (which I think is better), with a pen handy.
- Be prepared to cut stuff. If you read something, and edited it again and again, and it still just doesn’t quite sound right, it’s got to go. It will be hard. It’s like throwing out a batch of cookies because they’re slightly burned. Good enough, I always say! But we all know that those cookies just aren’t right.
Exercise: Tell me what’s missing and/or what should go…
Jim picked up the ax and began to chop wood like a woodchuck could chuck wood. But before he could really get into it, there was a shout behind him. It was Rachel! He ran to his daughter and enveloped her in a big hug.
*On the surface, it looks all right. But look at it more closely…
Jim picked up the ax and began to chop wood [delete like a woodchuck could chuck wood]. But before he could really get into it, there was a shout behind him. He swung around. It was Rachel [if he doesn’t swing around, how else is he going to know it’s Rachel - wood chopping is loud]! Dropping the ax [you don’t want to accidentally chop her head off, do you?], he ran to his daughter and enveloped her in a big hug.
2. Visualize your words. We live in the age of TV and movies. Use that to your advantage. Imagine your story being made into a movie. When there is action, for example, visualize what your character(s) would be doing, the expressions on their face, their visceral reactions (what’s their body doing?). Mentally or literally, close your eyes and be that person. Put yourselves in their shoes.
3. Make the thesaurus your friend (the book and/or computer). You don’t want to use the same words over and over again. I have a list of words that I can use for ‘said’… Rambled, stuttered, snarled, shouted, whispered. For ‘moving’… Shambled, limped, scurried. Don’t be repetitive in your words, especially within a sentence or paragraph. Readers pick up on repetition and don’t like it! Make your own lists!
4. Transitional words and phrases:
- Words: However, but, and, although, though, then, yet, fortunately or unfortunately, when, because, besides, as, beginning a sentence with a verb (Yanking the door open, she ran from the room), adverbs to balance the sentence (He was remiss in his duties. He was sadly remiss in his duties), etc.
- Phrases: Even worse, Better still, More than that, Luck would have it, after all, all the same, by the way, etc.
- Sentence breakers: she realized, he thought, he laughed, etc. Nobody truly understood her ideas, she realized, but that wasn’t going to stop her from saying them out loud.
- Italics: Use for emphasis – can change the rhythm of your sentence
- Punctuation: semi-colons, commas, ellipses, dashes – can change rhythm
- Don’t use this, that or it too much (or for that matter, her, his, they, them). That really made him mad. To... That endless ranting of hers really made Jose mad.
Jake really wanted that bike. It wouldn’t be that expensive if he used all his savings. It was his money.
Jake really wanted that bike. It wouldn’t be that expensive, he told himself, if he used all his savings. It was his money, after all.
4. Move things around. I find myself rearranging sentences a lot. End to the beginning. Middle to the beginning. And so on. See previous sentence. You could write, If he used all his savings, he told himself, it wouldn’t be that expensive.
5. Have someone else read your work; someone you trust. Make changes, then get a fresh reader to read it through.
6. Critique other books/writings as you read them, especially in the genre you want to write in. What words and transitional phrases did they use? How long were their sentences and paragraphs? What kind of description did they use? Dissect their work.
7. Set your work aside for a while. Edit, then leave it for a couple minutes, hours, days, weeks. When you’ve worked long enough, your brain gets tired. You start filling things in that aren’t there. Sometimes all you need
to do is stretch and get a snack!
3. The sound of a scream rent the air. It was night. Dan heard the sound and ran toward the basement. He looked down into the darkness. He ran down the stairs and flung open the door. He saw her. She was dangling from chains bounding her wrists. He ran over and opened the clasps. She was free. But not for long. There were footsteps on the stairs.
A desperate scream rent the heavy night air. Hearing the vibrating tremor of fear, Dan dashed toward the sound. It was coming from the basement. The door was open and he peered down into the darkness, blinking nervously. The bellow of terror, more animal-like now, came again and he forgot his fear. No time to find a light, he realized, as he pounded down the creaky stairs. No time…
The solid door, when he came to it, was unlocked. It was a strange bit of luck, but he didn’t stop to question it. Flinging the heavy barrier open, he paused. The dark was as debilitating as a blanket over his head. He couldn’t see a thing. Fortunately, his hearing still functioned; he took a moment to listen. It wasn’t long before he heard her labored breathing filling the almost airless space.
She was straight in front of him. Without wasting another precious second, he made his way cautiously toward her in the dark. “I am here, my darling,” he panted, trying to reassure her, but there was no response. She had fainted. Or at least he hoped that was all she had done.
When he reached her, he found the ropes bounding her wrists were too tight to untie. Thankful for the Boy Scout training that had been forced on him as a child, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Swiss army knife. Quickly, carefully, he sawed through the thick ropes. Sounds from above told him he didn’t have much time. He worked more quickly, cutting himself. He didn’t have time to do anything about the stinging wound either, just let himself bleed. A few seconds later, his wife was free. She collapsed into his arms, waking as she did so. “You’re safe,” he told her, holding her tight.
“Not for long,” she answered back with a tired sigh. She, too, had heard the footsteps on the stairs.
I hope this helps. Good luck and keep writing!
©2007 Kristina Schram