These five tips for writers come from psychological understanding of the creative mind.
I focus a lot on mixed-media stories, but I also want to bring lessons and tips for specific mediums. This post is for writers — all those who love words. Five basic tricks that should make your already excellent prose even more awesome. At first, I just picked five lessons that I”™ve learned over the years, mostly from my critique groups. Then, I realized a common theme in these five tips: the creative brain. I hold an M.Ed. in Educational Psychology and have done a fair amount of research into cognitive psychology. I am by no means an expert, and I would love to hear from anyone if something I say isn’t in line with the latest research. That said, these five tips take the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we learn into consideration.
Type out your favorite author
You”™ve been told to read. You”™ve been told to read a lot. An agent once told me that I shouldn”™t even try my first draft until I”™ve read 200 books in the same market niche and 100 books in the general market. And she was right. You can”™t become the word-smith you want to be until you absorb the music of sentences. However, there is something else you can do to really make your writing shine. Pick two or three authors with voices that you like. Now sit down with your trusty computer and straight up type, word for word, your favorite chapter from each of those books. Don”™t analyze them. Don”™t diagram them. Don”™t count rhythems or syllables or how many times they repeated a conjunction. Just type as you would read and try to enjoy the story.
Why? Because it will help you get into subconscious of the writer. You will start to see why they chose that exact set of words in that order. You will begin to discover the story the same way they did. As I mentioned above, this post is centered around the brain and how we learn and create. By doing this and trying to disengage your logical/mathematical/pick-it-apart part of your brain, you will heighten the deeper emotional/instinctual aspects. Your brain will make connections with the words and emotions running through your eyes and out your fingers. You will improve your writing. I promise.
Read your work aloud
The more senses you engage, the more your brain will be able to think critically and be creative when it comes to your writing. So, read your prose out load. Act out scenes if you need to. The brain thrives on stimulus and action. The more you give it while trying to solve your creative problems, the more creative a solution you will come up with.
This also has other benefits. When you read your work out loud, you will find all those strange word combinations that make your sentences clumsy, discover how many times you repeat “she,” and get a much better sense for pacing (after all you have to read it at about the same pace the reader will even though you know the story so well). On top of this, have others read it out loud to you. You”™d be amazed how people read things differently, substitute little words, add emphasis on all the wrong places, and get tripped up over things that sound so natural to you.
Textual description is quickly becoming a lost art. I get it. People get bored reading three pages about the leaf that fell from the knotted elm tree. Young people can skip paragraphs at a time. You”™re told to make the story move, and extra adjectives just slow you down.
All those things are absolutely right. The cognitive sciences also back this up. However, the solution here is not to eliminate description, but to write better, more powerful description. Modern publishing is all about the economy of words. Don”™t write three words when one really good one will do.
Here are some pointers:
One: No abstract words
Word have meaning, so choose words that mean something concrete. To say the morning was “glorious” may as well say the morning was cheese-filled or gravity-less. It doesn”™t paint the picture of the sun rising over white-sand beaches or gentle breezes kissing the ocean to coax ripples in the glassy water. It just says glorious. Shoot for concrete words. Words that show the reader a picture that will invoke emotion instead of words that will make your eight grade English teacher proud enough to give you a smiley face.
Two: Use description to trigger sense memories
We”™ve been told (and cognitive neuroscience teaches us) that sense memories are the most powerful. You smell campfire smoke and are transported back to the excitement, rush and anxiety of your first kiss at that summer camp bonfire. That sense trigger also connects you with the emotion of that event. If you paint a good enough word-picture, the reader”™s brain will begin searching for related sense-emotions. Focus on collective types of memories that most people would have experienced and mention them in your description. The smell of fresh cut grass and the school bell means freedom at the beginning of summer. The scent of pine and peppermint connects to Christmas (and hopefully more good memories with family than bad). And so on.
Three: Use words that the reader associates with emotions
You can describe anything a million ways, but choose words that connect with connotations that will also convey a certain emotion. An example is the best way to show this.
All these describe basically the same color. A general brown.
- Hair the color of cigars.
- Hair the color of chocolate.
- Hair a grizzly color.
But they all have different connotations because people connect with them in different ways. So which connotation best describes your character?
It is best to work on two (or even three) projects at a time. That doesn”™t mean split your time up so that nothing ever gets done. It means devote most of your energy to one project, but have another on the back burner and a third maybe in the editing stage. It is also important that each of these projects be different ““ different genres, characters, markets, voices, whatever. This gives you something creative that you can work on (continuing to stretch that creative muscle) while clearing out your mind of the roadblocks that have begun to develop on your main story. Step away for a bit and when you get back, you will see obvious ways to make something better even if there wasn”™t anything terribly wrong in the first place.
Now, ignore what I just said.
Not really. These are important tricks, but they aren’t laws. You can ignore them when you feel like it”™s appropriate. Like the old adage goes, “know the rules inside and out and never break them ““ unless you do it for a very specific reason.”
As always, I”™d love to hear your comments.