Lesley’s Tips

• I believe writers write because they must; otherwise, it is too hard. I believe writers write in some direction of personal growth, from wanting to be successful to wanting to explore issues, from wanting to memorialize family history to needing to figure out an important aspect or time of life. This trial falls within the category of curse and blessing, the curse when resisting, the blessing when writing, no matter the goal or eventual achievement.

• A blank page or screen can be a daunting thing. The mind snorts and paws and suggests a few dozen other things that need to be done, reasons to get out of the chair and away from the pen or the computer. So, the writer is left with the fear of the blank page. Georgia O’Keefe famously said, “I have been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” So, sit down, take a deep breath, and write. Write what comes to mind or about something that catches your attention in the moment, write what you must write—write what is important to you, write what you know, write what lifts the sparks of creativity out of you and onto the page. 

• There often seem to be too few hours in a day. It seems it should be enough for a writer to write, but there is another necessary task. If one wants to write, it is important, too, to read. Read good writing. Or listen to it. Read the genre you want to write. Writers write. Good writers also read. Watching good films is also useful in considering story and characterization.

• Self-editing is fraught because the writer’s mind tends to fill in blanks, read what was intended, or not hear the sound or more subtle implications of word choice. One way to short-circuit these dilemmas is to read material out loud, even if you, as the writer, are the only one listening. The ears sometimes hear things the eyes do not see.

• A cliché becomes a cliché because it holds truth. You will find on multiple sites and repetitively in editorial advice the well-worn writing cliché:  when in doubt, cut it out. Or, as put more eloquently by William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words . . . for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

• It is fine for the first draft to be gushy, to be too long. It can even be of specific value in avoiding the danger of perfectionism blocking the richest potential for prose and story. Drafting and revision require different mindsets. Let your internal editor walk on the beach while you write the first draft. She’ll return, rested and eager to work on revisions.

• When revising, less is more. Cutting all deadwood—most frequently excessive adjectives and adverbs, repetition not for its lyrical quality, telling or explaining what has been shown—is a sound editorial principle. When in doubt, cut it out is sound advice. 

• While characterization and structure are the bedrock of craft, dialogue is an incredible workhorse that serves character development and plot advancement and enhancing pacing, sense of place, voice, tone, sensual detail, conflict, and tension. Dialogue is perhaps the most contrived aspect of craft because to be effective, to sound real, it must be unreal. Two effective techniques for dialogue are layering into it action and sensual detail and being sure that conflict is evident, that the discreet goals of each character are revealed. 

• Names matter. Naming characters is a small element of craft that can have a big impact. Take the time to determine names that are evocative and/or suggestive, names that introduce an aspect of characterization—where in the world he was born, what her social, political, or religious heritage is, what motivates her, how emotional he is or is not. Michael and David are common male names in English. I’ve never met a David who didn’t have a Goliath or a Michael who didn’t have some angelic quality. Googling provides an abundance and variety of names and concepts about names.