Category Archives: Tips for New Writers

Things I have found that are helpful to new writers.

Good Books on Editing your Own Work

I’ve recently read two good books by Elizabeth Lyon. I recommend them both. The first one is Manuscript Makeover. The second is Writing Subtexts. I think she has taken editing to a new level.

The first one has a great deal to keep in mind. I think the only way to use it is to go through your manuscript in several sweeps looking for different things on each sweep.

The second one is much shorter, but no less valuable. It helps you to write on a deeper level.

Other’s Writing Habits

A few months ago, I went to a writer’s conference and heard a repeat of a conversation I’ve heard many times when writers are congregating. First one writer begins by telling about his or her writing habits. Then others follow by going over theirs.  In this instance, it was an author who’s published over 300 articles and 30 books. He uses writing habits he learned forty years ago from another writer. How does he do it?

He has nine boxes on his desk. For some reason, he writes on no more or fewer projects at once. As he gathers notes on any project, he puts them into the respective folders. After he has collected a critical mass of notes, I’m not sure if he decides that by weight or volume, he writes his notes in one file in longhand.

After that, he takes out his scissors and cuts the sentences into strips. Then he arranges the strips into a story and pastes the strips onto other sheets of paper. From there, he writes his story in ink, longhand again. That’s what he takes to his publishers.

He is so well known that he is often called by publishers who are in need of articles or books. He delivers what he promises and he is always on time. He put four children through college using his time tested practices.

His description of his writing habits brought on a chorus of comments from others about their ‘time tested’ writing habits. Many writer’s habits were the exact opposite of other’s habits.

His process works for him, but it is not likely too many people would want to use it today. He doesn’t touch a computer throughout his steps. And, there are many types of software that accomplish the steps he does by hand.

I once had a ‘new’ writer ask me about my habits. I begin by writing a broad outline on a whiteboard in my office. I divide the board into six rectangles and write a brief topical outline in the spaces. Usually the first rectangle is the beginning of the story, the next three or four are the middle, and the last one or two, the conclusion.

After that, I make a broader topical outline and begin to develop my characters. As I’m doing that, I look for pictures on the Internet that resemble what I have in mind for the characters, locations, and scenes.

A few weeks later he was talking to me and very apologetically admitted he had begun a story, but he had seven rectangles instead of six. He had taken my habit and made it into a literal rule which he had violated.

I told him I would have more rectangles if I had a bigger whiteboard.

So, what’s the moral of this story? For me, it’s okay to steal what you can from what others tell you about their writing habits, but only if they work for you. Otherwise, your habits are as good as anyone else’s habits.

When the Muse is Hiding: What to do if you sit down to write and nothing comes

Most of the time when I sit down to write, it comes easy, but not always. What does one do when writing doesn’t come easy?

The first thing to come to peace with is that it happens to everyone, literally everyone. There is no writer, from Tolstoy to Hemmingway, from Conrad to Virginia Woolf who hasn’t experienced the momentary inability to produce.

Here are three suggestions for dealing with that eventuality. First, keep notes about your ideas. In the past a pocket-sized notebook was suggested. Today, it is more likely you will have a tablet or phone with you for taking notes. Whenever I take a vacation, I revert to carrying a moleskine notebook, or similar product.

On a daily basis, I have an electronic app called ‘notes’ I use to jot down ideas I have while I’m not at my writing desk. I also carry a copy of the latest piece I’ve been working on, so if I have an idea, I can look at my story and see how it fits.

When traveling, I like to stop my writing entirely and concentrate on ideas for future stories.

When my well runs dry, I look back at notes, either my electronic notes or my handwritten notes and start writing about something I’ve jotted down. Usually I forget after a few minutes that I felt stuck.

The second technique I use is to do something else besides write for a while. It really doesn’t matter what I’m doing as long as I am not writing on purpose. I experience a building tension about wanting to get back to writing the longer I’m away from it. After a while, I feel like I must write something.

Finally, I have a related set of techniques that get me started. I might read back through a project, then begin editing. After a time, I find myself writing. I may start a new project in the middle or the end, changing where I start gives me a fresh perspective. Finally, I may write down everything I can think of about my subject, put that on (electronic) 3X5 cards and begin to sort them. After a while, a story emerges, sometimes it is enough of a story that I am off and running with a new project.

So, for me, being stuck is a way of circling my work while using techniques to keep me productive.


Zen Writing: Reflection, Clarification, Discipline

My master instructor in martial arts was Grandmaster Daeshik Kim, President of the Society of Ho Sin Sul and the US Martial Arts Institute. I studied at USMAI from 1980 to 1989. While there, I attained 5th degree Tae Kwon Do and 4th degree Ho Sin Sul, making me one of the first four American master instructors of HSS.

For the uninitiated, martial arts is sometimes referred to as Moving Zen. At Dojangs the Zen part of martial arts is seldom discussed. It is just assumed to be part of everyday practice. To my way of thinking it is  Zen like in that one must be absorbed in practice to the extent that you are in a meditative state. It is often said that you don’t own a technique until you have done it 1000 times and do not truly understand it until you have done it 10,000 times.

The kata, or choreographed patterns of practice, either solo or in pairs, is similar to a moving Koan. The term ‘form’ is normally used in English.

Writing is to me much like martial arts training and practice. It requires deep reflection on your subject, often to a level of detail not experienced by many. Then it requires clarification of what you are doing. In clarification you often simplify, much like a martial artist’s attempt to find maximum efficiency with minimum effort in his/her moves. Finally, you must be disciplined. Discipline, to me, means you keep going when you are tired, discouraged, or wanting to do something else. You practice, practice, practice no matter  what distracts you, then you practice more.

There is one technique I recall that I couldn’t master, the Tornado Kick. It is a turning, jumping, 540 degree, kick found in Tae Kwon Do, Wushu Kung Fu, Shaolinquan, and Capoeira martial arts. I tried to do the kick for months, then years. Finally, after two years, I found myself coming into the dojang every Saturday to practice the kick. My friends offered me advice and encouragement and still, I couldn’t do it.

One day while stretching, I watched a young student go to the bag, wind up and execute the kick. I was watching without thinking about watching. Suddenly, I said to myself, “So that’s how you do that.”

I walked to the bag and executed the kick perfectly. Everyone in the dojang applauded. I took a well-deserved bow.

In writing, you may work on your technique for months, even years, without reward. Then one day, when you aren’t focused on the outcome, when you take your mind out of what you are doing and just do it (the Greeks don’t have an exclusive on that), you will surprise yourself.

Show, Don’t Tell: the Writer’s Koan

Koan: A Paradox to be meditated upon used to train Zen Buddhist. Every writer has heard this admonition from more experienced writers or teachers: Show Don’t Tell. I love to watch writer’s faces when they hear this for the first time. The first thing that happens is they look assured that they have just been told something meaningful and important. Then there is a note of confusion and they usually say something like, “What does that mean?” Then their teacher elaborates.

My thinking about this Koan is there is something useful about it and something lacking, or perhaps several things lacking in this three word instructional aphorism. First, the phrase is stated in the negative. Not a biggie, but my education degree says teach in the positive, not the negative. Second, in most new writers, it raises more questions than it answers, which is not altogether bad.

So, being critical of this aphorism, I feel some obligation to suggest either another one, or an elegant explanation of it that is almost equally short. To get to that end, I will attempt to explain the meaning of the aphorism.

Consider me saying, “I have a big pistol.” That would likely pique your interest for a moment, you might even ask a few questions, like, “What are you doing with that?!” or “What’s the caliber?”

But if I take a big pistol from my pocket, your reaction is likely to be very different. I once saw an student learning to be an instructor take out a pistol and load it in the classroom. The reaction of his fellow students and the instructor to his show and tell was not what he expected. He intended to describe how to load a pistol and show how to do it at the same time. Almost everyone had a flight reaction. One student even dove beneath his desk. The instructor quickly took charge and ordered the student to remove the bullet from his pistol and take it out of the classroom.

The first scenario produces only a response of mild curiosity. The second one produces an immediate visceral response bordering on panic.

To my way of thinking, the response to telling borders on the description of taking about having a gun. A loaded gun brings out immediate emotional response  – showing.

The distinction couldn’t be much clearer for me. But, there’s another problem. My example is about a fear response. Not all situations in writing are about fear. And in some situations, my statement would not produce fear, for example if some men were hunting together and one wanted to show off his new pistol, no one would be fearful when he produced it.

More on this topic later.



Advice from an Old Pro

I went to a conference recently where an experienced writer shared his process for writing. He writes nonfiction and fiction, mostly in the western genre. It’s not the genre that interested me, but his writing process. He has several Open Top Bin Boxes, QV. He puts together files for his story ideas, scenes, character research, and anything else he thinks of into standard file folders and files all the ideas in one Bin Box.

Once he has his physical files set up to receive data, he types no more than three pages about the subject he intends to write about (he typed with two fingers in the air as he described this step). Then he cuts his pages into subject strips of paper and pastes them on the top of manila files. (I’m not making this up, folks.) As he generates ideas under the subject headings, he puts them into the manila files until he has sufficient information to write his book or article.

Using this tried and true method, he has over forty books and over 300 articles!

As I listened to his description of how he worked, I saw the lady beside me taking down his every word. When he finished the group took a ten minute break. I told her there was software now that performed the same functions. (Check here for a link to find a link to Scrivener and some Alternatives to Scrivener). I told her how to find Scrivener and some Alternatives.

I like Scrivener, especially with complicated projects. More about Scrivener later.

I Began Storytelling

I began storytelling at an early age. My brother and I had a game we played together where we developed a character, an avatar of one of us, used the character through stories we created. The stories were always stories of the adventures the boy had.

I don’t recall we ever named the character, maybe we did, I’m not sure. But, we knew him well. Whenever we were telling a story about him, if we deviated from his profile, a word we didn’t know then, one of us would point out he wouldn’t do whatever the other was proposing. So the game went on for years.

I think we played until I was about fourteen years old. My brother was sixteen when I was fourteen. One day he announced that he was no longer going to play our game. He felt like he was too old to play anymore.

I went on playing for years by myself. I think I stopped somewhere in my early twenties. But, for the next forty years I thought about my stories. Like many others, I didn’t have time to write, or so I thought.

Finally, when I retired, I began working on my stories again, this time, writing them down. Unfortunately, the first thing I did was write a novel. That novel is very rough, perhaps hopelessly flawed. I have it in a box on a shelf behind me. I have looked at it, then think about how much editing will have go go into it and put it back. Maybe some day …

I wrote short stories while writing the novel, and submitted them to magazines for publication. So far, I have had only a few publications.

Then I heard an inspiring presenter at the West Texas Trail Writer’s Conference in Ft. Davis, Texas, in 2012. His name was Mike Blakely. He was such a high level professional in how he went about writing, I moved to change what I was doing and began to emulate his  practice. With a year of listening to him, I had written four books. I am not caught up with editing everything I wrote, but I love how much I have accomplished.

His major points were:

  • Visualize what you are writing about
  • If you can, go to the scene – since I write fiction, I find pictures off the Internet that depict what I am visualizing, then describe them in my text.
  • Get as much background as you can on your characters – again, since my characters are fictitious, I develop a broad character sketch.
  • He also learned to outline by studying what others were doing – I use a story board, then an outline, then transfer that data to (more about that later).

I hope I have recalled correctly his process. If not, it is no fault of his.


About This Blog

Why Have a Blog? Reason One

Like many other authors, I wanted to create a site where I could get word out to potential readers about my writing. That’s one reason for this blog. I’ve read Nina Amir’s Kindle book on blogging a book and wanted to have my own blog after reading hers, though hers is for nonfiction and my writings are fiction. Nonetheless, her recommendation is to have a blog even if you are writing fiction.

I’ve told my friends on Facebook about my writings, but at times I feel like I’m imposing on them when I talk about what I write. So, one solution was to create a FB page about my writings, which I’ve done, the second was to create a blog. Viola.

Why Have a Blog? Reason Two

My second reason for having a blog is to write about my experience in learning to be a writer and share what I find about beginning writing. I’ve noticed that many new writers, like myself, feel like an ‘owl among crows’ when they attend workshops or writing groups. Often, they don’t ask questions for fear of looking and feeling dumb. And, they shy away from interaction for the same reasons. This blog is for them (and me).

What to expect from my blog

So, with these reasons in mind, I will talk about what I’ve experienced while learning to write, which is an ongoing experience. I will also include gems that I think will help others either by pointing to them with links, or quoting the sources.

What is your role?

If you choose, you can simply read my blog and go on about your business, or you can subscribe to it. If you like, you can ask questions, or give me comments about what was helpful to you or not. Either way, thanks for viewing my site or contributing to it