As Halloween approaches, I’ve been wracking my brain to find a suitably spooky topic to write on this week. As I’ve already written about my favorite horror stories, I was left to wonder what else could strike fear into your very hearts, gentle readers.
The release of midterm grades? Perhaps. Scheduling classes for next semester? Undoubtedly. The remainder of this football season? Nothing quite so terrifying.
Well how about that this Saturday marks the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo? Cue the flickering lights and jarring minor chords.
For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an annual online creative writing project that challenges participants to write 50,000 words of an original novel from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30. Using the NaNoWriMo site, you can track your progress, connect with fellow writers and access resources for when you’re feeling stuck.
Many may scoff at the idea of writing a quality novel within a month, but before you start throwing your vintage typewriters at me, hear me out. The point of NaNoWriMo isn’t for writers to churn out perfectly crafted novels. Instead, it provides budding novelists with a semi-structured plan to produce a first draft, which can then be edited after the month is over.
Given all this, you may wonder why I think of NaNoWriMo as a potentially scary subject. If your experiences with it are anything like my own, it’s not hard to guess. I tend to follow a very set pattern in which I first feel totally up for NaNoWriMo, I then proceed to forget about it until a week into November, after which I furiously scribble out a page to somewhat catch up, then never return to it but swear I’ll do better next year.
However, no excuses this year, because I am now publicly accountable to you, dear readers. To better prepare myself and any others who may be participating, I’ve compiled a few tips on writing from famous authors that I personally think are quite useful.
“Murder your darlings.” — Arthur Quiller-Couch
Variations of this quote have been attributed to numerous writers across time, including Allen
Ginsberg, William Faulkner, Stephen King and of course, who else, but Oscar Wilde. So why have so many writers espoused this sentiment? Put simply, it’s damn good advice. First and foremost, it refers to the need to eliminate characters, dialogue and passages that you as the author may love but that don’t advance the story for the reader. I also like to think of it as differentiating between writing and wish fulfillment. No one wants to read about happy things happening to perfect people because there’s no story there. Conflict is essential for not only an interesting plot but also for meaningful character development. You don’t have to kill off your favorite character or leave them miserable, but stay vigilant against Mary Sues and Marty Stus.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” — Robert Frost
Respect your audience. If a passage isn’t emotionally poignant or thrilling for you as the writer, don’t assume it will be different for the reader. If you think something is important but you don’t know how to frame it interestingly, keep experimenting. Readers will know if you’re just phoning in a scene. And don’t underestimate your audience either. Literary devices, especially symbols and foreshadowing, don’t need to be shoved in the reader’s face. Keep it subtle, but purposeful.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” — Anton Chekhov
Let’s be real. This sentence is more poetic and expressive than anything I have or will ever write. But I’m not even discouraged, because it’s fantastic advice. Writers often talk about the concept of showing, not telling, meaning that rote exposition and summarization can only take you so far. Immersing a reader completely in your story requires giving them relevant, but also descriptive information for them to paint their own version of your world. This is where sensory details and subtle character actions allow you to gently guide a reader through your story rather than drag them through it.
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath
A little self-doubt is not only normal, but also a veritable good thing. No one wants you walking around like the Kanye of literature. However, when self-doubt is so strong that it keeps you from creating out of fear of failing, it’s time to reevaluate. NaNoWriMo’s time constraint actually works beneficially here, as a writer doesn’t have time to fuss over the perfection of every word. Remember, you can only edit if you have something written down.
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” — William Faulkner
I’ve never heard of a writer who was not also a voracious reader. The surest way to improve your writing, besides regular writing, is reading. It’s in the works of others where we establish who we are as writers, when we decide what works for us, what moves us and equally important, what doesn’t. Even if you’re not interested in writing a novel this November, at least read one. It may be just as valuable.
So put on a pot of coffee, disable your WiFi and get cracking on that next great American novel.