9 Really Useful Tips

Want to improve your writing?  Try these suggestions culled from my decades at the craft:

1. With few exceptions, stay in the moment. Use your chronology and don’t get ahead of it.

2. Don’t save anything for later. Bring whatever you have right here, right now.

3. Each time a character appears on-stage, some aspect must deepen. Characters develop vertically.

4. Every chapter, every paragraph must relate to the theme. The theme is what the story is about: love, war, jealousy, revenge . . .

5. Every chapter, every paragraph must move the action forward.  You need a firm command of where the story is going so you can arrange the pieces in a way that allows the reader to discover things for himself.  Don’t tell the reader anything. Just set him on your shoulder and off you go, the story unfolding before you.

6. All meaning must be imbedded in action. Don’t deliver any lectures or philosophy lessons telling the reader what you want him to know. He has to discover this through the action. Similarly, don’t weight the story down with description.

7. Use all your senses. Taste it. Smell it. Hear it. See it. Touch it.

8. Tell it straight, as if talking to a five-year-old.

9. Finally, if something is really not going well, walk away. And don’t come back until you’re ready to see the thing with new eyes: reset, reinvent, reappraise.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: bighappyfunhouse.com.

At the End of the Day

I have seen the face of heaven, and it is a fortieth high school reunion.

Forty years is a lot of river gone by. Divorce, disease, death, disappointment—there was plenty of it. But there were also the good things: the kids, the jobs, the marriages, the promotions, the fortunes, and even—the serious fortune. Some were grandparents. Many had retired. Some had careers that were still rising. One was dancing the tango in Argentina. One wants to open a B&B. One lives on the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. Another of us had been to see her—twice.  What had life dealt you and where are you today? The stories came, all night long.

Where’s the rabbit hole we fell into?

And yes, the former boyfriend was there too, with his wife who seemed terrific. He’s an ophthalmologist, and a good one, people said, and he just took a position at Stanford. I wondered what he could see when he looked into a person’s eyes. There was no time to ask him. His own eyes, his wife’s eyes—in fact, when you got right down to it, everyone’s eyes were killers. Especially those that peered out at you from a ruined face. Life is so arbitrary.

The bar did a business. And then there was the stage, with the microphone in heavy use at the madcap attempts at order.   There was laughter. Shock and recognition, all night long. Lipstick rubbed from cheeks. A video. A slipping out to the parking lot. A slipping back. Don’t think I didn’t see that. An impromptu madrigal experience. Notes compared on who still did music and who did not.

Some hadn’t changed even a tiny bit. And some turned out wholly different than I would have imagined. White dinner jacket? White pony tail? Wild enthusiasm for just about everything? From what wellspring do you drink, sir, and where can I find it? And yes: weep not. She loved you.

Or how about that fellow who delivered a drink to a fetching gal, napkin folded over his presenting arm like a waiter. “You know I always take care of you,” he said.

And how about the psychiatrist who pulled up a chair and listened to another’s tale of a rough time. It was so skilful. It was so kind.

There was a lot of talent in that room, a lot of compassion. “If only I had known” was a common refrain. Even the ones you might have thought, back in high school, didn’t know your name were happy to see you. Come on, sit down. Tell me all.

Oh, the half sentences. Oh, the innuendos. The things I would mull later, wishing for the chance to cross-examine.

And how about that conversation in the ladies’ room where we took score, once and for all: who had sex in high school, and who did not.

Oh, the dreams that didn’t happen. Oh, the dreams that did.

And then there was one who told me, my face in his opened palms, his darling wife not far: “I’d do anything for you.” I did not see that one coming.

Now, what can a writer learn from all this?

In the real world, people are complicated and lead rich and varied lives, with layers yet to be revealed. On the page, we must strive for the same surprising complexity in our characters.

And, what are those characters doing? What do they want?  Where’s the story? That’s what your reader seeks, why he comes around. Not for your pretty sentences. Not really for your acuity or invention. Not even for what he may learn. Most of all, end of the day, your reader wants to know what happened next.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: rabbit by Paul Beattie; Central Park statute of Alice in Wonderland by Kiki Maraschino.