A few days ago, I asked my writing friends, “Have you ever had trouble with a concept, such as plotting, character development, dialogue, or pacing and there was a specific piece of advice or a book or an article that helped you in a profound way?”
I was looking for light bulb moments, a sudden bit of inspiration or understanding that had previously alluded them.
These were their fantastic responses:
#1: “Shitty First Drafts by Anne Lamont. As a perfectionist, I would get writer’s block trying to write a perfect draft the first time through. This gave me permission to not worry about the first draft. Then by the second draft, I’m not dealing with a blank paper/screen. I make all of my composition students read this, and the vast majority tell me it changed their lives.” –Joy Sterrantino
#2: “She covers this in her book “Bird by Bird” and yes. It made me okay with my crappy first draft that I now have been putting so much time into after I was ready to throw it out and it’s actually starting to come together (I think…)” –Brekke Felt
#3: “Oh, I was going to say Bird by Bird – glad it’s already been mentioned! I read it so long ago that I don’t remember specifically what clicked, but I do still think about it when I get stuck, in fact just the other day, I was grumbling with myself over a chapter and I just told myself, “Bird by Bird, gal. Bird by Bird.” –Lindsey Becker
#4: “Yup! Sarah Eden’s class on description at Storymakers a few years back. Had the biggest light bulb moment of my writing life when she taught that you should only describe things it MAKES SENSE for a character to notice. Previously, I’d described anything and everything I thought the reader would benefit from experiencing. When I narrowed my descriptive focus on what an individual character would take note of, it deepened POV, emotional authenticity, and characterization…Wowza! The difference was mind-blowing. I feel like that’s the day I started to “grow up” as a writer. Or maybe “grow deep” would be more appropriate.” –Kimberly VanderHorst
#5: “I used to have trouble with plotting, but when I read Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering,” it finally clicked for me. It’s still one of my favorite writing books!” –Shallee McArthur
#6: “I really struggled with outlining a plot until I saw Dan Wells’7 point plot YouTube videos. I had tried other methods before that, but for some reason the 7 point plot really clicked for me” –Rebecca Jamison
#8: “Someone, I think it may have been Orson Scott Card, suggested that the best way to learn the feel of pacing is to take a book you like and copy it, longhand.
“I’ve copied half of one of Patty Briggs’ books and it really DID help me learn pacing. It was like training wheels, and it’s something I keep around for when I’m really blocked. If I can’t come up with something to write for me, then I know I can always sit down and copy her book longhand and do a couple thousand words that way. That keeps me in the habit of getting my butt in a chair and writing for at least an hour a day.
“What I learned from pacing–I had previously thought that it was sort of a 2-1 ratio or 3-1 ratio of how long it takes me to write a scene versus how long it “reads” or plays out. It’s more like 5-1 or 10-1–and this is in snappy urban fantasy paperback stuff, so, slower-paced genres would be even more drawn out. I realized that we write in slo-mo. It’s like claymation.”—Rebecca Sachiko Burton
#9: “KM Weiland’s website for lots of things, especially an article on how putting movement in a scene can change the pacing. Also BrandonSanderson’s advice to make your character want something and get it in the first few pages, even if it’s just a glass of water.” –Rebecca Blevins
#10: “Pacing. Okay, I have to admit that this is a concept I haven’t totally been able to wrap my head around. And then I read Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker. Her bit about thinking of pacing like an inverted triangle is brilliant. The idea is that the start of each chapter is like the wide side of a triangle and as you go along it continues to slope until there is only one thing the character can do. And then the end of that triangle opens up into another inverted triangle. Now, that I can wrap my head around.” –Erin Shakespear
On Chapter Endings
#11: “Chapter endings and pacing. Read any of J. Scott Savage’s books to study those. Sarah Eden’s class on description was incredibly enlightening. Another one for description was one of David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants articles. Dan Wells Seven-Point Story Structure YouTube video for plotting.” –Rebecca Blevins
#12: “I read a lot of writing books, so I can’t remember where this came from (but it was from multiple books, I know that) that dialogue shouldn’t be a give and take.
a: Where were you?
b: The bank.
Each character has different motives/realities, and they’re acting for their own best interest, not to make someone else’s life easier. So it would be more like:
a: “Where were you?”
b: “Did you leave any cookies for me? I could eat an elephant.”
a: Were you at Sally’s? I told you not to go there.
b: I need cookies. Real, real bad.
I guess Donald Maass’s book on microtension helped me a lot with this concept. That’s in his book The Fire In Fiction.” –Sydney Strand
#13: “One thing I learned from Writing Excuses that helped me understand characters better is that as real people we tend to act differently and speak differently depending on who we are around. When we are with our parents we may act differently around them than we do around our best friends…. So using that idea, we can show how our characters may act differently depending on who they are around. They won’t always necessarily talk or act the same all the time.” –Judy Robinson
#14: I love this article from Michael Arndt about the five things he learned at Pixar to make a good beginning. I especially love the bit about how our character needs to make the unhealthy choice. There’s a healthy, responsible choice to make and an unhealthy, irresponsible choice to make. Our character needs to make the destructive one or else there really isn’t a story. –Erin Shakespear
On Everything Else
#15: “I have a whole set of tutorials that I use over and over again, but KM Weiland helping Writers become authors and Writing Excuses are the most bang for buck.” –Michael Bacera
Have you had any light bulb moments? We’d love to hear about them!
Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist.