The Simple Secret to Writing Better

We are thrilled to welcome Ella Joy Olsen as our guest today!

I recently started teaching a course through Lifelong Learning at the University of Utah. The emphasis: How to Write Historical Fiction. While I had one historical fiction novel published and another in the hopper, I couldn’t imagine teaching a class on my process.

But then I started really thinking on it. Being self-taught didn’t mean I didn’t have anything to teach. Sure, I’d cobbled my knowledge from a variety of sources but I’d still written a book.

Where had I learned the very most? From reading. That was my first big ah-ha. And that’s how I decided to teach. During the first session I had the class brainstorm a time period or place they were interested in writing about. Some came to class with an idea already percolating; some didn’t know what they wanted to write about at all. We repeated the exercise three times.

At the end of the class I sent them home with instructions to decide on one historical period then make a trip to the book store and find a recently published and well-regarded historical fiction. One that matched either their chosen time or place (or even better, both). This would be their text book. The best text book ever, in my opinion.

Then they were to read the book slowly, paying close attention . . . like a writer: They were to find the inciting event, they were instructed to make note of what made the characters sympathetic and interesting in the first few pages. I asked them if they wanted to keep reading the book after the first scene, and why? What hooked them? We picked apart how historic facts were interwoven into scenes which added to the texture of the story instead of being info-dumped.

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And then we started writing. Turns out that’s the next big ah-ha. Pretty simple, right? There’s no magic bullet, no secret passed through the ages that allows a person to write the next great American novel. First you read. Then you write. And write. And write. Or as Stephen King put it:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Sure, there are things to think about as you write: plot, story arc, conflict, language. But until you actually put words on the page these are all abstract ideas. You can’t tell if your story is arcing until you have the story on the screen. You don’t know if your conflict needs to be amped up until you’ve written a tense scene. You can’t read and edit your writing until it’s…wait for it…written.

That’s what my students needed the most. Encouragement or a kick in the pants (gentle, of course) to get their butts in the chair and their fingers on their keyboards. Even if they didn’t have a distinct plan, they needed to write something. Everything else could be worked out, refined, and smoothed after they had actual words on the page.

After imparting all of my sage advice I have a fresh concern: I’m teaching a whole semester on this subject and as it turns out, the secret is really pretty simple. How will I ever fill my course hours?


Ella Joy OlBiophoto2.JPGsen was born, raised and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, a charming town tucked at the base of the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from just-barely-teen to just-flown-the-nest-teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.

Though she’s crazy about words Ella is also practical so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years analyzing facts and figures Ella gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. Fun fact: she now teaches a historical fiction course at her alma mater. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.

ROOT, PETAL,THORN (September 2016) was her debut and coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.

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