Practical Tips for Writers
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Our previous blogs have been more focused on theory and story issues. This time, we thought that, based on our combined experience and that of several other award-winning writers, we’d suggest some practical tips. Besides Ann DeFee and Linda Cardillo, the writers who’ve been kind enough to contribute their advice are (in alphabetical order): Margot Early, Roz Denny Fox, Kate James, Geri Krotow, Brenda Novak and Tara Taylor Quinn.
Discipline and Schedules:
Ann and Linda, do you adhere to strict schedules when you’re writing?
Do you find that helps? And how do you go about it?
Ann: For me, the best thing to do is simply burp out the story—mistakes, drivel, wrong names, etc.—it doesn’t matter. You just need a complete story so you can go back and do the editing. If I have a deadline I decide how many pages I need to write and then I work with a calendar—respecting the time we need for simply living—and commit myself to writing a certain number of pages a day. The pages don’t have to be War and Peace, or even good enough to turn into a ninth-grade English assignment. You can always fix them. And that’s where editors are our angels.
Linda: I’ve found that maintaining a consistent daily page goal works for me. But the element that has had the most impact on my writing discipline is a simple kitchen timer. I use an electronic one that doesn’t tick and set it for 20 minutes at the beginning of my writing day. I’ve trained my brain that when the timer is on, I write. I don’t stare at the blank page, I simply get my hand moving, putting down words that may or may not end up in the final draft. I generally write for three 20-minute sessions and then get up and move around for a few minutes or grab a cup of tea before I start again. I write my first draft by hand, which I discovered works best for me. I also schedule my writing for the time of day when I’m most creative and adhere to that schedule as if I were punching a clock.
Geri Krotow says: “I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. Paraphrasing Stephen King in his memoir On Writing, writing is my job. We don’t consider other workers like plumbers or hairstylists or doctors to wake up and say, ‘I’m blocked. I can’t work today.’ Why should I be any different?”
And if I may, in turn, paraphrase Geri—maintain an attitude of professionalism. Take what you do seriously (but never take yourself too seriously!)
Geri has another great piece of advice. “The use of any kind of repetitive motion activity is one of the best proven ways to get the subconscious to free itself and allow ideas to come to us in a seemingly effortless manner. Ironing, showering, knitting, walking, doing dishes, swimming; all are good ways to loosen the wheels of the writer’s mind.”
Add to that, walking the dog if you have one! Geri’s advice here is also eminently practical, since many of these activities are things you have to (or want to) do anyway in the course of a day.
Tara Taylor Quinn has some excellent suggestions regarding discipline and schedules. She says: “Never sit down to write a book. Sit down to write a line, a paragraph, maybe a scene. Even when I know I’m facing thirty pages a day to meet a deadline, I still just sit down to write the first five pages. It’s manageable.”She also says: “Schedule time to write just as, when you work outside the home, you have a particular schedule you must keep… You’ll train yourself and those around you to respect your writing time.”
Your story—what to do when it stalls:
Paula: Here are some questions you could ask yourself and techniques you might want to try:
1. Have you started your story in the right place? With the right character/s? Imagine
starting it before or after the point you’ve initially chosen—and/or with another
character. That could even be a minor character who plays a significant (possibly
accidental) role in setting the story in motion.
2. Try telling the story from a different point of view, if only to explore a main character
more fully (and then switch back to third if necessary or preferable). Another option is
to alternate between first and third person points of view. A successful example is
Debbie Macomber’s use of first person POV for protagonist Lydia in the Blossom Street
series of women’s fiction novels and third for the other characters.
3. If you normally put together a detailed proposal/synopsis, try
working without one. And if you normally write by the seat of your
pants (a “pantser,” so to speak), try some planning. From Pantser to
Planner! Or vice versa…
4. Obvious, perhaps, but if you’re stalled, consider putting the story aside for a while
and starting (or resuming) something else—another story, say, or a piece of non-fiction.
5. You could also put the story briefly aside and read something completely different.
(A good program on TV would work, too!) But make sure you’re not discouraged or
intimidated by the other book’s storytelling, style or success.
6. You’re probably already doing this, but keep notes: on ideas for future stories, ideas
for scenes and characters, observation you’ve made—of people, places, incidents,
7. Read sections of the story out loud, to yourself or someone else. For instance, the
opening (does it grab you and your audience, make you want to read on?), a scene
you’re not sure of (does it fit where it is?), dialogue (to ensure that it’s natural and suits
the characters and their situations)…
8. Or—have someone else read it aloud to you.
9. Your research. Consider whether you’ve included too much, which can interfere with
pace and reader engagement with the characters. Or too little, which can deprive your
story of needed authenticity.
10. A great quote from Madeleine L’Engle to keep in
mind: “Inspiration usually comes during work rather
than before it.” In other words, just get started!
Related to this kind of issue—sorting out why your story is stuck, Brenda Novak addresses the inherent importance of getting the conflict right. “The more we worry, the more we fear, the more we glory in the resolution. That's why I believe conflict is the engine that drives story.
Think about the sporting events you've watched. If the team you're rooting for has it too easy, if they sail through the whole game without any real challenge, you're tempted to leave in the third quarter. It doesn't hold your interest. A come-from-behind, one-point win in overtime, on the other hand, is considered a great game. The people who are watching wait until the last second to leave. They talk about the game and remember it far longer. So don't be afraid to let your characters face and overcome problems, even painful ones. The ending will be that much more satisfying.”
Paula: Keep in mind, too, that conflict and characterization are intricately related. And to a great extent, conflict determines the plot. Everything connects.
Ann and Linda, what techniques have worked for you when it comes to getting your story out of neutral?
Ann: I find the story writes itself and frequently one, or more, of the characters will drive it in a direction I didn’t see coming. On my latest book I had dream that changed one of the major conflicts. So when I clear my mind it all seems to come together.
Linda: When I’m stuck, I talk it out. Sometimes I “talk” to myself with a stream-of-consciousness list of observations and musings, or I bounce ideas off a very patient friend who is a knowledgeable reader and willing to play devil’s advocate. I also get away physically and refill the well by visiting a museum, weeding my garden, listening to music or taking a walk.
Geri points out that if the story isn’t working, she goes “back to the basics. I pull out Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation and Conflict and make a chart, making sure I know my hero and heroine (and villains if applicable). What is their internal conflict? And where are they going to end up at the completion of their individual arcs? This is the crux of characterization for me.
“If by a miracle of the muse I find that my characters and their development are solid, then I have to examine story structure. Plot. For this I’m a big fan of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey…. Do I have a clear view of the ordinary world of my protagonists? Do I know the specific turning points, when the character was invited to answer ‘the call’ to change?”
Paula: See our earlier blog, on writing the beginning of your story. There, too, I talked about the fact that a story begins at or shortly after a moment of change.
Now, what about attitude, not only to the story but to the experience of writing, to the world of writers?
Roz Denny Fox makes the important point that you should “never compare your career track to those of friends, critique partners or others you meet. Set your course and follow your own plan.”
Margot Early suggests: “Develop an attitude of uncertainty and humility, for these are your greatest assets in achieving mastery of anything… So, in attempting to master anything,
become hungry for actual knowledge of the subject, not to spout on Facebook but to hone one’s craft and develop expertise, which does not happen overnight.”
Margot is obviously referring to background research and to the elements of craft, of storytelling in all its complexity—use of language, characterization and conflict, how everything works together. The idea of not being too certain (about anything) too fast is profound and, as Margot also says, “We live in a world where people express more than they question.” Another nugget of great advice is about advice. Be willing to take it, “but from good sources… Remember that publishing is a cooperative effort—remain true to yourself, but always try to cooperate. Always accept the possibility that an editor is right and you are not.”
Ann: Make it fun. If you don’t enjoy the process the book will reflect it.
Linda: Writing for me is oxygen. At the end of the day, when I flip through the pages I’ve filled, it is with satisfaction and also a sense of awe. How did I do that? I ask myself. Sometimes the words come from some unknown and unexpected place. I often feel like an explorer, taking the risk of stepping beyond the know barriers to a place of discovery. At the end of the discipline and the persistence and the work is something absolutely thrilling.
Paula: Let me add that successful publishing is very much a cooperative effort, as Margot puts it—from the editor’s perspective, as well. It’s also collaborative; coming up with approaches and solutions is a back-and-forth project requiring an openness on both sides, author’s and editor’s. That’s very often where the fun comes in. And remember, a book is a work in progress until it’s actually published!
Linda: Cherish your editor! The perspective and experience she brings to your work are invaluable and will help you hone and polish your words.
Ann: Don’t write by committee. In other words, listen to your critique partner (or group of critique partners) then winnow out the pieces of advice you think are applicable and use them. This is your story—not theirs.
Tara shares her number 1 tip: “First and foremost, just write. No judgement, no critique, no thought about selling. Turn off the inner critic and let the words flow.”
Paula: In concert with Tara’s remark, let me add that the second thoughts (the rethinking, the reconsideration, the adjustments—to characters, conflict, story, language) are just that—second thoughts. First, there has to be something on the page to rethink, reconsider, adjust!
Let’s end with another inspiring comment, this one from author Kate James.
“My advice to aspiring authors is to not give up and to keep pursuing your dream. The reality is that in today’s world of publishing, the odds of getting published are ever more daunting. It's easy to see why so many aspiring, talented authors may get discouraged. The fact is, if you have a passion for writing and don't keep trying, you will never know if you could have succeeded. Have fun and please keep at it!”
Paula: Ann, Linda and I hope that our comments and the suggestions generously submitted by the other authors are useful to you. As you can see, every writer has to figure out what works for her or for him. It’s clearly a process of exploration and experimentation—much like writing itself!
Brief Bios and Summaries of Authors’ Recent and Upcoming Releases:
Linda Cardillo is the award-winning author of several critically acclaimed novels in addition to novellas and a children’s book. She writes about the old country and the new, the tangle and embrace of family, and finding courage in the midst of loss. A new generation searches for home in Linda’s recently completed novel Island Legacy, the third book in her First Light trilogy. Young widow Elizabeth Innocenti confronts both her grief and her future as she uncovers the fraught history of her family’s compound on Chappaquiddick Island.
Linda’s next project, set in the Italian Renaissance, is a historical novel based on the life of the poet Vittoria Colonna, the only woman Michelangelo ever loved.
Ann DeFee, who has been published in a number of different programs and series (for Harlequin, a division of HarperCollins), is starting on a new and exciting adventure in the world of writing. She’s always loved magical realism where the surreal becomes reality. Her first foray into that adventure is Believe written under the pseudonym Annaliese Darr. This book won the Chanticleer International Book Somerset Award for Women’s Fiction. It has also received a recommended review from Kirkus, a highly respected review organization.
Believe is a magical realism story with a spiritual twist. Springen O'Flaherty has psychic powers that have ruled her life. She was resigned to being different until she met Jed Collinsworth. Now she has to tell the man she loves that she can talk to dead people. But she waits too long, and when her dad passes, Jed meets the O'Flaherty family with all their eccentricities—tent revival preachers, healers and heroes. The sequel is When the Magnolia Blooms, coming this fall.
Margot Early is an author of mass-market fiction, with twenty-six published titles. She has sold more than three million books, and her work has been translated into sixteen languages.
Roz Denny Fox has been writing for Harlequin Books since 1989. She writes for various lines, has participated in special projects, and has written articles and on-line serials for e-harlequin.com. Roz’s books have been nominated for the Holt Medallion, the Golden Quill and Smoky Mountain Published Laurie. Her second book was an RWA RITA finalist in the traditional category. Her almost seventy published stories are warm home-and-family love stories. An RWA member since 1987, Roz is currently a member of the Tucson, Arizona, RWA, from whom she received The Barbara Award for Outstanding chapter service. She also belongs to Desert Rose RWA in Phoenix, San Angelo, Texas Writers’, and Novelist’s Inc. Roz’s web site is: http://www.korynna.com/RozFox/. She also interacts with readers on Facebook and via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate James spent much of her childhood abroad before attending university in Canada. She built a successful business career, but her passion has always been literature. As a result, Kate turned her energy to her love of the written word. Her latest release is Home to Stay, the fourth book in her award-winning San Diego K-9 Unit series.
Kate's goal is to entertain her readers with engaging stories featuring strong, likable characters. Kate has been honored with numerous awards for her writing. She and her husband, Ken, enjoy traveling and the outdoors with their beloved Labrador Retrievers, Harley and Logan.
Geri Krotow is the bestselling author of the Whidbey Island series and the ongoing Silver Valley, PD series for Harlequin Romantic Suspense. Her Bayou Bachelors series for Kensington Lyrical Caress launches in March 2018 with Fully Dressed. A U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Naval Intelligence Officer, Geri left her Naval career to pursue a writing career two decades ago.
Geri enjoys creating sexy contemporary romances and suspense, preferably with settings that she has personally experienced in her global travels. Geri loves to connect with readers! Please find her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and at her website, where you can sign up for her newsletter, http://gerikrotow.com/
New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author Brenda Novak is the author of sixty books. A five-time RITA nominee, she has won many awards, including the National Reader’s Choice, the Bookseller’s Best, the Book Buyer’s Best, the Daphne, and the Silver Bullet. She also runs Brenda Novak for the Cure, a charity to raise money for diabetes research (her youngest son has this disease). To date, she’s raised $2.6 million. For more about Brenda, please visit https://brendanovak.com/
Having written over eighty novels, Tara Taylor Quinn is a USA TODAY bestselling author with more than seven million copies sold. She is known for delivering intense, emotional fiction. Tara is a past president of Romance Writers of America. She has won a Readers' Choice Award and is a five-time finalist for an RWA RITA® Award, a finalist for a Reviewers' Choice Award and a Booksellers' Best Award. She has also appeared on TV across the country, including CBS Sunday Morning. She supports the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you or someone you know might be a victim of domestic violence in the United States, please contact 1-800-799-7233.
About the Author
PAULA EYKELHOF is a former (retired) Executive Editor at Harlequin Books (now a division of Harper Collins). She was with the company for more than 30 years.
Paula worked with a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. She was responsible for various series programs (including Romance, Superromance, American Romance and Everlasting), as well as working on single-title imprints, principally MIRA and HQN.
She gave many workshops and speeches through the years and has also written a number of blogs on writing-related issues, most recently for Bellastoria Press. She has also advised many aspiring authors.
Paula is now working as a freelance editor and writer.